Working with Our Emotions,
God/Demons in Modern Life
by Larry Cappel

In the practice of Chöd we work with our demons. But what are demons in modern life? When Kalu Rinpoche was asked if demons really exist he replied that they really existed in Tibet but he wasn't sure about in America.i The Buddha also taught that on the ultimate level of existence these beings don't exist. When asked about this seeming contradiction Khenpo Tsering Gyurme of Surmang Monestary replied: “without ego I can't find a self, there is no I, so the six realms do not exist. If I experience myself as an individual, an ego, then I also will experience the six realms and the beings of those realms” including demons. For us on the path to enlightenment, beings from other realms, external demons, as well as our internal mind states, internal demons, can be experienced as demonic energy. When we recognize as Buddhism teaches that both internal and external demons are phenomenon that are inherently empty we can apply skillful means for working with demons and bring our demons to the path turning them into allies. This article will limit itself to the subject of internal demons, the demons of our own minds.

Modern thought denies the existence of ghosts, goblins or the minions of Satan. Is the concept of a demon relevant to us anymore? Consider Machig Labdrön's definition of demons: “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.”ii In her new book Feeding Your Demons, Tsultrim Allione defines demons this way: “Our demons are our present preoccupations, the issues in our lives blocking our experience of freedom.”iii In Machig's own words:

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.
Likewise, mind is stained when a [mental image]
Is wrongly taken to be a real object.iv

In the ultimate view of mind all demons are mere phenomenon that arise in the space of luminous-emptiness. But on the relative level our thoughts and emotions are like demons. They seem to possess us and control our behavior. When we believe we can't tolerate our anger, sadness and fear we either try to suppress them or we act them out. This is the energy that is behind all self-destructive behavior, be it eating disorders, addictions, excessive television watching or any of the other myriad of ways we all have of checking out and not being fully present to our experience. When we suppress our emotions we feel shame because we believe we shouldn't feel the way we do. This creates a situation where we avoid feeling our feelings, but sooner or later those disowned feelings make themselves known, often in dramatic ways. When we impulsively act out our emotions, we do so out of a feeling of panic based on the fear that we can't tolerate what we are feeling. The explosion is a release, but a false release. Confused mind believes that the physical act of expressing the emotion gets rid of it. Machig Labdrön teaches us to feed our demons which means to relate fully to them, not to avoid them or get rid of them. We invite our demons into our conscious awareness. This practice can make our lives better and move us forward on the dharma path.

In Chöd practice there are four classes of demons, the tangible demon, the intangible demon, the demon of exaltation, and the demon of arrogance. The tangible demons are perceived as outer objects of our five senses, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Historically, severe weather phenomenon such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes etc. were attributed to the activities of external demons or beings from other realms acting as demons, but tangible demons can be any object we perceive as outside of ourself and experience as unpleasant. The intangible demons are our thoughts and emotions, objects we perceive as inside our minds and experience as unpleasant. This demon is the suffering of our afflictive emotions, our kleshas. Both types of demons are things we ordinarily categorize as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral depending on our attachment or aversion to the object. Additionally, people sometimes blame the suffering of internal demons on something external, typically another person. In more modern terms this is called projection, the placing of our internal experience onto something outside of ourselves. In this way tangible and intangible demons are closely related and it is often difficult to separate one from each other. For example, I know a person who due to events during his childhood has an intense unpleasant visceral reaction if he has to spend time with small children. He is plagued by a tangible demon, children, and an intangible demon, his unpleasant emotional experience of children. These demons impinge on his freedom, blocking him from experiencing the love a small child can so freely give to another being.

The third demon, the demon of exaltation is described as the “mental attachment in which one delights and exalts, thereby giving rise to a great joy.”v A traditional example is becoming attached to blissful meditation experiences, such as seeing the face of the deity, and other pleasurable attachments. These attachments lead to pride and arrogance and is the root of the eight worldly dharmas: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace and pleasure and loss. Today, in modern countries like the USA there are many other bliss-filled experiences to attach to. If we do get attached, these demons of pleasure distract us from the path of dharma and keep us satiated and numb to our suffering and the suffering of others. Excessive indulgence in any activity, food, money, drugs , television, any of the eight worldly dharmas, creates an obstacle to enlightenment and therefore is a demon.

