September 5-November 3, 2023
In a weird circumstance, though I don’t watch TV or movies much anymore, I did watch The Pope’s Exorcist on Netflix in September. Even weirder is that I’m writing about it! In part, it is a horror movie, a genre I haven’t watched since college, making it even more surprising that I would spend time on it.
What piqued my interest was two-fold. First, as a person on a long-time spiritual path, I’m always interested in the discussion of evil and it’s meaning and implications, especially people’s take on it relative to the Divine. Secondly, the movie starts with a quote from the title character, a historical figure who was the pope’s exorcist from 1986-2016! His tenure of thirty years ended only seven years ago! This was going to be more of a docudrama—even more interesting!—than “just” a horror movie like The Exorcist (from which a few months ago a student sent me a couple of interesting and profound clips related to things that I had said in class that week).
The movie surprisingly stirred up a lot of thoughts, introspection and inquiry, and in the end, I got stuff out of it that I thought was very helpful on my Path and in meditation. Some of all that follows below. But don’t consider this as a review or a recommendation of the movie; just what I got out of it.
The title of “the pope’s exorcist” means, if the movie accurately portrays it, that the pope himself had appointed the priest to that role. The pope and his exorcist even apparently worked together in some way. Also, he was, at least at times, sent on “missions” by the pope himself! He has written several books in English and Italian which are apparently the source materials for the movie.
He says that in most cases, people aren’t actually possessed. He says that 98 percent of the time he just used a bit of basic psychology and even theater to affect some kind of “cure,” after which he recommended people for psychiatric treatment. All those times, psychological disturbance was the issue, not actual possession. The other 2 percent of the time, he called it, very dramatically, “Evil.” In the movie, there is one example of the former, and one long and extremely dramatic example of the latter.
You may be wondering if I believe in “possession” by Satan or other demons. Yes. The teachings that I have been given and that seem most plausible to me are that yes, such things can happen, but only to weak-minded individuals. The possessing spirits don’t have to be demons (meaning “evil”) or full-on “devils” but may just be spirits who, for whatever reason, got stuck in this Earth-plane of existence after death and didn’t go where they were supposed to go.
In the tradition I follow, there is no such thing as the Devil, evil incarnate, but there are many stories about demons, even demon kings who would be essentially the equivalent of “the Devil.” These characters, however, are understood as allegories more than actual beings, always symbolic of the ego and the lower, separative and hurtful tendencies in a human being. Also, even the most intense demons are not all bad, a challenging concept for our Western all-evil or all-good view of the world.
That being said, it’s an interesting idea that there could be an absolute evil as a person or being that was evil incarnated. Could a being exist who has embodied the evil force? Sure. That seems to make sense. There are what we call saints who have embodied the Divine force, so we would have to hold out the possibility of the opposite.
Regardless of all that, I looked at the movie as an example of how certain spiritual truths could play out in the material world of form, how a few spiritual (inner-world) truths might look if they manifested materially in the world.
At one point, the pope’s exorcist is called to exorcise a young boy who had been possessed. He asks the boy’s mother about his history and finds out that the boy had experienced intense trauma a year before. The exorcist says, ”Suffering can make a soul desperate for connection. [Trauma] can make the innocent more vulnerable.” That’s completely plausible—right?—that intense trauma makes us more mentally and emotionally vulnerable. We all have experienced some level of trauma, and I imagine his statement correlates with our experience well enough, though most people don’t have the level of trauma to have to worry about such things.
The most interesting point for me and the reason I spent any time writing this at all was that everything that was said about Satan is also said about the ego in the teachings that I follow. Everything. Every word. That is consistent with the viewpoint that the demon king in the stories I mentioned is just a personification of the ego; that’s what so-called evil is.
For example, in the movie (and in churches) Satan is referred to as the Deceiver; you can’t believe anything he says. For many years, one way I have viewed the ego/my mind is as a liar. It occasionally says something true, but it’s rare, and in some of those cases, it’s in service of the lower parts of myself. (Also, let’s please not miss the fact that in the tradition portrayed in the movie, Satan—evil—is a he and not a she!)
One often repeated phrase in the movie is “Our sins will seek us out.” It’s interesting that it’s our sins that will seek us out, not your sins will seek you out. The one who originally said it was talking from experience. It’s also not like Satan is doing it; it’s more that our “transgressions” have a force of their own that inevitably brings them back to us. You’ve experienced that, right? In my view they return for their healing and integration; we hadn’t yet gotten out of them what we needed to get out of them.
