As a farewell gift, Theo handed me an audio tape the evening he and Dana were to head back to their mountain home in Colorado. The subject was Chöd, translated as Feeding Your Demons, an ancient Tibetan healing practice; the woman teaching it was Lama Tsultrim Allione, one of the first American women to be ordained as a Tibetan nun.
Allione had been given her monastic vows by the Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism; she’d given back her vows four years later in order to marry. In 1993, she had founded Tara Mandala, a retreat center in southern Colorado. Her book Feeding Your Demons explores an approach based on the Chöd lineage of Machig Labdrön that Allione has practiced since 1973. “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,” Allione quotes Jung, “but by making the darkness conscious.”
The practice of Chöd teaches us how to work with our demons. What, in the first place, are these demons? Machig Labdrön, the brilliant Tibetan woman who inspired the practice of Chöd, defined a demon as: anything which hinders liberation. No matter our personal beliefs about the supernatural, no one can deny that our thoughts and emotions can be like relentless demons who drive our behavior into harmful channels. Most humans confronted with heavy emotions like anger, sadness and fear either suppress them, or act them out.
But suppressed feelings inevitably explode; nor do these explosions get rid of the emotion — on the contrary, suppressed negative feelings often get stronger, very much like adding fire to fire, or the building steam in a pressure cooker. Chöd teaches a radical way of dealing with these same emotions — instead of avoiding them, acting out on them, or trying to destroy them, we relate fully to them. We invite our demons into our conscious awareness — and by doing so, our lives grow sweeter and richer.
Chöd identifies four classes of demons: Tangible Demons are external objects we experience as unpleasant; Intangible Demons are thoughts and emotions we experience as unpleasant; the Demon of Exaltation increases our pride and arrogance and lies at the root of the dualistic extremes of pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace, pleasure and loss; the Demon of Arrogance creates the illusion of duality, generates attachment and aversion, and is the root of the three other demons, since ego-fixation is the root of all suffering and the cause of cyclic existence.
As long as there is an ego, Machig stated, there are demons. Experiences can be either good or bad — gods or demons — depending on how we relate to them. A God may be a Demon or a Demon a God, and on an ultimate level they are the same thing. And while it is easy to blame “demons” for all our problems, in the end it is our responsibility to transform our demons into our angels.
The controversial tulku Chogyam Trungpa offered a clever way to deal with our painful dualistic relationship with our emotions — which are the root of our addictions. When we are caught in the infamous bind of having an angel on one shoulder, and the devil on the other, Trungpa advised us to relate to our emotions in their fundamental state — as pure energy. Once we do this, fears, paranoia and shame drop away and we can properly relate to powerful emotions and dissolve them into beneficial energy.
Chöd’s unique genius lies in training us to harness our imaginations to skilfully offer our demons everything they desire, selflessly giving them our bodies and our egos with the intention to end their suffering. This compassionate approach has a positive psychological effect on us, allowing us to let go of old hurts and freeing trapped energies. By freeing our demons, we free ourselves.
This sounds terrific, you say, but how the hell does one go about doing this? After all, most of us dread confronting our painful emotions head-on, fearing we will crumble, and that our lives will go to hell. True — there’s no getting away from the fact that genuine inner work demands the HOW principle — that we be Honest, Open and Willing; in order to experience our true nature, which is blissful and immortal, we must reject nothing.
But why in the first place do we need to feed our demons? Think of it this way: say your two-year old throws a tantrum in the middle of the night because she wants to cuddle her dirty old rag doll, which you’ve quietly put away in the attic. You threaten to punish her if she doesn’t stop screaming, but her shrieks only get louder. Finally you march up to the attic, locate the bloody doll, and stomp downstairs to hand it to her — whereupon the little imp instantly ceases caterwauling.
Chöd operates on the same principle — instead of trying to shut your demons up, you give them whatever they want, in abundance, from your ever-fertile imagination. Check out the process for yourself by following Allione’s simple 5-step process: 1) first locate the demon (painful emotion) that is hassling you, 2) personify the demon and sincerely ask it what it needs, with an open heart, as if it were your own beloved child 3) become the demon (by empathizing totally with it), 4) feed the demon and watch it transform into an ally, 5) rest in the great space of complete awareness, beyond all duality.
You will discover that by befriending that which scares us the most, we find our own wisdom. As Rainer Maria Rilke so beautifully said, Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure.