Feeding Your Demons
Obviously, this story is an illustration of overcoming inner obstacles on a journey of spiritual development. But beyond that, it is a teaching on how we can overcome real problems, for example, the principle of loving the enemy instead of fighting. A fight consists of two opposing sides. When one side stops fighting, and begins offering support, it is no longer a fight. Surely it doesn’t mean all of the bullets coming at us suddenly turn into flowers, but it does make room for a solution. Within the confines of a fight, the only solution is dominance. But the fact that war has been going on as long as human history remembers, might imply that it will never be won completely. Recently, with the example of the United States’ ‘war on terror’, by taking a basically fearful, aggressive, even vengeful mentality we have not only killed so many more foreign civilians and soldiers on both sides than originally died in the World Trade Center attack, which is what started the war, but we have made more enemies than we have killed.
Perhaps the real victory is in non-aggression. If we don’t consider anyone our enemy, even our aggressors, then we will never lose. Of course, there is sacrifice and risk involved, but it doesn’t compare with the sacrifice and risk of warfare, or full-blown aggression in general.
An American Buddhist teacher within the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, Lama Tsultrim Allione, in working with her students and teaching a traditional Tibetan practice called Chöd (pronounced‘chuh’), has developed in the past couple decades a detailed meditation practice called ‘feeding your demons’. She has a book about the practice, as well as a training program for those who want to delve deep into the process and for health care professionals who wish to supplement their regular work by doing this practice with their clients. The practice basically entails the Buddha’s process of overcoming Mara in reaching enlightenment, or nirvana. Although it is primarily a personal spiritual practice, for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike as it doesn’t require any knowledge of Buddhist teachings, it also has wider, social implications. Society is merely a collective of individuals, and the only way we can really seek transformation is through personal transformation. Of course, it might have a more apparent societal impact if for instance a national leader were to undergo such a transformation. I don’t particularly have hopes that everyone on earth will start practicing this exact meditation practice, but I do insist that this approach in general is valuable and universally beneficial.
According to this system, ignorance is the root of all demons, usually actually referred to as ego clinging. Ego clinging is associated with ignorance because we could not have an inflated, fixed sense of self if we were not ignoring our basic nature, which is not concrete or fixed. Once we have this fundamental tension and suffering of fixating on an illusory sense of self, a sort of alienation from our real nature, we develop all sorts of branches of hope and fear, known as gods and demons. We have hopes of growth, improvement, gain, and all kinds of ideals, which manifest as craving or passion. Our fears include death, injury, loss, and so on, which manifest as aggression. The reason gods and demons, hopes and fears, are in the same spectrum is that both attitudes keep us from experiencing deep freedom and contentment in the present. Both stem from ignorance and are a source of anxiety. This in itself is a huge shift from the dominant attitude that hope is good and fear is bad.
The historical source of these principles can be traced back to the Buddha himself, but the woman who is famous in Buddhism for her work with gods and demons is named Machig Labdrön. She lived in Tibet in the 11th and 12th centuries C.E., and developed a practice called Chöd. Chöd means to cut, and in this case what is being cut is ego-grasping. Machig was deeply saturated in the Prajñāpāramitā teachings, which inspired her to create the Chöd practice, a very Tibetan flavored meditation practice and ritual. She also drew inspiration from the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, Bön, and the Buddhist Vajrayana, the broader tradition this practice is part of.
As mentioned, Machig lived in the 11th and 12th centuries. She was a contemporary to other famous Tibetan masters such as Tilopa and Naropa. She is said to be a rebirth of Yeshe Tsogyel, the consort of Guru Rinpoche who brought tantric Buddhism to Tibet.10 Lama Tsultrim describes some of her early life, “The philosophical basis for the Chöd is the Prajna Paramita Sutra. Machig was thoroughly immersed in this teaching from childhood, because she became a professional reader at an early age, and the most popular text to be read was this sutra.”11 Having read these teachings over and over quickly, she no doubt absorbed some of their meaning. However that wasn’t really the point of reading, the point was just to recite it as many times as possible to accrue positive merit for the sponsor of the reading and the household it is read in.
