Inspiration for childless and childfree women

Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice

dealing with demons

After a slightly bumpy start to my travels in Thailand I’m now in Chiang Mai, living out one of my own non-motherhood dreams. I’ve been working on my current writing project in the mornings on a balcony looking out over still water and shaded by very tall palm trees. I spent most of yesterday winding up and down mountains on a motorbike with H, visiting beautiful Buddhist temples. You can swim late into the evenings here and the heat and humidity make it a gorgeous way to end the day.

Buddhism infiltrates everything in this place, not just the temples but all over town, with saffron robed monks wandering around, shrines full of incense and flowers, and at least one peaceful, golden face looking down at you, serenely and reassuringly, almost everywhere you go.

So further to yesterday’s post about non-motherhood and finding the courage to befriend the snake and drift with the current, I’ve been thinking a good deal about my very favourite Buddhist story. This is how it is told by Pema Chodron in her beautiful book, Start Where You Are:

“One evening Milarepa returned to his cave after gathering firewood, only to find it filled with demons. They were cooking his food, reading his books, sleeping in his bed. They had taken over the joint. He knew about nonduality of self and other, but he still didn’t quite know how to get these guys out of his cave. Even though he had the sense that they were just a projection of his own mind — all the unwanted parts of himself — he didn’t know how to get rid of them.

So first he taught them the dharma. He sat on this seat that was higher than they were and said things to them about how we are all one. He talked about compassion and shunyata and how poison is medicine. Nothing happened. The demons were still there. Then he lost his patience and got angry and ran at them. They just laughed at him. Finally, he gave up and just sat down on the floor, saying, “I’m not going away and it looks like you’re not either, so let’s just live here together.”

And at that point, all of them left except one. Milarepa said, “Oh, this one is particularly vicious.“ (We all know that one. Sometimes we have lots of them like that. Sometimes we feel that’s all we‘ve got.) He didn’t know what to do, so he surrendered himself even further. He walked over and put himself right into the mouth of the demon and said, “Just eat me up, if you want to.”

Then that demon left too.”

I’ve found this story incredibly helpful in thinking through my various anxieties about non-motherhood over the past couple of years, but also in thinking through all kinds of other anxieties too.

If you’re interested in the ways women might be able to deal with difficult emotions in relation to non-motherhood you might like this post about loneliness or this post about doubts.

But in the meantime, how about you? Does the story of Milarepa and the demons ring true with any of your own experiences of anxiety? Are there other stories or ideas that you’ve found helpful?

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18 comments on “dealing with demons

  1. Mali
    April 30, 2012

    I love that story. I have a couple of demons that wouldn’t leave, I suspect!

    And I’m terribly envious of you being in Chiang Mai, though, even now at the hottest part of the year. Enjoy!

  2. olivia reading
    April 30, 2012

    Me too, Mali. Yes, Chiang Mai is such a beautiful place. It has been crazily hot a lot of the time (very grateful for lots of swimming) but there has been spectacular rain the last couple of afternoons, so lovely cool evenings at the night markets.

  3. honeymyrtle
    April 30, 2012

    I too like the story but I’m not quite sure I can relate. Demons sound big and terrifying and something to try and fight against or submit to. I feel like my ‘equivalents’ are wheedling and whining, simpering and passive-aggressive… I feel like demons I could confront more head on… these others are more insidious.

  4. olivia reading
    April 30, 2012

    Yes, that makes sense honeymyrtle – maybe there are whingy, snidey little demons too! I wonder if you know the book The Screwtape Letters, by CS Lewis? The demons are of the Judeo-Christian variety, but very good at wheedling, whining, simpering and being passive-aggressive! The book is written from a sort of senior demon to a junior demon, whose job it is to corrupt one particular human (like a sort of guardian angel in reverse), e.g…

    “Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus become wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.”

    • honeymyrtle
      May 3, 2012

      I haven’t read the book but its going onto my list!

  5. abby
    May 1, 2012

    Hmm – I’ve been thinking about how to respond. Firstly, I am a huge fan of Pema Chodron (I was actually going to go see her speak last year but was unable to make it due to illness) I have found the concept of acceptance (surrendering to your “demons”) incredibly helpful at times but it really depends on the situation for me. I find non motherhood is still a very loaded issue for me, but this is a good reminder that sometimes surrendering to your “demons” is all you can do – and there just might be peace waiting for you there.

  6. olivia reading
    May 1, 2012

    Abby, I’d love to hear her speak too – what a shame to have come so close and then missed out! One of the things I love about Pema Chodron as a teacher is that she’s so open about finding her own teachings difficult to put into practice. I find it very human and reassuring!

