Friday, February 25, 2011

Homeopathy: Beyond Flat Earth Medicine: An Introduction for Students and Patients

Book Review: Homeopathy: Beyond Flat Earth Medicine: An Introduction for Students and Patients: A family physician explains this holistic medical science
by Timothy R. Dooley, N.D., M.D. (Timing Publications 1995)

This was a nice introductory book about a holistic-style medical evaluation and treatment system of which I personally was not very aware. Modern homeopathy began in the late 1700’s under the auspices of a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann. Homeopathy is based on - the Law of Similars – or that which a substance can cause, it can also cure. So homeopathy insinuates that – like cures like, and conventional medicine, which Hahnemann termed – allopathy – insinuating that medicines cause symptoms other than which the disease they are given for cause – so allo, or other.

The author compares homeopathy and allopathy to round earth and flat earth ideas – where homeopathy attempts to treat the patient rather than the appearances, or symptoms. As many holistic practitioners note, treating the symptoms is not the same as treating the source and after one set of symptoms is treated another set may appear.

Apparently, Hahnemann first noted that Cinchona bark (from which quinine is derived) which treats symptoms of malaria also causes similar symptoms in non-malarial patients. He then tested many medicines in very dilute quantities that he called ‘provings.’ The provings are collected in the compilation of medical indications known as the homeopathic Materia Medica. Homeopathic medicines are so diluted that toxicity is never an issue. Dilutions are often as low as parts per million. These minute doses are low enough to be safe for pregnant women, children, and animals as well.

In homeopathy all symptoms of a person are noted and regarded as a whole. In conventional medicine, symptoms are isolated as pertaining to the main problem and treated individually, often ignoring the totality of symptoms. Of course, diagnosis and patient analysis needs to be more detailed and individual with homeopathy . Typically, the patient is first thoroughly interviewed. Sometimes the patient’s closest relatives or companions are interviewed as well. The attempt is to get a clear picture of the patient’s symptoms, habits, and influences. Emotional and mental health and functioning are also noted in detail. Successful homeopathic treatment is said to be just as dependent on the actions and sincerity of the patient as the physician.

Regarding medicines, the author notes that so-called side effects of medicines are really undesired effects caused by the medicines. These effects are very important in homeopathy as indicators of what the medicine can cause, and in some cases cure as well.

The author gives several cases and case histories where cures were apparently effected. He notes the overuse of antibiotics in conventional medicine and negative affects on patients who overuse them. The case histories show that choosing the best medicine may be the most difficult part for a practitioner.

In discussing historical bases for homeopathy, the author notes the healing action of ‘similars’ noted by Hippocrates. The use of snake and spider venom to treat snake and spider bites is a well known successful use of the principle. Using poisons to treat poisons was known in India 3500 years ago in the early Ayurvedic principle called visa chikitsa. In Hahnemann’s time apparently disease treatment was still crude in terms of medicines. People would be given large and toxic doses in desperate attempts to effect cures. Hahnemann studied many medical texts of the day in the course of translating them in and out of his native German and interestingly enough he drew on the European female herbal healing tradition (ie. the Witches) to some extent. When Hahnemann became outspoken against allopathic medicine after developing his system he touched off a battle that is still around today. Most allopathic doctors considered the extremely dilute dosages of homeopathic medicines to simply be too small to have any real effects. After homeopathy came to America, the American Homeopathy Association (AHA) was founded. Not long after came the American Medical Association (AMA). Homeopathy was very accepted in America as at the turn of the 20th century 1 in 4 physicians in America was a homeopath. However, within a generation, the credibility of homeopathy fell drastically as more scientific advances were made such as the discovery of penicillin and better diagnosis and surgical techniques. Homeopathy fared much better in Europe being still quite popular there. In fact, just the other day I was discussing homeopathy with a woman from Hungary who swore by it. The Queen of England is traditionally treated by a homeopathic doctor and it was also made popular (by the Brits) in India. As well these days as alternative, complimentary, and holistic medicine rises is usage and popularity it is seeing some revival even here in America.

