“Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a friend and protégé, encouraging him to make peace with his inner demons.
It’s an interesting phrase, “inner demons.” We think of the demonic as being that which is evil, that which aims at our destruction. And yet I don’t believe in the concept of self-sabotage.
Yes, I know, you sometimes act in ways that keep you from doing what you want to do, even when what you want to do is likely to bring your happiness. And I know, you sometimes act in ways that limit you and keep you bound to suffering, even though you want to be free from suffering. But these actions are only self-sabotage from the point of view of the wiser, more aware, more conscious and thoughtful part of you. From the point of view of the more habitual and unconscious parts of you that give rise to these behaviors, these decisions are not acts of self-destruction, but of self-preservation.
One of the biggest delusions we can have about ourselves is that the self is unitary. That we are one thing. That we have one mind. In fact, each of us is a composite of many minds, resulting from the modular, hit-or-miss, cobbled-together evolution of the mind. Engineers call this form of “design” a “kludge.” A kludge is a workaround: a clumsy, inelegant, yet quick and “effective-enough” solution to a problem.
Our brains are kludges. They were not designed from the ground up. Existing, basic, designs were altered. New components were bolted on to an existing structure. Layer was added upon layer. And this happened over and over, creating a rambling, shambling mess, that more or less works, but at the cost of a lot of inner conflict.
Older parts of the brain (or mind) have primitive programming that bases their actions on selfishness: greedily grasping after benefits, hurting others when we need to, running from threats. More recently evolved parts of the brain are more considered: they are able to reflect on the consequences of our decisions, to recall the past and to draw lessons from it, to run simulations of the future and to imagine how decisions we make now might affect our future well-being, to imagine new ways of acting, to consider abandoning unhelpful habits.
And the old brain and the new brain are often in conflict. We might know that we need to change something in our lives (a job, a habit, a relationship) and yet some ancient part of the brain floods the body with chemicals that induce a sense of fear. We might know we need to say something to another person that might be taken critically, and yet we’re paralyzed with anxiety; what if we’re rejected, end up friendless, alone forever? And so we limp along the same old familiar but painful pathways of life, battling with ourselves as we do so. Our self-struggles simply add another layer of pain to our lives. And it can seem that things can never change.
But this isn’t self-sabotage. This is, from the point of view of our ancient impulses, self-preservation. This is us avoiding rejection. This is us not risking making a jump from the frying pan into the fire.
Our demons are not trying to destroy us. They’re trying to keep us safe. It just so happens that make a lousy job of doing so, but isn’t it good to realize that your demons aren’t actually destructive at all? That they simply want to find peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering — just the same as every other part of you?
These demons need our help. They are, to a certain extent, helpless. They are more than half blind. They are incapable of learning on their own. They need to be regulated and their circuits need to be reprogrammed.
And this is where practice comes in. Practice is where you train the mind. The word “training” is very traditional (it’s sikkhā in Pali or śikśā in Sanskrit), and the Buddha often compared training the mind to training a wild animal.
“Excellent are tamed mules, tamed thoroughbreds, tamed horses from Sindh. Excellent, tamed tuskers, great elephants. But even more excellent are those self-tamed. For not by these mounts could you go to the land unreached, as the tamed one goes by taming, well-taming, himself.” – The Buddha
This animal-training analogy is very appropriate, given the primitive, animal-like perspective that some parts of the brain have. So that part of us that’s most aware, that has the longest-term perspective on our lives, the most accurate perception of the connection between actions and consequences, has to help the rest of the brain have a wiser perspective on life.
First, the wiser and more recently evolved parts of us have to stand back from and become aware of the demons within, which of course aren’t really demonic, and are more like badly house-trained animals. This “standing back” is mindfulness, and it gives us more wiggle-room in which to maneuver.
Mindfulness is vital, but it’s not enough. We have to get on the cushion, and to spend some serious time training the brain. We need to strengthen our habits of mindfulness, and to develop our habits of kindness. As long as we relate to ourselves and others in terms of hatred and fear, we’ll keep feeding our wild animals, and they’ll keep directing our lives. The Buddha said that meditating was like tethering a wild animal to a stake. If it’s just a rope, with us on one end and a wild animal on the other, we’re in trouble. We’ll be mauled, or dragged along behind the animal, or caught up in an endless tug-of-war. We need to stand our ground in meditation and to have a fixed point (the object of the meditation) to which we keep returning.
We need to reflect, and to develop wisdom. We need to strengthen our habit of looking at past experience and seeing where it led us. We need to look at what we’re doing now and see where it might take us.
In doing all this, the more recently evolved parts of your brain are getting stronger. In neurological terms we’re learning to regulate our emotions. In poetic terms the wild animals within are becoming less wild, and less fearsome. They’re being tamed and trained.
And it’s strongly advised that we don’t try to do all this alone. The task of the mind training the mind is too hard for most of us to do it unaided. Associating with other self-trainers is enormously helpful. It gives us role-models. It allows us to see others facing their inner wildness. It helps us become more aware of our blind spots. It gives us a source of support and encouragement. And it gives us, ultimately, a chance to be of benefit to others as they turn toward their own terrifying things, and find that they are no more than helpless parts of themselves, helpless parts that need help.