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The demon in the dark

I had a nightmare the other night. That’s unusual for me.

True, there was the one last week where I had a bad dream that the wrong guy won the presidential election, and I awoke in a panic that the economy was about to go down the tubes again. But it’s not hard to see why I had that particular nightmare, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in it.

The one I had two nights ago — just a little too late for Hallowe’en — was different. Much darker. And even scarier.

In this dream I’d just woken up. It was still night. I was lying in a small, dark room, alone, in a twin bed against the wall. To the left was a window, which admitted just enough light for me to be able to make out a bedside table on which sat a lamp. The corner of the room at the foot of the bed was pitch dark, although I knew that there was a door there. But there was something else in the corner as well.

I knew, the moment I “awoke” that there was some evil entity lurking in the dark shadow by the door. I was terrified of this thing, whatever it was, but I wanted to face it, to see what it was. So I reached out an arm to switch on the light, but the switch must have been faulty, or the bulb dead, and the switch clicked uselessly. I found my iPhone, and opened a flashlight app that works by using the built-in LED flash. The app opened, but the screen became unresponsive to my touch and I was unable to turn on the light.

The evil entity still lurked at the foot of the bed, in the darkness by the door.

My terror mounted, and at that point I woke up. Or I should say that I “woke up,” because I was still dreaming. Now I was in my own bed, still asleep, but thinking I was awake. And I realized that this was not the first time I’d met this entity. It had in fact been a part of my life for decades. I had flashbacks to previous encounters with it. And the really terrifying thing was that I’d forgotten every single one of them. This demonic presence had the power to induce forgetfulness, so that I could face it over and over again, and each time was like the first.

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The knowledge that I had been manipulated in this way by an evil force for basically my entire adult life was unbearable, and unspeakably frightening. How can we be so unaware? Are we really just the playthings of demons? Are our minds not our own?

Then I woke up again, but for real this time. I was still terrified, and it was hard to untangle myself from the idea that I’d been manipulated my entire life by a demonic entity. And in fact I remembered (for real) that in my early 30s I had a number of nightmares involving demons, not so different from the dream of two nights ago.

It’s hard to know what to do with a dream like this. It’s still with me, and I’m troubled by it. I’m writing about it as a way of helping me deal with it.

I think it’s good that my first instinct was to turn to face the demon. That, I expect, is the result of my practice. But although I wanted to see into the darkness, I couldn’t. Perhaps I should have taken a different approach. Instead of trying to shine a light into the darkness I should have simply looked into it, or talked to whatever was in there. Perhaps shining a light on it was too invasive. Perhaps we need to treat that which we fear with respect. These are questions that I’ll be working with in my meditation practice.

One thing I’m pretty sure of is that whatever was in the darkness wasn’t evil at all. It was simply something I’m afraid of. What we’re most afraid of we often paint as evil, because that justifies our fear. I suspect that what was in the darkness was a spiritual experience — possibly terrifying, but also beautiful and good. And on the other side of that experience was a door. And on the other side of the door was … what? That’s something I hope to find out.

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About Bodhipaksa

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Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher, a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and a published author. He founded Wildmind in 2001. Bodhipaksa has published many guided meditation CDs and guided meditation MP3s.

He teaches at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. You can follow Bodhipaksa on Twitter, join him on Facebook, or hang out with him on .

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Comments

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Comment from Leslie
Time: November 6, 2012, 12:57 pm

I found this account helpful precisely because you do not claim any easy victory or cheap insights. Your humility in sharing both your confusion and your determination to keep the questions raised by the dream alive in you moved me.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 6, 2012, 1:07 pm

Thank you, Leslie.

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Comment from Carolyn Roesbery
Time: November 6, 2012, 1:18 pm

my daughter has had these experiences both waking and asleep, especially during teen years and I have had one such visual and another very different tactile + visual and 2 dream beings that lingered visually after waking. I appreciate that you validate the experiences as real and not brain anomalies or hallucinations

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Comment from Adam
Time: November 6, 2012, 2:58 pm

I have similar dreams. Frequently end up running out the bedroom and waking in the hall before coming to my senses. Other times I attack (thin air) and the other night I woke up perched on the end of the bed! A throwback to a period in my early twenties in which I was hospitalised, I believe. It still plays havoc.