Later on, she encountered a teacher, Lama Sonam Drapa, who inquired about her understanding and encouraged her to reflect on the meaning of Prajñāpāramitā. To put it simply, the rest is history. She became one of the most famous and beloved female Tibetan mystics and influenced virtually all Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Today her story, teachings, and the practices she developed still have a profound impact on those practitioners in her lineage, myself included.
One of Machig’s earlier teachers was a tertön and Dzogchen master, so we know that she received Dzogchen teachings and was influenced by them. However, she is most famously known as a Mahamudra master, and the first transmitter of Mahamudra Chöd.
Mahamudra and Dzogchen
Mahamudra and Dzogchen are two very similar traditions, often said to be essentially identical. However they are never the less distinct lineages of spiritual practice. Dzogchen is usually translated as ‘Great Perfection’, and Mahamudra is usually translated as ‘Great Seal’ (Dzogchen is a Tibetan word, whereas Mahamudra is Sanskrit). These terms both refer to the universal ground of everything, the mode in which everything abides, as well as to the ultimate spiritual awakening, Buddhahood.
Although basically everything covered in this paper so far is subsumed within Dzogchen and Mahamudra, and I have referenced a few Dzogchen sources, I would rather leave it at that, in the spirit of Dzogchen, and in the words of Samantabhadra, the primordial Buddha, “Listen, great being! I will explain my nature to you . . . As it cannot become an object, it is denoted as something that cannot be objectified. As it cannot be expressed in words, it is made known by saying that it transcends definitions.”12 Ah!
The Five Steps
The meditation practice of feeding your demons has five steps. Whether you are alone or in a group, you can do the practice on your own or with a partner. The practice can be learned from the book, Feeding Your Demons, from Lama Tsultrim herself, or from one of her authorized teachers. The below description is not complete and not sufficient to actually do the practice.
Before invoking your demons (!), you begin seated with another chair or cushion across from you that the demon will sit in. Then you do nine relaxing breaths. Finally, you generate your motivation for doing this practice. Generally, it is just a positive, heartfelt motivation, but Lama Tsultrim also encourages you to make the intention to benefit all beings. By making an altruistic aspiration, you not only broaden the scope of your positive intention, you also empower yourself by including others.13
The first step consists of deciding what demon to work with, locating where you hold the demon in your body (usually tension or pain), and observing the demon in your body.
Basically it is finding a feeling in yourself that you haven’t let go of, whether it is a physical pain, tension, fear, sadness, illness, obsession, craving, and so on. When it comes to choosing something, Lama Tsultrim suggests working with whatever comes to mind first, as otherwise your probably ignoring that first thought.
Then you closely observe the demon and begin to imagine a bit – what color is it? And imagine other qualities like smell, size, texture, etc.
This is kind of revolutionary. How often do we pay this much attention to our bodily feelings, and what is brewing in us? As Lama Tsultrim says, “Being able to identify our maras (demons) as they show up is the first step in working with them. If we don’t recognize them, they will take over unnoticed.”14 Indeed, ignoring our inner life doesn’t really do much other than let it fester into something we probably don’t want it to. Therefore this is a practice of taking responsibility and acknowledging that we have the power to transform our self.
The second step is to take your visual of the demon to the next level and personify it. You imagine it as a being, somewhat humanoid. Try and imagine at least a face and limbs and a body. Other than that, a demon could look many different ways, and is of course your own image, dependent on your personal mental imagery and associations.
To get a sense of what this ‘demon’ really is, or what forces are at work, you ask the demon:
What do you want from me?
What do you need from me?
How will you feel if you get what you need?15
Each question is meant to penetrate deeper to the heart of the matter. What is the real problem here? The demon might say it wants your submission. Then it might say it needs your attention and trust. Then it might say that it will feel relaxed and liberated, or loved, if it gets what it needs. For me this is very profound, especially in actually doing the practice, because it’s a way of cutting through superficial problems and confusion and getting to the heart of what we really need. Remarkably, the answer always seems to ultimately be something very positive and purely spiritual, like love, compassion, and peace. “Until we get to the need underlying the craving [for example], the craving will continue.”16 I find that to really be true and such an important thing for everyone to know.
