Wrestling with Demons

by Tarchin Hearn, Feb. 22, 2010

Yesterday, I was asked a question about transforming negativities.  As often happens when an interesting theme is raised in class, my largely unconscious thinking process continued in its mysterious workings, merging many streams of experience, and this morning these thoughts emerged.

Young children know about wrestling.  Do you remember what it was like?  When we wrestled with our friends there was rivalry but also, it seems, a desire or a need to stay close.  Wrestling requires intimate body contact.  It’s muscular and sweaty, filled with hot breathing and pounding hearts.  It isn’t usually about trying to destroy our adversary; punching or kicking would be better for that.  Wrestling says, I want to be close, to stay in touch, but I want to be in control.  This rough and tumble play appears to be a necessary part of healthy development for many types of mammals.  Think of kittens, puppies, mice, chimpanzees and bear cubs.  For us humans, it is a way of coming to know our opponent in a deeper-than-words way and, whether we ‘won’ or not, we emerged physically stronger, and often broadened in emotional and social skills.

As a metaphor, wrestling can reveal much about how we relate with our psychological demons such as fear, anger, desire, depression, jealousy, pride, conceit, lust, worry and confusion; the list can sometimes seem endless.  As the old phrase goes, we can’t live with them and, unfortunately, it seems we often can’t live without them.  We wrestle with our demons and are wrestled by them, and in the process, we come to know them in different ways, just as, in a strange way, they might come to know us.  As with our childhood experience, when we wrestle well, we can emerge physically, emotionally and socially stronger.

From a Buddhadharma perspective, we could think of various ways of wrestling with difficulties. Perhaps it comes down to personal style; unique patterns of metabolism and habit pattern;  distinctive ways of dealing with the messy work of living with others.  In this short essay I will touch on four ways of wrestling the demons of negative or disruptive emotional patterns.  We might even think of them as four forms of practice in the sense that practice can make us better at something, even if that ‘something’ is not particularly what we want.  The four are: rejection and control practice, transformation practice, loving-kindness practice, and letting be in a fluid equanimity that is beyond both practice and non-practice.

Rejection and Control Practice

We all know this one.  Anger, fear, jealousy, irritation, conceit; any one of a pantheon of personal demons can erupt in the midst of our experience.  Instinctively a complex pattern of defence arises that involves our entire body/mind/community.  We try to blame it on others; hide it from others or deny it to ourselves – which is really a complicated attempt to hide it from ourselves.  We try to diagnose it, control it, medicate it, surgically fix it, or heal it.  We try to rationalise it, excuse it, accept it.  We dally with thoughts of violence; destroy it, annihilate it, find the ‘final solution’.  We don’t want to wrestle with it.  At this moment, stealth bombers and pre-emptive strikes are more our style.  We would rather stand back and remove the problem at a distance without allowing it to touch us.  In today’s world of self-help and personal development, sizable industries have been built up around myriad wondrous forms of rejection and control practice.  Do you know this one?

Transformation Practice

Whenever we meet with an ‘other’, whether it be a person or a difficult inner feeling, both ourselves and the other, are transformed through the activity of this meeting.  When I am interacting with you, you are simultaneously interacting with me.  We are both transforming in the process.  This analogy can also be applied within ourselves.  When I ‘meet’ with an emotion, both ‘me’ and the emotion are transformed through the dynamic of the meeting.  For example, I could meet with my own anger and subsequently become frightened, or defensive.  Or, I could unconsciously identify with the anger and become even more angry.  These kinds of response are not usually thought of in terms of ‘transformation’, even though they are examples of me transforming more and more deeply into a demon of negativity and ill-will.

In Buddhist meditation practice, there is a process for ‘transforming negativities’ that involves meeting a difficulty in a fresh and insightful way.  Instead of a negative state drawing forth more negativity, we learn to respond in a different way so that negativity begins to invite curiosity and investigation, which in turn supports a transformation of the originating negativity.

Techniques of ‘transformation’ involve experimenting with our body postures, with the way we are using our five senses, with emotional biases, with our well established beliefs and expectations, and with configurations of relaxation and tension.  An overarching quality of transformation practice is interest-filled experimentation and exploration.

Loving-kindness Practice

Working with transformation practice, our understanding of the mutual shaping that happens every time we wrestle with an object, will refine and deepen.  Intuition may lead us to wonder about the border between self and other, between subject and the object.  In the stillness and clarity of meditation, it may become increasingly apparent that subject and object are intimately linked in a process of dynamic structural coupling and that the sharp difference we perceive between ourselves and our experience is, in fact, somewhat nebulous and contrived.  With this in mind, we may find ourselves wondering what we actually mean by ‘transformation practice’ when, wherever we look, we can only see endless transformations within transformations transforming further transformations.  Transformation is the nature of life-in-process.  It is the inherent plasticity of the nervous system, the adaptability of all parts of a sentient organism.  From a very large perspective, it is the constant mutual evolving of all levels of the bio-sphere.

Gradually we begin to glimpse all experience as a ‘dancing immensity of creative flux in the act of embodiment’.  Now the question of transformation may be eclipsed by larger questions, such as; what is actually going on here?  Or, how might one live well in the midst of this constantly transforming creative dynamic?

Sliding, hovering, tantalizingly close but sometimes frustratingly just out of reach, is a deepening sense that these questions are pointing us in the direction of a radical degree of loving-kindness, a way of living through love and wonderment.  This is a whole new dimension of wrestling, a fundamentally engaged curiosity or, as it is described in many Tibetan texts, a stance of ‘fearless compassion’.

Letting Be in Fluid Equanimity Beyond Practice

In the beginning we were wrestling with demons, trying to do, we knew not what.  We, our body/mind/communities, were living out questions that we didn’t even know we were asking.  Who am I?  Who are you?  What is it all about?  What is expected of me?  What do I need to do?  Through this continual inner wresting, our question refines and refines.  The need to fix, gives way to the need to look and to understand.  The need to look and understand gives way in the embrace of radical loving-kindness.  As we feel our way into ever more subtle realms of question/engagement, even the need to cultivate loving-kindness shows signs of gently vanishing into an indescribable letting be, a naturally fluid equanimity which is beyond crude definitions of practice or non-practice.  Here in the midst of living that is rich and meaningful yet beyond easy attempts to pin down with words, there is still the delicate gentle stirring of breath and question.  For me today, it is a question of effortless integration in the midst of precise, detailed, energy filled activity, even when interacting with beings who are not particularly interested in these considerations.  How is it for you?

You can find more specific guidelines for working with difficulties here under PRACTICES: “Working With Difficult States”

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