One notion in homeopathy, as in many traditional holistic medical systems, is that of ‘vital force.’ This is one point where conventional medicine tends to disagree since this so-called vital force cannot (thus far) be physically identified, isolated, and analyzed. Hahnemann considered the cause of disease to be a disorder in the vital force and only when that order is restored can the patient be healed. So based on that idea, the theory is virtually identical to traditional holistic healing systems. “Hahnemann also felt that homeopathic remedies are sufficiently subtle to directly correct morbid drangements in the vital force.”

Often noted in homeopathic healing is a response known as aggravation where the patient gets worse before he or she gets better and this is usually considered a good sign and that healing is taking place. Diseases are seen as having a whole range of symptoms and when healing is effected often the most serious symptoms will heal first causing a return of less serious symptoms. 

The author is also a medical doctor (MD) and notes that conventional medicine is preferred in life-threatening situations, diagnoses requiring surgery, and other cases. He does note that homeopathy can be effective for both acute and chronic conditions and gives example cases of each. He notes also that holistic medicine can be generally allopathic in the character of its treatments, such as medicinal usage in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

There have been some suggestions that homeopathy relies heavily on the ‘placebo effect’ and I am not convinced this is not true, at least in some ways. Whether it is the full effect or just a supporting effect is unknown. Certainly likes treating likes have a solid scientific background. There have been studies that suggested that the placebo effect is likely not the whole story and the author lists a few. The effect of the heavily diluted medicines is certainly one factor that causes scoffing but subtle effects of small amounts of substances have been noted in studies. As I think about it, with the advent of literally hundreds of man-made, potentially toxic, and known toxic substances in very dilute amounts in typical tapwater, we can be affected homeopathically by these hundreds of substances in the same way as homeopathic cures. Since many of us take herbs, vitamins, and foods rich in these substances, it may be difficult to distinguish affects of various meds as we have so many meds, herbs, and substances (as from tapwater) in our systems.

It should be noted that even though homeopathic remedies have been apparently successful in treatment it is unknown exactly how they work and this is one point that affects the credibility of homeopathy. While the diluted meds may well subtly affect the life force affecting change it will be difficult to get scientific confirmations. Of course, as the author notes, just because exact mechanisms of action are not understood, does not mean that the techniques and meds cannot be used with success. He notes that:

“The exact nature of this energetic property or how a living organism responds to it is not understood. Various theories have been proposed and research into these areas is ongoing.”

Maybe this research will yield some positive results and give more credence to homeopathy in our modern world where people are quite often over-medicated. A senior woman from one of my yoga classes once said that when she went to the doctor he asked her what medicines she took and when she said that she took none he retorted with, “Why not.” The assumption that older people in particular need to be constantly heavily medicated is a common misconception in our society , though of course people with specific conditions such as high blood pressure do need regular medication.

Anyway, it was a good introductory book and I am glad that I read it and now have a fair idea of how homeopathy works. I may find myself actually using it at some point as there are local suppliers of remedies and ‘kits’ (a typical self-evaluation format) – both homeopathic supply places and some meds at health food stores.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Before The Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

Book Review: Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade  (Penguin Books 2006)

This is a wonderful book and I think everyone would do well to read it. Basically it is about the history of our human species especially as indicated and informed by recent advances in the science of genetics. It is rather amazing that we can use genetics – not only of humans but also of humans’ animal companions and human parasites such as lice, to date (roughly) when things certain novel happenings such as when humans first made and wore clothing.