The next step is to become the demon. Don’t worry, it’s just an imaginary part of yourself. You switch seats, and imagine yourself as the demon you previously saw sitting in front of you. Using imagination and feeling, you get a sense of what this demon is like – is it afraid, is it angry, is it desperate? How it feels is not necessarily how it seems from the outside, which is why you make an effort to embody it. You see your ordinary self, sitting in your original seat, and then eventually answer the three questions above.
Switching back to your ordinary self, again you look the demon in the eye, this time knowing what it is the demon really needs. In this stage of the practice, you cultivate the feeling that the demon described it would feel if it got what it needed. First you imagine your awareness as separate from your body, and your body dissolves into nectar with the quality of whatever the demon described. It has that feeling. Your ordinary body is gone, and has transformed into wonderful nectar, like the best food or drink imaginable. You can really let your imagination run wild in envisioning the quality of this substance, and the way in which the demon consumes it.
The idea is to give the demon what it needs, or more specifically, the feeling it needs. At this point the demon transforms. It slowly (or quickly) becomes less uneasy, more and more comfortable and satisfied. You feed it to the point that it has no want in the world, it is completely satisfied, and it feels whole and perfect. Lama Tsultrim advises, “If your demon seems insatiable, imagine how it would appear if it were completely satisfied.”17 The idea is to let the demon naturally become satisfied, but a little imagination can help.
Then either you can go straight to step five, or engage with what is called the ally. The ally is either the transformed demon, or someone else. You can ask the satisfied, transformed demon if it is the ally, and it will respond. If it isn’t, you can invoke an ally. Again you imagine and notice details of the ally’s appearance. It might be a familiar being, person, animal, or something you’ve never seen. Generally the ally is like an enlightened aspect of the demon you are working with, or else is simply a beneficial, wise quality. You ask the ally several questions, become the ally, and answer yourself. This dialogue can go on.
The final and essential step of the practice is the fifth. This step is called ‘Rest in Awareness’. At the end of the fourth step, the ally and any other beings, such as a transformed demon, dissolve into you and you also dissolve. At this point all the imagining you were doing melts away, and you make a point of letting go of all your thoughts and images. Relaxing deeply, you begin to touch a spaciousness, a vast awareness within that is peaceful, free, and beyond struggle, “Then you just rest in the awareness that is present.”18 This step is the culmination of the practice, and the most beneficial. The rest of the practice is about transforming demons into allies and unlocking inhibited energy, but this step is really the basis of how that works, the essence of what we are tapping into. Most of what I’ve talked about, in terms of Prajñāpāramitā, is what this final stage is all about.
Types of Demons
Lama Tsultrim describes the four kinds of demons that Machig Labdrön identified. There are outer demons, such as enemies, spiders, or natural disasters; inner demons, such as depression, anxiety with no reference point, or any emotional problem that doesn’t really depend on sensory input (for example, we might be afraid of something we’ve never even seen); demons of elation, which are tied to the pride that may arise when we accomplish something worldly or spiritual, and blocks further progress; and demons of egocentricity. The demon of egocentricity, as talked about earlier, is the root ‘demon’, and the source of all the others. The reason it is last is that it is the most subtle and probably the least apparent to most people. By turning inwards and dealing with more superficial demons, this one becomes much clearer.
To clarify, this whole process applies to ‘gods’ and ‘god-demons’ as well. In this context, gods are our hopes, and god-demons are things that are mixed or go back in forth. An example of a god-demon is an abusive romantic relationship in which your partner is wonderful one moment and awful the next. In such cases we alternate between hope and fear.
I think this practice is geared mostly towards demons because it is a distinctive shift from how we normally approach our demons, which is with fighting. When it comes to gods, they might not seem so bad. In general, hope is usually considered a good thing. It is sticky territory, because hope and inspiration are closely related, and we’re not necessarily very skilled when it comes to distinguishing between a hope that drains us and lets us down, a hope based on fear, and an inspiration which does nothing but guide us in the right direction.
