“Tantra brought the feminine back in Buddhism”
An Interview with Lama Tsultrim Allione
Lama Tsultrim Allione was one of the first American women to be ordained as a Tibetan nun in 1970 by the 16th Karmapa (the head of the Karma Kagyu, a school of Tibetan Buddhism – FW). At the age of 26, after four years as a nun, she returned her monastic vows, married and raised a family. Lama Tsultrim has a Master’s degree in Buddhist Studies and Women’s Studies, is the founder of the Tara Mandala retreat center and the author of Women of Wisdom and Feeding your Demons.
In Feeding your Demons she describes a five-step practice by which we can transform our negative emotions, relationships, illnesses and self-defeating patterns.
The core of this practice is to stop fighting these ‘demons’ and to start nurturing them. When we give these ‘demonic’ or shadow parts of ourselves the attention, love and acceptance they are craving for (with other words, feed them), they alchemically change from demons into allies.
Lama Tsultrim Allione visited Amsterdam last Winter to teach the Feeding Your Demons-process and was kind enough to take the time to talk to the ABC.
Thank you for making time for this interview! Is it your first time in Amsterdam?
No, I actually lived here for a short while in the late 1960s! I was heading to India, like a lot of young Americans in that time, and made a stop over in Amsterdam. It was a crazy time.
How did your workshops go?
Very well, both workshops (hosted by the Project Network, FW) were sold out. We had happy audiences and a happy audience is good to work with – it is receptive and the energy of happiness is contagious and facilitates the work we do with the group.
When you do the Feeding your Demons five-step process with an audience of more then 200 people, doesn’t that make the atmosphere very heavy – since each individual is invoking their personal demon?
Yes, but we move through this heavy substance. The most intense moment is when the demon first appears. But then you ask the questions, change places (steps part of the Feeding your Demons process, FW) and move on with the process. And it is not like there are MORE demons when they are explicitly invited. The demons are already there, and when we invite them and ask them how we can feed them, we are essentially relieving their heavy energy.
In Feeding Your Demons you give a 5-step process to bring our demons, or suppressed parts of ourselves (in psychology often referred to as our shadow) into our awareness. By doing this, we reduce the destructive power of these demons and release the life energy stored in them.
The first step is to find the demon: what demon do you want to work on?
Step two is to personify the demon: visualize what the demons looks like and ask what it needs.
Step three is to become the demon; merge your awareness with that of the demon. What does it want from you? What does it need from you? When you give it what it needs, how will it feel?
Step four is to feed the demon and meet the ally: when we feed the demon, its negative energy becomes transformed into a positive force (the ally) that will help us.
Step five is to rest in awareness. Page 71 of Feeding Your Demons describes this step: “When you have finished feeding the demon to complete satisfaction and the ally has been integrated, you and the ally dissolve into emptiness. Then you just rest in the awareness that is present (…) There is no “me”, and no “demon”, here we have transcended the self and its fixations. A space of relaxed awareness replaces the usual stream of thoughts”.
You say that step 5 is the most important. Why is that?
Because in the last step you return to the ground of Being. By that I mean that you return to a state of non-duality, where there is not a split between subject and object. That is really the point of Buddhist practice: all meditation is aimed to take you to that non-dual state. In the practice of Feeding Your Demons you exaggerate in a way the state of dualism by splitting out this demonic piece of your psyche, but by the last step you dissolve all forms and immerse into the ground of Being. To enter this non-dual state is the goal of all Buddhist meditation.
Eckhart Tolle calls that the Observer state: the state in which you are no longer identified with your personality structure, with your ego.
It is not the same. It is not an observer state: it is a non-dual state. You are not observing or watching in this state. It is totally the opposite of that. It is the Mind, resting in it own nature, which is vast, unborn, undefined and essentially empty.
But if we come from that non-dual state – if we essentially are vast, empty Mind – how is it possible that when we get born, we get trapped in illusions and forget our true nature?
Yeah, how did we get into this mess? (laughs)
There is a rupture with the ground of Being when consciousness moves out of the non-dual state. At that moment, there are two choices: when consciousness moves out, it either recognizes the appearances of the phenomenal world as inseparable from the ground of Being, and therefore returns into Union, which is the primordial state.
Or, there is a failure to recognize appearances as inseparable from the ground of Being.
When there is a failure to recognize that, then consciousness moves out and out and out, because in that moment, of not recognizing itself, of separation, there is anxiety.