    • abby
      May 1, 2012

      Yes, hearing her speak was on my “bucket list”, but I figured it just wasn’t meant to be at that time. I always listen to her audio books – she is such a gifted speaker – funny and accessible(and human!) while imparting her wisdom.

  7. Beam_Me_Up_Scotty
    May 1, 2012

    I have had a few demons, but the hardest to accept has been chronic pain. I had to recognize that I was self-medicating : first with alcohol, then with pills, both minor demons, compared to the ever-present chronic pain. It’s been one of the hardest things for me to accept – some days, I can – and some days I can’t. I still find it hard to believe that I am 28 and I’m dealing with this, when my peers are running, hiking, mountain climbing…I’m stuck in the slow lane, with back spasms and joint pain.
    I do have to keep in mind, though, that at the core of resentment and disappointment is expectations. I EXPECTED to be healthy and pain free, but I’m not, so I’m resentful and in more pain because of it.
    There was even a doctor that told me that my knees and back would have gone out eventually…probably late 30’s to early 40’s. But the stress of running (In the doctor’s words, THE WORST THING I could have done for my joint health) hurt me at 18.
    So, I’ve never had an adult day without pain. I felt angry, robbed, disappointed. I grieved…and at times, I still do.
    I’m still trying to let go of the expectations, and acknowledge that my journey will be different from the majority. It’s scary and exciting at the same time.

    ~Audrey

    • tiffanylo
      May 3, 2012

      Wow, Audrey, this spoke to me on various levels–first, because I once dealt with chronic knee pain after an “undiagnosed” tibial plateau fracture when I was just 23 (and had a totally idiotic doctor). It was a long process (years) of dealing with rehab, pain, and varying levels of depression, then just disappointment, but I am finally in a better place now. I have just learned not to “count on” the fact that I can run/do activities I could not before, because there’s the very large possibility I won’t be able to do so forever… However, my poor mom, who worked as a nurse for over 30 years, was forced to quit working 8-ish years ago due to two torn rotator cuffs (due to work), then ongoing chronic pain from Hashimoto’s and another, as-yet-undiagnosed autoimmune disorder. I know that her demons haunt her daily, as much as she tries to remain positive. I know you are younger and it is completely unfair to have pain at that age, but I also feel like sometimes it “helps” to know there are others out there facing the challenge of daily chronic pain. Sending you positive thoughts and strength…

      My own demons at this point in life continue to be related to eating disorder/body image struggles I’ve had for years (but with which I have been facing, head-on, for the past 5!). I wouldn’t say I have too many child-free-related demons. I think I have come to truly accept who I am and what my choice is… That said, I do long for a larger, stronger group of non-mothering friends who could relate to my life… I guess that is some form of demon.

      Chiang Mai! Enjoy yourself, Olivia! My ex-boyfriend/good friend lives in BKK, but is often in Chiang Mai to visit family… He adores it there. It sounds like you are having a heavenly time, after a bumpy beginning. Will you be there for quite some time? I hope so, for your sake! Getting to travel because we are non-mothers is quite a perk… Most of my friends are unable to travel much sans kids… Usually, they must bring an entourage of family/babysitters to help out. To me, that does not sound very relaxing or spontaneous at all!

      • olivia reading
        May 7, 2012

        Tiffanylo, thank you so much for these thoughts. It sounds as though we’ve had some issues in common I think. I spent a few years sitting in the eating demons’ jaws. At the time I thought it would never, ever be over, but somehow it is and I’m incredibly grateful.

        I loved every single minute of Chiang Mai, thank you – and lucky friend-of-yours to be so close by! If you get a chance to visit, I definitely recommend taking it up. I was only in Thailand for a couple of weeks as I have lots of travelling I need to do this year, but am planning some work and a longer stay for next time. Spontaneous travel is a huge perk of non-motherhood, isn’t it! I’ve only recently realised I need to take much better advantage of it :).

      • Beam_Me_Up_Scotty
        June 20, 2013

        I just wanted to update – I’m doing somewhat better than I was a year ago. I’ve finished school (I earned my AAS in Library Science), and am excited to be able to work in the library field. I’m still looking for a job at this point, but library jobs are quite flexible and forgiving to those with disabilities/injuries. I still haven’t found a good doctor (I joke that if I had a doctor that was HALF as good as our dog’s vet, that we would be very lucky). I’ve been following Buddhist ideas/precepts for a couple of years now, and I’m slowly turning into the person that I hoped I could be. Meditation and mindfulness are all I need – I don’t ascribe to one “school” or another.
        I still deal with pain on a daily basis – and living in the Pacific NW where it’s cold and wet irritates my joints to no end. But I am alive. Pain passes; I have good days occasionally. I have a terrific husband and a loving dog, a roof over my head, and food to eat – and I try my best every day to be a kind and mindful person.

