When the Midnight Demons Come Calling

Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
It takes a lot to change a man
Hell, it takes a lot to try
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

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Thus sang Bradley Cooper in the powerful reimagining of A Star is Born. (Beware – spoilers coming. If you haven’t seen the movie you will want to stop reading). Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a singer/song-writer who is an alcoholic struggling with the reality that is best days may well be behind him. During a night out drinking he discovers Lady Gaga’s Ally Campana and helps catapult her into stardom even as the two build an intense, loving if not flawed and co-dependent relationship. Jackson and Ally both have doubts and demons – from less than ideal childhoods to lingering fears of inadequacy – that they share with each other and strive to overcome. In the end, Maine succumbs to his demons and commits suicide.

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One could say that he was pushed to the decision by Rez Gavron, Ally’s controlling and condescending manager. Rez confronts Jackson, accusing him of holding Ally back. Ally, Rez assures the recovering alcoholic, would be better off without him. When Ally lies to Jackson about why she canceled a leg of her tour he decides to kill himself. An inconsolable Ally blames herself. The audience can blame whomever they want, but Rez’s verbal attack could be viewed as a triggering event. His words, however, would have no impact if they were not reinforced by Jackson’s demons.

You might know those demons. Those fears and doubts that emerge from their daytime hiding places to plague the soul when one is alone. The demons that lurk in your mind and lend power to the criticisms of others. They augment negative messages and reduce what should be the powerful support of friends to gossamer threads. Ally’s grief, to a degree, is fueled by such doubts. Thankfully she has the strength to listen to Jackson’s older brother.

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Bobby, played by Sam Elliot, explains to Ally that Jackson’s death was of his own making, not hers. Bobby has a point. The Jackson’s downward spiral began long before Ally came along. I would like to suggest that perhaps…and this may be stretch…but perhaps Jackson could have begun the process of reversing his downfall if he had learned to employ a little fuck you therapy.

Excuse me? Did you say…

Yup. Sometimes people need to employ a little fuck you therapy to their lives. To be clear, I don’t mean Jackson should have shouted, “Fuck you!” at Rez. In fact, that would not have worked at all (even if it would have felt good to witness). In the end, Jackson still would have committed suicide. You see, Rez’s words only had the power to cause pain because Jackson believed them. Deeply. His soul was receptive to the sharp criticism of a man who essentially hated him.  The words fed his doubts and fears, amplifying them to the point that only one path could be seen by the beleaguered singer. It is truly a tragic moment in the film.

The fuck you that Jackson needed wasn’t an immature expression of rage designed to protect his ego and hide his shattered sense of self from prying eyes. You know, the way we usually use the phrase. But there might just be a quiet use of the phrase that promotes healing rather than spreading anger and reinforcing delusion.

Calling Sean Maguire

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In Good Will Hunting we encounter the brilliant but…shall we say…difficult and anti-social Will Hunting played by Matt Damon. Will, through the patient guidance of Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire, comes to grips with his abusive past, transcends his attachment disorder, and willingly takes the risk of pursuing a relationship with his ex-girlfriend Skylar. During the breakthrough therapy session – the “It’s not your fault” scene – Will weeps and hugs Sean. As the camera pulls out Sean whispers, “Fuck them, okay?”

I love that line. That moment. That idea. The whispered use of “Fuck them” was and is fantastic. Both Will and Sean had suffered physical abuse as children. One can only imagine what the midnight demons used to torture these two characters. We can try to outthink our demons – and I definitely believe talk therapy can be helpful – but racing thoughts at two in the morning can’t be subdued by more thinking. Alone at night there are sometimes no friends to comfort or loved ones to offer hope. Anger is nothing more than a tattered cloth failing to contain fear while tears burn rather than baptize. But, what if the knowledge that friends are part of your life, your mind is ultimately your own, and where anger fails the earned pride of having fought the good fight enables a moment of calm? Perhaps in that calm there is a moment where one can look at the demons with mature strength and just whisper a forceful “Fuck you.” Perhaps on occasion we need a little vulgarity to find our peace and to stand with confidence before our dark fears, our midnight demons (1).