Scientists think humans evolved from an ape society in Africa that existed 5 million years ago. Also evolving from these primates are thought to be chimpanzees and their cousins bonobos. Much is discussed about this deep past and what factors may have led to divergence and development of our species. Homo habilis used stone tools 2.5 mya then with the development of homo ergaster around 1.7 mya the ape-like humans are thought to have lost their fur and presumably after this their skin darkened to protect from the African tropical sun especially as humans departed from strictly forest living of apes. Ergaster began to eat meat and herbs and tubers as well as the predominant fruit eaten by previous species. This sparked genetic changes in body size. Ergaster may have been the first human species to lose its mammalian hair – possibly as a need to sweat in order to cool itself and its larger brain. It is thought that skin was pale when there was still hair and when the hair was lost the skin mutated to a darker form in order to prevent loss of folic acid – an important nutrient. Geneticists pinpoint this happening around 1.2 mya based on silent mutations of the melanocortin receptor gene. Much later on as humanoids made it north out of Africa, the skin mutated back to a paler form possibly as a result of the need to absorb more Vitamin D in the colder environment with less sun. The ability of our head hair to grow very long (as opposed to apes and chimps who don’t grow long hair) is dated by genes to about 200, 000 years ago. There may be social reasons why this mutation occurred.

It is thought that groups from homo ergaster left Africa around 1.7 mya and developed into the archaic human forms of Neanderthal and Homo erectus while our ancestors, who would later become homo sapiens sapiens, remained in Africa until about 65,000 to 50,000 years ago. African Middle Stone Age peoples from 250,000 years ago to 50,000 years ago are thought to have had social networks, buried their dead, and collected pigment. They began to attain contemporary skull size and skeleton about 200,000 years ago and by 100,000 years ago everyone had this general size so this is when scientists postulate that there were anatomically modern humans. Behaviorally modern humans are thought to have come later around 50,000 years ago. This is the general time period when our homo sapien ancestors are thought to have left Africa, language began to develop in earnest, and with it stronger networking, the capacity for trade, religion, and advantage over other humans without these attributes.

There is some interesting discussion of the development of language. Some think that early language developed from sign language and grunt sounds to limited vocabulary (as in pidgin languages) with syntax coming later (as developed into creoles by children of those who spoke pidgins). Possible evolutionary pressures on language development are social bonding and/or sexual selection. Some think that dealing with new ecological niches away from Africa led to language development. The author states that Stephen Pinker of Oxford has suggested “that know-how, sociality, and language are three key features of the distinctively human lifestyle and that the three factors co-evolved, each acting as a selective pressure for the others.” Paleo-anthropologists seem to date language much early than archeologists. Archeologists suggest fully articulate modern language appears about 50,000 years ago. A language gene called FOXP2 was discovered and its latest upgrade which all humans have was dated to sometime after 200,000 yrs ago.

Next we have our ancestral human population emerging out of Africa, probably East Africa, at around 50,000 years ago. The group from which all humans except some in Sub-Saharan Africa are thought to descend from is a group of only about 5000 people or less. ‘... all men in the world carry a Y chromosome inherited from a single individual – the Adam of the Y chromosome – who lived in the ancestral human population. The same is true of mitochondrial DNA and the mitochondrial Eve.”

There is a mutation known as M168 that is present in all men who left Africa and some men in Africa. M168 can be dated genetically to have occurred between 40,000 and 90,000 years ago. 59,000 years ago is the estimate for when Y Chromosome Adam was alive. The dates for M168 coincide with when it is thought that the ancestral human population left Africa. In terms of mitochondrial DNA lineages:  “The mitochondrial genealogy of humankind has three main branches, known as L1, L2, and L3. L1 and L2 are confined to Africans who live south of the Sahara. The L3 branch gave rise to a lineage known as M, and it was the descendents of M who left Africa.”

