Feeding Your Demons

Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict


Read by Tara Bast

By Tsultrim Allione

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Allione — one of only a few female Buddhist leaders in this country and comparable in American religious life to Pema Chodron — bridges this ancient Eastern practice with today’s Western psyche. She explains that if we fight our demons, they only grow stronger. But if we feed them, nurture them, we can free ourselves from the battle.

Through the clearly articulated practice outlined in Feeding Your Demons, we can learn to overcome any obstacle and achieve freedom and inner peace.


Copyright © 2008 by Tsultrim Allione

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

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First eBook Edition: October 2008

This book is intended to supplement, not replace, the advice of a trained mental or physical health professional. If you know or suspect that you have a mental health problem, you should consult a health professional. If you have a physical health problem, we also recommend that you continue your treatment and follow the advice of your doctor. The author and publisher specifically disclaim any liability, loss, or risk, personal or otherwise, which is incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application of any of the contents of this book.

Jérôme Edou, "Machig's Last Instructions" from Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. Copyright © 1995. Reprinted with the permission of Snow Lion Publications, www.snowlionpub.com.

ISBN: 978-0-316-05395-2


Women of Wisdom



The malignant male and female demons

Who create myriad troubles and obstructions

Seem real before one has reached enlightenment.

But when one realizes their true nature,

They become Protectors,

And through their help and assistance

One attains numerous accomplishments.

— Tibet's great yogi Milarepa (1052–1135)

MAHATMA GANDHI, one of the greatest peace activists of the twentieth century, changed the course of India's history by quite literally feeding his enemy. Gandhi, the story goes, was told that he would be visited by a British official who would threaten him with prison if he did not give up what the British considered to be the subversive activity of marching in protest of the British salt tax. Gandhi's advisers suggested putting nails in the road to puncture the tires of the official's car.

"You will do nothing of the sort," said Gandhi. "We shall invite him to tea."

Crestfallen, his followers obeyed. When the official arrived, he entered full of pomp and purpose. "Now then, Mr. Gandhi, this so-called salt marching has to stop at once. Otherwise I shall be forced to arrest you."

"Well," said Gandhi, "first, let's have some tea."

The Englishman agreed, reluctantly. Then, when he had drained his cup, he said briskly, "Now we must get down to business. About these marches . . ."

Gandhi smiled. "Not just yet. Have some more tea and biscuits; there are more important things to talk about."

And so it went. The Englishman became increasingly interested in what the Mahatma had to say, drank many more cups of tea and ate many more biscuits until he was completely diverted from his official task, and eventually went away won over to Gandhi's cause. Gandhi used the medium of tea, an English ritual that implies civility and mutual respect, and literally fed this enemy until he became an ally. His tactic of feeding rather than fighting contributed to one of the most extraordinary nonviolent revolutions in history.

This same tactic had been used nearly a millennium earlier, when the great eleventh-century Tibetan yogini Machig Labdrön was receiving initiation from her teacher, Sonam Lama, with several of her spiritual sisters. At a key moment in the initiation, Machig magically rose up from where she was sitting until she was suspended in the air about a foot from the ground, and there she danced and spoke in Sanskrit. In a state of profound meditation she passed through the clay walls of the temple unimpeded and flew into a tree above a small pond outside the monastery.

The pond was the residence of a powerful naga, or water spirit. These capricious, mythic beings are believed to cause disruption and disease when disturbed, and can also act as treasure holders or protectors when they are propitiated. This particular naga was so terrifying that the local people did not even dare to look at the pond, never mind approach it. But Machig landed in the tree above the pond and stayed there in a state of meditation.

The water spirit considered young Machig's arrival to be a direct confrontation. He approached her threateningly, but she remained in meditation, unafraid. This infuriated him, so he gathered a huge army of nagas from the region in an attempt to overwhelm her. When she saw this mass of terrifying magical apparitions coming, Machig instantly transformed her body into a food offering, and as her biography (found in my book Women of Wisdom) states: "They could not devour her because she was egoless."

Not only did the aggression of the nagas evaporate, but they committed themselves to Machig, promising not to harm her or other beings, vowing to protect her, and pledging to serve her and anyone who followed her teachings. By meeting the demons and offering her body as food to them with unshakable compassion rather than fighting against them, Machig turned the demons into allies.

