Tsultrim Alione brings an eleventh-century Tibetan woman’s practice to the West for the first time with FEEDING YOUR DEMONS, an accessible and effective approach for dealing with negative emotions, fears, illness, and self-defeating patterns. Allione-one of only a few female Buddhist leaders in this country and comparable in American religious life to Pema Chodron-bridges this ancient Eastern practice with today’s Western psyche. She explains that if we fight our demons, they only grow stronger. But if we feed them, nurture them, we can free ourselves from the battle. Through the clearly articulated practice outlined in FEEDING YOUR DEMONS, we can learn to overcome any obstacle and achieve freedom and inner peace.
What is a Demon?
“With a loving mind, cherish more than a child The hostile gods and demons of apparent existence,And tenderly surround yourself with them”
Machig Labdrön (1055 – 1145)
Demons in the sense that we are using the word are not ghosts, goblins, or minions of Satan. When Machig Labdrön was directly asked by her son Tönyon Samdrup to define demons, she replied this way: “That which is called a demon is not some great black thing that petrifies whoever sees it. A demon is anything that obstructs the achievement of freedom…. There is no greater devil than this fixation to a self. So until this ego-fixation is cut off, all the demons wait with open mouths. For this reason, you need to exert yourself at a skillful method to sever the devil of ego-fixation.”
Machig’s understanding of demons was remarkably sophisticated. She asked, What is the real evil? What are the real demons? Isn’t egocentricity, whether on a personal or collective level, the real demon?
Fears, obsessions, addictions are all parts of ourselves that have become “demonic” by being split off, disowned, and battled against. When you try to flee from your demons, they pursue you. By struggling with them, you become weaker and may even succumb to them completely. For example, someone who struggles with the demon of alcoholism may eventually die of liver disease. Someone who struggles with the demon of depression may eventually commit suicide. We need to recognize the futility of this struggle and begin to accept and even love those parts of ourselves.
An Example of a Demon and the Demon Process
The following example is an excerpt from the book:
Kate had very critical parents who, indirectly, were always telling her she was not worthy of love. Not surprisingly, she began to hate herself. Although she grew up and married, eventually her husband left her. Kate couldn’t keep a job. She felt deeply unworthy of love, and acted self-destructively.
Her inner voice constantly told her she was not good enough, that she was a loser, and that she should just give up on life. This was her “self-hate demon,” which was running rampant. Although she remained unaware of how much it influenced her, it disrupted everything. The voice did, however, provide a kind of negative security, familiar but toxic. Here, in brief, is how Kate dealt with her self-hate demon.
Step 1. Find the Demon
After generating an altruistic intention for her practice, Kate closes her eyes and sinks into awareness of her body, trying to locate the feeling of worthlessness and self-loathing. She remembers an intense attack of negativity that triggered her self-loathing. After being fired from a promising job, she had called her mother hoping for sympathy, but instead of supporting Kate, her mother blamed her for losing the job. Filled with anger and self-hatred, Kate had cut her arms for the first time. Recalling this event she suddenly feels an intense sensation in her heart. She experiences it as cold, blue-purple, and lacerating, like a shard of shattered glass. It’s piercing and painful. Her heart aches.
Step 2. Personify the Demon and Find Out What It Needs
Kate now imagines the embodiment of this feeling. It takes the form of a tall, thin male figure. He’s ice blue and his bony arms end in claws. He’s looking at her with disdain. His teeth are pointed and yellow, and his mouth opens as if he’s going to bite her. His eyes are small and fierce. When she takes a second look, she notes that the surface of his body is covered with fine, spiky blue thorns.
Kate asks him aloud:
“What do you want?”
“What do you need?”
“How will you feel if you get what you need?”
Step 3. Become the Demon
Before he answers, she changes places with him, occupying the chair opposite her own, and takes a moment to become the demon, to live in his skin. She pauses a moment to share what he is feeling before answering the question. Inhabiting his body she realizes that he’s incredibly bitter, and he feels threatened and battered himself. To the question, “What do you want?” he replies, “I want you to suffer, because you are so worthless and stupid.”
To the question, “What do you really need?” he answers, “I need you to be with me, and to stop trying to escape from me. I need you to accept me and love me.”
To the question, “How will you feel if you get what you need?” he answers: “I’ll be able to relax. I’ll feel love.”
Step 4. Feed the Demon and Meet the Ally
Returning to her original seat Kate sees the self-hate demon in front of her. She now knows she needs to feed him love. She imagines her body melting into an infinite ocean of loving nectar, and then imagines that the demon takes this nectar in through every pore of his icy blue body all at once.
As he absorbs the nectar, the demon’s appearance changes. His body softens and his color fades. After a while he turns into a gray horse with soft nostrils and gentle, dark eyes.
Kate asks the gray horse if it is the ally. When it nods its noble head she asks how he will help her in the future, how he will protect her, and what pledge he will make to her. She then changes places with him, and becomes the gray horse. She hears herself reply, “I will carry you to places you haven’t been before, where you can’t go alone. I will lend you my strength to do things in the world. When things are difficult, come see me and rest your head on my neck. I will protect you by giving you strength in yourself.”
Kate returns to her seat and, gazing at the horse in front of her, receives his strength and takes in his pledge. As it flows into her, she feels joy rising inside her heart. Eventually the horse itself dissolves into her completely, and she feels a vast surge of strength within herself. Then she and the ally both dissolve into emptiness.
Step 5. Rest
At this point Kate feels peace. She rests, allowing herself to relax in that state of open awareness. She doesn’t need to “practice” the fifth step, even though she doesn’t normally meditate. This is not a state that she thinks herself into; it is the natural spaciousness that comes with the dissolution of the demon and the integration of the ally.