Buddhist teachings are reliably wise, sometimes cryptic and occasionally delightful. The latter category includes a practice I recently encountered that suggests my new year is going to include a lot of … cake.
“Feeding the ghosts,” as described by the venerable Pema Chodron in Start Where You Are, is one of those counterintuitive practices typical of Buddhism, which encourages moving toward pain rather than away. And not just moving toward it, in this case, but baking for it — setting out a little cake for the difficult emotions apt to hijack us at any given moment: anger, embarrassment, jealousy, fear, sorrow and their ilk. The offering can be made ceremonially, as the feelings arise, or every morning (on the fairly safe assumption that one or more will arise before the day is out).
“There’s even an incantation that says, ‘Not only do I not want you to go away, you can come back any time you like. And here: have some cake,’ ” Chodron writes.
The idea is to intentionally welcome aspects of ourselves we’d rather not experience — the shadows or ghosts who haunt us — rather than acting out or repressing them. It’s part of the larger Buddhist orientation toward what we wish wasn’t happening: Accept rather than resist. “Resistance to unwanted circumstances has the power to keep those circumstances alive and well for a very long time,” Chodron writes. Sitting with unwanted feelings, paradoxically, makes them less fearsome, more familiar. Eventually, we learn to regard them — in others as well as ourselves — with compassion, and let them come and go as they will.
The story of Milarepa, a famous 11th century Tibetan yogi, is instructive: A loner who meditated wholeheartedly for years in his determination to become enlightened, Milarepa returned to his cave one evening to find it filled with fearsome demons who were cooking his food, reading his books and playing his CDs (I made up that last part). He tried everything to get rid of them, asking them to leave, trying to chase them away, attempting to pacify them with Buddhist teachings. They just laughed and cued up Stand by Your Man for the hundredth time.
Milarepa sighed (I imagine), bowed to the demons and sat down. “I’m not going away, and it looks like you’re not either,” he said, “so let’s just live here together.” At which point every demon but one — the meanest one, the one Milarepa most feared — left. The yogi walked over and put himself into its mouth saying, in effect: “Here I am; eat me if you wish.” At that, the last, worst demon departed.
Buddhists refer colloquially to this experience as “having tea with Mara” — Mara representing demons in Buddhist cosmology, troubling emotions in our everyday lives — and tea goes very nicely with cake. The traditional offering is a torma, a figure made mostly of flour and butter. But the line between metaphor and reality is a little blurry in this practice, and I can see a problem arising for Westerners, as some of us — I won’t name names here — might be tempted to eat that kind of cake ourselves when difficult emotions arise.
So for those of you who are ready to welcome it all during the new year — the bad and the ugly, no less than the good — but wish to avoid becoming chubby, here’s an offering cake that the wild things outside of you, as well as within, will appreciate. As we enter 2017, I wish us all courage and curiosity — openness to the inevitable suffering as well as to the certain joy.
*If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake, by Al Hoffman, Bob Merrill and Clem Watts; sung (1950) by Eileen Barton