While studying Machig's teachings, I began to think about the Western understanding of demons. When I looked up the word in an English dictionary, I discovered that "demon" has not always had such a bad reputation. Derived from the Greek daemon or daimon, the term originally referred to a person's guiding spirit. The Greek daemon was a divine creature, a guiding spirit to be trusted and relied upon. This early belief in the daemon gradually changed with the advent of the Christian attack on pagan beliefs, so that by the Middle Ages demons were being blamed for every possible disaster, despised and feared as evil. We will see that through the process of meeting and feeding a demon with love and compassion, it can be transformed into a daemon. In this way your demons become your allies, just as the fearsome nagas transformed into protectors when Machig offered them her body as food.

Tales from Western mythology stand in stark contrast to the stories of Machig and Gandhi. The myth of the twelve labors of Hercules is a classic of Western literature, a shining example of the conquering hero's quest, one of the most important personal and political myths to guide Western culture. To absolve himself of the murders of his children, Hercules is given twelve tasks, the second of which sends him to Lake Lerna in southern Italy, where a nine-headed, many-legged serpent called Hydra has been attacking innocent passersby. Hercules arrives at the lake accompanied by his nephew and pupil, Iolaus. Upon finding the lair of Hydra, the two men shoot flaming arrows to draw out the beast. But when Hydra emerges and Hercules wades into the water, the angry Hydra wraps its leg around Hercules' ankle, trapping him, and its assistant, a giant crab, drags him to the edge of a bottomless lake. To Hercules' dismay, every time he severs one of Hydra's heads, two grow back in its place.

Ensnared by the monster, Hercules calls to Iolaus for help. Rushing to his uncle's aid, the young man uses a burning branch to cauterize the stub of each of the heads Hercules chops off, preventing the Hydra from growing more. This gives Hercules the upper hand, and eventually only one head remains. This head is immortal, but Hercules realizes he can cut through the mortal neck that supports it. He chops the head off, but it still lies before him, hissing and staring. So he buries the immortal head under a boulder, considering the monster vanquished and his second task completed.

But what kind of victory has Hercules achieved? Has he actually eliminated the enemy or merely suppressed it? Hydra's immortal head, the governing force of its constellated energy, is still seething under the boulder and could reemerge if circumstances permitted. What does this say about Hercules' accomplishment, and, more generally, about the monster-slaying heroic mentality that so enthralls and permeates Western literature and society?

Various versions of the myth of the dragon-slaying hero have dominated the Western psyche over the last forty-five hundred years. Although the positive aspect of the myth can lead to heroic battles against truly dangerous demons like Hitler, as well as against disease, poverty, and hunger, it also poses terrible dangers. Among these is inflation of those who identify themselves with the role of the dragon-slaying hero, regardless of their virtue. Another is projecting evil onto our opponents, demonizing them, and justifying their murder, while we claim to be wholly identified with good. The tendency to kill rather than to engage the dragon prevents us from knowing our own demons, and from turning them into allies.

Evidence that we continue to live out this myth can be seen everywhere, from popular movies to current global events. In today's battles each side identifies itself with the divine good as it struggles against evil. The polarization of good and evil justifies violence as a necessary sacrifice that must be endured to attain victory. Today perhaps more than ever before, we are trapped by overidentification with the dragon-slaying myth.

Our state of polarization is not only in the outer world; within ourselves we fight demons of addiction, stress, trauma, anger, and self-hatred, to name just a few. We try to dominate everything, inside ourselves and without, including Mother Nature herself. But rather than ever achieving final victory, we become engulfed by the struggle, which holds us captive. As we seek to kill the dragon, we find ourselves in danger of destroying each other and the natural world, making human life on this planet untenable.

We can see signs of the ineffectiveness of this myth at every turn. For example:

•   Americans spend tens of billions of dollars every year on products and programs to try to lose weight, yet the "battle of the bulge" remains a lost cause. Chronic dieters frequently add five to ten pounds to their weight every time they diet, and eating disorders triggered by the starve-and-binge cycles of diets are killing thousands of us every year.

•   Our pursuit of such things as wealth and success is so defined by struggle that even if we finally reach these goals, the in-grained pattern of striving won't allow us to enjoy the fruits of our labor. And once we succeed, we face a draining, never-ending battle to defend what we've gained.

•   Experts in addiction tell us that using willpower to fight addiction does not lead to sobriety, and we must stop thinking we can overcome addiction by struggling against it.

•   We do not try to understand our illnesses. Instead, whenever we get sick we immediately begin to develop strategies to "fight" the illness. Obituary columns routinely read: "So-and-so died after a long battle with cancer."