On the earliest genetic branches of the human tree (L1 and L2) are two African peoples separated by half a continent of distance. The !Kung San in Southern Africa match to the L1 lineage and the Hadzabe of Tanzania match the L2 lineage. They must have split very far back in time. Interestingly, they both speak click languages (about 30 click languages are spoken in Africa). Language classifier Joseph Greenberg grouped the click languages as Khoisan. Click languages may be the earliest form of language. Linguists do not think that click languages can be learned fluently by those who begin with non-click languages – that they must be learned exclusively and from birth. DNA suggests that the San were once present in Ethiopia and DNA also locates people in North-East Africa who share ancestral paternity with the San. This reinforces that suggestion that the ancestral human population left Africa through the Gate of Grief near the Horn of Africa. This would have been about 2000 generations ago from now. Interestingly, many Khoisan speakers are said to possess a yellowish tint to their skin and eye features and others that suggest Asian features as well as Native American. Since they are thought to be an earlier DNA lineage it stands to reason that they would have the possibility of most all future peoples in their features. The !Kung San and a few others still live as hunter gatherers or foragers. They engage in small-scale warfare as well. It is thought by geneticists that when humans left Africa and entered different environments the evolutionary forces on them were greater than before and subsequent evolution continued at an accelerated rate and continues today. The whole notion that evolution stopped 50,000 years ago now seems very unlikely. Indeed, two new versions of genes that determine the size of the human brain emerged fairly recently, one about 37,000 years ago and the other about 6000 years ago. These gene versions (alleles) of microcephalin are thought to be related also to cognitive abilities. One wonders also why Upper Paleolithic Art was so well-developed in the caves of Southern France but not in other areas at the same time. Possibly there is a link to symbolical thinking advancement.

The exodus from Africa is thought to have brought the humans along the tropical coast lands of Arabia, India, Southeast Asia, and to Indonesia, and Australia – where aboriginal settlements have been dated to around 46,000 years ago. They were able to do this easier because of lower sea level due to water being locked up in ice sheets. A part of this journey would have required boats so based on this it is thought that man used them at that time, however primitive. For thousands of years people made their way towards Indonesia and Australia in a sort of wave of advance. Genetics indicates that these people lived in small groups that generally stayed in one area and did not mix with one another. There is genetic and archaeological evidence for this path of early migration. The Andaman islanders off the coast of India have features very similar to the pygmies in Central Africa, particularly short stature and protruding buttocks. This is likely due to an environmental factor of living in forests. Genetically they are in the M2 lineage that came from the early migration out of Africa. Though there is no direct evidence, it is likely that our ancestors who left Africa 50,000 years ago had black skin and features like native Australians. For the next 20,000 years it is thought that they were able to wipe out the earlier humanoid species: the lighter skinned Neanderthals and Homo erectus. 

Other topics covered are the pre-settlement period of the Upper Paleolithic from 50,000 to 15,000 years ago which includes the magnificent painted caves of Europe. Certain of the mitochondrial DNA lineages are thought to be better adapted to cold. These correspond to those that are thought to have crossed the Bering Straight into the Americans beginning around 14,000 years ago, although some geneticists and archaeologists think there could have been an earlier migration to the Americas, as early as 34,000 years ago. It is thought that there were two main later migrations, the last occuring about 10,000 years ago or later when the Eskimos and the Na-Dene speakers arrived in North America. According to linguist Greenberg the first group of three main language groups developed 583 of the 625 known Amer-Indian languages. Then came the Eskimos with their 10 languages and the Na-Dene speakers thought to have come from the Ket-speaking region of Siberia. There are 32 Na-Dene languages which include Apache, Comanche, and Navajo. South American tribes often show evidence of ‘genetic drift’ which suggests that their populations bred in isolation for thousands of years. Evidence of drift is a great indicator of this and an important shaper of genetics as is the more well known ‘natural selection.’

The origin of ‘mongoloid peoples’ is examined. This refers to the skull shape  and type of teeth possessed by many East Asians which first appears in the archaeological record about 10,000 years ago. Some have speculated this development to be a result of drift possibly in conjunction with natural selection as an adaptation to cold as groups may have been isolated by ice during the last glacial maximum. The epicanthic fold around the eyelids may be a similar adaptation. Humans may have developed black skin way way back as a way to retain folic acid and white skin as they migrated north in order to absorb Vitamin D. Wolves are thought to have been domesticated into dogs around 14,000 years ago in Siberia, coming to the Americas as well. Since dogs attach to masters they may have been an early possession of sorts for foraging humans who did not keep possessions until they began to settle. Dogs also likely helped the tribe by warning of attacks.

