A demon is a metaphor for anything that is taking your energy, be it fear, obsession, addiction, or something else.
“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)
The dark goddess, Vajrayogini, had descended with her knife, cutting away ego, the illusion of permanence, and the top of my skull as I prepared to feed my brains to the demons residing on the many levels of the hell realms. Wait, what? Physically, I was sitting in a darkened yurt with a group of psychologists, shamanic counselors, students of Buddhism, and assorted alternative healers. We were multi-tasking: drumming, ringing bells, visualizing, and chanting (in Tibetan, mind you). The racket was enough to, well, raise the dead.
My intention in attending a weekend workshop at the Tara Mandala Retreat Center near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, was to meet the esteemed founder, Lama Tsultrim Allione. She was the first American, in 1974, to be ordained a nun in the Tibetan Kagyu lineage. The workshop I found myself in, called Chöd, coincided with my schedule. I had no idea I’d be calling in my demons!
A demon is a metaphor for anything that is taking your energy, be it fear, obsession, addiction, or something else. To befriend or feed the demon is the way to lessen its hold on your life.
The Chöd ritual, practice, and lineage was created by the 11th-century yogini, Machig Lapdrön. I’d learned from Tsultrim—in between having to translate Tibetan—that Machig (who, over the centuries, has been elevated to a dakini, a demi-goddess) wandered with her followers from village to village, ridding the charnel grounds of troublesome ghosts and exorcising the disease demons that plagued the unwell.
Bringing Chöd to the West
Lama Tsultrim Allione has been recognized as the emanation, or reincarnation, of Machig Lapdrön, and is now the lineage carrier. She has done well by Machig, establishing not only a beautiful retreat center in the United States but in adjusting the practice to Western, non-Buddhist sensibilities and understanding.
In bringing Chöd to the West, Lama Tsultrim renamed the practice Feeding Your Demons and added therapeutic techniques such as Gestalt’s “empty chair” and Jung’s “active imagination.” Tsultrim has made Feeding Your Demons an accessible self-help tool for anyone. You will not need a drum, bell, or lessons in Tibetan to harness the healing power of Chöd. You will, however, need your powers of visualization, your intention, and the ability to relax into a meditative state.
“In today’s world, we suffer from record levels of inner and outer struggle,” Tsultrim reminds us. “We find ourselves ever more polarized, inwardly and outwardly. We need a new paradigm, a fresh approach to conflict. Machig’s strategy of nurturing rather than battling our inner and outer enemies offers a revolutionary path to resolve conflict and leads to psychological integration and inner peace.”
How to Feed Your Demons
These are the 5 achievable steps to Feeding Your Demons in Tsultrim’s words:
Step 1: Find the Demon
After generating a heartfelt motivation to practice for the benefit of yourself and all beings, decide which demon you want to work with. Choose something that feels like it is draining your energy right now. If it’s a relationship issue, work with the feeling that is arising in you as the demon, rather than the other person in the relationship. Thinking about the demon you have chosen to work with, perhaps remembering a particular incident when it came up strongly, scan your body, and ask yourself: Where is the demon held in my body most strongly? What is its shape? What is its color? What is its texture? What is its temperature? Now intensify this sensation.
Step 2: Personify the Demon
Allow this sensation, with its color, texture, and temperature, to move out of your body and become personified in front of you as a being with limbs, a face, eyes, and so on. Notice the following about the demon: size, color, surface of its body, density, gender (if it has one,) its character, its emotional state, the look in its eyes, or something about the demon you did not see before. Now ask the demon the following questions: What do you want? What do you really need? How will you feel when you get what you really need?
Step 3: Become the Demon
Switch places, keeping your eyes closed as much as possible. Take a moment to settle into the demon’s body. Feel what it’s like to be the demon. Notice how your normal self looks from the demon’s point of view. Answer these questions, speaking as the demon: What I want is.... What I really need is.... When I get what I really need, I will feel.... (Take particular note of this last answer.)
Step 4: Feed the Demon and Meet the Ally
If there is a being present in place of the demon when you end the fourth step, ask this being if it is the ally. If it is not, invite an ally to appear. If the demon has dissolved completely, simply invite an ally to appear. Notice all the details of the ally: its color, its size, and the look in its eyes. Ask it one or all of these questions: How will you help me? How will you protect me? What pledge do you make to me?
Change places, becoming the ally, and answer the question(s) above. Return to your original position, then take a moment and feel the help and protection coming from the ally. Then imagine the ally is dissolving into you. You and the ally dissolve into emptiness, which naturally takes you to the fifth step.
Step 5. Rest
Rest in the state that is present when the ally dissolves into you and you dissolve into emptiness. Let your mind relax without creating any particular experience. Rest as long as you like without filling the space, trying not to make anything happen or rushing to finish.
If you wish to deepen your knowledge or practice of Feeding Your Demons, Tara Mandala’s website lists trained counselors, and there are lectures online. Lama Tsultrim Allione also has three books—Women of Wisdom, Feeding Your Demons, and Wisdom Rising—that celebrate women in Buddhism, connect the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism with modern life, and explore Buddhist teachings on the empowered feminine.