“That which is called 'devil' is not some actual great big black thing that scares and petrifies whomever sees it. A devil is anything that obstructs the achievement of freedom. . . . Most of all, there is no greater devil than this fixation to a self. So until this ego-fixation is cut off, all the devils wait with open mouths. For that reason, you need to exert yourself at a skillful method to sever the devil of ego-fixation”
- Machig Lobdron (quoted from Harding)
I don’t recall exactly when it happened… after a night of 3 am fires in my little temple, creating green flames with absinthe in an offering cauldron. The clean smell of purely burnt offerings brought the familiar feeling of snakeskin against mine, the Fear creeping up my spine as Her darkness gathered about me. My nostrils filled with the subtle manure smell; organically processed grasses mixed with toxins dispelled. This is how I know it is Her and not another, my Titaness cannot be replicated by other mocking spirits. One word came through...a word I was not familiar with and one that would take me on an amazing journey over the next 5 years: Chöd.
In thoughts She speaks to my inner mind, the place which one can barely grasp once it is seen. From afar, Her message comes in one or two words sometimes, or reflective images as surface water. In the very first vision She showed how to cover my head, although I never felt “right” doing it...so it became one of those negotiated requests Gods sometimes offer us. Instead, I always include a special ring. But this theme of “heads” is recurring in my life and is very important to the rest of this story.
My body has never suffered injury, except to only my head (rock thrown at me, concussion from car accident).
When I took an undergraduate class in Ancient Philosophy, I decided the ideal state of being was for me to be a floating head...no body to drag around, but the intellectual and imaginative mind was free to be. Maybe it was the report I wrote on Hedonism, or maybe it was from watching “The Adventures of Baron von Muncheusen”, but I became convinced it is the seat of the Soul.
I used to sculpt Goddesses, and nearly all of them had trouble with their heads staying on. I also had a tendency to rip the heads off my Barbies as a girl, which you should know makes it SUPER hard to put back on.
Once I went to a ritual for Yeshe Tsogyal...the central statue was one which I also had bought on clearance at Target (of all places). A tall wooden dakini, this generic ‘world’ art became the seat for a Bodhisattva in my own home, who unfortunately became beheaded during a move by my husband. I mentioned this after the ritual, for which was told how in one story of Yeshe Tsogyal she is beheaded and walks around holding her own head.
As if these weren’t enough connections (I am hard headed), it was the recurring dreams that lead me to my teacher, and the topic of Chöd came up. After a year of attending Dark Moon devotionals to Hermes and Hekate, our Priest offered an afternoon workshop transmitting a Pagan Chöd with Hekate as the guide. My head nearly exploded. I realized after all this time, when I was trying to find a Buddhist group to learn from or a corpse garden to go sit and meditate in (yes, I was willing to go there), this was what She had meant.
The build up to the workshop was fervent. My gut was completely inflamed with anxiety, spent by my IBS. I placed my cushion as close to the bathroom as I could...in case I vomited or shit myself. He handed out the papers and we spent the next 30 minutes receiving instruction...but the ACTUAL practice only took 6 minutes or so. I was kinda disappointed. I went through so much, got myself worked up and excited for some big elaborate ritual that was going to catapult my spiritual life onto some new level...or something like this, in my mind. But we did the practice, I became Hekate and severed my head from my body, chopped up my body to put in the flipped over skull like a cauldron, then used my femur to stir the pot. I called to demons, ghosts, animals, to any and all sentient or wandering and suffering beings who were hungry, to come and partake. And they came in swarms, swiftly and without notice to each other. I maintained the visualization, trying not to be distracted by the other demons, my own, which pulled at my hair and toes trying to keep me from feeding the hungry spirits. PHAT!