After the last glacial maximum the first human settlements appear around the eastern Mediterranean Levant around 15,000 years ago. These Natufians in Syria began to collect and process cereal grasses and later to collect seeds and initiate agriculture. It is fairly certain though, according to the author, that settlement preceded agriculture. “The Natufians also began a practice that became common in the ensuing Neolithic period, that of separating the skull from the body before burial. The corpses were buried but the skulls were covered with plaster, given new faces, and kept in the houses to serve as a close bond between living and dead.” Settled societies required a whole new set of cognitive skills involved with social status, ownership of property, surpluses and their result – trade, and specialized task development. Interestingly, a striking genetic change preceded settlement – the thinning, or gracilization of the human skull. Sheep and goats are thought to have been domesticated around 10,000 years ago in these settled areas. Lactose tolerance is thought to have developed due to cattle domestication, being particularly strong among northwestern European peoples.

The chapter on Sociality covers the dynamics of primate societies, warfare and cannibalism, the evolutionary basis of social behavior, the privatization of sex, and the evolution of religion. “Warfare is a bond that separates humans and chimps from all other species.” In some primitive hunter-gatherer societies skill and success in warfare confers reproductive advantage. Primitive societies were thought to be at war most of the time and nearly all would skirmish at least once a year. Often the objective was to ambush or do a dawn raid to get kills by surprise. Most evidence indicates that warfare was widespread everywhere among primitive societies and only began to lose potency in settled societies where economic benefits of trade began to outweigh the benefits of war. Thus was nurtured a more altruistic bonding between unrelated humans. The development of social behavior is a result of this tribal benefit. So we have a situation where reciprical altruism develops – ie. mutual back-scratching. The hormones of oxytosin (also used to induce childbirth) and vasopressin may be involved in the promotion of trusting behaviors among humans. Experiments have been done with oxytosin that suggests this is true. So a biologically likely genetic basis of trust is possible. Trust became more or less required in urbanized settlements and trade situations. It is thought that language and religion sort of co-evolved since language is generally needed to communicate religious ideals. These may have developed along with the reciprocal altruism discussed above. Some think that religion was a means to curb the misuse of language, a law or code per se. Religion set the stage for privilege and priesthood but also the needs of trade and economics set the stage for leadership and kingship and social stratification began to develop. “Religion, language, and reciprocity are three comparatively recent developments of the glue that holds human societies together. All seem to have emerged some 50,000 years ago.”  Pair bonding is thought to have significantly changed primate society. The privatization of sex among humans likely helped to reduce the unwanted consequences of male rivalry. The worldwide gracilization, or thinning of the human skull is thought to have begun about 40,000 years ago but occurred at different rates in different regions. Some geneticists have suggested that this is a genetic reversion to a juvenile form – where aggressive behaviors went out of favor so the preferred genetic form was one that became fixed before the aggressive behavior came – if I am explaining that right. The author suggests this is a secondary result of humans basically domesticating themselves. In many primitive human societies it is thought that up to 30% of males died through warfare. Now it is a mere 0.3% of all humans worldwide.  The next chapter discusses race as defined by genetic differences attributed to development in isolation to one another. Here race is classified by continental affiliation. By this method there are Africans, Caucasians, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans. Genetic drift as well as natural selection has been very influential in making apparent the differences in race. Dominant racial characteristics can be generally identified through DNA analysis. The idea that race is really a social convention as put forth by some anthropologists (likely to correct attitudes of racism) is refuted by genetics, though it is very true that racial mixing is evident in many humans. It is true, though, that differences in appearance among the races are a result of a few selected genes rather than the many neutral ones we all share. The difference in genotype causes the difference in phenotype. But it is not just genetics but also environmental dispositions that cause differences in abilities so genes share the load of differentiation with geography. Genetic differences may account for differences in some abilities and in different dispositions in general.

