“Hungry ghosts are the demon-like creatures described in Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Sikh, and Jain texts as the remnants of the dead who are afflicted with insatiable desire, hunger or thirst as a result of bad deeds or evil intent carried out in their life times… Defined by a fusion of rage and desire, tormented by unfulfilled cravings and insatiably demanding impossible satisfactions, hungry ghosts are condemned to inhabit shadowy and dismal places in the realm of the living. Their specific hunger varies according to their past karma and the sins they are atoning for… In Buddhism, hungry ghosts are often seen as a metaphor for those individuals who are following a path of incorrect desire, who suffer from spiritual emptiness, who cannot see the impossibility of correcting what has already happened or who form an unnatural attachment to the past.” (Source)
I first came across the concept of the Hungry Ghost when I was watching the Showtime series, House of Lies. Don Cheadle plays Marty Kaan, a conniving financial consultant with an equally conniving ex wife and baby mama, Monica, a consultant at his competing firm. Monica is essentially a functional drug addict that tries to tempt Marty with her sexual advances any chance she can get, at which she is usually successful, because neither can hold down any type of relationship. When Marty cuts her off for good she responds by getting a court order for full custody of their son (whom she never took much responsibility for to begin with). Fed up with her putting his grandson at risk, Marty’s psychotherapist father confronts her one day and reveals his analysis of her as a hungry ghost.
While Monica is an extreme representation of the hungry ghost, almost all of the characters in the show could qualify, especially Marty. Both Marty and Monica will do anything to get what they want, and will do this repeatedly, thinking it necessary each and every time. Yet all they do is leave behind a path of destruction, and they are never satisfied enough with what they got for doing so. They are stuck in the cycle of avoidance of pain, destruction for their desire’s sake, and then dissatisfaction, and so the cycle starts all over again. Their on and off sexual relationship that plays out through the show is a representation of this destructive cycle.
We are all hungry ghosts in some way, whether it be with money, power, success, love, affection, attention, sex, beauty, image, shopping, comfort, knowledge, food, or drugs. It can be anything that takes us away from ourselves and our suffering and distracts us. For Marty Kaan, his source of pain was his mother’s suicide’s when he was young. His job provided a place for him to channel all his anger and frustration with the unpredictability of the world into manipulating and controlling his coworkers and his clients in order to build an endless wall of false security with the loads of money he gets for doing so. He refuses to address the pain and suffering he feels, so he disregards his own feelings as well as everybody else’s around him. We don’t want to address the pain so we instead try to fill the gaping hole that the pain created, but it’s a bottomless hole. If we continue to pursue these things we just become a hungry ghost — doomed to repeat the same cycle for eternity.
Psychiatrist and author, Gabor Maté, wrote an entire book on this phenomena as it manifests in his practice with his patients, entitled In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. He defines addiction as, “any behavior that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in but suffers negative consequences as a result of, and yet has difficulty giving up. Note that this definition is not restricted to drugs but could encompass almost any human behavior, from sex to eating to shopping to gambling to extreme sports to TV to compulsive internet use.” Dr. Maté’s radical theory is that addiction stems from the coping behaviors we develop as children as we try to process early childhood trauma and parental trauma. He asks not the question, why the addiction? But instead, why the pain?
The image of the hungry ghost reveals an extremely bloated belly with a bony body, representing starvation and malnutrition. Hungry ghosts are always starving and will never be satisfied, no matter how much they eat. The more you feed it, the more depraved you become because of the things you do to get what you want. As an extreme example, take a meth addict who neglects their children and their responsibilities, and even perform sexual favors on strangers just to get money so they can feel the ever-elusive high. They are not even aware of the pain they are causing to their children, and the morals they might otherwise consider they are breaking, because of how amazing the high feels, they cannot focus anywhere else. The pain they were trying to avoid when they tried the drug for the first time snowballs into more pain for themselves and others as they escape into a world of pleasure, and their life crumbles around them. While chasing these things that feel good, we actually take the fun and enjoyment out of life, as those things become a burning need that you can’t get rid of and that take over your mind, your body, and your life.