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Still

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In the Walking Dead (Episode 12: Season 4) Daryl and Beth engage in a memorable moment of what we are calling fuck you therapy. The unusual paring brought us one of the best episodes in that show’s run. Both characters are stung by the death of Hershel, Beth’s father. Beth suggests they have some drinks and, after initially declining, Daryl drinks some of the moonshine he supplied for his younger companion. The drinking leads initially to arguing and insults but, ultimately, hearts are opened as grief is shared. Daryl does not merely share his guilt (he feels he should have saved Hershel) but also divulges information about his difficult childhood with his brother Merle.  A calmer conversation ends with Beth suggesting the duo burn down the dilapidated house they had holed up in as a form of letting go of the past. The house is consumed by flames and the friends salute the flames with their middle fingers. Fuck you, painful past.

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Midnight demons often get their strength from past pains that we struggle to let go of, as if the pain is necessary to our identity. Jungian analyst Carol Pearson contends that one of the archetypes that helps us grow is the destroyer. When used without skill or in an immature manner the destroyer’s energy causes us to lash out, harming ourselves and our loved ones. When used with acumen, however, the destroyer archetype allows us to break unnecessary chains that bind us to past pain, allowing us to move forward unfettered. Well before Jungian archetypal psychology another great thinker counseled all who would listen to let go of the past – the Buddha.

Buddha and Fuck You Therapy

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Okay…I hear ya. Now I’m just being ridiculous. The Buddha never said “Fuck you” to people. That is likely true, but he surely advocated the difficult step of letting go of your attachment to the past. The very first chapter of The Dhammapada includes the verse,      ” ‘He was angry with me,he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.” Think about the way such a line could strike one’s ears. Buddha is not saying you have negative thoughts for no reason for you were “attacked” or “robbed.” He is saying, however, nurturing that pain binds one in chords of hate. We must sever our bonds with our pain – actually break them not merely claim to have done so –  if we hope to be free from hate. To be free from the Midnight Demons. 

Before we move on from Buddha there is another aspect of Buddhism that will be useful. Many people have a tendency to split reality into categories that makes life understandable (my side good/yours bad) but ultimately does not allow for the richness or totality of life to be felt. Buddhism is sometimes portrayed as a religion of undisturbed peace and tranquility. While that is the final goal, it is also a tradition of effort with a deep understanding of the human condition. The wrathful buddhas of the Tantric tradition remind us that some Buddhist thought has a more direct approach to what we sometimes categorize as negative emotions.

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The wrathful buddhas are ferocious beings with intense passions that absorb hostile emotions in order to dispense them. Only by embracing the darkness do we ultimately transcend it. While Buddha (Prince Siddhartha) wold not have said, “Fuck you” to the midnight demons the wrathful buddhas are portrayed as ferocious entities (picture Wolverine in one of his berserker states) that battle evil at its own level. A couple cusses are well within their realm.

Brining it Home

The dark side of fame, a therapist’s office, a zombie apocalypse, and Buddhism have all made an appearance to help vanquish our midnight demons. I would like to close with a brief story to ground this conversation. 

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My oldest son used to attend a parkour gym. He would train and work on skills that he would bring to the concrete jungle he and some friends ran through. His instructor had a phrase he would share with his students when they were holding onto fear instead of trusting their bodies and their skills. I remember the first time Logan sheepishly shared the phrase with me, unsure how I would respond. It was a fine phrase and I hope he follows this advice the rest of his life. “Sometimes,” his coach told him, “ya just gotta say fuck it and chuck it.” Nike’s PG-13 “Just do it” has nothing on parkour!

Thanks for reading everybody. Do me a favor. If your Midnight Demons come out to play tell ’em I said, “Fuck you.”

(1) I must confess, it was difficult to use this movie because of Robin Williams’ own tragic death. I decided to do so because the film’s powerful message of healing is still valid despite the sorrow of the loss of the great Robin Williams.

