When Monsters Attack (for real)
My Halloween monsters showed up early this year.
It was a few weeks ago, right before the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. My daughter, nearing two years of age, entered a nasty “sleep regression,” which is basically when toddlers forget everything they know about how to sleep, and spend the night resisting, howling, fighting, needing attention, and running around like the Energizer bunny on methamphetamine.
Then, and probably not coincidentally, everyone in the family got sick. I was leveled for a couple of days with flu-like symptoms (not the flu – I’ve had my shot!) that made every bone in my body ache.
Those weren’t the monsters, though.
No, the monsters were the cavalcade of old demons that took the opportunity of my weakened state to go trick-or-treating in my mind. First came a dull depression, playing off my physical weakness to lay me low emotionally. Then came a Halloween parade of demons, zombies, and ghosts: an old ghoul who shouted “you are a failure!” about everything I did or thought; a trio of self-judgment, comparison, and self-loathing; and, why not, an added bonus of internalized homophobia that I thought I’d resolved back in 2004.
Quite a parade.
It was impressive to watch the variety of monsters that showed up. Some made me feel lonely. Others recited the superior accomplishments of my peers. A few accused me of being a bad parent -- after all, good parents don’t have the luxury of self-loathing. And one in particular judged me for (quoting from my journal here) not having staged plays, published novels, played music, become famous, become powerful, become respected, become a professor, or signed a major label book deal.
But my favorite monsters of all were the meta-monsters: the ones judging me for having a monster attack in the first place. After all, there are kids trapped in cages right now, but I can’t deal with a little sleep deprivation, flu, and shame attack? What the hell is wrong with me? And of course, I’m a meditation teacher, working at a company called – get this – Ten Percent Happier. Ha!
This, I think, is what Halloween is really about: the powerful, nearly universal spiritual practice to make visible the invisible ghosts and monsters that haunt our lives, to admit of our shared vulnerability and mortality. And to try to laugh at them.
True, in my case the monsters look less like vampires and more like long-buried voices I probably learned in childhood. Then again, maybe that’s what vampires look like sometimes.
So, did mindfulness make all my monsters disappear?
Sorry to disappoint you, but no. That’s not really how it works. Monsters show up sometimes, often when we’re at our weakest. It might be after a relationship ends, or in a time of transition, or when you’re ill. But they’re going to show up at some point, and neither meditation nor mindfulness is not a magic wand that makes them go away.
But twenty-odd years of meditation and mindfulness experience did make a difference – at least three differences, in fact.
First, even as the Halloween Parade was unfolding in my mind, with all its terrifying taunts of fear and self-loathing, there was another voice present too: a voice of wisdom. That was the voice that regarded everything that was happening not as “the truth” and not as “how I really feel” but as a parade: as an absurd, painful, ridiculous display of monstrousness that could be witnessed, rather than believed.
Often, I felt a little like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, who said to one of his ghosts, “You are a piece of undigested meat.” Meaning: you are a phenomenon caused by certain factors (indigestion for Scrooge; sleep loss and illness for me). You are not a reliable voice. I can’t make you shut up, but you can’t make me believe you.
I mean, it was almost funny, how transparent it was. Obviously, all these monsters were showing up because I was in a weakened state. And yet, they went on singing their songs as if I didn’t know that!
Second, years of lovingkindness meditation have nurtured another, related voice: that of self-compassion. Amid the din of self-judgment and comparing mind, this voice interjected, now and then, something like, “Wow, you’re really suffering right now, Jay. Oy, that must hurt. Let’s go gentle on ourselves.”
That voice didn’t drown out the monsters, but it did provide moments of rest.
Third, my meditation practice has taught me a kind of patience, resilience, or maybe just stubbornness that really saved the day for me. I’ve sat for three months in silence, not eating after noon and not leaving a tiny retreat center in Nepal. I’ve held my mother’s hand as she was dying. I’ve done a lot of stuff. And I can endure this. All I have to do is wait. And wait. And wait.
And that’s basically what happened: I waited it out. I waited as the Halloween parade unfolded, waited as the monsters sang their songs, waited as the hours crawled by. And in the meantime, I showed up for my daughter and husband, holding her as she cried and helping her feel better, taking shifts with my partner in the middle of the night, doing what had to be done. Life is about other people, after all. I don’t have the luxury of despair.
And then finally, finally, I hit bottom – literally, in this case, when on Yom Kippur I and other spiritually-minded Jews bow our heads to the floor like our religious Muslim siblings do every day. With my face on the floor, I cried. Something released. And that was that. Halloween was over.
Dr. Jay Michaelson is the editor of wisdom content for Ten Percent Happier. He’s been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay’s eight books include The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path and the brand new Enlightenment by Trial and Error.