Attending to Our Minds

The Story of Ivan

This story concerns a man named Ivan who lived in Moscow and was married and had a successful business. One day, in middle life, he began to be haunted by a devil. The devil had hooves and horns and all the usual appurtenances, but no one could see or hear him except Ivan. The devil kept whispering in Ivan’s ear to be suspicious of everyone around him. It said things such as: “don’t trust this man;” “watch out for that one, he is going to cheat you;” “don’t believe this person, he hates you;” and so forth.

The angrier Ivan grew at the devil, the larger it became, and the louder its voice sounded in his ear. As Ivan became more and more suspicious of others, and less and less trusting, his relationships became worse and worse. Presently, his wife took the children and left him, and his business became less and less profitable.

Finally, his business was about to go into bankruptcy, and there was only one last chance to recoup and start it up again. The chance would come at a meeting with some of his old customers. Ivan went downtown to the office, determined that for once he was going to react to these people with the trust they deserved after long years of friendship and working together. He swore to himself that, this time, he would not succumb to suspicion and paranoia.

However, the devil followed him, constantly whispering in his ear, and he found himself so suspicious of his old customers and their motives that he destroyed his last chance of saving his business. They left in anger, and he was finally ruined.

Ivan returned home in absolute despair, thinking of suicide as the only way out. The devil followed close behind. As they came to the door of his house, Ivan had a sudden thought. He turned and invited the devil in for tea! The devil looked surprised, but agreed. Ivan told the serving girl to lay places for two at the table. She, seeing him alone, thought that he had gone crazy, but did as he ordered. Ivan served the devil tea and talked with him as one person to another. The devil began to grow more transparent, and his voice got weaker and weaker.

Ivan, of course, was not finished with the devil; it would be with him for a long time yet. But he had learned a new way to respond to it and lessen its control over him. With further use of this method, he might well be able to establish enough control that, devil or no, he could lead a normal life.

Dostoyevsky did not believe that people were haunted by a devil with a pitchfork and strong smell of brimstone. He was, of course, speaking of the inner devil; the repetitive and unrealistic reactions within ourselves that make our life so much more difficult.

And now let us turn this story into a meditation!

Define your worst and most troubling inner problem, the repetitive reaction that makes your life most difficult and painful. Work out a way to picture it, to symbolize it as an animal, a being, or an entity who whispers its message in your ear. One man defined his worst inner problem as a tendency, when facing opposition, to react as if he were helpless and to ask his opponent for help instead of confronting the situation. It reminded him of a little dog he once had. When it had done something wrong and was being scolded, the dog would act as if it had hurt a paw and would hold up the paw as if it were in pain and whimper. He pictured his worst inner problem as that small dog and named it Sore Paws. How would you picture yours? What would you name it?

Take your time on this; it probably needs some thought. Get the best image you can for the problem and give it the most appropriate name you can think of. It is important not to hurry at this point. You have already done something about this problem simply by defining it. Think some more about it and about how to symbolize and name it.

Now get yourself comfortable. Imagine yourself in a situation that generally leads to the kind of response you have called Inner Problem Number One. Imagine the situation clearly. Now picture the image of the problem you have devised and picture it whispering its message in your ear. It is telling you to feel and behave in exactly the way you do not want to any longer.

Observe it in your imagination, perched on your shoulder or standing close to you, whispering how you should feel and behave. Listen to it and watch it. Do this as clearly as you can for three minutes the first time, five minutes the next. Add this exercise to your meditation program. By now you are experienced enough so that you can decide how long each session with this particular meditation should be and how often would be best for you to do it.

Then, the next time you are in the kind of situation that arouses this response, try, if only for a moment, to picture the image you designed. Smile at it. Say, in effect, “Here you are again, old friend. Can you skip this particular incident? Go to the bathroom or something, I’m busy now.” And so forth. Try to smile wryly at it for a second or two if you can. This may not work too effectively the first time or two. Old habits die hard and old reaction programs are resistant to change. Sometimes you may forget and other times you may be overwhelmed by the long-standing conditioning you have to react in a particular way. However, as Ivan found out, each time you try, you will gain more control and will be more likely to succeed the next time.

Source: LeShan, L. (1994). Meditating to attain a healthy body weight. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

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