Milarepa was a sage in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who lived long ago. Legend has it that one day at the end of a long and exhausting pilgrimage he returned to his humble dwelling to find it infested with thousands of horrible demons of all shapes and sizes. Although he was quite taken aback by these ghastly creatures, Milarepa’s response upon seeing them was to bow respectfully and bid them welcome.

In that moment, half of the demons disappeared.

Closing the door behind him, he turned to face the rest having no idea what to do. For several moments he stood in silence and uncertainty, doing nothing. After a time, a song that he had never heard came to him and he began to sing it aloud to the demons. “We’re here together, let’s learn together.” It was a song of relationship.

When it was over, half of the remaining demons were gone. He stood quietly breathing in the presence of the demons and soon all but one of them had disappeared. The one that remained had huge fangs and breathed fire and was the most terrifying of them all. Milarepa approached this demon and placing his hands on his jaw, put his own head inside its mouth and down into the belly of the demon. In that instant, the demon was gone.

Although this story is hundreds of years old, its message is timeless. Only by facing, listening to, and honoring our own inner demons can we find freedom from their dangerous potential. Nothing that is within us is inherently destructive, even our most horrible thoughts and feelings. It’s only when we resist and deny these aspects of ourselves that they can become harmful to ourselves or others. Our darkest demons come to us uninvited, at times when we are most tired, depressed, or angry. These are the times that we are most vulnerable. What determines the nature of their stay with us has everything to do with how we respond to the presence of these guests. Until we have learned to welcome even the most demonic parts of ourselves into our lives when they present themselves, we will find ourselves being reactive and condemning others when they express similar aspects of their personality.

Even our most destructive impulses can be transformed into compassion and wisdom through our willingness to accept these tendencies without judgment. The self-righteous judge that we carry within us claims to be an authority on what about us is good, bad and indifferent, and all too often we take his or her opinion as though it is the holy truth. In fact, nothing within us is evil, even murderous impulses. What makes these impulses destructive is our unwillingness to acknowledge them or our indulging them by acting them out irresponsibly. In so doing, we give them more energy and power over us.

What we resist doesn’t just persist, but it grows and expands. Until we can stop running away from what we consider to be our fearful and undesirable qualities we will be doomed to live in fear and resistance to them. This resistance is the source of most physical and emotional stress. Can we, like Milarepa, learn to stand openly and respectfully in the presence of all that we misjudge as being demonic with us, without either condemning or indulging these parts of ourselves, simply opening to receive their fierce gifts? Can we thrust ourselves headfirst into the mouth and belly of the beast rather than withdraw or attack ourselves? This is the challenge that those who wish to find inner peace and a loving heart must face up to and ultimately come to terms with. “The peace that passeth all understanding” begins with a willingness to recognize, accept and honor all that is within us. Not just what we consider to be desirable, but as Zorba the Greek says, “the full catastrophe.” Only by doing this can we bring to the world the love that we were born to share.