And that anxiety causes consciousness to move out and out and out.. and that is really what creates Samsara (the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth – FW). As to exactly WHY that happens – there is no explanation. It just happens.. and when it happens, anxiety is born.
One Buddhist teacher gave an interesting metaphor for it. Imagine there is a vast room, a dance hall, he said. There is somebody dancing in the hall. At first the person feels at one with the whole space he is dancing in. But then he starts to dance faster and suddenly he feels himself split separate from that state of oneness. When this happens anxiety is born, and the Ego is born. Once the Ego forms, it constantly tries to establish itself, to make itself safe in a way. It has all these strategies to make itself safe.
But all these strategies are incredibly inefficient – like passion, grasping, craving or aversion, pushing things away – because they just create more suffering and feelings of separation. So our strategies don’t work.
Meditation is really moving away from all this “going out”, from this trying to defend or grasp, from all the strategies by which the Ego wants to establish itself and experiences itself as separate. And so in meditation we turn this energy back, we turn inward to recognize the inseparability of life, the inseparability of all phenomena.
And do you think that the continual practice of turning inward, meditating, returning to the ground of Being, is the solution for our suffering? Because it is not like you experience the ground of Being once during meditation and then have rid yourself of all anxiety..
No, unfortunately not. (Laughs) And that is the whole point of Feeding Your Demons.
You might want to return to the non-dual state, but you don’t know how, because you have all these demons. The demons steer you away from your realization of oneness. This method, Feeding your Demons, is designed for that: to work with our relative issues and problems, with our individual demons.
Maybe because it makes the demons tangible and thus makes it easier for us to work through them and return to our non-dual state?
Yes, and also because the Feeding Your Demons-method is very personal. It is not like ‘I want to get rid of the Ego, so I’m going to meditate…’ It is very articulated: you have a particular problematic pattern, you find out the need (or demon) beneath this pattern and feed it to complete satisfaction. Then the demon becomes your ally. That resolves your problem and causes you to naturally fall back into the ground of Being. The energy that was tied up in the demon becomes free when the demons is transformed into an ally, so you receive all the energy that before was blocked. All the energy that was in the con-stellated energy of the demon becomes accessible and free.
The Feeding Your Demons process integrates all the parts of you that were rejected, abandoned.. in short, all the parts that were not accepted by you.
In the church where I held my workshop, there was a huge stained glass window of a bishop with its foot on the devil. That is the paradigm that we have been born into – a paradigm in which you suppress things. We are always holding down something – warding off something – that we are afraid off.
To reject the things that we fear is so embedded in our psyches, in our movies, art and churches.. But when we feed these demons, we integrate these parts in our psyche. We make friends with them. And then we are not holding anything down.
You also talk about the global situation we are in. These days we seem to notice an ‘increase’ of darkness in the world – a polarization of light and shadow. The collective demons – war, terror, hate – really show their tails. Do you think these collective demons are ‘crying out’, as it were, to be integrated?
Yes, I see this in the political situation in the US. Under the Bush administration, we were living so much in the paradigm of killing the enemy, instead of dialoguing with the enemy. This has taken so much energy from our country – financial and emotional energy. We tried to fight the terrorists, but the number of terrorists have increased. We killed one, but ten more stood up.
And now Obama promises to talk to the enemy, though it remains to be seen if he can actually do this. I was writing Feeding Your Demons towards the end of the Bush administration, when the election was happening, and I felt such an incredible polarization in the world. I was so excited to hear Obama say that he wanted to talk with the enemy. And I think he will.
We are all pieces of each other: this is an interdependent world. Probably now more then ever.
And so when one piece is trying to repress another piece, to kill it, it is not going to create a feeling of wholeness. It is the same within ourselves: if there is a piece that we want to get rid of or kill, we don’t have an integrated experience of life.
Do you think Obama might be the personification of a shift in consciousness? In the sense that enough people in the world embodied the consciousness of dialogue and integration to produce a leader like Obama?
I think it was very surprising how many people came out for him, because the Republicans have a lot of money. Their view seemed to be the predominant view.
But as soon as there was someone intelligent who was proposing something new, everybody came out. It is hard to find good leadership though. To genuinely have a view and then to have the intelligence to work with all the different political forces.
Do you think that healing the collective demons will have to happen from the bottom up? That we have to feed our individual demons in order to heal the collective demons as well? Because the individual demons are at the causative level; the collective demons are more the effect of the individual demons taken all together.