The Dukkha of Star Wars: Using the Force to let go of the Past

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A simple translation of dukkha would be anything that makes one feel anxious, restless, or distressed. Anytime someone feels their life is out of sync they are experiencing dukkha. The first noble truth of Buddhism states all of life is suffering which means we all experiencing dukkha in one form or another at various times throughout our lives. The second noble truth informs us that the cause of this suffering is attachment. Thankfully the third noble truth assures us there is a way to free ourselves from suffering; by breaking our attachments. The breaking of attachments is a difficult accomplishment but, as The Last Jedi demonstrates it is possible and, when accomplished, allows for a sense of both peace and purpose.

I will pause here to say there are SPOILERS in the post so please do continue with that knowledge.

In The Last Jedi attachments bring a great deal of suffering to various characters. Kylo Ren, Rey, and Luke Skywalker all have attachments that bring them into painful situations, even when the opposite is sought.  There is, of course, hope (there’s always hope in Star Wars) of breaking these attachments, as Master Yoda proves in his cameo appearance.

The Eastern Ego in The Last Jedi

The ego, as understood in western psychology, is a necessary aspect of our psyche. A part of our constitution that needs to be strengthened to enable us to be psychologically sturdy and capable of navigating the storms of our lives with skill, strength, and compassion. The eastern concept of the ego is a part of the psyche to be transcended, not strengthened. The ego in eastern thought (particularly Buddhism but the concept rings true in Taoism as well) is that part of ourselves that seeks separation and dominion over others. While promising power in usually delivers isolation. In The Last Jedi three characters are symbols of isolation. Either through their own words (Kylo Ren and Rey) or living arrangement (Luke Skywalker) we learn of their sense of isolation. All three are isolated by attachments they hold tightly in their hearts despite the ruin their grasping brings into their lives.

Kylo Ren’s Rage

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Kylo Ren represents a fine misunderstanding of the idea of letting go of the past. He rages on multiple occasions that it is necessary to leave the past behind in order to be free of its weight. Freedom, therefore, is found by letting the past go…even killing it, as Ren puts it on occasion. His words, to be honest, carry a hint of truth. He is correct, being chained to a past that hinders growth is terrible. To be free of such chains is spiritually and psychologically liberating (just ask Ebenezer Scrooge!). 

Unfortunately, we communicate with much more than words. Kylo is a engine of rage, and while some of his words ring true the fuel he utilizes to drive himself is akin to drinking poison in an attempt to assassinate someone. He is a man of rage, therefore his desire to break from the past is communicated as nothing more than a desire to destroy and dominate. His anger is not even satiated by replacing Snoke as Supreme Leader. Of course that was not enough. Dethroning Snoke merely opens the door for his own quest for domination.

His anger does not lead to peace but, rather, it feeds his ego. He seeks power. He seeks dominion over the galaxy. He has not freed himself of the past at all. In fact, his anger feeding his ego only deepens his war with his past. His anger has not freed him, it has bound him. He is walking the path of Vader, which ultimately brings him to isolation and frustration. This is apparent as he kneels in the ashes of his failed attempt to crush the rebellion and the pain he experiences when Rey slams her mind shut. Breaking from the past with naught but anger brings only bitter fruit.

Jedi, thy name is Hubris!

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Luke Skywalker is one unhappy fella in The Last Jedi. He expressed his own frustration by denigrating the hubris of the Jedi. Darth Sidious came to power, began the empire, with a meticulous plan that unfolded right under the Jedi council’s collective noses! The Jedi, even Yoda, were blinded by self-righteousness that grew from their successes. Success, as we are taught in Taoism, can bring about great trouble. 

Anger is referenced quite frequently in Star Wars as a key component of the path to the dark side. The Jedi seem cursed with the burden of hubris. Luke, much Kylo Ren’s thoughts of breaking  with the past, speaks words that ring true. The Jedi were blinded by hubris…and so is Luke. He cannot forgive himself for failing Ben Solo (Kylo Ren). Talk about arrogant! Where is it written a teacher will, without fail, reach all their students? Such immature martyrdom often accompanies noble intention unrestrained by humility.  Much like Qui-Gon Jinn (dismissing the Jedi council to train Anakin) and Obi-Wan (“I though I could train him [Anakin} as well as Yoda. I was wrong”) before him, Luke suffers for his hubris. Adding to Luke’s pain is the fact other students die and he let down his beloved sister and brother-in-law. Luke attempts to atone for his sins by turning his past into a weapon with which to bludgeon himself and the memory of the Jedi. Peace is rarely found in self-flagellation, but it is a great way to bind oneself on a wheel of suffering. In both anger and hubris we see dukkha rising. 

