In Buddhism, hell or suffering is subtly defined as life lived outside the experience of this moment, where one is easily governed by the rushing nature of the small mind. You aren’t sent to this hell by a patronizing, morally dignified figure. You suffer or put yourself in hell on your own: You judge yourself and the world around you, and so it is your life, your mind, your experience, and thus your choice to be where you are–to be stuck in judgment and reaction or… just to be here, free. If hell could be viewed as the unexamined mind, and more specifically, the demons lurking below the streaming thoughts, then let us descend into the places we might not wish to visit. The process or journey isn’t like Dante’s Inferno. There are no linear explanations, set layers, or encounters with internal guides, just a trail and an unknowable, wild landscape to begin to rediscover.
While there are many instances in Zen lore of people suddenly becoming awakened and moving towards mastership of the ordinary mind, whether it is due to the relevance of modern day psychology or Jungian theory, I often tend to lean towards the notion that one should lie with past grievances first and let them pass through the body and mind in their own way and in their own time before moving more deeply into mindfulness practice. Old nagging memories linger in the unexamined mind. They rot, fester, and manifest as addictions, uncontrollable reactions, anxiety, a need to view life warily, indifference, and a whole slew of mentally created fortresses to hide behind or underneath. Sometimes I will pounce on a sudden negatively charged, grainy thought and follow a chord deep into the caverns of my mind only to find a small demon there making noise and begging for attention. It could be an old grievance, something that happened a few moments before, a hardened opinion… The list goes on, but nevertheless, life is life and I’d like to be here for it. Doing the dirty work and diving inwards is how I go about uncovering freedom.
The inner regions of the mind are not governed by reason or logic. You can only pretend not to notice its total presence. In this inexplicably mysterious place lies a multi-dimensional wilderness full of life and death, vines, demons, decay, Siberian tigers, and flowering cherry blossom trees. It functions best when one applies balance and clear vision. When internal troubles are neglected, like a wildfire, the neglected begins to consume. And in its consumption of your life and your attention, it becomes who you are.
I find it interesting that the very things we wish to keep at bay can in a sense define us. “I don’t ever want to be an angry person like the man who used to abuse me as a child” flips into a kind of fierce defensiveness that was created to wall-out that person, and yet that behaviour lives on and pervades the person’s view of the world for life. Those who experience a sexual assault or abuse might say “I don’t ever want to be with someone like that” and so they push love interests away, or even more strangely, fall for someone capable of committing the same horrific transgressions. I don’t use these examples to try to get you to relate. I bring them up to show how sticky and warped the inner world is, especially when it is neglected and left to its own devices. Our greatest challenges and personal injuries—left shunned and unexamined—seep into our internal wiring and spread into our relationship with life. They help perpetuate the subtle hell—the one that does not allow the world to be the world. But when you turn over this coin, it also becomes apparent that the greatest growth comes from sitting intimately among shunned demons—to breathe their air and laugh their laugh, to hold hands and caw at the descending night.
When I began to realize that depth came from stepping forward and going down into my own mind, I was not prepared for the intensity of moving through a land long bereft of any attention or reverence. This inner world of mine—full of swirling colour, sweat beads, heat, ice, and phantoms—simply needed to be acknowledged and respected, but I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t understand what clarity or patience felt like here. Instead, I headed towards a past grievance from a certain angle with a single-track mind, as if I was some kind of Marlow character slashing my way deep into the heart of an impenetrable wilderness, searching for the ever so elusive and awe-inspiring Kurtz. Through this methodology, my memory or grievance would morph and turn into something else—a new overwhelming issue for me to work with again in an entirely different dimension with altered rules of engagement. I started to realize that doggedly pursuing phantoms wasn’t going to work. Instead of trying to learn from, or push over, or figure out, I thought it could be interesting to embrace a demon and sit with it, no matter the length of time. Letting go in the realms of demons was a strange and powerful move that began to restore balance to my inner regions.
No matter the fortress, rules, or territory that come with facing a demon, sitting and watching quenches the thirst of all boundaries and leads to an opening for a true meeting. The demon is you and you are the demon. This is the practice of oneness.
I often smile at the thought of not doing the dirty work—what the texture of my life would feel like without going into the vastness of my mind to be with what needs to be examined. I might appear successful, happy, totally fine on the surface, but on an internal level, the one that really defines the vital pulse of my connection to life and the world around me, there would be so many deadening walls keeping me from experiencing what is here. And I think it’s important to note that this learning to be is the great gift of doing such work.
I’m under the impression that human beings are extremely intelligent animals capable of doing many things: loving, committing violence, appreciating, living, dying, drinking, working, writing poetry, making mistakes, and laughing. All of these various possibilities contribute to the oneness that binds humanity to the common experience of living a life grounded into the unknown wilderness-like nature of the world and the inner regions. Doing the dirty work in this life doesn’t mean that you’re special or suddenly not an organic creature anymore. You’re just using the gift of the complexity of the mind to tap into depth—the kind that opens the doors to balance. It’s through the simple experience and relishing of life through the medium of our incredibly complex minds that freedom is found.
When I look at our culture, or more accurately, the collective consciousness of our culture, I’m dismayed by the lack of attention the inner regions receive. If our inner regions represent the underbelly of an iceberg—the vast majority of the entire entity—it might behoove us to begin looking underneath—within. So much depends falsely on surface-level achievements, titles, and appearances that at some point I think it’s important not to fall for the dream our modern culture lures us into. When you sit with your own mind, gaze at the billions of galaxies, or contemplate the vastness of geological time, the dream becomes more apparent. I also believe that if happiness is a goal for someone, it might not be outside of the experience of what is here. The things we buy into—our culture, the rampant movements of our small mind, and the desire to seek without instead of within—may be the very barriers between genuine happiness and where we are now.