A devil is anything that obstructs the achievement of freedom…Most of all, there is no greater devil than this fixation to a self. So until this ego-fixation is cut off, all the devils wait with open mouths.
Let’s start with a few questions, questions about identity.
What does it mean to say we are a certain way? When we claim that we are like this or that, what are we really expressing? Who is making such a statement? Why?
What kind of statements am I talking about? Statements like “that’s who I am,” or “it’s a me thing,” or “you know, I’ve always been like this.”
These sort of expressions are commonplace, part of everyday conversation. They serve a key role in identity formulation, both individually and as a group. What’s the big deal about them?
Their frequent use is correlated with serious health issues, from depression to heart attacks. On an absolute level, they are pernicious falsehoods, the root of all suffering.
How can this be? How can such a seemingly innocuous phrase lie at the heart of all our pain?
Like all inquiries around our true nature, these are difficult questions, and must be examined carefully. Let’s start with the absolute.
Scientifically speaking, from the smallest unit of existence to the largest, there is no permanence in anything, anywhere, ever. Particles are just vibrations, energy. The majority of cells in your body are replaced throughout your life, and even those that are with you from birth to death will eventually be ash or wormfood. The universe is gonna die at some point.
The same is true in terms of human identity, both on a societal and individual level. Culture, contrary to what champions of identity politics would have you believe, is not and has never been a fixed thing. No one really owns it, because it is never the same. It is continually reinterpreted and reformulated to provide a sense of continuity and meaning in a world constantly in flux.
The mind is like this as well. What we consider to be a coherent whole is, in fact, a dynamic dance of interconnected neural subsystems that mesh together into a cascade of momentary experiences. Something as simple as happiness or pain is, in fact, a very complex and fluid thing.
This phenomenon extends beyond our emotions, encompassing literally every aspect of our cognitive experience. Indeed, our very self-identity – the thing we refer to when we speak of being ‘like this’ or ‘like that’ – is actually a series of subpersonalities that emerge based on specific, moment-to-moment conditions. For example, in dramatic situations, we can behave as either a victim, a persecutor, or a protector – and change our character at a moment’s notice.
This is not to say that there isn’t a certain continuity to our lived experience. On an experiential level, every moment emerges out of the previous one*, while on a neurological level, our synapses serve as well-trodden paths for our sensory experiences to coarse through (though we can certainly change them dramatically!). Evolutionarily, the ability to pick continuity out of constantly shifting circumstances helped us survive the savannah, which is why it’s such a strongly ingrained tendency.
It is to say, though, that any conceptual notions we hold with regard to ourselves as permanently possessing any subjective characteristic whatsoever are false, and, indeed, delusional.
In fact, it’s fair to say that when a person says “I’m just like that,” it is not a ontologically true statement about one’s deepest identity, but rather a momentary expression of certain characteristics in an attempt to find continuity amidst the chaos.
It is also fair to say that delusions make us unhappy, either by blinding us to reality or hurting us when they are proven illusory.
Okay, so saying we’re permanently a certain way is harmful because it is ontologically false. Who, then, is saying such harmful things?
It is in the context of this question that we come to the great Tibetan yogini, Machig Labdron, and her concept of demons.
Machig Labdron was, in many ways, a singular figure in Tibetan Buddhism; she was a visionary practitioner who is widely recognized as the originator of Chöd, a powerful, shamanistic practice and the only Vajrayana technique to come back from Tibet into India.
To Machig, the root of suffering was the notion of the self, and all things that caused the self to strengthen were to be viewed as poison, as demons or devils.
Wait! You might say. You were just talking about neurological circuitry and now you’re discussing devils, make-believe spirits. What gives?
In much of the modern West, the notion of demons and devils is considered preposterous, an outdated narrative designed to scare the masses into submission. However, this understanding of the demonic is simplistic and misguided, as it assumes that the existence such creatures are to be taken literally, and externally.
Machig saw it very differently. To her, demons exist only within the human mind. That which torments us, condemns us, possesses us are to be found within our own mental continuum.
When considered neurologically, this is a scientific fact; for example, when someone who was neglected as a child displays attachment issues and insecurities, the cause is not the external circumstances, but rather a disconnect between their prefrontal cortex and their limbic system. Behind every negative tendency lies a particular configuration of neurological systems.
However, most of us are not neuroscientists, and terms like ‘amygdala activation’ and ‘serotonin depletion’ are not overly useful for understanding our lived experiences. The concept of a devil or demon or negative entity, metaphorically speaking, is.
See, a demon isn’t us. It’s separate, removed from our endless narratives of self-judgement and self-aggrandizement. It’s a negative entity, with one mission only: to feed off our energy and replicate itself. This is done by diverting the attention of the host, causing them to fixate on an external phenomenon instead of on the internal process at work.
When people say ‘misery loves company,’ it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a demon named Misery, living inside one person’s brain, trying to summon more Miseries into the world by infecting the brains of others.
Herein we find the answer to our questions: when someone says they are ‘just like that,’ or that they’ve ‘always been this way,’ it’s actually an internal negative entity, trying to prolong its own existence by avoiding being scrutinized.
This may seem extreme, especially if you’re not actively seeking on the spiritual path. However, even if you just want to be happy in your day-to-day life, getting rid of your demons is a pretty good place to start.
So, the next time you hear yourself saying ‘I’m like this,’ or ‘I don’t want to change this,’ or ‘this is who I am,’ ask yourself: who is saying that? What do they – ‘I’ – want here? Is that what I really want?
It’s worth doing this, because if you don’t come to understand your demons, they’ll come to understand you.
* This is true on the coarse level of mind. On the more subtle levels of perception, there is no linearity.