    • olivia reading
      May 7, 2012

      Audrey, that is a demon indeed, especially at twenty-eight. What a difficult thing to be dealing with day-to-day. I’m honestly inspired to hear you describe it as ‘scary and exciting at the same time’.

      Cyberspace changes perceptions of everybody I suppose, but of all the ways I would have considered describing you, ‘stuck in the slow lane’ would never even have made it to the bottom of the list. Thank you so much for offering such a unique perspective on the demons issue.

    • monaharris
      January 17, 2013

      Dear Audrey,

      What you said really hit me hard. I’m 25 years old and I have not been without chronic pain since I was about 13 years old. A rare severe form of childhood scoliosis crippled me and necessitated emergency spinal fusion, rib removal, hip grafts, and the like. I have also struggled with anger about this, about feeling that things were taken from me. It makes it hard to relate to regular people sometimes, and difficult to be patient with other people’s problems, which can seem petty by comparison.

      For a long time it made me a very angry person, then a very self-medicating person, and then a person who lied to herself a lot. Finally I have found some solace in Buddhism, I’m not saying it is what you should do, I’m just sharing. I wouldn’t say my demon is gone by any means, I would say the demons of pain and despair stand outside my door (because we’re both used to the pain, aren’t we? it’s the despair that gets you, the feeling that there is no relief or end, and that we were unfairly targeted). Sometimes I close the door on pain and despair and I can’t see them (even though I know they are there), sometimes I have my back turned to ignore them, and sometimes they wander farther or hover closer, and there are always occasional days where it must get too cold outside, because they run back in the house and jump into bed with me.

      I think in some ways we are lucky. We know the tenuous nature of life, the total randomness and element of surprise. Buddhists recommend dwelling on the fact of death, so that we may appreciate life. Sometimes I get insanely, deliriously happy, and when someone asks why, I almost can’t explain it to them. It’s usually a day when the pain is comparatively small, to me, that’s enough to make a day spectacular! When you know how bad things can get, you REALLY appreciate the days when things are better.

      It also makes other life things less scary, I have other friends in their 20s who are terrified at the prospect of turning 30, of getting older, it almost makes me laugh! Turning 30 will be an achievement for me, each birthday is a way of bucking my head against death and saying ,”Here I still am you SOB! Let’s go another round!”

      It can make us more sympathetic and compassionate. I believe that pain is something you can really only understand to the amount that you have experienced it. And I never have a problem, when hearing a particularly difficult story (a girl I knew saw her parents murdered), in saying, “I have no idea what that must have been like”, and sometimes that what someone needs, the validation of the unique awfulness of their situation.

      And sometimes when the pain is really bad, rock bottom bad (you know what I mean), I try remind myself of this: “If I did not live in this country, in this economic bracket, I would not be in pain right now, because I would be dead.” That forces me to be grateful for the pain, because if it was totally gone, it would be because I had not survived.

      I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m lecturing, like I have it all figured out, because I absolutely do not. I just don’t know anyone else in our situation either, but I do know it sucks, and it feels so terribly unfair because we didn’t do anything wrong. And I have days when I can’t handle it too and I cry out like a helpless child. For whatever it is worth, I hope that on your rock bottom days you can think of me and feel a little less alone, and I’ll try do the same, wherever you may be.

      Sincerely,
      Mona

  8. childfreefeminist
    May 5, 2012

    Chiang Mai! Now that is on my list for travels! Enjoy doing things you’ve planned for in your journey along life.

    • olivia reading
      May 7, 2012

      I couldn’t recommend it more highly, cff. I’m so glad it’s on your list!

  9. valkyrie5959
    May 8, 2012

    A most thought provoking post. I have wrestled with a “sugar demon” for 20 years.
    Giving up then binging on sweets. After reading your post it occurred to me that if
    I was going to beat that demon it would have happened.
    Last night before bed I had a hot chocolate and a small marzipan chocolate.
    It was delightful,the sky didn’t fall in and this morning I woke feeling
    very powerful. It looks like the demon and I might be making peace finally.
    Time will tell. Healthy yummy food taken at regular intervals is also a key in making
    peace with any eating disorder. Easy to say, harder to do.
    Lovely post Ms Reading and I also enjoyed all the other posts.

    • olivia reading
      May 11, 2012

      I loved this, valkyrie5959. Imagine the sky not falling in. And I see the sun went on rising and setting too! It does sound as though you and the demon are making peace – perhaps even striking up a friendship of sorts. Very interesting!

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