Yes, I think the most creative thing we can do is work with our own demons. But if you are in a position of power, you can influence a lot of people.
Obama is not feeding his demons literally, but he is taking that approach with his wish for dialogue. And he has a lot of influence. He can contribute greatly to changing the paradigm and to the mental way of looking at problems. If we have enough people who realize that the “fight your enemies”-approach does not work, there will be a shift.
Do you think we are still looking for a shift, or that we are already in it?
I would like to think we are already in it. But I don’t have a huge amount of faith or hope in Samsara. If you look at the history of the world, the suffering just goes on and on. I don’t think that suddenly everything will be resolved. I think things could change in a positive sense, to some extent, but I think it could go the other way too. There are a lot of different forces at play, and as long as human beings are caught in the fear and the anxiety that are at the base of the Ego, and as long as they are trying to resolve things by going outwardly, we will experience suffering and confusion.
When you write about the collective demon, you say that individual people function as cells of this collective demon’s body. At the same time, individual people can also function as carriers of the awareness of non-duality or Unity.
Do you think your path and teachings are part of a bigger mission – that they are cells in the body of global healing?
I would sure like to think so. And it was certainly encouraging to see that the publication of the book in 2008 coincided with the election of Obama, while I had written the book still under the Bush administration. I would like to think my teachings are part of a healing movement, but I don’t want to get caught in these grandiose ideas. There are always different sides to the story.
You could get caught up in the Ego by thinking you are a messenger for the Unity awareness?
Yes, and if you think that somehow things are going to change dramatically. I would like to believe that, but I think the most important thing is that we do our own inner work and then try to have a positive effect on whatever field we influence. For example, you can have a lot of influence because you decide which books are becoming available to customers. You can exercise your influence in this sphere of bookselling. Another person in the political sphere has influence there, and a therapist has influence working with his clients. So everybody has their sphere. And if they are really active in that sphere and make a positive contribution, then things can change. Believing in a huge, new, great change… it might be true, but it doesn’t really help anything.
Wouldn’t it also be very seductive to again start pushing against the demons when you are coming from the point of view of hoping for a massive transitioning? If you want to get rid of the collective demons and the fear-based way of living, then actually you fall into the old paradigm of not accepting these parts of life.
Yes, that is exactly the danger. In this case you would be caught up in the demon of elation.
I also really like what you say about the God-Demon (p. 113 of Feeding Your Demons). That the God (hope) and the Demon (fear) are two aspects of one dynamic. If you cling too much, put too much energy in one aspect, the other aspect will surface as well.
Yes. For example, if your greatest hope is to be loved, your greatest fear will be not to be loved. If you are caught in this dynamic, in this hope and fear, you are suffering. Buddhism offers a way out of this suffering by bringing you back to the non-dual state, the Ground of being.
For me it started when I began to wonder about the stories of women buddhists. I was in the Tibetan tradition and there were all these stories on great yogis – but they were all men.
And then it got really poignant and intense when my daughter died. I came at a crossroad and I really felt I had to know the stories of women . How did the great Tibetan women teachers live – how did they deal with life and its ordeals? Which choices did they make?
That is how my interest in women started. I then also began to see the imbalance in the religious world (as in the political world!).
So my focus is really on the Divine Feminine: the spiritual aspect of feminism.
We need to revalue the feminine face of spirituality. It is very important for both men and women to balance themselves and to incorporate the Divine Feminine.
What qualities does the Divine Feminine embody?
If we back look historically, back when the feminine was strong, in neolithic times – times of the Goddess Religion – the emphasis was on partnership, on connecting to Mother Earth and to each other, on forming and nourishing the community. Because of their childbearing function, and their natural connection to Nature (e.g. a woman’s menstrual cycle follows the rhythm of the moon) women are very aware of the interconnectedness of life.
In the Divine Feminine, embodiment is sacred – while in the Patriarchical religious system, the sacred is sought outside of the body, up in a higher realm – with an external God.
The Divine Feminine on the contrary celebrates the beauty of life in all its aspects. It celebrates the sacredness of food and eating through feasting, and it celebrates the sacredness of sex through the tantric practice. Tantra brought the feminine back in the buddhist practice. It teaches awakening (liberation) through the senses: by placing all our attention in the sensual exploration of the world, we can experience our non-dual relationship with this world. And because in sex all the five sense (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste) are used, sex can give us the ultimate tantric experience of shifting out of our idea of separation, into the realisation of oneness.