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!

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