Working with Obstacles and Demons

by Lama Alta Brown

About 15 years ago, a therapist friend of mine introduced me to a therapy that uses sand images to capture the feel of a particularly upsetting state of mind. You could say that it captures the quality of client’s “demon.”

It occurred to me, after we created a retreat that employed this device, that if the sand therapy was as powerful as we had experienced it to be, it might even be more powerful to experience the “demon” more directly. The sand images are, after all, an external expression of disturbing states of mind.

What if clients could use a mask of their own face to become their demon?

In this way, they could become more directly acquainted with whatever unconscious state was frightening or injuring them. The retreat that developed from this insight became Dancing Through the Dark Door. By this time, I had begun the practice of  the Surmang version of Chöd taught by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso. There is clearly a direct connection between Chöd and the logic of Dancing Through the Dark Door.  Chöd is a Tibetan word meaning to cut off or to slay. In the case of Chöd practice, the item to be cut off is one’s own self-cherishing or ego that interferes with true compassion for others; i.e., bodhicitta. For many, our internal “demons” keep us stuck in self-concern to such an extent that practicing compassion is not possible. 

Dancing her demon:  One person’s story

We were sitting in a circle waiting for a member of the group to put on her mask. She was standing with her back to us getting ready to “dance her demon.” The retreat leader raised her thighbone trumpet (kangling) and with that strange hollow sound called the “demon” into the space. Our masked friend turned and suddenly there was another being standing in front of us. Her body had not changed, but she had become something entirely different, a transformed being that filled the whole environment of the room. She danced, becoming increasingly more powerful and more real. Then, just as suddenly, she stopped moving. She was finished. She took off her mask and she reappeared as our friend. The demon disappeared into the Chöd magic she had called into being. 

What if the demon our friend manifested as experienced reality refused to disappear?

It may have occurred to those of you that something like this could possibly happen. It had occurred to me. However, such is the power of the magic of the ritual. In all of the retreats that I have taught, the demons that were called into being disappeared, immediately, as soon as each participant took off their mask. But there are no guarantees. This is not therapy. If the appearance of the demon could be predicted and controlled, the retreat would be little more than a magic show. This is a spiritual practice and as such it is potentially as dangerous as any genuine spiritual journey into the unknown. It is protected solely by the intention that is captured in the compassion-related meditation practices that precede each dance.

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About Dr. Lama Alta Brown

When Trungpa Rinpoche arrived in Boulder CO, Lama Alta immediately connected with him and studied as his student. After Trungpa died she studied, and continues to study, with Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. She was introduced to Chöd by Khenpo Tsültrim at the monastery in Pullahari, Nepal. He supervised her practice while she did an individual 3-year Chöd retreat. Eventually, he began to send her students. She has been practicing Chöd since 1996 and has been teaching this practice since 1999.

Dr. Brown completed her doctoral work at the University of Southern California, specializing in Buddhist Ethics. She wrote her dissertation on Mediation as a Bodhisattva’s Practice of Peace. She subsequently taught at the University of California at Berkeley through The Graduate Theological Union where she emphasized aspects of Buddhist ethics. She also taught for The Semester in India program through Antioch University and, for five years, taught weekend retreats through The Immaculate Heart college center at The Retreat Center La Casa De Maria. Dr. Lama Alta Brown currently leads an international Chöd sangha. Much of her training in compassionate activity developed out of her experience as the mother of six children.

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