“The origin of all demons is in mind itself.
When awareness holds on and embraces any outer object, it is in the hold of a demon.”
– Machig Labdrön
This morning our meditation lead is asking us to explore "our dominant and repetitive feelings with a neutral lens". And as many sitting meditations we have practiced over the past few weeks, this one too will be followed by the walking one.
I feel jumpy today. Some memories of past events emerged reminding me how harsh and unforgiving I was. I carry around a sense of uneasiness and vulnerability. The walking meditation is taking us now downstairs, to the temple, and to the circling practice inside the Great Hall. We circumambulate and gather back in the room above the temple we started our sitting practice. The uneasiness of the morning is still here, around my neck. I think about my husband and daughter back home and what they had for breakfast.
We are invited to join the Feeding Your Daemons class at noon. Derived from the Machig Labdrön, the 11th-century Tibetan tantric Buddhist practitioner, teacher, and yogini, this practice was revived by Lama Tsultrim Allione in the mid-1980s. We arrive at the cabin erected over a small pond. This June day is hot, dry, and vibrates with the impatience of mating insects. We are asked to choose the spot on one of the two piles of facing pillows, wear an apron, and make ourselves comfortable. We are also asked to close our eyes and sense our place so we can switch between the two set pillows without opening our eyes, effortlessly. Soon, medium-sized balls of soft, moist, clay extracted from the pond half an hour ago are served to us on paper plates. With eyes closed, we sense their shape and texture and begin our practice with nine opening breaths. My senses are turning toward the warm breeze that carries the sweet scent of wildflowers from the meadow nearby.
I still have some heaviness around my neck and chest from the morning practice. I immediately see a smooth, shiny, light metal piece around my neck as a bodily manifestation of my daemon. As we are asked next to intensify, externalize and shape the image from the clay in front of us I start dividing the big shape into three unequal pieces. The image of a metal piece transforms into a flattened, gingerbread cookie-looking human female figure. I am venturing into the simplest shape possible, painfully aware of my artistic limitations. I save two smaller pieces for limbs, firmly squeezing the top of the larger form into the head and neck space and gluing the arms to the body the best I could. I ignore being alerted to open my eyes and consider the improvement.
We are cued again to communicate - to ask what this shape, our daemon, wants, needs, and how it will feel when it gets what it needs. With this in mind, we change seats holding the shape we created on the paper plate in our lap. We assume the body of this shape, and with this we assume the feelings looking at ourselves from the daemon's perspective. I appear to this being to be artificial, frivolous, irresponsible, selfish enough to leave my family to pursue self-exploration practices. I ask her what she needs and she says that she wants to be more round-shaped and earth-like, soft and fertile, and to be fed “aliveness”. So I do. The nectar she craves has the bubbly pink, blue, green, and pale yellow shades of an early spring. The more she takes the less she is able to maintain her old shape. In my mind's eye, she grows into a colorful, three-dimensional, plump, self-contain, and sleepy creature. As I see her coming to life more fully an ocean of tears opens up somewhere deep inside me. I am overwhelmed by the compassion I have for this lonely, unhappy, isolated being.
Other cues coming in - what about the allies? Are there the allies where this daemon was? I see a man first, an ancient Roman peasant walking on a stony path, hand in hand with a very young girl on one side and a flaming, three-pointed pitchfork on the other. He has been walking this path for a long time - a refugee, long exiled from his home. His powers are many but the girl needs home and stability so he subdues them. I sense that my self-forgiveness is related to this man who must consider duties over his talents. He, however, is not an ally.
Who else? Another image emerges. An image of a woman in the traditional dark vine dress sitting on the top of the barren hill covered with small grey stones. She is turning a small instrument, a combination of a spinning drum and praying wheel, back and forth. At first, I am trying to deny the image – this is too obvious, it cannot be. I am at a retreat where Chöd is taught and practiced every day. I should not be “influenced" by the environment. Yet, my psyche is persistent. I see the details - her eyes, her demeanor, and character while I am burying my hands into the pile of clay to remodel the gingerbread Deamon-ess into the shape of my ally. I start with pyramidal composition, folding the left arm into her lap, and erecting the right one at 90 degrees. I set aside a small amount of clay for the instrument. I sense how this sculpture relates to the space quite differently. It is independent, stable, and self-affirming.
We are cued now to change our seats again and assume our allies' personalities. I can taste the dry heat and grey, dusty land I am sitting on. I feel the roughness of the old but clean and solid texture of the robes I am wrapped in. In my ally's body, I am in a half meditative state and I am looking at my original self with patience for somebody who needs her own time to enfold. I give this human access to me, an ally, whenever she will practice and spin the drum.
We are almost at the end, cued now to move back to our original seats and dissolve our imagined selves. Before the process is completed, an entire spectrum of light penetrates every cell of my body and dies quickly in a high, bright internal fire. We continue to rest our minds in deep meditation before we are invited to open our eyes whenever we are ready.
I eventually open my eyes too, and I feel shaken by the raw message of my experience. Focusing on survival and necessity over personal need (the Roman figure) depicts the self-denying pattern I am deeply familiar with. Coming from many generations of women immigrating or escaping various historical narratives of Eastern and Southern European even temporary renunciation of duty over a commitment to a home/family triggers horrific guilt and shame. The social modeling in my "seven generations" of ancestors permits female leadership in the household (mother, daughter, sister) and markets (corporate, entrepreneurial, technical, creative) but is dismissive of spiritual roles (priestess, renunciate).
To opt not to be involved with a family/ children (a husband and a daughter) or society, to live independently of ideas and markets, to walk the left-hand path and renounce, to welcome austerities and serve the Divine and Divine only (as Machig Labdrön did almost 1000 years ago) for some may sound like a complicated and risky path for women to take.
This is, in fact, a privilege given to some only. This is possibly what turns women toward studying Yoga, meditation, and other practices that use the Divine as a pathway to finding the Secret of Life. Because, as Joel Morrwood states beautifully, "all these disciplines, renunciations, and services which the Holy Ones perform and which others admire so much because they imagine them to be difficult and austere are in reality joys and privileges to the performers. This is one of the great sacred Secrets, and it will always be a secret, no matter how many people give it away, because no one will ever believe it who has not tried it." (Naked Through the Gate, 1985)
More about How to Feed Your Demons by Lama Tsultrim Allione (Lion's Roar, January, 2022)