For the past few weeks, I’ve been sitting with the word “hospitality,” especially in the sense used by my favorite poet, John O’Donohue. He uses this word often in his writings. Hospitality, of course, may be literal, and refer to inviting in the stranger – the “other” – into our midst. It is a stance of curiosity and non-judgment – of trusting that whoever is at our door has a gift for us (although we may not always like the package in which it is wrapped).

Indeed, every ancient and indigenous culture has this type of hospitality as a central tenet. The guest is considered a manifestation of divinity, and is treated as such. If you are ever in doubt about your own divinity, all you have to do is walk into the home of a poor farmer in Bangladesh, or India, or Peru – and you will be amazed by how easily you’ll be invited in, offered the best morsel of food in the house, and the best seat by the fire, or under the tree in the yard!

John O’Donohue has a beautiful description that captures this spirit in his book, Anam Cara:

“In the West of Ireland, many houses have open fires. At wintertime when you visit someone, you go through the bleak and cold landscape until you finally come into the hearth, where the warmth and magic of the fire is waiting. A turf fire is an ancient presence. The turf comes out of the earth and carries the memory of trees and fields and long-gone times. It is strange to have the earth burning within the domesticity of the home. I love the image of the hearth as a place of home, a place of warmth and return.”

Inner hospitality

However, today, the type of hospitality I have on my mind is inner hospitality – a welcome for all the “monsters” that our ego tells us to run from! O’Donohue continues the passage above as follows:

“In everyone’s inner solitude there is that bright and warm hearth. The idea of the unconscious, even though it is a very profound and wonderful idea, has sometimes frightened people away from coming back to their own hearth. We falsely understand the subconscious as the cellar where all of our repression and self-damage is housed. Out of our fear of ourselves we have imagined monsters down there. Yeats says, “Man needs reckless courage to descend into the abyss of himself.” In actual fact, these demons do not account for all the subconscious. The primal energy of our soul holds a wonderful warmth and welcome for us. One of the reasons we were sent onto the earth was to make this connection with ourselves, this inner friendship. The demons will haunt us, if we remain afraid. All the classical mythical adventures externalize the demons. In battle with them, the hero always grows, ascending to new levels of creativity and poise. Each inner demon holds a precious blessing that will heal and free you. To receive this gift, you have to lay aside your fear and take the risk of loss and change that every inner encounter offers.”

Who are these “monsters?”

Each of us has a lineup of our very own inner monsters - ones that have unique costumes and languages. They like to dance their own special jigs, and tell their very own horror stories! However, underneath all this superficial variability, they are really universal. We all have little (or not-so-little) gremlins in our basements, named fear, anxiety, jealousy, envy, rage, shame, guilt, judgment, self-doubt, and on and on… Each of these feel unacceptable, “not me,” – and are thus relegated to the shadows.

The more we turn towards them, and engage with them - ask them what they are pointing toward - the more they turn not-so-scary, and eventually, even warm and fuzzy!

In fact, soon enough, if we can tolerate the initial revulsion and accept these gremlins as parts of ourselves, they point us towards a cache of our inner treasures.

Remember that deep, abiding jealousy that wouldn’t let us go, the one that sank its teeth in deeper the more we tried to ignore it? When we finally face it, acknowledge it, “meet” it… it turns around to point us toward a neglected yearning of our soul. Maybe we always wanted to write a book, to travel to Antarctica, to attend Burning Man… The specifics are not that important. But our soul has had a yearning, likely all through our life, but we kept telling ourselves why it wasn’t practical. How we didn’t have enough money, enough time, enough talent… But every time someone else did one of these things, our praise was just a little stilted - our celebration marred by a rumbling deep in our bellies. The jealousy was the little monster that was trying to point us toward our treasure - our soul’s desire. And the more we ignored, the more insistent its voice became. Maybe it even moved to active sabotage of a dear friend’s project! But we kept telling ourselves that we were “nice,” and “decent,” and yes, “spiritual,”… that we wouldn’t do such a horrid thing as feeling jealous!

But once we finally acknowledge the green-eyed gremlin as truly a part of ourselves, and accept the gift it has been trying to offer us all along - the intensity of the emotion vanishes and we are suddenly selling off that family heirloom we never really liked, and arranging boarding for our dog, and shopping for tickets on ocean liners to Antarctica!

Similarly, we might have felt inklings of a ravenous rage just under the surface, but told ourselves that we were loving and kind, and this emotion was certainly not ours! We had been shoving this gorgeous beast into an iron cage in the basement, and no wonder, our floors rumbled often and we had to usher guests out on one pretext or another!

But now that the cage doors have been opened and the beast is able to roar freely, it leads us directly to the relationship in our lives that is no longer working. We are trying very hard to put up a loving and accepting face, while developing a large, ugly ulcer in our guts! The beast of rage is here to remind us that what we are really afraid of, and what keeps us clinging to this dead relationship, is not our goodwill, or even “goodness,” but rather, our fear of all the freedom and all the open time and all the resources we will suddenly have, if only we can walk away from this dead relationship!

Practice of hospitality toward our monsters

What if we created a spiritual practice of being hospitable to these monsters? How would our life change?

Again, all religious and spiritual traditions have practices that specifically urge the seeker in the direction of darkness and difficulty, and it is well-appreciated that only by going through the darkness that the adept will one day arise into the light.

In different traditions, these practices have different names. Whether called the “dark night of the soul,” or tantric practices at the charnel grounds, or taking entheogenic plant medicines that make you violently sick - the underlying message is the same. The monsters are waiting, just across the veil, to reveal their secrets to us. However, they will only meet us in their own territory, and under their own terms.