The fourth demon, the demon of arrogance or inflation refers to ego fixation, our deeply rooted belief that we are a self, independent and autonomous. This moment of grasping, when we say I, me or mine, is the beginning of the illusion of duality and gives birth to attachment and aversion. It is considered the root of the three other demons, since ego-fixation is the root of all suffering and the cause of cyclic existence. Machig is said to have explained it this way:

As long as there is an ego, there are demons.
When there is no more ego, there are no more demons either!
If there is no ego, there is no more object to cut through,
Nor is there any more fear or terror.
Free from all extremes, co-emergent wisdom
Gives birth to the understanding of [the nature of] all phenomena.
This is referred to as the fruit of liberation from the four

In Tibetan the word Lhadra is typically translated as “Gods and Demons”. It may be more accurate to translate it as God/Demons. In Machig's teachings she points out that these experiences can be good or bad, gods or demons, depending on the way we relate to these experiences. Machig said labeling something as a God or a demon is the “lewd talk of fools and has no real truth in it.”vii She reminds us not to get attached to the pleasant because it can turn out to do harm, and something initially unpleasant may actually benefit us. A God may be a Demon or a Demon a God, and on an ultimate level they are the same thing. The 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, also pointed this out during his 2008 teachings in Boulder Colorado. While talking about our need to care for mother-earth, he encouraged us to choose between virtuous and non-virtuous actions in relationship to the planet. He continued by warning that what seems like a good thing now, the “god” choice may actually be the harmful choice, where the choice that seems unpleasant now, the “demon” choice may in the end produce the most beneficial results.

The belief in Gods/Demons is useful in the Tibetan culture. Karmapa says if you want to protect a mountain in Tibet you will be more effective if you say the mountain is inhabited by a spirit and that if you damage the mountain the spirit will become angry and cause problems. Although this concept of demons has benefit, Karmapa categorized it as a form of “blind faith” and points out that all of our problems are actually the result of causes and conditions, dependent arising. Karmapa reminds us that “I am my own refuge, I am my own protector. Nobody can actually give me protection. I must help myself by clearly understanding what I have to take up and what I have to get rid of.”viii Karmapa puts the responsibility squarely on each one of us to transform our demons.

In The Myth of Freedom the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche has a beautiful description of emotions. He says: “The emotions are composed of energy, which can be likened to water, and a dualistic thought process, which could be likened to pigment or paint. When energy and thought are mixed together they become the vivid and colorful emotions. Concept gives the energy a particular location, a sense of relationship, which makes the emotions vivid and strong. Fundamentally, the reason why emotions are discomforting, painful, frustrating is because our relationship to the emotions is not quite clear.”ix

Trungpa says when we are working with emotions we are dealing with the fourth and fifth skandhas, concept and consciousness. Our emotional discomfort comes from a conflict between our ego which wants to be in control, and fundamental ignorance, our lack of understanding of the true nature of our emotions, which is energy, merely phenomenon arising in the moment. As a result of this conflict we experience ambivalence and an inability to make an informed decision about. For example: I have to choose between going to dinner with friends or staying home going to bed early and getting some rest. In that moment of confusion conceptional mind starts rationalizing the situation and it's like having two voices in my head, one arguing that I should go out and the other one arguing that I should stay home. Trungpa calls this way of finding our way in the world “crude and childish.” We create the illusion of security through categorization, analyzing how thoughts fit together, putting them in boxes and trying make decisions, all in an effort to create a sense of security. This effort freezes the energy that our emotions really are and as Trungpa says “the world is seen as being absolutely solid and stiff. Everything is frozen movement, frozen space, solidified. . . We see the colors as they are, but somehow they are plastic colors rather than rainbow colors. And this solid quality is the dualistic barrier. . .” Like Machig Labdrön before him Trungpa suggests a similar way out of this painful dualistic relationship with emotions. Practice relating to our emotions in their fundamental state, as energy. Once we do this the fear, paranoia and shame drop away and we can relate to powerful emotions properly. Trungpa says “Then you are like someone who is completely skilled in his profession, who does not panic, but just does his work completely, thoroughly.”x So how do us mere mortals learn to do this? We need skillful means to help us learn to work with emotions. Working with our demons as Machig Labdrön teaches, cuts through the dualism and then we can work with the fundamental energy of our emotions.

The word Chöd is usually translated as “cutting through”. Jamgon Kongtrul defined Chöd as “The Chöd that aims at cutting through demons.”xi In other words we deliberately evoke the objects of thoughts and emotions and use them on the path of meditation to “cut through” our attachments and aversions. As Chöd practitioners, we intentionally create situations for our demons to arise in order to practice cutting through attachments and aversions to both inner and outer objects, realizing the true nature of these phenomenon, Luminous/Emptiness, the Dharmakaya. Part of the unique genius of Chöd is that in the practice we harness our imaginations to skillfully offer our demons everything they desire, selflessly giving them our bodies and our egos with the intention to end their suffering. This compassionate approach to working with our demons has a positive psychological effect on us, allowing us to let go of old hurts, freeing trapped energies and experiencing greater freedom in our lives. In the practice we feed our ego to our demons and we become our demons, our emotional pain. This may seem counter-intuitive at first. Why would anybody want to go near something that psychologically painful? When we do this work, we let go of our sense of self as an individual “I”, and gain understanding. At this moment, as if by alchemy, our demon transforms into an ally and we experience liberation. We free our demon and free ourselves, blessing them and instructing them to do Bodhisattva activity throughout the six realms of existence.

