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Uninvited Guests


The past few months have been heavy. Like real heavy. Like heavy in the sense that my life is in absolute upheaval. Having a medically challenged child has changed my previous notion of what stress is. There are times when I want to go back to my twenty-four-year-old self, paralyzed with stress over what to do with her life, gently take her by the shoulders and with kindly compassion say…" bitch, please.”

Stress is seeing your baby scream in pain every two hours for days as her airways are “deep suctioned” to keep them from being clogged with mucus. Stress is being able to do nothing for your crying, writhing infant experiencing withdrawal from pain meds weeks after her heart surgery. Stress is holding down your child and looking into her eyes and apologizing as people in masks poke and prod her body, attempting to find a vein strong enough to hold an iv. Stress is feeling your heart literally break in two as one daughter begs you to stay at home while you leave for the hospital two hours away to stay with the other daughter. Stress is wrapping your brain around the possibility that your marriage may not survive. Besides feeling like you don't really know your significant other, you don’t even really recognize yourself anymore. These challenges were not in my playbook when I started. I wasn’t prepared for their intensity. I was not prepared for them to ascend on my life, taking up space otherwise reserved for more trivial stresses like losing a casual 20 and decluttering my home. Like a hoard of un-welcomed guests, these challenges have moved in and taken over and managed to shatter some of the things that I hold most dear.

About the time that I've felt rock bottom coming in hot, Zen teachings and a good sense of dark humor have come in clutch. When "all the things" seem to be devouring the life I once knew, I am reminded of this dude named Milarepa, one of the most beloved Tibetan Masters. Those well versed in Buddhist dharma may squirm a bit with my own incantation of his story. For this, I am sorry. For what it's worth, Milarepa lived at the beginning of the 11th century, so perhaps my visual would be exactly the type of story written now, in modern times. As much as I am embarrassed to admit it, this visual has helped me navigate stress so heavy, I have felt like I may break under its weight.

Milarepa is a Tibetan sage living in the wilderness, who, after finding enlightenment (as sages do), goes to collect firewood and returns only to find seven demons have set up shop in his cave (think uninvited frat- party taking over your peaceful sage-like home). Milarepa is not so pleased with his new guests and cries out in anger, lunges toward them, attempting to chase them away. The demons are unfazed (as drunk frat boys are.) The more he attempts to rid them, the more settled they become. For some reason, during this part of the story, I picture a bunch of partygoers turning on loud dubstep music, breaking out the keg stands, and destroying the heirloom vases. One is completely naked, wearing a clown nose and a cowboy hat, reminiscing about that "one time" he blacked out, cozying up bare-ass on the couch drinking a beer (Weird visual, I know. You would be horrified at what goes on inside my head.) Quick side note here- I am in no way saying that frat boys and dubstep are demonic in any way. I like myself a good party; however, given where I am in my life, I cannot think of anything less appealing thing than entertaining half-naked drunk college kids who drink Natty Ice and play loud music at all hours in my home.

Back to our Man...

In a spark of genius, Milarepa thinks, “ahh yes,” they just need to hear my spiritual teachings. So he sits down, drops some “spiritual science,” and begins to read them the dharma about existence and non-existence, compassion and kindness, etc..... Nothing happens. Dubstep continues to rage. Butt remains on the couch. Cowboy Clown is unfazed. Are we surprised? Apparently, these guests don't have an ear for equanimity or Zen Buddhism. I can picture our boy Milarepa now. Deflated. Annoyed. Tired. Claustrophobic. Maybe wanting a drink?

Dejected, he finally bows to the demons and says, “welp looks like we’re going to be here together… so…. I guess the only thing left to do is surrender. Please take my food, enjoy my fire. I open myself up to whatever it is that you are here to teach me.” I see Milarepa turning up the music, offering Cowboy Clown another beer, cracking one for himself, and saying... "who's up for Flip Cup?"

And with that, all but one of the demons disappear.

The remaining deity is particularly gross and nasty, gnashing his teeth and threatening to consume Milarepa. In my mind, this demon doesn't look like an annoying party goer. This one is darker, scarier, and deeper- one that is ready to destroy the house and gorge on our poor, tired Milarepa. I imagine him, looking at the demon with a gaze that only one surrounded by solo cups, trash, half-eaten bags of chips, and some random puke from a party he did not want to host can gaze. Like many of us who are emotionally, physically, and spiritually done, Milarepa has officially reached the "fuck it phase." Not knowing what to do or what more he can offer, he finally walks over to the demon and puts himself in its mouth and says, “I surrender to you as well, here take all of me.” Bold move, my man.

