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Essays | Magazine

Milarepa’s Cave – A Story that Changed My Life

As Joan Didion said, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. But I couldn’t know that until one day, just one small story changed how I thought about myself–and ultimately even changed my life. This is a story about that story.

It was the winter of 2008, and I was twenty-one. On the outside, I looked fine–I was acing my classes, and putting up what I thought was a poker face. Inside, I was filled with self-doubt and self-loathing to the highest degree. The previous summer, I’d completed a grueling unpaid internship in fashion in New York, believing that was where my path lay–but I saw that there was very little job opportunity in that industry or really, anywhere. People were just beginning to realize that the world was headed toward a huge financial crisis, and I had no idea how I was going to get a job after graduating. The anxiety felt so bitter and excruciating since I thought I’d always “done things right,” by studying and working hard and swallowing my pride for opportunity. At the same time, I was making some pretty questionable decisions in the romance department, which seemed briefly to vindicate my self-worth but soon made me even more crushed and hurt. My crash-and-burn ways in turn caused a months-long falling out with my best friend, aforementioned S. In short, I was deeply unhappy and lost.

I went home for Christmas with a fake smile plastered to my face. And as usual, I hung out a lot at my dad’s restaurant on NW 23rd Avenue, in between shopping for Christmas presents and drinking coffee. On one of those days, as I was chatting up one of the waitresses while waiting for my dad, I noticed a slim book on the counter. Rachel, the waitress, smiled and said: “You should read it, it will change your life.” Rachel had jet black hair and a sleeve tattoo, and wore pin-up girl makeup of liquid eyeliner and red lips. My dad thought she was a bit unreliable and ditzy, but she was friendly and my mom and I both liked her a lot. Mom told me Rachel had a rough childhood and ran away from home when she was sixteen. She was studying to be a hairstylist.

I opened the little book, and started reading from a random page. It was the story of Milarepa, a legendary eleventh-century Tibetan sage.

One evening Milarepa returned to his cave after gathering firewood, only to find it filled with demons. They were cooking his food, reading his books, sleeping in his bed. They had taken over the joint. He knew about nonduality of self and other, but he still didn’t quite know how to get these guys out of his cave. Even though he had the sense that they were just a projection of his own mind—all the unwanted parts of himself—he didn’t know how to get rid of them. So first he taught them the dharma. He sat on this seat that was higher than they were and said things to them about how we are all one. He talked about compassion and shunyata and how poison is medicine. Nothing happened. The demons were still there. Then he lost his patience and got angry and ran at them. They just laughed at him. Finally, he gave up and just sat down on the floor, saying, “I’m not going away and it looks like you’re not either, so let’s just live here together.” At that point, all of them left except one. Milarepa said, “Oh, this one is particularly vicious.” (We all know that one. Sometimes we have lots of them like that. Sometimes we feel that’s all we’ve got.) He didn’t know what to do, so he surrendered himself even further. He walked over and put himself right into the mouth of the demon and said, “Just eat me up if you want to.” Then that demon left too.

I felt overwhelmed as I realized so many things all at once. All my struggles–my feelings of bitterness, defeat, self-doubt, and anger–were created by my own mind. They were all my feelings, my demons, and I hated how weak and out of control I felt. But the more I tried to scold myself and control my demons, the more upset I became. I could now see that what I needed to win over the demons was not to try to win at all, but to accept my lack of control over them, and to even more humbly admit my human imperfection. It was such a revelation and I was filled with relief. And I kept thinking about the story as the days and months passed by–by the time summer came, I realized I’d come out of the worst.

snow in portland by tammy strobel
Snow on NW 23rd Avenue in Portland.

I didn’t go home for Christmas the following year, because I was busy picking up shifts as a waitress while doing yet another unpaid internship for a fashion designer. I learned a lot that winter, and designing clothes was probably the least important of all. I learned to impress patrons by memorizing everyone’s orders perfectly, even groups of twelve or twenty. I learned waitressing was a lot more lucrative than having a proper job as a fashion assistant, which was somehow deeply depressing. I learned I could keep going, even when every bone in my body felt like breaking apart, five o’clock in the morning, walking home in knee-deep snow. The year after that, when I was no longer a waitress, I flew back home. My mom picked me up from the airport and we drove to Dad’s restaurant for dinner. A server I hadn’t met before brought us water. I asked about each of the old crew.

“What about Rachel? Does she still work here or is she hairstyling full time now?” I asked Mom.

“Oh, Rachel. That’s such a sad story.”

“Why, what happened?”

“She had quit working. She had drug problems. Then a while ago, I heard from someone that she died. She killed herself.”

I couldn’t believe it was the same Rachel who had cut my hair at her styling school at a discount. The same Rachel who had a sleeve tattoo of three owls on her arm, representing her and her two friends who had passed. The one who told me to read the story of Milarepa. But it had to be her.

I can’t help but think that there is so little difference between Rachel and me, our dreams, and our demons. We are all fragile. Perhaps Rachel succumbed to her demons not because she wasn’t strong, but perhaps because she ran out of stories to make sense of it all. I still have my demons, too, some of them old, some of them new; and the best I can hope for is to accept my fragility, my human weaknesses–and to remember my story. Remembering your story amounts to believing in it, which gives you hope.

After a while, our food arrived, and we talked of none of this–but at the end, I gave the new waitress a better than nice tip, for both of us. Rachel and myself.

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Photo: Tammy Strobel

 

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