An invitation from the thirteenth century mystic Sufi poet, Jelaluddin Rumi

The poets have always had the language to speak about the ineffable in a way that we “get it.” Here is one of Rumi’s poems, translated as “the Guest House” by Coleman Barks:

“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.”

A story about Milarepa, a Tibetan mystic who lived between the tenth and the twelfth centuries, AD

The story of Milarepa is a fascinating one in many respects. In fact, his entire life story can be read as an encounter, and finally, a reconciliation with “the demons.” He was a vengeful and ruthless killer of many, before he met his Buddhist teacher and began on the long and arduous journey of redemption.

Here is a story I have heard from one of my teachers, which I love.

According to the story, Milarepa was once meditating in a cave. The demons – whose job it is to spoil anything good – of course could not sit by and watch. So, they came. They gathered outside his cave, and hooted and hollered, and created a racket! First, Milarepa tried to ignore them. But, they persisted. Then he got angry – but meditated on his anger for days. The demons continued. Then finally, Milarepa stopped his meditation, and emerged at the mouth of the cave. The demons rejoiced, thinking that they had won. They had broken Milarepa’s concentration.

Milarepa stood at the mouth of the cave and said, “I know you’ve been here for days, shrieking and dancing. You must be tired. Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea?”

Suddenly, there was utter silence!

“Why are you inviting us for tea? Aren’t you afraid of us?” they finally asked. Milarepa said, “Yes, I am afraid. And now, will you please come in for some tea?”

At this, the demons were defeated and just disappeared, leaving Milarepa in peace to continue his meditations.

I find this a wonderful teaching story, which tells us that the demons will only remain demons and bother us, as long as we are oppositional with them. Once invited in for a cup of tea, their power will vanish!

Rubeus Hagrid: the caretaker of monsters

Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Wikipedia)

Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Wikipedia)

When we say that we are too afraid to “meet” a specific monster – say our rage, or envy, or self-doubt – it helps to remind ourselves that our psyche is in fact not monolithic. Even our consciousness (part of the psyche that we are aware of, or recognize as “me”) is composed of many parts. Let’s say we know that there is a monster that is hooting and hollering outside our cave, but “something” in us is too afraid to go out of the cave to meet it.

These would be the times to go visit our inner Hagrid – the gentle giant who lives at the edge of the “forbidden forest,” and is both the “groundskeeper” and the “keeper of the castle keys.”

I apologize profusely to those of my readers who are not Harry Potter fans. I couldn’t help including Hagrid here, because he is such a good archetypal image for this facilitator role.

In Potterverse, Hagrid is known for his love of large, scary animals that are too much even for the students and the staff of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For example, he has raised a three-headed monstrous dog whom he calls “Fluffy,” and a fire-breathing dragon called “Norbet” whom he has illegally hatched from a clandestine egg!

The point is, Hagrid is not afraid of the animals that live in the forbidden forest (the vast unconscious) that surrounds the Hogwarts castle (consciousness). His hut is physically located at the threshold of the forest. The animals in the forest respect him enough, so that if you do enter the forest under Hagrid’s protection, these “animals of the deep” might in fact approach you, and share privileged information with you.

Establishing contact with your psychopomp

In Jungian psychological parlance, Hagrid would be called a psychopomp – a mediator between the conscious and unconscious realms. He is the keeper of the castle keys (and thus has complete access to consciousness) and is friends with the magical animals such as unicorns and centaurs that live deep in the forest (the unconscious). The word psychopomp, in Greek, means “guide of souls.” For the ancient Greeks, the psychopomp was assigned the job of escorting newly deceased souls from this world into the afterlife.

The psychopomp is often somewhat “odd” (in the view of our ego), but s/he is allowed free passage into those realms where the ego cannot tread. Working with our dreams is a good way to get to know our own inner psychopomps, and we may further deepen those relationships through “active imagination” or “dream reentry.”

Charon, the ferryman of the dead, receives a coin from a soul guided by Hermes (Mercury) in his role as psychopomp (Wikimedia)

Charon, the ferryman of the dead, receives a coin from a soul guided by Hermes (Mercury) in his role as psychopomp (Wikimedia)

The soul is shy

The characteristic that defines a psychopomp is its hospitality for the “shy soul.” This is what John O’Donohue has to say about encountering our soul (psyche, in Greek):

“Maybe one of the ways to reconnect with your deeper soul-life is to recover a sense of the soul’s shyness… The value of shyness, its mystery and reserve, is alien to the brash immediacy of many modern encounters. If we are to connect with our inner life, we need to learn not to grasp at the soul in a direct or confrontational way. In other words, the neon consciousness of much modern psychology and spirituality will always leave us in soul poverty.”

Hospitality is always gentle

This, then, is my final message in this essay. Hospitality, by definition, is gentle. The shy parts of our soul need to be encountered not with the urgency of our “neon consciousness.” Rather, they can only be met in the “oblique light” of a candle which, in O’Donohue’s words, has a “hospitality for the shadow.”

This, I think, is a cautionary note about any type of “inner work” that feels abrasive and confrontational. It is important to distinguish here between something that feels difficult (or ego-dystonic), and something that has a scratching or scraping quality (like picking at a wound). Most likely, if any spiritual or psychological practice feels like the latter, it is working out of the ego’s agenda to “fix,” “treat,” or even “heal.” But it doesn’t really heal. On one hand, it may scour away what was once alive, albeit wounded, and leave behind an antiseptic barrenness. Or, the “shy soul,” in order to protect itself, may scab over the wound prematurely – so that the wound underneath festers, without any access to the healing light or air of day. Eventually, such subterranean infection will eat through muscle and sinew, enter the blood stream, and poison the entire being.

It is thus critical that whatever our personal practice is – that it allow space for a gentle and hospitable encounter with our inner monsters, demons and gremlins.


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