Afterwards I returned to my Self, but before I could begin reflecting on the experience we performed it again, and a third time. Afterwards, I ate a little food to remind my head and body they were united, feeling almost speechless for the first time in my life. It was subtle, this profoundness...I sat with it for a week when finally I saw the effects. Two people in our group had their partners leave them. I was sad for them, but glad for being spared whatever effects were rippling in the aftermath of Chöd. A few weeks later I decided to try performing the ritual myself, maybe even starting a daily practice. Shortly after, the two people whose partners left them had a huge falling out with enormous repercussions; this also included the majority of our budding Priesthood to abandon their oaths and group. I was absolutely shocked and swore not to do the Chöd practice again, just in case.
Months passed when I decided my spirit was strong enough to really break through my Fear and do the practice. On New Year’s Eve, I made the commitment to myself and my Queen, to begin a daily practice of the Chöd for 40 days. I got 4 days into the practice when my husband started fighting with me. I pushed through until day 8 when he lost his job. I stopped immediately...the Fear had won. My life, at that point, had been exactly what I always wanted: working in a library, husband working from home and doing his thing, living in the country and having enough money to live comfortably. We were even shopping around for our first home to buy. This sudden change had a domino effect: my husband had to move back to the city for work, our marriage took a huge strain and we’ve since relocated back to the Bay Area.
What happened? Where is all the merit I accumulated from this practice? Do I continue the practice? Well, I gave it away...emptied my Self of all karma. My actual Fear was manifested before me… causing unhappiness for so many, including my Self. This is not a safe practice and something I will return to again over time. These demons and spirits, even if viewed through the psychological lens of one’s own personal demons, manifested from our subconscious… they still have to be dealt with, regardless.
I obviously have some connection to it on a soul level, but as I researched this practice the relevancy became much more apparent. This practice is one of the only ones to develop in Tibet and migrate to India...usually Buddhist practice is the opposite. Also, Chöd was first taught by a woman ; Machig Lobdron was consort to a holy man, had children and STILL pursued spiritual advancement successfully. She had been the tantrika Yeshe Tsongel in a former life with guru Padmasambhava; both incarnated together. Many others who had shared lives with Yeshe Tsongel and Padmasambhava followed them into the next lifetime, where they were married and householders. Machig (pronounced, ironically, like ‘magic’) was an unusual woman who in her younger years had learned to read and worked as a liturgy or holy scripture reader for an otherwise illiterate community. Machig was well known for her very quick readings; fitting several stops a day before going home to Her own chores and meditations. Families who heard the readings were blessed for being within earshot and also accumulated merit, or what we might call ‘good karma’, for sponsoring the recitation of the Prajnaparamita (Heart Sutra)... the more times it is read, the greater the benefit. Her multitasking confounds me, as can be demonstrated by the complete ritual; a double-sided drum in one hand, bell in the other whilst singing the chants and songs...at one point a bone flute is also played to lure hungry ghosts to the spiritual feast. The traditional Chöd practitioners are akin to the Aghori of India; wearing cast off clothing, eating/drinking from skulls and living in graveyards.
For me, Machig is a reminder that some Buddhas and Bodhisattvas came from humble, ordinary places in life. Enlightened beings find their way back to each other, to continue the work they could not complete in one lifetime. Perhaps this is my time, now… to go and sit in a place of Fear, to call demons and to dance with them. Confronting the four demons which arise from this practice: one which blocks the senses, another that distracts the mind,the third lures away one from discipline with promises of pleasure, and the final demon of ego. I see how they have manifested in my life, and how I have had to battle them… and badly at that. But I am managing to hang on to my head, even if it is hanging from the neck.
“Without hope, Chöd practitioners are freed from the limits of hope and fear; having cut the ropes of grasping, definitely enlightened, where does one go?” - Machig Lobdron (quoted from Sorensen)
Sarah Harding, Machik's Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd. Snow Lion Publications. 2003.
Michelle Janet Sorensen. Making the Old New Again and Again: Legitimation and Innovation in the Tibetan Buddhist Chöd Tradition. Columbia University Academic Commons. 2013.