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Demons for Tea...

Kelly is a gifted and compassionate yoga teacher. She was my yoga teacher for the past two weeks at The Haven.

Art Credit: Susan Sorrell Hill

In one of our classes, she made a passing reference to how we might ‘invite our demons to tea’. The image of having tea with my demons has stayed with me.

She used the image as a description for how we might go into the places that scare us. She found that her yoga practice, the time she spent in meditation, and how in learning how to breathe, she was facing into her own fears: sitting down and pouring tea as an act of hospitality to those inner forces that had terrorized her.

The image comes from a story from the Buddhist tradition. Pema Chodron tells a vivid version of the old tale.

A monk is victimized by a pack of demons. They appear in his cave when he is gone to get firewood. He discovers that they have moved into his place and are taking over the joint: eating his food, sleeping in his bed, reading his books, throwing things around, and making a big mess.

At first, he tries to reason with them. He believes that his spiritual learning will help him convince the demons to leave. He explains to them that they are illusions: projections of himself. He recites the traditional wisdom he has learned. The demons laugh at him.

When every attempt to use reason and reciting the dharma fails, he gets very angry. He yells and screams. He throws things at the demons and tries to strike them. They laugh at him even louder.

Finally, he runs out of steam. He gives up. He just slumps down on the floor, resigned and saying, “I’m not going away and it looks like you’re not either, so let’s just live here together. Here, let me pour us some tea.”

At that point, all of them left (actually you need to read Chodron’s story because it is a bit more nuanced than how I have simplified it here!).

I talked with Kelly after the yoga class about this story. It reminded me that when I dare to become intimate with my fears, my heart becomes tenderer… more supple. I can withstand a broken heart because it knows how to break. When I am brave enough to sit down and pour tea to the forces of anxiety and turmoil within me, compassion arises spontaneously. In the act of hospitality to myself, I begin to see through the illusion of my fears and gain access to my inner strength. I befriend my fears.

In talking with Kelly, I was reminded of an insightful quote from Annie Dillard. I shared the quote with Kelly, and we talked further about it later, when she had the chance to look it up.

In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for another, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.”

– Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

I suppose it was the reference to demons in Kelly’s comment that called to mind this Annie Dillard quote for me: the monsters I fear are like the demons who won’t leave me alone. This helpful image of riding my monsters over the rim, all the way to the substrate, is certainly more dramatic than merely sitting down for tea with them!

Yet, both images suggest that the emotions that we have feared as a dreaded scary enemy, to be avoided or fought at all costs, may eventually turn out to be our dearest ally and friend. They may become occasional visitors we can share some tea. We might even stick out a thumb and hitch a ride with them into the deepest learning we will ever experience.


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