As one practices, and becomes especially familiar with the fifth step of resting in awareness, one begins to notice how and when demons arise. When you are really accustomed to the fifth step, you can practice what is called direct liberation. In this case, you don’t go through the five steps. You don’t even feed your demons. Instead, your demons are liberated directly by your awareness. You develop the ability to go straight from experiencing a demon to resting in awareness, and the demon is gone. This is relatively advanced and requites a lot of practice.
Even further in cultivating this practice is instant liberation. In this case, a demon doesn’t even have a chance to properly arise. That is, as hope, fear, or fixation just begin to arise, they are sort of cut down by your awareness. This isn’t a matter of force or violence at all, but more a matter of letting clouds dissolve into the sky on their own.
Living in an Egocentric Culture
If you buy into any of this, which I do, it becomes pretty obvious looking around that most people don’t see things this way. In fact, it is pretty clear the extent to which our culture is based on egocentricity. The economic system in the United States, for example, is based on the notion that the best thing for people to do is pursue their own personal interest. To me, this doesn’t really fit in with the whole idea of society. Of course, it is mixed, because we do have a democratic government (to the best of our collective ability), and we do pay taxes that go towards public services and infrastructure like schools and roads.
Me, Mine, More!
Within this economic system, companies and corporations compete fiercely for the populace’s money. It is very simple. Within this social and economic framework, that is their role, their job. When it comes to advertising, the point is to literally instill wanting, desire, longing, jealousy, and possessiveness into people, so that they buy more. This might be a good ‘business’ model, but in terms of what is actually beneficial, it’s straight poison. We end up wanting things we don’t need, and always wanting more. This is common sense to many people. You don’t need to be a Buddhist or something to realize this is happening. But practices and teachings like this, in my experience, can be helpful. We can turn back the clock of confusion, and start our lives over from a sane perspective. What I find valuable about practicing meditation in general, is that it is on ongoing process. We have to keep renewing our perspective; otherwise we will get caught in the net of hope and fear.
Sometimes I wish I was a Christian, so that living in the US I could point out all the bullshit in a country that supposedly has a majority of Christian citizens. Why? Because I respect Christianity, and I’m actually very inspired by Christ, and think that if Christian Americans were to sincerely take to heart the roots of that tradition, things would be a lot different, a lot better.
The example of Christ being crucified could actually be seen in terms of this feeding your demons practice. I don’t want to neglect any differences in traditions, but he really did exemplify the ideal of not fighting your aggressors. He taught and exemplified unconditional love, even in the face of horrific torture and execution. I think Christian Americans, still the majority of the population, could learn a lot from taking that to heart and putting it into practice.
Another way this paradigm of feeding your demons can take hold is in a secular mode. There is nothing about selflessness, love and compassion that is reserved for Buddhism or religion at all. You don’t have to practice Buddhist meditation, as such. All you need is unbiased, critical intelligence, as well as emotional intelligence. I think secular, scientific ethics and spirituality will play a vital role in the future well-being of humanity. One reason Buddhism is popular in the West is its general compatibility with logic and science. Still, a very troublesome disparity exists between the hearts and minds of Americans, between the thinking and the feeling, the spirituality and the politics. Personally I feel the separation between Church and State is ingenious, but it carries with it lessons we have yet to learn. One of those is how to integrate some kind of universal (to the extent possible), rational, scientific world-view with a living spirituality and ethics that people can actually be satisfied with. Of course, a broad diversity is vital, but I’m talking about the mainstream in the US. I think we’re on our way.
9. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Rainbow Painting: A Collection of Miscellaneous Aspects of Development and Completion (Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1995). Purchase
10, 11. Tsultrim Allione, Women of Wisdom (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 200). Purchase
12. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and Adriano Clemente, The Supreme Source: The Kunjed Gyalpo The Fundamental Tantra of Dzogchen Semde (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1999), 139. Purchase
13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18. Tsultrim Allione, Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict. (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2008). Purchase
Tim Eyes is from Santa Cruz, California. He's been studying Buddadharma since he was 16 there and at Naropa University where he earned a B.A. in Religious Studies and Visual Arts. He now lives in Santa Cruz where he meditates and enjoys life.
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