The exorcist says about the demon, “It can sense our guilt, and it uses it against us as a distraction.” Satan/the ego knows our guilt and easily uses it against us. Did you ever rehash, endlessly, some mistake or transgression you made or something that you did that you knew wasn’t right and regretted after the fact? Did that constant thinking have the result of weakening you and making you less of a clear and loving human being, at least for that time? I can’t tell you how many times meditation seems to be very focused, and the next thing I know, I’m reliving—AGAIN!—some past issue or conflict or regrettable decision I made. I’ve seen it thousands of times.
That’s the ego right there, which thrives on—and has its own existence preserved in—the habitual and continuous agitation with which we are all familiar. The ego knows how hook us, just as the Devil in the movie does. It knows how to keep us from fulfilling our highest purpose and vision, thus preserving itself and its unquestioned reign.
On the Path I follow, sin isn’t something that condemns us to eternal damnation if we haven’t taken Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. If that’s your view, that’s fine, of course. However, sin, in my view, is simply an acknowledgement that there are two ways to go in the world: one is toward our Highest Good and the Good of All—call it the Divine if you want—and one is away from that. Pretty simple, and consistent with our personal experience.
In different terminology, Satan/the ego knows where our own conscience still pricks us. It won’t let us rest until it’s been forgiven (by ourself!) or we continue to suffer. That’s the “bread and butter” of the ego—its sustenance and maintenance. But we only suffer until we go through the self-made pain and surrender it up—or love ourself and the Divine anyway—and integrate that energy that had been bound up in the guilt.
There’s a short but important and telling dialogue between the pope’s exorcist and the local priest he is working with on the exorcism. They are sitting down together after a particularly harrowing moment:
Exorcist: “Did you consider why the demon does this?”
Priest: “To scare us.”
Exorcist: “For what benefit?”
The pope’s exorcist laughs, and corrects him, knowingly saying, “Distraction. The devil is the great deceiver. He can make you see things from your past. Apparitions, memories, always trying to deceive us.”
Consider the possibility of that being true: that the reason the demon/the devil/the ego is doing all the hurtful stuff—relentlessly causing and sustaining pain and fear—is, not evil, not chaos, but to distract us. If that’s the case and we look at how much distraction we indulge in in our lives, I’m thinking, “Eek! The ‘devil’/the ‘ego’ is winning and is definitely in control!”
I found that adopting that viewpoint made me more able to acknowledge when I’m in distraction mode. Having seen that, I could easily shift back to awareness of what actually IS happening. In the end, at least for this time, that change in perspective has made the internal shift back to awareness easier.
On the spiritual Path, awareness is the “magic formula” for transformation. If I cultivate stronger, deeper, broader, longer lasting awareness, I’m on the fast-track to spiritual (or any) understanding and insight. The only way to keep transformation and growth from happening—the only way to maintain the status quo—is to keep awareness at bay. The only way. This fact is true on a personal level, but think about it in relation to the world where it is obviously true as well. The forces that want to maintain the status quo use plain avoidance or denial of awareness, at best, and outright war with awareness, at worst. Distraction is maybe the broadest—and least judgmental—category under which we could classify those actions.
The exorcist also points to a common practice in several traditions. He says, “The demons—they are self-preserving. They do not understand suffering.” He says that eventually they leave when faced with the power of continuous prayer because they can’t handle the pain.
If we pray—or do whatever spiritual practice(s) we do, even simple breath awareness—the demon/the ego will eventually leave since it can’t stand the pain it experiences as a result of being in the presence of the prayer, the mantra, or the breath, and leaves. The ego/the deceiver can’t tolerate even the tiniest amount of simple awareness; awareness is antithetical to it! Hence, its need for distraction.
“They do not understand suffering” points to their childish quality, and that fact allows us to experience pain as purification on the Path, especially pain that may arise naturally in Life or in the process of our spiritual practices. This process will not work, though, with pain that our spiritual practices create through our own unawareness and insensitivity. When there is pain present, we can consciously be present to it, be deeply aware of it. We do this while holding fast to loving, nonjudgemental awareness. As a result, the ego leaves of its own accord, and actually fairly quickly in most cases. (In truth it doesn’t exist, but that’s another discussion.)
If we are engaging ourselves in constant prayer, or constant repetition of a mantra, or constant awareness of the breath, some part of us finds it enjoyable and positive, or we wouldn’t be doing it. However, if we look closely, a part of us finds the process agitating. That is the part that will throw up endless distractions and thoughts—our “sins”—to distract us from continuing with our practice(s) in the focused and relentless way that is required to free ourselves from our lower nature.
