The Very Hungry Ghost

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This past weekend I was part of Still Water’s first three-day Easter weekend retreat. It was for me a lovely centering time of quiet, nature, and community. As sometimes happens on a retreat, as my mind began to clear and my body began to calm, emotionally charged memories, forgotten for decades, emerged.

On this retreat it began with a strong memory of a moment during my sophomore year of college. It was late at night, perhaps 2 am, and I was throwing empty wine bottles down the stairwell near my third floor dorm room. I was frustrated and angry, and I didn’t know how to say that in any other way. And even that way wasn’t very effective. Later the janitors cleaned it up and the Resident Assistant of the dorm suggested to me that it would be best if I didn’t do it again.

At the age of 19, I was a mess. Things were not going well in school. I didn’t know how to choose a major or a career path. I was struggling to separate myself from my parents’ image of who I should be. I had few friends. I longed for a romantic relationship. I was smoking, drinking some, overweight, feeling entitled and easily incensed.

This quality of unquenchable neediness is understood in many East Asian countries through the metaphor of the Hungry Ghost. In contrast to contented ancestors, who are honored by and pleased with the accomplishments of their descendants, Hungry Ghosts have been forgotten by their descendants, or have no descendants to pay them respect. They are enraged at this condition, are envious, and have the potential to bring great misfortune not only to their descendants, but to innocent bystanders.

Hungry Ghosts are pictured with extended bellies, long thin necks, and distorted angry faces. They are ravenously hungry, but because their necks are so thin that a needle can barely go down, no matter how much they eat, it is not enough, they are never satisfied. This is their tragic condition.

I was a very hungry ghost.

Sadly, the earth seems to be increasingly populated by living humans who carry within them the rootlessness, hunger, and dissatisfaction of the hungry ghosts. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it the sickness of our time:

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 practice so that they will feel connected again with life, with the source of life that has bought him or her there.

On the retreat, as I continued to sit with the angry and totally frustrated 19-year-old Mitchell, I began to reflect on how I ever got out of that seemingly unresolvable situation. It seemed so hopeless. Then another very old memory came to mind. When I was 15 years old I was body surfing in big waves, and got sucked out beyond my depth. As the waves came, I tried to surf them in, but I could not get any closer to the shore. The receding waters pulled me back to the same place, again and again. I became exhausted and swallowed water each time another wave came over me. Just as a was about to succumb, my foot touched bottom and I got a toehold — enough to push me a little bit forward toward the shore. And then with the next wave, a little bit further.

Fortunately, later in that sophomore year of college, again I got a toehold. I read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and was deeply touched by his fictionalized account of the Buddha’s life. It was an initial opening into a new way of understand my life’s journey. Recognizing that it would be good for me to be somewhere else for a while, I arranged a leave of absence and enrolled in a junior-year program at the University of Vienna (where I was able to take a class with Victor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning).

Not everything immediately changed for the better, but I was a little less stuck, a little less frustrated and angry, and encouraged to keep looking and learning.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will talk about the hungry ghosts in us and around us: How can we embrace them, love them, and nourish them?

Some suggestions from Thich Nhat Hanh are below.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

Something to Believe In

by Thich Nhat Hanh from Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living.

Hungry ghosts long to be loved, but no matter how much we love and care for them, they may not have the capacity to receive it. They may understand in principle that there is beauty in life, but they are not capable of touching it. Something seems to be standing in their way preventing them from touching these refreshing and healing elements of life. They want only to forget life, and so they turn to alcohol, drugs, or sex to help them forget. If we say "Do not do that," they will not respond. They have heard enough admonitions.

What they need is something to believe in, something that proves to them that life is meaningful. We all need something to believe in. To help a hungry ghost, we have to listen to him or her in mindfulness, provide him with an atmosphere of family and brotherhood, and then help him experience something good, beautiful, and true to believe in.