Buddhism · Psychology

Shadow Companions: Types of Demons

Earlier this week we looked at the process of feeding your demons, which is a way to make friends with your shadow. In this post we’ll dig deeper into the various types of demon you might find skulking in the darkness of your worst fears. But first, what is a demon?

In this practice, demons aren’t devils or undead spirits with anger management issues. They’re not the dark clichéd entities associated with Christian mythology. Demons are a personification of your fears. They represent whatever you have problems with: inner conflict, negative emotions, blockages, illness, obsessions and recurring issues. Demons are how your shadow expresses itself and tries to make you aware of what you’re denying or repressing.

“What we call demons are not materially existing individuals with huge black forms, frightening and terrifying anyone who sees them. A demon means anything which hinders liberation.” Machig Labdron

Demons aren’t real in the sense that they don’t exist separately from your mind and the stories you tell yourself about your life. But they can feel very real when you’re fighting them. Your mind perceives them as real and then starts to resist and fight. But that just makes them stronger.

Demons are only there because they want you to become aware of what you’re running away from – which is mostly them, of course, but the more you run, the harder the demons will try to get your attention. They represent a wake-up call and an opportunity to stop running and become more whole and compassionate.

The Four Types of Demons

Buddha defeats the armies of Mara

Machig Labdron identified four types of demons which she based on the four maras of Buddhism, the demonic forces that can block progress on the spiritual path. When working with your shadow it helps if you can recognise what kind of demon you’re dealing with because then you can understand how to heal it.

The four types of demon are:

  1. Outer Demons
  2. Inner Demons
  3. Demons of Elation
  4. Demons of Egocentricity

Starting with the outer demons, each of these categories takes you deeper into your own mind, getting more subtle as you go down. So outer demons are the most obvious because you can see clearly what the problem is, even if you can’t deal with it.

Next down you have inner demons which function at the level of the mind. They could also be related to the outer demons, say if your problem has an inner and an outer dimension, but inner demons are often just internal and have no real basis in the outer world.

Deeper still you have the demons of elation which are about pride and the dangers of success. Once you’ve dealt with some of your more obvious outer and inner demons you might get it into your head that you’re demon-free – that you’ve got rid of your shadow – which leads to ego inflation.

That leaves the final level of the ego itself – the cause of all the trouble. The demons of egocentricity are the foundation of your experience as an apparently separate self. Deal with these demons and you’re home free.

Complex Problems: the Hydra

Before we look at each of these categories in more detail, it’s worth mentioning another aspect of feeding your demons, and that’s the demon complex. Problems like company, they rarely come alone, and it’s the same with demons.

Hercules fights the Hydra

As you feed your demons you’ll notice that they transform over time. This happens because you’re integrating more of what they represent into your awareness. But you may also notice that certain demons have multiple layers or many heads: a demonic hydra. Like Hercules, you lob off a head only to find more growing in its place.

A Hydra is a demon complex which is an interconnected jumble of various demons and god-demons where one problem masks another deeper issue in layer after layer. Or you could see it as a family of demons affecting many areas of your life simultaneously. For example, an alcoholism demon could just be the surface level of many other demons, like low self-esteem, control issues, fear of abandonment, and so on.

Let’s dig through the layers and explore these demons in more detail.

Outer Demons

These are the obvious demons, also called Tangible Demons or ‘demons that block’, which arise from seeing the apparently objective world as separate from consciousness. Outer demons relate to something tangible in the world, something that’s perceived through the senses. They function through desire and aversion so tend to come up when you’re attracted to or repelled against something or someone.

These are the demons that arise when you chase after certain experiences that you think will be fulfilling, or run away from stuff you fear, or attack something or someone you believe is a threat. Outer demons often work through projection so may be connected, via a Hydra, to an inner demon. They include things like fear of flying, or spiders, as well as addiction, relationship issues, and problems with the body, such as illness.

Mara is all in the mind
Mara is all in the mind

Inner Demons

These demons are less obvious and more subtle than outer demons. They’re also called Intangible Demons or ‘demons that run on and on’ because they arise in the mind and are characterised by your endless circling thoughts. Inner demons come from your emotions, thoughts, memories, and fantasies, and may or may not be connected with the outer world. Many inner demons have no external trigger at all and just exist in your imagination, caused by the stories you tell yourself.

Inner demons include emotional problems like depression, anxiety, paranoia, and shame, which could be connected to outer events, but can also arise purely in the mind. These are your fears and hang-ups, and things like low self-esteem, insecurity and fear of failure, and so on.

Demons of Elation

These demons are even less obvious and can be hard to spot. They arise from achievement and success, which you might not see as a problem, but the issue here is attachment. Demons of Elation are all about success going to your head and are particularly tricky to deal with on the spiritual path.

These demons come up when you get attached to blissful experiences in meditation, or when you believe you’re enlightened when you’re not, or perhaps too much praise from others causes your ego to get puffed up and you start to believe your own hype. This is the whole area of spiritual pride and spiritual superiority. A veritable minefield.

Demons of Egocentricity

This is the big one, the ultimate demon, the head honcho. The demon of ego is the belief in your own self-importance and the foundation of all your problems. Ego is where the stories come from, the ones that tie you in knots of fear and confusion. This demon is the source of all the other demons – the demon mother, if you like, or ground zero.

“The demon that must be killed is our own self.”

Accidental Demon
Accidental Demon

Gods and God-Demons

Some of your demons won’t be demons at all, but gods. These are problems that are caused by your hopes, and desires, and things you long for that you see as positive. But instead of enjoying them, you get too attached and the problems start. In this case the god turns into a demon and you have a god-demon.

Hopes and fears are closely related and can’t exist without each other. When you hope for something it’s often because you fear something else, like hoping to win the lottery because you fear poverty, for example. Hoping for a particular outcome can also make it hard to relax and enjoy an experience for what it is. You can get so caught up in trying to make something perfect, that the opposite ends up happening.

In the end, it doesn’t help to get attached to either side of the spectrum. Both gods and demons are there to help you see through the illusory nature of duality so you can be free. In fact, the word ‘demon’ used to be ‘daemon’ which meant a guiding spirit, and was generally seen as a positive thing. Your daemon is your higher self, guiding you on the path to awakening.

As you feed your demons they transform into daemons, or guiding spirits, who lead you into freedom.

“With a loving mind, cherish more than a child
The hostile gods and demons of apparent existence,
And tenderly surround yourself with them.”
Machig Labdron

Find out more about feeding your demons here, or watch a video of the five step process here.

Images: Accidental Demon; Demons of Mara; Hydra




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