Though it was rain in the forecast all weekend, something drew me to the mountains. Something undeniable, and I knew I was going even if I couldn’t convince others to come with me. Rain jacket, dry clothes, good tent—there’s nothing to fear.
I get this way sometimes, where intuition propels me towards action that I don’t fully understand. I’ve found, though, that listening to that voice usually leads to powerful things. This time was no different.
Conundrum Hot Springs outside of Aspen, or what I could tell about it from a cursory internet search, had everything I wanted for this trip. A nine-mile trail, it was close enough to tackle on very short notice with nothing more than a stop at the grocery store on the way out of town, yet still far enough to lend that stillness that paradoxically comes with protracted rhythmic walking. I did, as well, manage to gather a trio of adventurous companions to come with me after all. Bless them.
I’d come off a somewhat frustrating workweek. Meetings had been jostled and canceled, and few things had gone according to my plans or desires. Old doubts and anxieties had reappeared—this is a waste of your time, you’re not making progress towards your goals, you should quit working for yourself because you’ll never make it. Disappearing into the mountains felt needed, a way to recharge. And, I can admit now, it was escape and a chance to get away from the phone and email, from all effort of getting one’s shit together.
We left the trailhead, shrouded in low-hanging clouds. Nine miles up to 11,200 feet should take about three to five hours, I told my friends, depending on how many snack breaks there are or stream crossings at which we choose gratuitous disrobing.
The trail leaves from a dirt parking lot at 8,700 feet and follows Conundrum Creek almost due south, rising through fields of summer wildflowers, their vibrancy muted under the gray sky that day. We looked for elk, moose, and bear in the meadows across the river, but saw none.
The warm-at-first weather shifted to cold and colder as the end of the trail just refused to arrive. Much closer to the five hour end of my prediction, we finally made it. Every one of the campsites precariously perched on the side of the mountain was taken. Conundrum is notoriously popular in the summer—a condition that has since prompted the Forest Service to implement a reservation system there.
We made camp in the downpour, on a slanting patch of mud and tree roots, four feet from a pair of strangers. Cold and hungry—we’d managed to miss both breakfast and lunch in our haste to get to the trailhead—we filtered snowmelt, shivered, and made dinner. I knocked over a Jetboil full of mac and cheese. It didn’t bother me. Only the cold. I was thinking of nothing but getting warm in our ultimate goal, the hot springs a stone’s throw away.
An hour later, I lay there, finally warm in the shallow pool on the side of the creek. It was dark. The other shadowy figures that crowded the pool when we first arrived drifted off in small groups for bed, mercifully taking with them their beer cans and tinny Bluetooth speakers playing generic, angry music.
By eleven, we had the pool to ourselves. No stars, no moon, no lights in the distance. Nothing but the deep purplish clouds overhead. My friends were just disembodied voices sprinkled throughout a pool whose size was difficult to know. Swimming around, it felt like a hundred feet across sometimes, and others like it was only twenty. Soft patches of mud, or convenient rock chairs would be discovered by touch and then lost again forever.
Once acclimated to the hot springs, the air beyond felt too cold to even consider re-entering. Soon enough, the most exciting thing to do was float on our backs, breathing gently so that just the nose and lips emerged from the water. That and my ears underwater, the comforting but not searing 102 degrees had the effect of a sensory deprivation tank. As the soft giggling of my companions ceased to reach me in that silence, it was my own psyche with whom I fell to conversing. (It’s about to get weird.)
Mark: This is great. This is what I needed.
Ma’ark: We, Mark. What we needed.
Mark: Sure, we. All the me’s.
Ma’ark: But yes, down in the valley, it has been a struggle to make things go our way.
Mark: We’ve been doing all the right things, though, haven’t we? Staying positive, not despairing, and finding constructive ways to battle the anxiety and insecurities that have plagued me since I got to college and realized the world is meaningless—
Ma’ark: Hard work, all that.
Mark: —because I know if I just get rid of all those insecurities and anxieties, and I get myself right and whole, I’ll finally be happy, I’ll be successful, and people will love me.
Ma’ark: Kind of self-centered, though, right? Like, is that all we’re going for?
Mark: Ok, well I mean there’s also making the world a better place by guiding others to master their own negative emotions so they can experience a transcendent peace and connection to all things. Stuff like that.
Ma’ark: Noble. Noble. So what are we doing up here escaping all that?