With time and ever-deepening focus, that part will not be able to withstand the pain it endures—which it made by itself anyway!—and will “leave,” though it’s really best if that energy gets reintegrated into the Whole. Ultimately, that part, that energy, that perspective, has something valuable to offer to the whole process of our life; it’s just not currently working in the most helpful way. Probably it’s more true to say that we haven’t been able to fully accept it and so haven’t figured out the most helpful and loving way to work and be with it as it IS…yet.
Inherent in this viewpoint and approach to the ego/demon, the exorcist instructs, “Don’t talk to it.” Basically don’t engage with it directly; just keep doing your practices and rely on the spiritual strength that you have at your disposal. Fighting it or attempting to engage directly with the ego only serves to support and uplift it, giving it life and energy which it only gets from our un-investigated agreement with it. If you engage with it directly, IT…WILL…WIN!!! In reality, in that case, it has already won.
In the movie, the “evil” being was angry and, I thought, sad. How could it be otherwise for any being ruled by an ego that prefers to be hurtful and drunk on it’s small—though significant—power instead of being helpful and compassionate. But is that one still a child of the Divine? Definitely. Is everything he does still allowed, in some sense, by the Divine? Yes, of course, if we take the Divine to mean the Supreme Energy and Consciousness. But that’s the inevitability of free will…another long discussion for the future.
All that was useful enough to me but then, since everything that was said about Satan could be said of the ego, I realized from that perspective, we are all possessed! Everyone is possessed—Already! Now!—with only the Self-realized being excluded. Only those who have realized the falseness, the non-existence, of the ego and have gone beyond it are not possessed.
In meditation, for some time it was also helpful to view the ego as a manifestation of me being “possessed,” as if there was a force from outside working on the mind and sucking it into its painful and hurtful viewpoint. That idea also helped tremendously in making the shift to the “watch” part of the “Breathe-Relax-Feel-Watch-Allow” process from from Stephen Cope’s Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. This is the transition into being the witness of the mind.
This exploration of the ego as something separate is consistent with Amma, my spiritual Teacher, referring to the ego as a “party crasher,” who comes to a party that we ourselves have thrown and that everyone is enjoying. Over time the party crasher convinces us that our party sucks and that we should leave and go to its home for a better party. Its home, it turns out, is just a dirty, cramped, little hovel. After we have been there for a while, we realize no party is happening at all but supposedly will at some point. Self-realization is waking up to the fact that there is no party, realizing what happened and going back to our home over the protestations of the party-crasher. When we get home, we find the party has continued and we join right back in it.
In Amma’s view the ego is a “being” separate from us, separate and different from our True Self.
If you choose to take any of these thoughts into practice in regard to the demon/the ego, let’s also take to heart the exorcist’s words that “the devil does not like jokes.” The exorcist has a great sense of humor, probably since it makes his job easier but also since he knows its effectiveness in the process. For us, at the very least, a good sense of humor—especially the ability to laugh at ourselves—makes the whole process of Awakening much more enjoyable and sustainable.
It’s also helpful in the implementation of these ideas to know that he says, “We know his [the demon’s] name now. So we have what we need to beat it.” If we can name the thing—the challenge, the disturber, the issue, etc.—we are able to see it more clearly, and it has less power over it. When it remains hidden and murky, then it has more power over us.
He completes that quote with, “The only thing that can defeat us is ourselves. He will use your sins against you.” That goes back to my recent giving ourselves our own grace blog. His statement is also quite true: the only thing that can defeat us is ourselves. Are we going to do that? Is it worth it?
I’ll end with the quote at the beginning of the movie from the protagonist, Father Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist of the Vatican, 1986-2016: “When we jeer at the Devil and tell ourselves that he does not exist, that is when he is happiest.” This, also, is true of the ego. If we refuse to acknowledge its existence and the fact that it’s problematic, that is when the ego feels “happiest,” in this case meaning safest, strongest and most secure. It knows it will have a happy life, making endless problems for ourself and others—feeding us a constant stream of lies about ourself, other people, and the world—all without ever being questioned or seen through. Yum! Ego heaven!
It’s up to us to see what it’s doing and to refuse to be sucked into its power and influence. We can choose differently, and eventually end up not possessed. From this perspective, the spiritual path is simply an process of self-exorcism.