Down the Hatch by Aaron Johnson, 2007, acrylic on construction debris netting, 40 x 35 inches. Courtesy of Stux Gallery.

And with that, the demon disappears.

Why do I like this story? If you know me, I can't finish a horror movie, so it's not the demon part that does it. What intrigues me about the tale is that it reminds me that life’s demons are often unfazed by ill will, stress, anger, and sadness. The little ones can be eliminated with acts of kindness, compassion, willingness to learn and give in to the party. The big bad ones? They feel unfair in a meaningless of the Universe kind of way. Like in a what the hell is the point? Kind of way. Like I have given all I have to give at this point, kind of way. Like I am tired of being the host of destruction kind of way. Those are the tricky ones because they also make us feel like a victim- like some divine justice hasn't been lined up and that the Universe owes us something more.

Man, if there is one thing I have learned, this world owes you nothing. Those uninvited house guests owe you zip despite the fact they've taken residence in your life. It's a hard concept to accept when it's the exact opposite of all the Hollywood tales that we are fed where the shipwreck survivor is found as opposed to facing death alone, malnourished and talking to a volleyball; or the man who has been stalking the woman by climbing up a tree to talk to her is met with opened arms of love rather than a restraining order; or the woman who finally overcomes her drug addiction and returns clean to her family, rather than living out the rest of her life on the streets looking for the next kick; or the miracle cure suddenly helping the sick child rather than the child's family disintegrating under the weight of his death; or mother and daughter overcoming their anger and reconciling as opposed to living out the rest of their lives not speaking to each other. These heavier life struggles deliver lessons that can't be tied up in a nice little bow. They are often forced upon us, invaders to our physical and emotional space, always lingering in metaphorical caves, refusing to give us a reprieve and threatening to swallow us whole.

What Milarepa can teach us is that there is magic in that "fuck it" phase. Not in the "I'm going to give up on life way" but more in the I'm going to "let go" of control type of way. When we start to understand that the demons- loud, unruly unwelcome challenges and stresses, or other emotional ailments in our lives are constructs of our minds and often projections of ourselves, we begin to see that we choose what we see. We choose how we feel. There is power in that choice. In acts of desperation, craziness, or bravery, is when we finally have the courage not only to face the nastiest of demons head-on but also to offer ourselves to them. While I am not totally sure what this looks like for others, for me, offering myself has felt akin to living in whatever moment, however terrible or great, comes my way with an openness of mind and heart. It means honoring "all the things," despite how gross, nasty, and hard they are, rather than running from them or trying to avoid them. It means letting go of my expectation of the desired outcome. I am learning to greet challenges with compassion, welcome them in, ask them to teach me, show me, and remind me. I have to giggle a bit with this visual, but I literally see myself sitting next to Cowboy Clown saying... "teach me Enlightened one." I am also learning to surrender the bigger and scarier ones as well. Learning is the keyword here. Surrender is waaaaaaay easier said than done, especially when you are looking into the eyes of something ready to consume you entirely- (I'm looking at you self-pity, loneliness, shame, and fear). I am no sage.

Our bold man, Milreapa, continued his master-like ways in his secluded cave. My guess is that he continued to have demons unexpectedly show up uninvited. The difference was, he had extra bottles of wine to welcome the guests, long or short as their stay may be. I also surmise that when the big bad, ugly ones came, he continued to bow himself to them, not only honoring their presence and giving himself over to them but also finding ways to love them despite themselves.

In one of his most revered poems, Rumi, the Sufi poet-another sage in his own right, addresses uninvited guests' concept. Just because they are guests in your home doesn't mean you have to like them, but you can greet them laughing. Nobody has a playbook with how to handle the hardships that come our way. While I understand that comparing my family's pain to a bare ass man in a cowboy hat or loud dubstep music feels trivial, for some reason, this is where my mind goes in grasping the concepts of unrelenting challenges that I not only don't have control over but also don't want in my house. I sometimes feel surrounded by a party that I didn't plan to host, attempting to clean up its aftermath. It's a picture of what it feels like to have things you hold dearly shattered and destroyed. I guess you sometimes just have to open the door, invite in the un-invited, and dance to the bad music.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice. meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes. because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

– Rumi


Reading: No Time Like the Present, Jack Kornfield (2017)

Listening to: Demon Days, Gorillaz, 2005

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