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Comment from Mandy
Time: November 7, 2012, 4:44 am

I agree with Leslie, Bodhipaksa. An honest and thought provoking piece.

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Comment from Jennifer Deland
Time: November 8, 2012, 11:36 am

Tim Kelley helps people work with parts in the psyche. He recently did a talk on “demonic parts” which I found interesting. You might try active imagination (a written dialog) with the demon, if you are familiar with that approach (and if you are careful to obtain permission from protective parts of your psyche) I am also reminded of Ursula LeGuin”s Wizard of Earthsea. The Wizard is haunted by a demon he accidentally summoned. In the end, he learns that the demon is, in some sense, himself.

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Comment from Mark E. Beck
Time: November 8, 2012, 5:01 pm

I am reminded of the story from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, where the man is haunted by the ghost of his wife who comes at night and tells him everything he did during the day. The priest at the temple tells him to keep a sack of beans by his side while he sleeps, and when the ghost appears to hold up a handful of beans and challenge the ghost by asking her to tell him how many beans are in his hand. When he does this, she disappears. As it turns out, the “ghost ” did not know anything that he also did not know. A moment of realization and — healing.

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Comment from Andy
Time: November 12, 2012, 6:28 pm

Thanks for sharing this so openly, Bodhipaksa, especially when you don’t have a neat ‘answer’ or outcome.

My own strong impulse (putting myself in your place) was to enter a dialogue with the entity/demon. Not to try to dispel my fear, or to expose the demon with bright light, but to speak and to listen as the demon sits in its darkness.

I can’t give a rationale for this idea. It just seems “the right thing to do” when encountering a demon in the dark! For me, anyway.

All best wishes. Andy.

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Comment from Andrea
Time: November 19, 2012, 2:55 pm

Dear Bodhipaksa, I’m sorry you had to experience this, I know first hand that it’s far from pleasant.

I encourage you to google “sleep paralysis” and see if some of it fits. In particular, your description of a demonic/terrifying entity and the several experiences of “waking up” while still dreaming sound *a lot* like it could be related to sleep paralysis. When I’ve experienced this, I wasn’t completely paralyzed in the dream, so don’t take that as a necessary “symptom” if the rest sounds familiar.

Some people suffer from sleep paralysis regularly, while others experience it a few times in their lives, and throughout the years I’ve read online about people becoming seriously terrified by this.

I’m in no way trying to minimize your interpretation, I just hope that googling it can bring you some comfort. Of course, it’s difficult (next to impossible, I’d say) to say with certainty which interpretation is right, is there really an entity or is it all the brain’s doing? My intention here is to shade some light on alternative explanations, that’s all :).

On a different note, the part about your phone becoming unresponsive to your touch sounded very familiar to me. I have recurring dreams where I absolutely have to make a phone call, and no matter how hard I try, I can never dial the right number. I’ve heard it explained as an indication of anxiety, and seeing that as one of the key words you used to tag your post reminded me of it.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 19, 2012, 3:17 pm

Hi, Andrea.

Thanks for your kind comment. I don’t actually feel in need of comfort, though.

Never at any point, in the dream or after awakening, or at any time in my life, did I experience any kind of paralysis, so I’m not sure how this diagnosis would fit. There are certainly similarities, but I’m not convinced this was sleep paralysis. I think it was just a vivid dream, or series of dreams.

I have a history of odd dreams. I’ve had dreams that were totally abstract (i.e. there were no concrete images). I’ve had dreams that were entirely in the form of cartoons. I’ve had dreams in which I’ve experienced deep states of meditation. I had a dream once where I wanted to wake up, so I wrote a computer program that brought the dream to an end. I’ve had dreams where I’ve been aware I was dreaming and I ended up just hanging around, waiting until I awoke. So a dream in which I wake from a dream into another dream doesn’t seem that odd.

I don’t for a moment think there was any kind of entity there. This was just a dream, although it was a dream in which I believe there was some kind of contact with a part of myself that I fear.

The “unresponsive” iPhone dream has happened a few times. Usually it happens when I’m lost in some strange city and I can’t get the maps app to work. Actually that’s happened in real life as well :)

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Comment from Andrea
Time: November 28, 2012, 10:01 am

Those are some very interesting dreams, Bodhipaksa! I like the sound of the cartoons one :).

I think the only interesting thing I can think of from my own dreams is managing to make myself wake up, which comes in handy during bad dreams.

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