It has been four years since I stumbled, in a little book shop in Seattle, upon a book that would make me rethink and expand my previous map of the world. The book is called “Feeding Your Demons” and is written by one of the most outstanding female Buddhist teachers in the West – Lama Tsultrim Allione .
The author is an American teacher, writer, poet, a Buddhist Lama, a former Buddhist nun, mother of three children, grandmother of six grandchildren and above all a truly remarkable woman. She spent years studying in Nepal, seven of which as a nun. Later on she left monastic life, got married and discovered that leading a spiritual practice while living through the challenges and tragedies of “normal” life can be one of the most valuable spiritual lessons a human could receive. She went through two divorces and the tragical loss of one of her children before she found a way to bring the wisdom she had gained as a Buddhist nun into her life as a mother and a wife.
This amazing woman created a surprising bridge between Eastern wisdom and the realities of a Westerner’s life. She found that the demons modern men and women are facing every day, going about their jobs and caring for their families, are no less scary than the demons ancient mystics were confronted with while in deep meditation on the top of a mountain. Demons like “fear”, “jealousy”, “addiction”, “anger”, “depression”, “guilt” – are all real, all capable of destroying lives and, surprisingly, can be tackled using some almost forgotten Buddhist practices.
What Tsultrim Allione realised was that ancient Buddhist wisdom could be used to help modern and practical Westerners heal their relationships and their lives. She made it her mission to become that “bridge”, that “translator” who would make cryptical ancient rituals accessible to the modern mind. The practice that she brought back to life is called – Chöd – and was initially created by another remarkable woman – Machig Labdrön– an enlightened Buddhist who lived in the 11th century.
This ancient woman is said to have been to wise and so holy that, at one point, all the “demons” (the energies at the root of all human weakness and suffering) orchestrated a collective attack on her, to which she responded by simply offering herself to them, transforming herself into a form a nurturing energy that quenched their thirsts and their wants, until the demons were defeated. So, in her own way, Machig Labdron was one of the early pioneers of psychotherapy, the practice of facing one’s flaws, wounds and inner weaknesses with an attitude of love and compassion. She taught her students the lesson of facing whatever part of them they found repulsive and frightening and gently and lovingly befriending it. She taught them to look for the unfulfilled psychological need behind their “demons” and to fulfil that need as a wiser way to “defeat the demon”.
Tsultrim Allione saw the amazing potential that the ancient ritual of “Chöd” had for the psychological healing of modern westerners and gave the practice a much more catching name. She called it “Feeding Your Demons“ and has adapted and transformed it into a beautiful meditation that anyone can embark on at home, as a personal practice of facing and befriending one’s worst “demons”.
She invites us to embrace the simple, yet fascinatingly counterintuitive, idea that fighting our demons only makes them stronger. What we might do instead, is face them and understand them better. Tsultrim Allione proposes that we transform them into allies, instead of enemies. On a practical level, this meditations challenges us to stop trying so hard to keep that diet, stop drinking, not get so angry all the time, but instead to confront that “demon”, imagine it is a living, breathing being, imagine seeing it in front of our eyes and asking it three fundamental questions:
What do you want from me?
What do you need from me?
How will you feel if you get what you need?
This is an amazingly powerful visualisation exercise that can be done alone or accompanied by a friend or psychotherapist. The person who asks the questions is also the one giving the answers, but from the “demon’s” perspective. Any of our fears, bad habits, destructive patterns or even illness can be considered “a demon” and approached wisely in this simple, yet profound practice.
To give you a simple example. Let’s say someone is confronting a “demon” of “addiction to food”. How can you work with this demon by using Tsultrim Allione’s practice?
Find a quiet place, sit in an upright, relaxed posture, close your eyes and take some time to connect with your breath, bringing your attention into the present moment. Then start imagining what this demon might look like. How big is it? What are its features? Picture it in your mind’s eye as well as you can, as vividly and in as rich a detail as possible.
Then start asking it the three questions and, after each question, allow yourself to imagine what it might reply. What might the answers to those three questions be?
What do you want?– The answer might be: “I want you to eat all the time”, “I want you to drown your sorrow in food”, “I want you to always feel full”, “I want you to indulge all your cravings”.
What do you need?– You might get the answer: “I need to be fed”, “I need pleasure”, “I need relief”, “I need peace”.
How will you feel once your needs are fulfilled?– The answer could be: “I will feel satisfied”, “I will feel at peace”, “I will feel happy”. The answer to the third question is always a positive emotion. If our demons had a voice we might just discover all they want is to feel safe, loved, at peace, happy, joyful – just like any other being in this world.
Once you have the answer to the final question, this old Buddhist practice suggests you visualise your body, your whole being, turning into a nectar of the specific positive emotion the demon said it would feel and offer it this nectar, this energy. Feeding your demons means literally feeding them what they need to feel – peace, kindness, happiness. It means you stop fighting them and instead turn them into allies.
When doing this exercise you might notice that, as it is being fed, the demon transforms into something harmless, might even become an ally or a surprising helper appears in its place. In fact, this is the very idea that lies at the core of this practice – whatever inner demons we are fighting in our lives are in fact potential teachers. Even illness can be a powerful teacher, if we treat it as such.
Here is an article written by Tsultrim Allione that describes the practice.
The idea of befriending our demons, of offering ourselves as “food” to our own weaknesses, fears or any other inner enemies, might seem radical and completely against what we’ve been taught to do. We’ve been taught to fight our flaws, to overcome them. Tsultrim Allione says that feeding our demons doesn’t mean surrendering to them, but actually recognising and accepting their value as stepping stones towards a better version of ourselves. She adds that fighting them actually makes them stronger.
Embracing our demons without fear might mean breaking that bond that kept us tied to them in the first place. Want it or not, you are inextricably tied to your enemy. Hatred, bitterness, resentment, fear are the ties. Embracing your enemy with love and forgiveness, particularly since we’re talking about an inner enemy, means cutting that tie. It also means integrating the shadow part of you, that part you never liked and always denied, learning the valuable lesson it has to teach you and moving forward with your life. In modern coaching and psychology, this approach is now widely used, as we know that people’s undesirable habits usually have “secondary gains” – hidden benefits that, when they are understand an honoured, the person can finally let go of the negative behaviour and replace it with a healthier one.
“Feeding your demons” is an exercise that can be done with any kind of personal or interpersonal “demon”. It can be done with disease, with negative emotions, with phobias, with toxic relationships. It’s a way of self-healing, of making peace with yourself, not a way of influencing someone else in your life. It’s not something you do with someone, but something you do for yourself.
I have been fascinated by this idea and about the book describing the practice and how Trultrim Allione applied it to her own life story.
I have used the practice in my own life and with my coaching clients and saw the positive results. Hopefully, with this article, you’ll feel inspired to try it – here is a link to the meditation conducted by Tsultrim Allione.
Also, if you like her work, I suggest you check out her other book – “Wisdom Rising” – which just came out this year. It is another book filled with inspiring practices form Buddhism, adapted to the modern world. It is also a book aimed at women, inviting us to reflect on the unique power of the feminine, much needed into this present hectic, chaotic, disruptive time of history.
Post image by Carole Hénaff, retrieved from the original article on Feeding Your Demons, on https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-feeding-your-demons/