Ma’ark: So, that’s called ‘incoherence’. Remember the Ram Dass line that gets stuck in our head?
Mark: “It’s all love.”
Ma’ark: Yes, and since we have nothing else to do but stick our nose up through the water here and into the sleet, let’s try something.
Mark: I’m literally free until dawn.
Ma’ark: We’re going to reframe all the discomforts we’re feeling right now, and see how they all come back to love. And not like romantic Eros, just simply as ‘positive regard’. Take for example the music from earlier.
Mark: A travesty.
Ma’ark: Sure, but can you find the love underneath your annoyance?
Mark: I mean, I love immersing myself nature. And this guy’s music was distracting me from enjoying that experience.
Ma’ark: And why was that a problem?
Mark: Because what I’m really after when I venture into the mountains is a sense of wholeness as a person and a reconnection to the universe.
Ma’ark: Cool. So what do you feel when you focus on the affinity for wholeness and connection at the root of your annoyance?
Mark: Well, yeah, I feel the love. It’s deeper and more stable than the annoyance. And even though the annoyance is still there, I can tell why—and it doesn’t weigh on me so much.
Ma’ark: Us, Mark. Ok, so now we—
Mark: It’s kinda spooky down here, though, isn’t it?
Ma’ark: What, deep in our interior world?
Mark: Yes, and there be monsters—self-doubts and demons, I can feel them lurking close by. You know, I don’t usually come down here without some chakra weapons and crystals and stuff. Lots of deep breaths and whatnot. And even then I’m only in here for a minute before running back to the surface, unscathed if possible.
Ma’ark: Jeez, for someone who keeps preaching about wholeness, we sure spend a lot of time distancing ourself from ourself.
Mark: What are you talking about? There’s a cancer eating at me, and if I don’t fight it off, I won’t ever find the wholeness I’m looking for. It’s going to keep me from ever reaching my goals, enjoying fulfilling relationships, being happy. It’ll keep me from helping others find wholeness, too. All of that.
Ma’ark: Did we ever think that fighting it is what keeps us from getting where we want to be?
Mark: That’s insane. My goal is to be happy, not wracked with anxieties, shame, and insecurities.
Ma’ark: Or that pushing them down is what makes them surge up even louder?
Mark: Shit, I think they heard us! Happiness. I am meditating on the sunny shores of Happyland. Thinking about why I want to be happy, and how I can help others be happy. Happy—
Ma’ark: They’re coming!
[YOU THINK YOU CAN ESCAPE US?!]
The harsh voices of my deeply held fears and shames flooded into my meditation, shattering the serenity I try so hard to preserve. And thanks to the trippiness lent by sensory deprivation, exhaustion, and hunger, their voices took on a tangible presence, and grotesque shapes filled the space around me. I full on hallucinated a host of demons descending.
[YOU THINK YOU CAN HIDE FROM US IN A HOT TUB?]
My desire to resist—as I usually do—only fed them, and they loomed larger. One figment in particular, with tumors and open sores, misshapen tentacles, and muddy claws, bore down as if to devour me. Pain radiated from wherever its head was in the seething mass of flesh as it howled:
[YOU’RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO BE.]
My nightmare. My deepest fear. And I don’t even know what ‘good enough’ means! Whatever it is, it’s always just out of my grasp—and whenever my life, or even jut a day, seems to be going pretty well, this is the thought that will lurch out of the icy depths and drag me back into darkness. God forbid I go any amount of time without an internal reminder that happiness is for winners, that my relationships are teetering, or that my career is pathetic.
Nowhere to go, no movies or phone to distract me, not even a diverting external scene—just the freezing emptiness, the demons, and me. For the first time ever, I felt cornered and truly powerless against the despair that has festered in me so long.
With no other options, I got creative.
Mark: ‘It’s all love’… It’s all love. This is love. Love. What happens if I love this? This doubt, fear, anxiety, this monster — this guardian?
Ma’ark: Interesting. Because you created it, remember? To protect you from pain, from others putting you down, from you relaxing into complacency and stagnation. It’s kept you moving by nipping at your heels so you don’t quit. It’s what has pushed you to travel the world, to finish grad school, to canoe the Mississippi, to survive in the wild, to live in vans, to court women who are much smarter than you. It does what it does out of love!
Mark: And it’s right. I can’t hide from it.
Not knowing what else to do, I addressed the advancing demon in my mind, “Would you maybe want to be friends?”