I was talking to a dharma friend about this paper and her response was “this all sounds great but how do you do it?” She particularly liked Chögyam Trungpa's descriptions of emotions but the skillful means of implementing this practice eluded her. In the Karma Kagyu tradition “The 'Lion's Roar' is the fearless proclamation that any state of mind, including the emotions, is a workable situation, a reminder in the practice of meditation.” Trungpa Rinpoche goes on to explain that to relate to emotions we need to see, hear, smell, touch and transmute them.xii We are often afraid to look at the most painful emotional experiences in our life because we fear that the emotion might overwhelm us and we won't be able to tolerate it. Perhaps we fear we'll fall apart, loose our dignity and fail our self-expectations. The Lion's Roar is the fearless willingness to look directly at our emotional states and to work directly with them. We reject nothing, either good or bad and and bring even our most unpleasant memories and feelings to the path with bare-naked awareness. Chöd is one of many skillful means for practicing the Lion's Roar.

In the Chöd practice we fiercely sing:

NAMO god-demons who reside in this terrifying place
And all god-demons of apparent existence
Who display your magical apparitions to me, a fortunate being.
Gather like clouds in the sky,
Fall like rain in the air,
Swirl about like a dust-storm on the earth,
I offer all of you this body. . .

Somatic psychotherapies, experiential in nature, are skillful means that can help us access the depths of our psyches, freeing our demons and releasing our life-force for the benefit of sentient beings. Methods such as Sandplay therapy, making masks of our demons and dancing with them, authentic movement, Gestalt empty-chair techniques and EMDR are some modern methods of accessing these parts of ourselves and transforming the locked energy of the demonic energy. Some years ago while I was in graduate school for somatic psychology at CIIS in San Francisco, I was telling my group therapy partners that I was very anxious about all the work I had to do to finish the semester and that anxiety was making me feel physically sick. My instructor asked me if I'd be willing to work with this experience. I agreed and he instructed me to breathe, to direct my awareness into my body and into what I was feeling, the opposite of what I was trying to do, which was to avoid my feelings. In the safe container of that room and my classmates, he then asked me to describe my in-the-moment experience and to relate what continued to happen in my awareness as I did this. I still remember clearly to this day the vivid experience of the transformation of my anxiety into positive workable energy as I connected with the demon of my anxiety and as as fearlessly as I could, worked with my fear of failure and the shame I experienced for believing myself a failure. My stomach ache disappeared. I felt transformed. Several class mates approached me after class to say how they could see a perceivable difference in how I looked to them. That particular demon still visits with me from time to time but has never overwhelmed me again.

For those of us who are already trained in Chöd and those of us who are not yet Chöd practitioners, another skillful means for working with out demons is by using Tsultrim Allione's method outlined in her new book Feeding our Demons. Based on Machig's principles from the Mahamudra Chöd practice, Tsultrim Allione has developed an effective method for working with our personal demons that combines Machig's wisdom with the knowledge and understanding of modern psychological thought, making this a skillful practice for our culture and our time. Allione presents a 5 step process for feeding your demons: find the demon, personify the demon and ask it what it needs, become the demon, feed the demon and meet the ally, and rest in awareness. Allione's work combines modern psychological thought with the wisdom of the Buddha-dharma, providing a skillful means for transforming our demons into allies on our path towards enlightenment.

Towards the end of the Chöd practice we sing this aspiration prayer for all sentient beings:

May those who practice Cho
Not view their own mind as mara;
May they cut through self-concerns.
Whatever positive qualities arise,
May practitioners not become conceited;
Whatever negative thoughts occur
May they not become deluded
May this genuine dharma, the practice of Cho
Pervade all directions and all times
Like the sun rising in the sky!

Larry Cappel is a Psychotherapist in Denver and Louisville Colorado and a Community Dharma Leader authorized by the Sukhasiddhi Foundation, a Tibetan Buddhist center. You can learn more about Larry and contact him at: or

  1. Harding, Sarah, Ed. Machik's Complete Explanation, Clarifying the Meaning of Chod, p. 40
  2. Allione, Tsultrim, Feeding your Demons, p. 43
  3. Allione, p. 43
  4. Edou, Jerome, Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd, p. 67
  5. Harding, p 119
  6. Edou, p. 71
  7. Harding p. 123
  8. Densal, Spring/Summer 2008, Volume 18, Number 2
  9. Trungpa, Chogyam, The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation, p. 64
  10. Trungpa, p. 65 - 67
  11. Edou, , p. 39
  12. Trungpa, p. 69