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What Are Demons?




Excerpted from
Feeding Your Demons; Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict
By Tsultrim Allione

When I first located my abandonment demon, she was a child of about five, with pathetic, shifty eyes. She had messy brown hair and big blue eyes, but she had the pointed teeth of a vampire. She said, "He's going to leave. Listen to me; you know I'm right. You know it's always going to come down to you and me. I'm the only real friend you have. I'll always be here, telling you the truth about what's going to happen. I'm predictable. At least you can count on me." As she was saying this, she seemed to be getting stronger.

As the days went by, I fed her on a regular basis using Chod and the method I'd developed, and she began to change. Eventually when I called her up before me to feed her, she was no longer a vampire. She just looked sad. By the end of the month she looked vulnerable and loving, grateful for the attention I was giving her. The amazing thing was that after this concerted effort, she actually stopped causing trouble in my life and no longer bothered me. I had accepted that she would always be with me as my "core issue," but that didn't turn out to be the case. On a practical level, things changed too. My relationship with Dave improved, and eventually we developed the wonderful marriage we have today.

Around this time, encouraged by my teacher Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, I began teaching Chod retreats. As I did so, I saw that the practice of feeding demons was difficult for Westerners to understand, and it tended to remain conceptual. So I taught the visualization practice of embodying and then feeding the demons I had developed during my month of feeding my own abandonment demon. And I taught students how to work this way with demons that were real issues in their lives, not just theoretical Buddhist concepts.

The demons I am referring to are not ghosts, goblins, or minions of Satan. When Machig was asked to define demons, she replied this way: "What we call demons are not materially existing individuals with huge black forms, frightening and terrifying anyone who sees them. A demon means anything which hinders liberation."

Our demons are not ancient gargoyles from eleventh-century Tibet. They are our present preoccupations, the issues in our lives blocking our experience of freedom. Our demons might come from the conflicts we have with our lover, anxiety we feel when we fly, or the discomfort we feel when we look at ourselves in the mirror. Fear of failure could be your particular demon, or addiction to tobacco, alcohol, drugs, pornography, or money. We might have a demon that makes us fear abandonment or a demon that causes us to hurt the ones we love. A person with an eating disorder might have a demon demanding huge amounts of sweet or fatty food. The demon of anorexia tells us that we have failed if we eat and that we will never be thin enough. A fear demon might be telling us we can't go up in high buildings or take a walk in the dark.

Although most people would say they don't believe in demons, the word is still commonly used, and when we hear it we know what it means. For example, someone might speak of her pattern of envy as her "jealousy demon," or we might use the expression "his demons came back to haunt him." It is common to speak of someone "wrestling with their demons," or to describe military veterans as "battling the demons of post-traumatic stress."

Demons are ultimately part of the mind and, as such, have no independent existence. Nonetheless, we engage with them as though they were real, and we believe in their existence - ask anyone who has fought post-traumatic stress, or addiction, or anxiety. Demons show up in our lives whether we provoke them or not, whether we want them or not. The mind perceives demons as real, so we get caught up in battling with them. Usually this habit of fighting against our perceived problems gives demons strength rather than weakening them. In the end, all demons are rooted in our tendency to create polarization. By understanding how to work with this tendency to try to dominate the perceived enemy and to see things as either/or, we free ourselves from demons by eliminating their very source.

We also tend to project our demons onto others. If we look at what we most despise in others, we usually see one of our own demons reflected back. If we look at those we criticize or try to control, we find the demons that we ourselves harbor. When we act as if we have no shadow, we are particularly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by our demons. Preachers and priests may have an especially hard time with this, because they are supposed to have overcome their demons, which only exacerbates the tendency to fight against them. This makes them susceptible to hypocrisy and self-destruction, like decrying the evils of sex while they are secretly engaged in the very kind of sex they publicly denounce.

The famous evangelical preacher Ted Haggard, minister of the largest evangelical church in Colorado Springs, preached against drug use, homosexuality, and gay marriage while he himself was secretly involved in homosexual encounters with a male prostitute in Denver. Married, with five children, Haggard gave the outward appearance of being a strictly heterosexual family man. After several years of regular visits from Haggard, the prostitute saw him on TV preaching against gay marriage. He was so disgusted by Haggard's hypocrisy that he went to the press and revealed that for three years Ted Haggard had been his client and had been buying drugs from him as well. After being forced to resign from the church he had founded, Haggard went into seclusion, still determined to "fight" his demons of forbidden desires.

The point here is that often we ridicule or criticize others who embody something we are trying to repress in ourselves. Certainly we all have urges we should not act on, such as violent impulses or the desire to steal or to abuse someone. However, repression is often not the most effective way to deal with unacceptable impulses. When we admit to them, by drawing them out of the closet and engaging with them consciously, they actually become less dangerous than when we fight them. Hidden away they only gain strength. The more we try to lock them up, the more devious and dangerous they become.



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