A playful exercise to make peace with the roots of our suffering
Have you ever felt stuck in a rut with a negative emotion? Caught in a whirlpool of rage? Slumping in self-pity? Sometimes when I am feeling despondent the opening lines from The Merchant of Venice come to mind:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
I am very open minded when it comes to trying new practices for self-development, and I had only really stumbled across this one by accident. I grew up very averse to anything remotely monstrous or demonic, and never even watched horror films. It was partly my own time in Tibet that taught me that the scary looking demons on temple walls can be our raging, roaring advocates. I’m intrigued by shadow work, and think it is useful to get to know ourselves better. As I had not come across ‘feeding your demon’ previously, but found it a helpful tool, I decided to share it with you.
We read about the mood boosting benefits of getting out in nature and doing physical activity, but today I am sharing a quirkier exercise that you might like to try if you feel weighed down by doldrums that you can’t shake off. ‘Feeding your demons’ is a meditative exercise that involves visualising your demon, imagining it leaving your body and sitting opposite you, and engaging with it in dialogue. You ask the demon questions, and swap seats to give the responses. You can do it on your own, or with a trusted friend or therapist. I first came across it at a retreat run by Charlie Morley, who combines a love of Tibetan Buddhism with expertise in lucid dreaming and integrative shadow-work.
Shadow work, or shadow integration, is associated with psychologist Carl Jung, but has been widely adopted. The idea is that we all have a shadow side, the side of ourselves that we try to hide or ignore altogether. It is beneficial to shine a light on our shadows so we can work with them and have more integrated and well-rounded self-concepts. Getting to know our shadows is a way of getting to know ourselves, and if we can bear to face the things we hide behind our outward-facing masks, then we will find we can release repressive feelings of shame and guilt. It is important to note that darkness does not equate to evil or badness, it’s just not yet illuminated. Our shadow might include the parts of ourselves we are afraid of, ashamed of, or don’t love. It might also include any other aspects of ourselves that we don’t know. It might include things we could have been proud of but learnt to repress, for fear of standing out or being bullied.
Why would you feed your demons?
Looking away from things we are afraid of only gives more power to the fear, but getting to know ourselves can be transformative. The demons we are talking about here are not external gremlins or forces of evil. They are parts of us, but as we suppress them or look away, they cause us to suffer. We struggle with our demons, pushing them down and away and preferring not to see them as parts of ourselves. The idea of ‘feeding your demons’ is to pause and take a moment to listen to yourself. By allowing our imaginations to play with the idea of a dialogue with our demons, we can gain an understanding into what is at the root of our suffering. We can pay attention to it, reconcile ourselves with it, and let it go.
How to feed your demon – a step -by-step exercise (safe to try at home!)
I have tried this exercise a few times. Sometimes it has felt profound, but not always. If you would like to try it, choose a time when you can be undisturbed, and go to the trouble of setting up two seats or floor cushions opposite each other. Have some pen and paper to hand to write down your revelations, whether they are deep, funny or mundane. Lama Tsultrim Allione, a practitioner, author and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, outlined the five steps of embracing and nurturing the parts of ourselves that we usually struggle with, in her book Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict.
First, sit quietly, close your eyes, and notice your breath. Once you have settled, start to imagine your demon. Visualise it leaving your body and going to sit on the seat opposite. Imagine its shape and colour, and allow it to become more intense until it is personified. The first time I did this exercise I identified my demon as my indecision when I was at a crossroads in life. I wrote afterwards; “the energy came out of my chest and slimed across to the opposite stool. It was brown and male with sucky feety hands coming off stick think limbs that kept moving; push me pull you. Sticky, clingy, pulling away.”
Next, you are going to start a dialogue with your demon.
Ask your demon: What do you want? What do you need? How will you feel when you get what you really need? Give time and space to this, and then swap seats to your demon’s place, to answer the questions.
In my notes about the demon of indecision, I wrote: “It wants to keep me safe, protect me, and show me the risks so I don’t go down the wrong path. It was moving all the time, and its restlessness was suffering. When it got what it needed it would feel happy, safe, and still.”
The next step is to swap back into your original place and feed the demon! Now we visualise dissolving our own body into nectar and allowing it to pour into the demon until it has had enough. We give our demon the positive things it needs to feel safe, happy or peaceful. We notice as the demon morphs. It might change colour and shape. It might disappear completely. Give it time.
The demon is fed, but there is another lovely stage to this meditation. Now it is time to invite an ally to come into the place of the demon, if they have not already appeared in the seat opposite! After noticing details of your visualised ally, you ask it: How will you help me? How will you protect me? How can I access you?
In my notes about that first experience I wrote: “First I saw a burning torch, then I thought it needed a person so Syd, the gardener, appeared to carry the torch. He said ‘I will help you by guiding you, lighting the way and making sure the path ahead is safe. I will protect you by flashing my torch on the road ahead so you can move forward fearlessly. You will summon me by moving forward. I will always be ahead, clearing and lighting your path.’
I see this exercise as a focused, imaginative, playful meditation, that can also be deeply revealing and comforting. If you don’t think this would be a safe experiment for you to try, then give it a miss. But if you feel like trying something new to break a mood cycle, you could give it a go. At the end, Lama Tsultrim Allione invites us to imagine the ally dissolving into light, and then to feel it dissolving into ourselves and integrating this luminosity into every cell of our bodies. My favourite ally came in a more recent go at this exercise, when I was fretting about something mundane. Instead of Syd the gardener, my ally was a beautiful, winged horse, who said “These material, earthly things are like rocks in your shoes weighing you down. Come on my back and fly with me up into the air, looking over the whole, beautiful, wide world.” I asked, how will I find you? “Look up! Look up at the enormous sky. Not so much looking down. Look up, remember the sky, and we can fly.”
Now, when I find myself in a negative rut, I sometimes remind myself to picture that beautiful winged horse and our flight above the fields and forests. Perhaps it is a mental trick, but I think it’s a harmless and uplifting pick-me-up, reminding me to break a pattern and look up. And it’s free! I wonder if you’ll try it.