NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Needs” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Needs: Demons, allies, shadows
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
Sometimes the things that plague us seem like demons. We watch helplessly as they make us do things we know are not good for us. We yield to drugs or alcohol when we see how they are destroying our relationships, health, and finances. We eat to excess when we are already overweight. We argue with our spouses, our children, our colleagues, when we know nothing good will come from it. We succumb to anxiety, depression, anger, jealousy, fear, and other troubling emotions and let them rule our lives. We can’t stop ourselves. No matter how hard we try to keep them in their place, our demons pop up again.
If only we could exorcise them. . . .
Psychotherapists use the concept of “secondary gains” to describe hidden benefits from what otherwise appear to be self-defeating or even self-destructive behaviors. The main reason most of us engage in addiction, manipulation, selfishness, rage, depression, anxiety, jealousy, procrastination, and many other apparently negative behaviors, despite their evident harm, is not because we are inherently “defective,” but because we have unmet, and often unconscious, needs.
Our unmet needs turn into “wants.” We “want” to get drunk, get mad, put things off, and so on. The true need, however, is only indirectly met, if at all, by our attempts to satisfy our wants.
Secondary gains can show up very early – in children who “act out” in school because they have a need for positive attention that is not met, and negative attention is better than none at all. Or it may appear in procrastinators who avoid achievement because, subconsciously, they are afraid of the ridicule they might face, should they fail. Or in patients who ignore the advice of their healthcare providers because their pain shelters them from the greater emotional pain of jobs they cannot stand, spouses who ignore them, or other difficulties they can’t bear to face. Or in the alcoholic who avoids buried feelings of childhood shame.
Our “wants” are often the shadow sides of our true needs. On the surface, the “acting out,” procrastination, pain, and addiction all seem to be causing more harm than good – and in most ways they are – but they also, in unconscious ways, are trying to help us.
Many of us see the negative effects of pursuing our shadow “wants” and we try to reform. We resolve to stop drinking, be on time, control our anger, get things done. But our shadow sides can’t simply be controlled, suppressed, or eliminated. Stories such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, among many others, demonstrate what we can see in our own lives: that suppressing our shadow sides and denying their wants only makes them dominant.
Our “demons,” persist because they are not actually trying to destroy us, but instead to protect us from what they believe is greater harm or to obtain for us a greater good. The result may be actions that appear self-sabotaging, but they have positive intentions. If we are to achieve balance in our lives, we must first embrace our demons, and then advocate for the deeper needs they are trying to satisfy.
A pivotal moment in my life occurred many years ago in a dream. I came upon a burning house. I ran into the inferno, looking for anyone who might still be alive. In the kitchen, a man whose entire body and face were blackened by fire ran toward me. He howled in agony through his lipless mouth and, before I could move aside, put his arms around me. Terror turned almost immediately to a wave of sadness and love. I returned his embrace and knew that he and I were one and the same. When I awoke, I felt complete in a way I had never before experienced.
A thousand-year-old Tibetan practice called chöd is a kind of waking dream. It goes exorcism one better. It can help to reveal the true needs beneath our demons’ wants, and then, rather than attempting exorcism, convert demons into an allies. Tsultrim Allione, a modern-day practitioner and teacher of chöd, explains: “When we understand how to feed the demon’s real need with fearless generosity, the energy tied up in our demon will tend to dissolve and become an ally.”
The chöd practice, as interpreted by Tsultrim Allione, involves five steps and can be performed in about half an hour. Her method is summarized here. Begin it by arranging two chairs so they are facing each other and you can easily move from one to the other with closed eyes. Then perform these steps:
1. Finding the demon. Close your eyes. Scan your body and become aware of sensations and feelings you associate with your “demon.” Translate them into sensory terms such as color, shape, texture, temperature, and sound.
2. Personifying the demon and asking what it needs. With your eyes still closed, imagine what the sensations you are recalling would be like if they were personified into a character or monster. Visualize this character – the demon – sitting opposite you. Notice how it looks; pay special attention to the expression in its eyes. Ask it what it wants from you, what it needs from you, and how it will feel when it gets what it needs.
3. Becoming the demon. Change places with the demon by moving to the chair it occupied. Settle into your demon’s identity and visualize your normal self sitting in the other chair. As the demon, answer the three questions you asked it. In your answers, distinguish carefully between “wants” and “needs.” For instance, an addict demon may want drugs, but may need relief. When it gets this relief, it may feel calm and peaceful.
4. Feeding the demon and meeting the ally. Change places again, still with eyes closed. Imagine separating your consciousness from your body, then envision your body melting into a nectar consisting of what the demon will feel when it gets what it needs. Feed this nectar to the demon and watch as the demon transforms.
When it has absorbed all it can, the demon often either changes to some other form or disappears entirely. If it transforms, ask the transformed demon if it is an ally. If it indicates it is, ask the ally how it will serve you, what commitment it will make to you, how it will protect you, and how you can gain access to it. If the transformed demon is not an ally, or if the demon has disappeared, then call an ally to appear and ask the ally the same four questions.
Change places. Become the ally and answer the questions you have asked.
Change places again and, in your original chair, become yourself. Imagine you are getting the help the ally has offered. Finally, imagine the ally merging into you, so it is a part of you, now. Then let yourself dissolve into emptiness.
5. Resting in awareness. Allow yourself to simply rest, taking a break from the thinking mind, experiencing open awareness.
Tsultrim Allione’s interpretation of this ancient practice incorporates into a single exercise several of the techniques modern psychotherapy has reinvented. Often, the result of guiding a client through chöd has been liberating. Practicing chöd myself has also become an important component of my own process of self-integration and healing.