The chapter on language attempts to classify all languages and show how they spread. Farming is thought to be a big factor. Sino-Tibetan languages are thought to have spread from the Rice Center in China and Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, and Dravidian languages from the Wheat Center in the Fertile Crescent. Interestingly, of the 6000 known languages about 1200 of them, nearly a quarter, come from the Island nation of Papua New Guinea. Here people were still practicing forager lifestyles recently and were likely separated into this many groups. This observation suggests quite logically that a common language bonds people and increases trust and cooperation among them. The language models here tend to support Renfrew’s hypothesis of Indo-European languages spreading through farming but he does put forth the basic two hypotheses of whether IE languages spread by the plough or by the sword. Genetic studies indicate that a mere 15% of Western Europeans have a genetic relationship to Anatolians so the wave of advance model had to include more of the pre-existing European population than Renfrew thought. Genetics of 6000 year old skeletal remains in Britain were found to be very similar to those living in the same area today. As far as dating proto-languages, including PIE, the authors suggest much earlier dates than those usually given. These earlier dates are hinted at by genetic studies. Greenberg’s language families are covered. They are based on comparisons of 100 or so key words through all languages of the world with some interesting results. He classified languages into super-families that emerged in different times so in different time periods the super-families may have some different distributions. Apparently, Greenberg made some interesting discoveries of possible remnants of the earliest of human languages. One is an amazing similarity of words for number 1 and finger in languages throughout the world.

Finally, there a chapter on genome studies and tracing various ancestral heritages in historical periods and an overview chapter on evolution and the future of evolution. Disease prevention and treatment goes hand in hand with genetics as it is genetics that leads to predispositions to getting as well as getting rid of diseases. Perhaps the gracilization of the human skull and the increase in brain size will continue. Some argue for the benefits of directed evolution. On the other hand that may create speciation in which some have the genetic upgrade and others don’t which would create imbalances that many would consider unethical. Any initial directed evolution would likely be involved with disease prevention and mitigation one would think.

Anyway, this was a great book to read and ponder. My review is probably not very well written as I have presented lots of isolated facts, opinions, and observations. I just wanted to present some of the intriguing ideas.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom For Resolving Inner Conflict

Book Review: Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict by Tsultrim Allione  (Little, Brown, and Co. 2008)

This turns out to be a really good book with practical psychological implications. This notion of feeding the demons is rooted in the Chod Practice Lineage of Tibet founded by Machig Labdron, the great female yogini of 11th century Tibet. She was a student of the famed Indian guru Padampa Sangye. She was also well grounded in the Prajnaparamita tradition. Tsultrim Allione is well studied in these practices having learned them while she was an ordained Buddhist nun in the Himalayas in the 1970’s. Here she departs from tradition a bit and adapts the notions of demon feeding into a more psycho-therapeutic format now referred to as Kapala Training.

She gives some of her initial background such as when she first heard the haunting melodies and sounds of the Chod practice in Nepal. She also gives an account of the sudden death of one of her weeks old twins that left her with scars of fear, grief, guilt, and other unpleasant feelings.

The demon feeding practice is similar to Chod in that one visualizes feeding ones body as nectar to demons in order to alleviate their apparent suffering. Here though one typically feeds one’s own demons rather than any demonic entity that may be present, although really there may be no difference. Demons in these traditions are defined as aspects of the mind, particularly the egocentric mind that breeds fear, anger, hope, attachment, and addiction. These aspects of oneself can cause many problems when repressed. All demons whether seemingly external are thought to be ultimately internal projections of our mind, our habit-mind, our ego-centered habit-mind. The demon feeding practice is basically a psycho-dramatic, or psycho-therapeutic method of engaging with difficult aspects of ourselves that we have built up with traumatic experiences, negative habits, and other unfortunate circumstances. The method may also exhibit aspects of meditation and magic, or shamanism. The whole practice should be done with eyes closed. There are five steps to the method and they are as follows:  0) Preliminaries – here one sets up a seat for oneself and one for the demon facing you. First one does nine slow breaths, three to remove physical tension, three for emotional, and three for mental and one generates an altruistic motivation. 1) Find the Demon – decide what it is that is disturbing you and work on it; locate and observe it in your body or a part of your body. 2) Personify the Demon and Ask What it Needs – discover its qualities like size, color, texture, and associated feelings. It is important then to ask the demon what it wants, needs, and how it will feel when satisfied. 3) Become the Demon – here one changes seats with the demon one is facing and answers the three questions as the demon. The psychological effect of becoming the demon may bring out some surprising answers. 4) Feed the Demon and Meet the Ally – here one transforms one’s body into nectar (or whatever the demon wants and needs) and feeds it to the demon. Traditionally in the Chod practice one would eject the consciousness through the top of the head (in the manner of the Powa practice) with the sound of PHAT! (pronounced PE!) which appears above the head as the wrathful black lady, the wisdom mother Troma Nagmo (Krodha Kali) (in some Bon Chod traditions it can be the red wisdom dakini Kalpa Zangmo), who then chops up the body and offers it to the demons. After feeding, when the demon becomes satisfied it may morph into something else- since the demon’s reason for manifesting would be that it wants and needs. It may morph into what she calls the ally. One may also invite the ally to appear. If this happens one should ask it questions such as how it will help and protect you, what pledges will it make, and how can one gain access to it. Machig Labron has a story where she was attacked by a group of nagas (water spirits in serpent form) where she offered herself to them as food and they then pledged to protect her. That is presumably a case of this phase. After the ally melts back into you there is the final important step. 5) Rest in Awareness – this refers to resting in a relaxed state, a sort of flopping where everything is le go of and one just dwells in the vastness of open presence.

