Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Demon Whisperers

Saint Anthony of Egypt lived in the second half of the third century. At 34, he gave away his belongings and became a Christian ascetic. He spent the next 13 years in Wadi El Natrun, a harsh alkali desert. Although he actually sought out martyrdom, he ended up living to be 105.

His teachings were recorded in Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Here is one of them:

Abbot Pastor said: If a man has done wrong and does not deny it, but says: I did wrong, do not rebuke him, because you will break the resolution of his soul. And if you tell him: Do not be sad, brother, but watch it in the future, you stir him up to change his life.

Here's another:

Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, 'Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.' The old man said to them, 'If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.'

This last one is a little reminiscent of Case 1 from the Blue Cliff Record, in which Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma, "What is the first principle of the holy teaching?" Bodhidharma said, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." The Emperor asked, "Who stands before me?" Bodhidharma said, "I don't know."

Enter the demons. (I was tempted to caption the painting - by Michelangelo when he was only 12 or 13 - "Just Another Day At the Office"...)

The Torment of Saint Anthony (Michelangelo, c. 1488)

The story is that Saint Anthony was besieged by demons in the form of evil thoughts, boredom, laziness and phantoms of women and wild beasts. On one occasion, when beset by a group of demons apparently about to attack him, he laughed at them and pointed out that if they were truly powerful, it should only take one to fight him, whereupon they left him alone. For awhile.

John Nash, who won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics (and whose story is told in the 2001 movie, A Beautiful Mind) suffered from schizophrenia for most of his adult life. His demons were hallucinations. Ultimately, he had to choose between taking anti-psychotic drugs and suffering their mind-numbing side effects, or living with his disease. He chose the latter, and is shown in the movie in his later years as a university professor, walking among people on campus, knowing that most of them are real, but recognizing and not interacting with those who are not.

This scene made a lasting impression on me, because it brought home the fact that no matter how skillful I may eventually become in my practice, I should be prepared to live alongside my demons for the foreseeable future.  To name a couple, my tendency to procrastinate and avoid (which I touched on in When I Fell) have dogged me for a very long time. I've come to recognize that they both arise out of fear that bubbles up when I forget my connection with everything, which is to say, 99.9% of the time.

Pretending we don't have demons is silly. But I do it all the time. I know as I continue to practice (when I don't put it off...), I get braver, and on rare occasions, downright bold! But the demons are never far away, and the best I can do, at least for now, is to acknowledge them, occasionally give them a little cuddle or a scratch behind their pointy ears, and then return to the matter at hand.

Over at her wonderful blog ZenDotStudio, Carole posted a charming account of attending a retreat led by Gil Fronsdal and his description of the compassionate and gentle approach taken by the Japanese government to their soldiers who were discovered after 25 years still believing they were at war, and suggesting that we "do the same for our fears, our anxieties, our habitual tendencies that no longer serve us well."

Bows of gratitude to the skillful demon whisperers who have gone before.


  1. Lots to ponder here. The story of St. Anthony is new to me. And really, the artist was just 12 or 13 when he painted that? I knew he was a genius, but wow.

    I had a great therapist for many years who would respond to my most harsh critic - myself - by saying, do not worry about it, just watch it in the future. I had/have this demon of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and she gently showed me another way. I still do it, but I also can watch the impulse with some detachment and compassion.

    Thank you for a wonderful post, David.

  2. Thanks again for your kind words, Tara! Apparently the painting was based on (almost an exact copy of) an engraving The Torment of Saint Anthony still pretty amazing, though.

    I'm my own worst critic, too. I'm probably not half as bad as I think I am :)

  3. I believe the notion of perfection is a demon... At least one of mine. I often wonder if the idea of perfect would ever exist without the scrutiny of culture making it so.

    Perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect car, perfect family - and on and on. I strive ever more to grasp that perfect is just what is... The now with all it's warts and errors.

    Thank you David for a very "perfect" thought provoking piece.

  4. Yes, perfection is one of mine too. I wonder when we will ever just accept that we all have warts and get over it. Thanks so much Bea for taking the time to wander around my blog and for your thoughtful comments!


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