Rey, you are a Jedi!

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Supreme Leader Snoke mocks Rey as a true Jedi because of her “spunk” and spirit. She is also a fine mix of Kylo’s rage and Skywalker’s hubris. Her rage goes without saying to anyone who has seen her in the films. When in a battle she facial features and battle snarls are as ferocious as almost any character known for channeling anger into a fight. Rey’s deep well of anger is expertly communicated by Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of the character. The hubris is also present.

She is convinced, because Snoke hoodwinked her, that she can turn Kylo Ren away from the dark path. Luke warns her that the path she is choosing “will not end where you think it will.” She dismisses him, because, well…what does he know! I mean he’s Luke Skywalker and she’s been training in the ways of the Force for a solid week. Granted she has profound natural connection and, well, who needs discipline, training, fundamentals, and technique when you’re a natural. With hubris like this Rey is a Jedi or sure! She also, despite saying she is from Jakku, might be from the United States.

Don’t forget Snoke

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Before we move on it is interesting to note that hubris ended the life of Supreme Leader Snoke. Despite (or perhaps due to) his clear mastery of the Force, Snoke does not “see” what Kylo Ren planned. As he mocks Rey for believing she could turn Kylo he praised his pupil for the strong resolve he sensed within his being. How he had cast aside his doubt and was ready to strike his enemy. Smoke was correct about all three: Kylo was full of resolve, had cast aside doubt, and was ready to strike…Snoke just couldn’t see the target. Nothing like a little pride before the fall.

The brilliance of the scene (which cause full audience cheers during my second sitting) was that Kylo was merely paving the way to the throne. He covets power, not peace. The audiences’ cheers turned to boos and my daughter asked, “Wait…but…what side is he on?” I told her, “His own. Keep watching.” Of course he was on his own side, as we have seen, the ego leads to isolation. Be careful where your attachments lie, you only get what you grasp.

Master Yoda and Forgiveness

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When Ray leave Luke on his island he decides to burn a tree that holds the sacred texts of the Jedi. Yoda appears and, despite giving a determined explanation, Luke hesitates. To help his former student Yoda blasts the tree with a lightning bolt, setting it ablaze. Luke is horrified. Yoda is amused.

Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching informs us that a person living from the Tao will seem (depending on your translation) stupid, lost, dimwitted, dull, confused, and ignorant. Or, in Yoda’s case, a fool…laughing as the sacred tree burns. The moment reminds us of Luke’s own words, “The Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi” even as he struggles with his words brought to life by Yoda’s actions.

This is a lesson in breaking attachment. Despite his words Luke was still attached to the tree and the texts. He was not ready for this sight. Yoda’s destruction was done, not from anger, but love and wisdom. He clearly loves the force and knows Luke was correct, the Force exists without the consent of the galaxy for the continued harmony of all. It can surely outlive the burning of a tree!  

The lesson is not over. Yoda then confronts Luke’s sense of failure by reassuring him that he did in fact fail. No doubts about it. So have other Jedi. So has Yoda. But failing does  not make one a failure…that’s a false attachment. Failure can be a fierce but worthy teacher if one has the requisite strength to allow that process to unfold. Yoda became the humble teacher found in The Empire Strikes Back specifically because he learned the false path of hubris which humbled him in Revenge of the Sith. When hubris fades, struck down by self-forgiveness not rage, peace rises. Acceptance, of self and others, spreads. Such calm brings strength that anger can’t replicate. 

I wonder if Rey, having confronted her hubris at such a young age, will become a peaceful warrior by the end of episode IX. She is on an excellent path, for she has been felled by hubris but, unlike the isolated Kylo Ren, has friends and allies who have her best interests in their hearts. Friendship trumps isolation. Forgiveness transforms failure. The breaking of false attachments brings peace. Perhaps by burning a sacred tree life itself becomes a sacred dance when we find ourselves in sync with the Force. Wouldn’t that be something?

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