•   Religious fundamentalism is growing in many countries around the world today, emphasizing the chasm between good and evil. Each group staunchly believes it has God on its side. By identifying our own religion with good and others with evil, we are locked in an endless struggle and never get around to facing the evil in ourselves or in our own political systems.

•   We have raped the natural world, damming rivers and carelessly using up resources, polluting the atmosphere, and battling the nurturer, Mother Earth. Now nature fights back with a fury of natural disasters: hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, droughts, floods, and global warming. In response we fight climate change, seeking to stop it without addressing the underlying attitude that created the problem to begin with.

•   We try to eliminate enemies through war and violence, but violence breeds more violence. For example, a study by U.S. intelligence agencies showed that rather than stemming the growth of terrorism, the war in Iraq had invigorated radicalism and worsened the global terrorism threat.

As we live by the myth in which we seek out, battle against, and ultimately destroy the enemy within and without, we also teach this myth to our children. We see this theme in fairy tales, religious stories, and political rhetoric, where heroes like Saint George kill the dragon or vanquish the hidden monster, often with a powerless maiden being "saved" by the hero. We also see it endlessly in films and television programs. Seeking out and destroying "the enemy" may look like the best solution, but in actuality it's creating a more and more dangerous world. Clearly we need to explore the alternative of engaging and communicating with the enemy rather than destroying it.

In this book we focus primarily on personal demons, cycling back to collective and political demons at the end. This is because the personal is at the root of our global demons, and by working with our own demons we create a shift that ripples out into the world. The approach of feeding rather than fighting our demons provides a way to pay attention to the demons within us, avoiding the dangers of repressing what we fear inside ourselves. Facing and feeding our demons avoids the creation of a raging monster that wreaks destruction both in us and in the world.

I propose that we follow Machig's example: the dragon is not slain or even fought against, but drawn out and fearlessly nurtured. In this way we bridge the schism between "good" and "evil" and the potential enemy is transformed into an ally. This means that the energy that has been tied up in struggle becomes a positive and potentially protective force, a daemon rather than a demon. Every battle that we have within ourselves is tying up resources that could be put to far better use.

In mythology the dragon often guards a secret treasure. Through feeding our demons and transforming them into allies, we discover our own treasures that have been hidden by our preoccupation with doing battle. As it turns out, when liberated, the energy of the demon that has been locked in struggle is the treasure. Feeding our demons also makes us less of a threat in the world. When we become aware of our demons and offer them an elixir of conscious acceptance and compassion, we are much less likely to project them onto others.

Carl G. Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, described our dark side as "the shadow," which might emerge in dreams or be projected onto others. The shadow he described consists of those parts of ourselves that the conscious mind deems unacceptable. The shadow is the repressed self, the unwelcome aspects of our personality we disown. It might be our shame, our anger, or our prejudices. It is that which we don't want others to know about us, and it often appears in dreams doing things our conscious self would not consider. When a married person dreams of having an affair, this is the shadow. We are often unaware of the shadow parts of our personality, because they are unseen by the conscious mind. The shadow encourages us to finish the whole plate of cookies when we intend not to eat any. The shadow blurts out an insult to someone we are trying to impress.

The process of feeding our demons is a method for bringing our shadow into consciousness and accessing the treasures it holds rather than repressing it. If the shadow is not made conscious and integrated, it operates undercover, becoming the saboteur of our best intentions as well as causing harm to others. Bringing the shadow to awareness reduces its destructive power and releases the life energy stored in it. By befriending that which scares us most, we find our own wisdom. This resolution of inner conflict also lessens the evil produced by the unconscious that contributes to dangerous collective movements.

In the practice of feeding our demons, we offer what is most precious (our own body) to that which is most threatening and frightening (our demons), and in doing so we overcome the root of all suffering, which in Buddhist terms is egocentricity. To give you an idea of how feeding your demons might look in a real-life situation, let me tell you a story of what happened some years ago while I was traveling in Tibet.

My friend Sara and I were traveling by bus on a pilgrimage. By this time I had come to a personal understanding of demons, was teaching the practice of Chöd, and had developed the method of feeding your demons that I describe in this book. One day we moved to a significantly higher altitude, having driven throughout the night. We had eaten one too many cans of mackerel in tomato sauce as the bus bounced interminably over the dirt track, aggravating our altitude headaches. The dust was so thick that even wrapping my head in a scarf didn't keep it out.