Hungry ghosts will use people. They won’t understand the difference between truly loving someone versus using someone for love to fill their bottomless pit. The hungry ghost keeps trying to fill up but is not nourished, as manifest by his emaciated appearance. We need to nourish ourselves. We need to address the darkness within us. We can only fill this hole ourselves through creation (instead of destruction) and the healing that ensues, through addressing our mistakes and being able to recognize them as mistakes.
Addictions are manifest as consumption. Healing is manifest as creation.
Addictions suck the life out of us, and distractions can be just as harmful. Many of us, who may not be addicts in the traditional sense, still have a consumption-creativity imbalance in our lives. We indulge in a little too much TV, a little too much food, maybe even a casual hook-up here and there… We don’t see a problem in it, but we don’t realize that the extra lounging time is wasting our time on someone else’s vision; time that you will never get back; time that you could be spending on manifesting your own vision. We don’t realize that the few extra sweets is us giving in to gluttony and our body’s biological addiction to sugar, sacrificing our health, and releasing our stress through a product we spent our money on, instead of releasing that in a healthier and less wasteful way, like exercising or walking our dog, in the process becoming healthier, feeling better, and taking care of and giving love to a being outside of ourselves.
We don’t realize that the few hook-ups here and there are a waste of effort towards a temporary situation that will not bring fruit to your life. You take in the energy of an person you know little about, and who has not yet earned your respect or trust in who they are and the value they bring to your life. In engaging with this individual you subject yourself to the base perception they have of you as the caricature that fulfills their sexual fantasies. You lose sense of the whole, deeper being that you are, and the time that could be put towards working on your own vision and energy, as well as a deeper, more meaningful mutually beneficial long-term relationship with someone else. This deep relationship which can also assist in healing, as it is in engaging with people we care deeply about and feel safe with that all of our baggage and buried pain comes out and we have to choose to address it and heal it to move forward, or remain in our ignorance and breakdown the relationship and continue to make the same mistakes in our life.
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, he talks about the notion of the Last Man and the Superman. The Last Man is consumed with culture and its distractions, including things like comfortable careers and living spaces, religion, and even happiness. The Last Man uses these things to distract himself without ever thinking about the meaning of any of these things. The name ‘Last Man’ itself represents the idea that this man will be the last of his kind. He creates nothing in his lifetime to outlast himself and give to future generations, but instead he only consumes and takes from and destroys the planet. The Superman, on the other hand, is all about challenging the status quo, and truly thinking about life beyond what he is told. The Superman goes on the tedious journey of creating a work that will outlast his life — just the way Nietzsche has done for himself. His infamous saying “God is dead” is known by almost all, albeit understood by few — another aspect of the Superman is that the very pursuit of his creation is tedious in that respect. He has to bypass all sorts of traditions and unintentionally offend groups of people, yet he does this in the name of love — love for oneself, for others, and for life itself.
“I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All creatures hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and do you want to be the ebb of this great tide, and return to the animals rather than overcome man?”
The Last Man is bound to become the Hungry Ghost, who is always hungry for more distractions from the chaos within and around him. The Superman harnesses and confronts this chaos and channels it into his creative endeavors to go beyond what is available at the present moment; beyond even himself. To go beyond oneself requires great strength, openness, curiosity, and commitment. To become a hungry ghost is almost the default setting of being human. We are all inundated with pain and suffering and the unpredictability of this world. Many find it unavoidable and so they succumb to it. But if such pain is unavoidable, then why not create something great out of it? Something that will outlast you and that can help future generations. I challenge you to search within yourself for the things in your life that turn you into a hungry ghost, and to try to find the root of your suffering — the thing you are distracting yourself from. The trauma that developed the black hole inside of you can be overcome, no matter how large and endless it seems. But no changes can be made as long as you are trapped in the cycle of the hungry ghost — avoiding truth and seeking out distractions. No pleasure or happiness can match the deep fulfillment of creative work, and of the journey that is required to produce that work. So don’t avoid the pain and the challenge, but instead avoid that endless search for happiness, and those things that dull your soul with pleasure. You will be better for doing so. For every valley in life of unimaginable sorrow, can come also a great peak of joy and fulfillment — you just need to make it through the valley with your soul intact.
For further exploration of Dr. Gabor Maté and Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas (Thus Spake Zarathustra is available for free in the iBooks Store), check out the videos below: