Once in a while I stumble upon a piece of wisdom that makes me rethink and expand my previous map of the world. Once in a while a book comes along that feels like a piece of the large puzzle of knowledge magically coming into place. It answers countless questions I had had in my mind, some of which I wasn’t even able to articulate before reading it. This summer “Feeding Your Demons” by Lama Tsultrim Allione is that book for me.
I found it in a lovely bookstore in Seattle and was drawn by the title. Then I read a bit about its author and knew I had to buy it. Tsultrim Allione is an American teacher, writer, poet, a Buddhist Lama, a former Buddhist nun, mother of three children, grandmother of three 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 –the Chöd – and was initially created by another remarkable woman – Machig Labdrön – an enlightened Buddhist who lived in the 11th century. Allione gave “Chöd” a much more catching name. She called it “Feeding Your Demons”.
The simple, yet fascinatingly counterintuitive, idea behind this is that we might all be better off if we stopped fighting our demons. Stop trying so hard to keep that diet, stop drinking, not get so angry all the time, but instead we confront that demon, personify it, imagine it’s a living, breathing being, see it in front of our eyes and ask 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.
To give you a simple example. Let’s say someone is confronting a “demon” of “addiction to food”. What might the answers to those three questions be?
What does the demon 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 does it need? – You might get the answer: “I need to be fed”, “I need pleasure”, “I need relief”, “I need peace”.
How will the demon feel once it gets what it needs? – 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 that specific positive emotion the demon said it would feel and offer yourself to it. Feeding your demons means literally feeding them what they need to feel – peace, kindness, happiness. It means you stop fighting them and almost magically 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.
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.
“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 hope that at least I’ve made you curious and at most you’ll buy the book and try it yourselves. I do believe we spend too much time fighting our problems and too little truly understanding and befriending them. I believe there is way too much combat going on in our lives and the results are far from matching the effort. What if we tried something else for a change? What if we tried a wiser, more peaceful perspective on personal change and overcoming obstacles? We might just be surprised…