Dear Still Water Friends,
I hadn’t seen her since 1985, the year she died alone in her apartment in San Francisco. Her alcoholism grew so advanced that she bled to death internally from a stomach ulcer. After 10 days of no contact, a family friend went to check on her and found her with our Shetland sheep dog, Georgia, emaciated but guarding her best friend’s decaying body.
I hadn’t spoken to my stepmom for six months before her death. We hadn’t argued; I simply withdrew, unable to continue to face her addiction, her harmful actions, and the disappearance of the vivacious, loving person I’d cared about. But this Sunday evening at Washington Mindfulness Community, Victoria was back, present in my meditation without invitation but welcome. Older now, having become an adult and having met some of the same demons she met along her path, we spent those moments sharing mutual forgiveness. I had come to understand the difference between Vicki and her addiction, and I’d come to understand the difference between abandoning someone and protecting myself. I felt our relationship heal.
Addictions have burned a path through most if not all of our families. We all face habits that grow too strong, even if they’re not particularly destructive. In Buddhism, this tends to be represented as pretas or hungry ghosts, beings yearning for outside satisfaction of an inner void but unable to quench that craving. They have long, skinny necks and limbs, yet bloated bellies. They roam between heaven and hell, forever searching and never satisfied.
I’ve met people who embody hungry ghosts, but I am most aware of my own hungry ghost. I have a strong tendency to react to boredom, loneliness, and other negative emotions by reaching for outside fulfillment. Frequently, this action has led to addiction, which Canadian addiction specialist Gabor Mate says is “any repeated behavior in which a person feels compelled to persist, regardless of its negative impact on his life and the lives of others.” We can be addicted to substances, behaviors, beliefs, self-images, work—the list is long.
The basic mistake in addiction is one practitioners find familiar: we respond to a stimulus—a hurt, a longing, a discomfort—by reaching for an outside palliative that may bring relief, but relief that is temporary and incomplete. Instead of trying to make friends with and understand the stimulus, we repeat the palliative response endlessly, never getting true relief and missing the lessons the stimulus may have for us. We also lose the energy the stimulus brings us—the desires to not suffer and to connect can be harnessed for good.
This Thursday, we’ll share about our experiences with hungry ghosts. What have we learned, or what are we still trying to learn? Where do we stumble, and why do we get up again? How can we support ourselves and each other? Below there are quotes below from Thich Nhat Hanh and Gabor Mate’s book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
I hope you can join us.
Interview with Thich Nhat Hanh from July 2010, Shambhala Sun
At the moment you were born you began to experience fear, original fear, because you risked death in that very crucial moment. You just got out from a very comfortable place, the uterus of your mother, and they have cut the umbilical cord. Now you have to breathe by yourself, and there is liquid in your lungs. You have to evacuate that liquid in order to take your first in-breath, and if you cannot do that, you will die….
That is when the first fear and the first desire are born, and when you grow up, your desire to have a partner is only the continuation of that. You feel that you need someone to take care of you because you are helpless, you are vulnerable, you cannot do it by yourself. You need another. So if you are eager to look for a partner, that means your first, original desire is still present, that you do not feel safe when someone is not there. So your partner, your lover, may be a continuation of mommy or daddy. You are peaceful because you feel, “I’m okay now, mommy is there, daddy is there.” It is not the true presence of the other person that brings you this relaxation. It is your idea that “Mommy is there” or that “Daddy is there.” Later on, you might find that the person sitting next to you is a nuisance and you want to divorce him or her. That’s because it’s not truly his presence or her presence that gives you that feeling of relaxation, but your own ideas and desires.
Love, in Buddhism, always begins with yourself, before the manifestation of the other person in your life. The teaching of love in Buddhism is that when you go home to yourself, you recognize the suffering in you. Then the understanding of your own suffering will help you to feel better, and to love, because you feel the completeness, the fulfillment in yourself. So you don’t need another person to begin to love. You can begin with yourself.
True love does not just choose one person. When true love is there, you shine like a lamp. You don’t just shine on one person in the room. That light you emit is for everyone in the room. If you really have love in you, everyone around you will profit—not only humans, but animals, plants, and minerals. Love, true love, is that. True love is equanimity.
From In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate
There are people who are not addicts in the strict sense, but only because their carefully constructed “personality” works well enough to keep them from the painful awareness of their emptiness. In such a case, they’ll be addicted “only” to a false or incomplete self-image or to their position in the world or to some role into which they sink their energy or to certain ideas that give them a sense of meaning. The human being with a “personality” that is insufficient to paper over the inner void becomes an undisguised addict, compulsively pursuing behaviors whose negative impact is obvious to him or to those around him. The difference is only in the degree of addiction or, perhaps, in the degree of honesty around the deficient self.
Spiritual work and psychological work are both necessary to reclaim our true nature. Without psychological strength, spiritual practice can easily become another addictive distraction from reality. Conversely, shorn of a spiritual perspective we are prone to stay stuck in the limited realm of the grasping ego, even if it’s a healthier and more balanced ego.