Sara was sitting alone, crying, on a seat ahead of me. I went and sat next to her. She told me about the depression that was attacking her, a demon that she had been battling all her life, having grown up in a family where she was unwanted. She was desperate, convulsing in sobs. Attempting to help her feed this demon seemed like the best thing I could offer her, even under these difficult circumstances, where I couldn't go through the steps as completely as I normally would. So right there, lurching along on the dusty road, we began the process.

I said, "Okay, Sara, let's try an experiment. Let's see what it would look like if you were to give this pain a form."

She closed her eyes and brought her awareness into her body, finding a sensation of nausea and grief she described as dark, reddish purple, heavy, and thick. Then I suggested she allow this to take a living form in front of her. She saw a huge purple monster with a gaping mouth where its stomach should have been. It wanted to consume her.

I said, "Let's see if we can find the real need that lies behind what this demon says it wants."

Sara asked the demon what it needed, and it said it needed her to stop trying to escape, that if she did that, it would feel love and acceptance. Then I suggested that Sara visualize dissolving her body into a nectar of love and feeding the demon until it was completely satisfied.

Slowly Sara stopped sobbing and became quiet. After a while she said, "I fed it, and it got smaller and smaller. I don't understand how it happened, but it's gone."

After enjoying the moment she said, "My mind has relaxed into a peaceful space I never thought was possible for me. But I still don't know how it happened."

Several months after we returned home, Sara wrote me a letter about this experience. She said, "This trip was the most difficult physical and emotional thing I'd ever done. By nature I am a loner. To be in a large group was difficult, especially since you were the only person I knew before I left on the pilgrimage. That day on the bus when I broke down, I'd reached a point in my life where if I couldn't live with myself, I was going to die. Literally.

That day all the pain came together. The pain in my head caused by the altitude. The pain in my heart caused by my terrible childhood traumas. The pain of all that I was seeing in Tibet. The pain was too much. When I fed this demon of pain and sadness, it was as if I'd come out the other side as someone completely new. I felt somehow reborn."

The interesting thing about Sara's experience was that it wasn't just a momentary shift. In her letter she said that the pain she had carried all her life never came back. Of course feeding your demons doesn't always liberate you from long-held pain in one session; usually that requires a series of encounters, but in

Sara's case, one was all it took.

In considering the stories of Gandhi, Machig, and Sara, we see a compelling alternative to Hercules' solution of battling against demons. Inspired by their compassion and fearlessness, we can now take a look at how we might meet our demons, feed them, and perhaps even turn them into allies — untapped sources of support and protection.



At first a yogi feels his mind

Is tumbling like a waterfall;

In midcourse, like the Ganges,

It flows on slow and gentle;

In the end, it is a great

Vast ocean, where the lights

Of child and mother merge in one.

— The Song of Tilopa (988–1069)

I SHALL NEVER FORGET the first time I witnessed the Chöd practice. It was 1973, I was twenty-five, and I had recently returned to India to be with my Tibetan teachers following a year in the United States. After three and a half years as a Tibetan Buddhist nun, I was in a state of great transition. Although I had been happy as a nun, at twenty-five I decided I wanted to follow my spiritual path without the shaved head, robes, and vows that separated me from people in the West.

I had given back my vows to a kind, highly respected lama, who did not chastise me, but rather suggested I dedicate to all beings the merit gained by my time as a monastic. He also suggested I perform certain purification practices to clear any obstacles that might come from breaking my commitments. I began the practices he suggested while I was living in a cabin in the foothills of the Himalayas in an area called Kulu Valley, near the town of Manali, where my meditation master, Apho Rinpoche, a married lama, lived with his wife and four children and a group of monks, nuns, and yogis. Manali was the last stop before the Rohtang Pass, gateway to the Himalayan kingdom of Lahaul. A latticework of mud streets and wooden stalls extended away from the main road, which could be identified by the tea shops, hardware stores, restaurants, food stalls, and cloth vendors that ran along it. There were no hotels and one battered storefront post office. A couple of miles upriver, on a steep hillside, was Apho Rinpoche's place (Rinpoche is a title of respect given to a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual master).

The people from Manali looked like they'd stepped out of a fairy tale. The women wore hand-woven blankets held together by a belt and a huge safety pin at the shoulder. Bright cherry-red cotton scarves, tied under their hair in the back, covered their heads. The men wore handmade shoes and thin cotton trousers with matching knee-length tunics, belted with thick layers of raw felt rope. Kulu Valley produced red rice, apples, and plums as cash crops, and its people lived on this income and subsistence farming.

