Addicts, Hungry Ghosts, and Us

Addicts, Hungry Ghosts, and Us

Discussion date: Thu, Aug 25, 2011 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

One of the most agonizing situations we can be in is to see someone we love be destroyed by an addiction. We struggle to understand. We feel powerless to help.

Because of events in my extended family, in the past months I have had numerous conversations about addiction. Many times in these conversations I have referred to a recent book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. The author, Gabor Mate, is the resident physician at a medical clinic in Vancouver, British Columbia, that is part of the Portland Hotel Society. This nonprofit offers housing and supportive services to chronic drug users. It is different from most other service providers in that everyone is accepted “no matter how dysfunctional, troubled, and troubling they may be.”

At the Portland Hotel there is no chimera of redemption nor any expectation of socially respectable outcomes, only an unsentimental recognition of the real needs of real human beings in the dingy present, based on a uniformly tragic past. We may (and do) hope that people can be liberated from the demons that haunt them and work to encourage them in that direction, but we don’t fantasize that such psychological exorcism can be forced on anyone. The uncomfortable truth is that most of our clients will remain addicts, on the wrong side of the law as it now stands.

Mate uses the Buddhist metaphor of the Hungry Ghost to tell the stories of the people he treats and to explore the origin of addiction.

The inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost Realm are depicted as creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs and large, bloated, empty bellies. This is the domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need. We don’t know what we need, and so long as we stay in the hungry ghost mode, we’ll never know. We haunt our lives without being fully present.

His view is that we are all Hungry Ghosts at least part of the time. The hard-core drug users he treats are different from us only in degree, not in kind. They use illegal drugs to keep their pains at bay. We may have other means: through alcohol, or through behavioral addictions such as gambling or shopping. Mate’s own addiction is buying classical music CD’s. At first, it sounds silly to even mention it as an addiction, but his case, he admits, is really out of control. In pursuit of his quest to possess the perfect recordings, he has lied to his wife, left a women in child birth on the delivery table, repeatedly disappointed his children, and spent thousands of dollars on recordings in a single week.

When he turns to the question with which I began — How can we relate to a loved one who is caught by addiction? — he begins his discussion with a quote from the Buddha:

Purity and impurity belong to oneself.

No one can purify another.

Mate believes that the change must always come from within: “Until a person is willing to take on the task of self-mastery, no one will induce him to do so.” “The belief that anyone “should” be any different that he or she is is toxic to oneself, to the other, and to the relationship.”

He is not suggesting withdrawal or disregard, only the lack of judgment and coercion:

Does this mean that friends, loved ones, or coworkers can never speak to an addict about her choices? Far from it. It’s only that if such an intervention is to have any hope of success—indeed, any hope of not further poisoning the situation—it needs to be put into action with love, in a pure way that is not adulterated with judgment, vindictiveness, or a tone of rejection. It requires clarity of purpose: Is my aim here to set my limits and to express my needs, or am I trying to change the other person? You may find it necessary, say, to tell your spouse or adult child about the negative way their actions affect you—not in order to control or blame them, only to communicate what you will accept and what you cannot and will not live with. Once more, you are fully entitled to take the steps you find necessary for your own peace of mind. The issue is with what spirit you approach the interaction.

If you want to point the addict toward more fulfilling possibilities in his life, drop the self-righteousness. The conversation needs to be opened not as a demand, but as an invitation that may be refused.

This Thursday after our meditation period, we will explore together our relationship to addicts, addiction, and hungry ghosts. How have they touched our lives? Are we able to be nonjudgmental about the addictive behaviors of others? Do we even want to be? Have the mindfulness practices changed how we relate to our own addictions and to the addictions of others?

You are invited to join us this Thursday. You are also invited to join a discussion of these questions on a blog we are trying out: .

In the excerpt below, Thich Nhat Hanh explains how we can care for the Hungry Ghost in us.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner


Embracing Our Hungry Ghosts

Thich Nhat Hanh, from the booklet, Touching the Earth

W e are all flowers but many of us do not know how to take good care of our flower, and we may wither several times a week, and even several times a day just because we do not take care of ourselves. If you pick a flower and leave it on the table for a few hours you will see that the flower will not be able to continue as a flower, because it has been disconnected from the tree, the earth, the source of life. This may be described as the phenomenon of alienation.

When we feel disconnected with our source of life, with our ancestors, with our traditional values, we begin to wither and become a hungry ghost, going around and looking for something to help us revive, looking for a source of vitality again. Someone who is alienated feels that he or she is a separate entity that has no connection with anyone. There is no real communication between him or her with the sky, with the earth, with other human beings, including his father, her mother, brother, sister and so on. Those who feel cut off like that have to learn how to practise so that they will feel connected again with life, with the source of life that has bought him or her there.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Aug 25, 2011