It leaned over me, and in my mind’s eye I stood facing a monster as a frightened boy—but not running like I usually do. Not hiding. Because there was nowhere to go, in my mind or elsewhere. Feeling very exposed and scared that if I didn’t fight, run, hide, whatever—that I’m-Not-Good Enough would consume me and I’d become its permanent sycophant, a sniveling creature immobilized by self-doubt.
But what I saw instead when I held my ground and actually looked at it was that 1) it’s not as immense as I’ve always thought. (Actually, it’s the size of a big dog?) And, 2) the menace I’d always assumed in its eyes was not actually there. Instead there was concern and shy hope. Yes, I mean it was still terrifying and hideous to behold, but I sensed that it, too, wanted to be friends.
Essentially, this demon side of myself has spent so many years protecting me, pushing me, and caring for me. And I’ve taken its gifts—motivation, achievements, and new experiences—but hated it, fought it, and generally tried to get rid of it. All it wanted, this abused part of myself, was to be seen. Pretty fitting, too, since that’s what the rest of me wants as well: to be seen for what he really is.
It was incredible. It was more than a truce. It was like falling in love. It was like meeting new friends—ones you know you’ll have for a lifetime. Maybe for the first time I glimpsed what ‘wholeness’ would really look like: an integration of the all the parts, not just the parts I like.
Skipping right past tears of joy, I beamed through the surface of the water and called silently into the depths of my own mind and invited anyone else who wanted to come forward. And come they did. Scary forms, running, crawling, slithering incarnations of my inner terror. And each one—Anxiety, Depression, Shame, Your-Life-is-Unimpressive, Loneliness, Meaninglessness, all the things that I’ve never wanted to own—had the same yearning in its eyes.
[Are you going to throw rocks as us again? We’ve been calling to you for so long, we just want to be loved, to be seen, like the other parts of you. We’re parts of you too!]
(Mark: Parts of us.)
I didn’t stop at just asking for friendship. I began thanking each one for the work they’ve done to protect me, to usher me through life. Sincerely, I thanked them. I hugged their scaly, spiny, furry bodies and asked them not to leave me. To join the table with all my other traits.
Because they don’t actually mean ‘You’re not good enough’ or ‘Your life is meaningless’. They’re reminding me, ‘Please don’t get hurt, Mark.’ or ‘We love you. We’re trying to help.’ They’re manifestations of self-love and self-care. And the longer I ignore them, the more desperately they try to make themselves heard and seen.
I hadn’t been pursuing wholeness, as I’d thought. I had been looking for happiness. And that’s just a part of the whole. My demons don’t need to be healed or evicted. They just need to be heard. Who knows? Maybe after they’ve said their piece, they may fade into the ether. Or maybe they have even more things to say, and all I’ve been able to hear so far is the looping, mangled prelude to a story that spells redemption, wholeness, and everything else.
When I eventually stood up and left the pool, five hours later, after an ecstatic night of befriending the things I now know as my Daemons, I walked away with new allies and supporters, not vampires and gremlins. The very things in me by which I’ve felt tormented—like crying-on-the-kitchen-floor torment—really, I’ve been tormenting them.
I’ve been tormenting myself.
Because it is all me in there. The demons, the Daemons, the inner voices I identify with, the ones I don’t… It’s just me. What other Self could it actually be in there?
So if this resonates with you, stop fighting with yourself. Get on the same team with yourself instead. I don’t mean make a truce with your Daemons, or just do exactly what they want. I mean actually get to know them, and make friends with them, and hear their concerns. Integrate the parts of yourself. If you do that, when the Daemons come out of the interior shadows, you won’t have to freak out. Instead, you can fearlessly trust that your mind is not trying to hurt you but protect you. Sure, it doesn’t always do that in ways that actually serve you, but its intentions are good. If you and your Daemons can work together, you can achieve that protection, that service, without the psychic pain that comes from insecurely chopping off pieces of yourself.
If you feel tormented by your Daemons, try just being curious about them. Why are they there? What do they try to do for you? What happens if you just let them speak without trying to fight off or squirm your way out of hearing them? What values are they there to protect?
Anyway, let’s wrap this up. Back in the mountains, the next day was sunny and warm. The wildflowers on our descent were radiant. We even saw a family of moose. It was the perfect Colorado summer day. Believe it. I’d be lying if I said I left that trip a fully whole being aware of and intimate with every shadow in himself—but I was certainly transformed.