Much of the book involves case histories of this psychological practice where people have been successful in undoing their fixations. Apparently, several therapists are trained in this technique. The author also does retreats at her center in Colorado. I know of a group that practices it in New York. She uses the concept of demon complexes, comparing them to the many-headed hydra demon that Hercules had to slay where when one head is removed another pops up to take its place until the original center is found and uprooted. She gives suggestions of working with art as well in the practice: drawing, sculpting, mapping demons held in the body, etc. This is presumably to better characterize the qualities that one wishes to transform. I have opted for keeping a record of practices and thoughts – the Demon Journal.

Machig mentions four demons plus gods and god-demons. These are probably related to the Four Maras in Buddhist texts (and Chod teachings): the mara of the skandhas (form, feeling, perception, impulses, and consciousness that we commonly mistake for self) the mara of the kleshas (disturbing emotions such as the five poisons of ignorance, attachment, aversion, pride, and envy), the mara of death, and the mara called ‘child of the gods.’ When Buddha fully understood the projections he made the statement, “Mara I know you.” After this he attained enlightenment. Machig’s classification of four demons from gross to subtle is as follows: outer demons, inner demons, demons of elation, and demons of egocentricity. Outer demons usually refer to a sensory relationship or a relationship to specific events such as addiction to substances, fear of diseases, etc. They are typically an attachment or an aversion to objects, events, or phenomena. Inner demons are demons that arise from the mind. These are our neuroses, fears, insecurities. Depression and paranoia are examples she gives. Demons of elation refer to attachment to experiences and successes. The demon of egocentricity is the root of all demons and is generated by clinging to self-importance. She refers to our hopes as gods, as ego-centered struggles to attain something desirable. Our hopes are often fear-based. Machig saw this link and refers to our hope fear complexes as god-demons. Regarding fear here is a great quote:

“The traditional Chod practice is designed to flush out hidden fear and greet it with acceptance, directly confronting unpleasant or frightening experiences to understand that the source of all gods and demons is our own mind. Urged by the Indian sage Dampa Sangye to “go to the places that scare you,” Machig undertook a pilgrimage to 108 such places, and in each she met and fed the different demons evoked by that place. By feeding our ego-clinging selves to our gods and demons, our hopes and fears, we sacrifice the part of ourselves that generates our fears, liberating us to experience freedom in an entirely new way.

She goes through more case histories of outer demons in the from of demons of illness: cancer demons, anorexia demons, AIDS demons, etc. The Chod practice was legendary for healing illnesses and there are Chod healing ritual traditions these days as well. The psycho-drama of the demon feeding may have a strong psychosomatic effect on the disease. She gives true life examples of this. I have heard this too reading about Asklepian healing. Indeed many types of holistic healing can fall into this category. She next examines fear demons. Social phobias, fear of loss, panic attacks, and PTSD can wreak serious havoc in people’s lives. She gives case histories where the demon feeding practice was helping people in these regards. Combat vets and people devastated by natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina have been benefited through this practice. She does the same with relationship demons, demons of addiction, and demons of abuse. She sometimes puts demons of addiction in the god-demon category as the desire for the effect becomes the problem. She notes that demons associated with trauma such as PTSD and abusive situations can be difficult to encounter and transform and perhaps that some of the techniques can be modified for particular needs. The section on family demons was interesting as she noted that many unhealthy emotional situations can be passed down through the generations. She even mentions that outer demons can create collective demons such as prejudice, racism, and homophobia.