I was renting a small house close to Apho Rinpoche's home. My house, characteristic of many in Manali, had covered porches around it so you could sit outside protected from the weather. From my front porch I could see across the river to the orchards on the other side. Above them, conifer forests gave way to the glistening snowy peaks of the Himalayas.

One afternoon as I was sitting in my cabin after lunch, I heard joyful singing from the hill on the other side of the stream. A storm was gathering, and low dark clouds were blowing down the valley from the Rohtang Pass. Wind whipped up the chartreuse hillside across from the cascading stream below my cabin. There on the hill I saw a girl of about fourteen wearing a traditional pink blanket dress. Unaware of me, she was dancing and singing at the top of her lungs, twirling among the cows she was tending.

Shortly after this I went down the path through the apple orchard to Apho Rinpoche's home to ask him some questions about my meditation practice. I arrived at Rinpoche's stone house just moments before the monsoon storm broke. Rinpoche sat upstairs in the corner room overlooking the courtyard in front of his house and the hillside beyond. He had recently settled his family in Manali after escaping from Tibet. He was in his fifties and still handsome, with a thin mustache, short gray hair, and a big smile with beautiful, even white teeth. He wore several layers of faded cotton shirts in various shades of red and orange over a full-length brown robe tied at the waist with a woven belt of red silk. He sat cross-legged on his bed, leaning on pillows against the wall. Perpendicular to his bed was a lower bed covered with a carpet.

On the table alongside his bed was a delicate Tibetan teacup on a silver stand with a silver cover to keep the tea hot during long conversations. Next to the cup were a light blue Chinese thermos and a couple of Tibetan texts, their foot-long loose folios lying on top of cloth wrappings. On one wall was a cupboard containing his shrine. He gestured for me to sit on the lower bed. Against the opposite wall was a carpet, where a Tibetan man was sitting.

The man visiting Rinpoche was a refugee road worker. He wore tattered wool pants and a gray shirt with several buttons missing, and he looked pale and thin — almost haunted. He was talking to Rinpoche about his poor health, asking for help. As the rain drummed down outside, the three of us sat there together drinking sweet tea poured from the Chinese thermos by Rinpoche's wife, Urgyen Chödrön, whom we called Amala. Rinpoche listened, nodding and making sympathetic noises, looking concerned. Eventually he told the man to come back that night, and he suggested that I also come back that evening.

I have always wondered if he had some foreknowledge of my connection with the ceremony that would occur. In any case, that night I took my rattling Chinese flashlight and slid down the muddy path from my house in the dark with rain still pounding down. As I walked into Rinpoche's darkened house, I could hear the rhythmic sound of drums and bells. Climbing the dark staircase at the end of the hallway, I saw light under the curtain of the altar room.

Inside was a group of maroon-robed monks and nuns arranged in a circle around the Tibetan man, who was lying on his back with his eyes closed, motionless. All of the monks and nuns held a Tibetan bell in the left hand, and in the right hand a drum that they were turning from side to side. They were singing together, in a state of deep concentration. I quietly took a seat behind the circle and listened to the melody that rose and fell, punctuated by a thighbone trumpet, the rhythm carried by the bells and double-faced drums. Sitting at the edge of their circle in the dim light, I felt profound longing for something I couldn't name. Was it a memory, or was it a call to something new?

After the practice was over, the road worker got up, shook himself, and smiled softly. He quietly made offerings to the monks and nuns and departed into the stormy night. As I climbed back up the hill to my cabin, I thought about the storm and the young girl dancing and singing that afternoon, and I felt her presence had signaled something about to break open in my life. I knew this practice called me home. I went to bed that night in my old cotton flowered sleeping bag to the sound of rain pounding on the tin roof of my cabin and the beat of the drum in my heart.

The next afternoon I was sitting with Rinpoche having tea when the road worker came back. The man was transformed. He looked radiant, healthy, and had a sparkle in his eyes that hadn't been there the day before. He thanked Rinpoche and we drank tea together.

After he left I asked Rinpoche, "What was that practice last night?"

And he said, "That's the practice of Chöd."


On Sale
Jan 22, 2019
Hachette Audio

Tsultrim Allione

About the Author

Tsultrim Allione was one of the first Western women to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She is considered an authority in the world of American religious life, recognized as an emanation of Machig Labdrön by the resident Lama at Zangri Khangmar, and chapters have been written about her in several books. Allione is the founder and director of Tara Mandala, a retreat center in Colorado and the author of the classic Women of Wisdom.

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