Regarding demons of the mind she gives examples of anger, perfectionist, depression, shame, anxiety, and inauthenticity demons. These are again in the form of case histories with palpable results. Trauma from childhood or perceived trauma  brought on gradually could result in these life-long struggles. These inner demons can be difficult to overcome as evidenced by the group of Green Berets who attended a 10-day meditation retreat. More than one said it was the hardest thing they had ever done.

Demons of elation refer more to obstacles to spiritual practice in the sense that one gets attached to experiences and can’t move out of a certain phase. Here the danger is getting stuck and misusing one’s authority. Cult leaders may have this problem. This is all tied up with one’s sense of self-importance. Pride and arrogance blind people.

The demon of egocentricity is also called the demon of arrogance. According to dharmic tradition the ego seeks to engage in or avoid the eight worldly dharmas: pleasure, pain, loss, gain, infamy, fame, praise, and blame. These seem to be the preoccupations of most humans at most times.

“Through clinging to our ego, the mind becomes afflicted by all kinds of emotional ups and downs, thoughts are seized upon, and karma is created via the actions that result. The real root problem is clinging to notions of self versus other, not realizing how much of what we consider to be external reality we ourselves project.”

She notes that when we first encounter a sensory experience we see it in a non-conceptual way. Then through the force of habit we very quickly make up story lines generated by the ego concerns. Once the ego jumps in the non-conceptual spaciousness disappears and there is a split, a separation of self and other. The afflictive emotions are considered strategies of the ego which perpetuates the dualism. Feeding the demons is transforming the energy of the ego strategies into allies of liberation. The fifth step of resting in awareness is the key step of truly letting go of the unhealthy ego strategies. The author makes the statement that as one progresses on the spiritual path the ego demon attacks more intensely as it is being gradually threatened with dissolution. This is noted in the story of the Buddha’s life where just before his nirvana he is attacked with great force by Mara.

There is a section on direct liberation which involves immediately facing whatever demonic obstacle arises. Looking directly at whatever arises allows it to dissipate without gaining a foothold. This spontaneous self-liberation is a key part of Mahamudra. A thief cannot rob an empty house. (although nowadays they might take the water pipes!)

Finally there is a chapter on collective demons. She talks about scapegoating rituals in various cultures in different times. Some of these may be healthy if they perform a symbolic function without causing harm. She mentions things like carnival rites, fertility traditions, taboo-breaking clowns and jesters, and even the Burning Man festival. Other forms of scapegoating can be tragic as when a member of a family or group takes on the role without due cause. She says that, “The antidote is awareness; when personal demons are unconscious, collective demons have a greater possibility of gaining control.” There may also be demons associated with workplace politics as well as with local and world politics. She gives some examples where not demonizing opponents has led to extraordinary results such as the format of the Truth and Reconciliation Council in South Africa where perpetrators on both sides could apply for amnesty if they would share the details of their crimes with the whole nation on TV. Some of the perpetrators later met with families of their victims in order to apologize and beg forgiveness. The country seemed to heal very well after this atonement.

At the end she gives a note of a recent trip to Tibet where she was recognized by some lamas as an emanation of Machig Labron and given some of Machig’s texts and her only remaining tsa tsa (small clay statue with some of her ashes mixed in). She also reproduces a translation of Machig’s Last Instructions.

Great book. I have done the actual practice a few times and just this evening I actually had a positive result from it. I think it is a useful technique as the mind, or mind-brain-body complex seems to respond to the psycho-drama of ritual and this particular form of rite is to directly engage ones deepest problems. Beautiful!