“I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try…“
~from “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones
What’s a Hungry Ghost? According to Buddhist tradition, the Hungry Ghost Realm is populated by beings whose existence is characterized by constant craving which they can never satisfy. The Hungry Ghost is a creature with an enormous, empty belly, a long, thin neck, and a pinhole-sized mouth. In the realm of the Hungry Ghosts, these creatures search incessantly for food and drink, but their constricted throats and tiny mouths make it impossible for them to get any nourishment. When Hungry Ghosts try to drink, water turns to fire and ash in their mouths, making their thirst even more acute.
Ouch. Sounds like a pretty tough gig, being a Hungry Ghost.
Buddhist tradition is rich in imagery that lends spot-on psychological insights, and Hungry Ghosts are no exception. From the psychological point of view, then, what’s a Hungry Ghost? Perhaps each of us can look in the mirror and see one, if not a current Hungry Ghost, then a Hungry Ghost from our past. So often, we search for satisfaction and fulfillment, only to find that it turns to fire and ash in our lives. We latch onto the idea of that job, that relationship, or the achievement of that goal as The Thing which will finally make us happy, which will finally make us feel good about ourselves. When we actually grasp The Thing we’ve set our sights on, we find that our emptiness still aches inside, so we scramble after the next Big Thing. Here we have the essence of the Hungry Ghost realm, brought to our human experience.
In modern society, we’re surrounded by endless things, infinite distractions, and numerous talking heads who try to tell us how to sort it all out. Many of us run on treadmills for hours each and every day and night, staying so harried and busy that we can hardly find time or space to think. No wonder we are so hungry inside. Not for food, but for meaning. We grow restless. So we latch on to whatever we think will bring meaning to our lives, only to experience profound disappointment when things don’t turn out the way we expected and we’re left still wanting, still aching.
Let’s step back and examine this. After all, when do things ever turn out the way we expect? Life is unpredictable. The only predictable thing about life is that it will keep on surprising us. The fundamentals of human existence are change and impermanence. When we accept these aspects of human existence, we come to see more clearly why it’s impossible to remedy with externals what we perceive as emptiness inside.
We’re starved for meaning, yet we go seeking it where we can never find it. The Hungry Ghost phenomenon brings to mind the lyric, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” Why wrong places? Well, when we’re fixated on what we think will bring us fulfillment, we’re not present for our lives as they exist right now. Sure, it’s great to have goals, but when we define ourselves by those goals – or worse, when we make our peace of mind contingent on getting this or achieving that, we become a Hungry Ghost. Whatever it is we grasp or achieve won’t stay the same. It’ll change, and our experience of it will change. We’ll grow dissatisfied, and we’ll be left searching yet again.
We find the Hungry Ghost in obsessive, compulsive, and addictive behavior, in which the obsession, compulsion, or addiction becomes the most important thing in a person’s world, and she gives all her energy to the addiction and to the pursuit of its short-lived, illusory gratification.
We find the Hungry Ghost in lonely people who feel isolated and alienated from others, who seek love and friendship but set their expectations so high that they flee at the first, sixth, or seventeenth sign of challenge, dropping current relationships to search for the next lover, the next friend. And the next. Then, the next.
We find the Hungry Ghost in people who latch onto ideologies of whatever stripe as their life’s anchors in what they view as a hostile, frightening, and turbulent sea bent solely on their destruction, who then denigrate and castigate those who don’t share their opinions, and who come to embrace intolerance and hatred as ego-comforts.
We find the Hungry Ghost in the person who is never satisfied: no matter how many good things he might seem to have in his life, he focuses on what he terms “bad” and closes his eyes to the “good.” On and on he seeks for the good, but he never, ever finds it, because no matter where he looks, he sees only “bad.” No matter where he is or what he’s doing, he’s not at peace. He always wants to be somewhere else, doing something else. With the Hungry Ghost mentality, nothing is ever good enough.
And haven’t we all been there, at some point? Or at many points?
Ajahn Brahm, one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, talks about the judging and criticizing mind, which is pervasive in human psychology and ties into the Hungry Ghost mentality. The judging and criticizing mind always hones in on what is wrong and is never satisfied. When we’re never satisfied, we go seeking, grasping, and clinging. The Buddha taught that grasping and clinging – that is, attachment – is the cause of our suffering.
Why might that be? Since we are all changing and life is in a constant state of flux, it follows that whatever we grasp, whatever we cling to, is impermanent and will ultimately prove unsatisfactory. Hence we’re disappointed yet again; we grow restless, and the Hungry Ghost cycle begins anew, gaining momentum like a wheel spinning round and round, like a machine whose only purpose is to fill our bottomless pits. As Hungry Ghosts, we spy what we think is a shimmering pool of water that will quench our thirst, only to get closer and find it’s a pile of dust.
According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, samsara is defined as “wandering on.” In other words, samsara is what we’re doing all the time, when we create the storylines of our lives, live them out, and create new ones. Again, we glimpse the Hungry Ghost. This storyline doesn’t satisfy, so we drop it and make up a brand new one. Lather, rinse, repeat. The operative phrase is “make up.” By their nature, storylines aren’t real. They’re concepts. Mental constructs. Yet we often make them terribly real. In samsara, everybody wanders around mindlessly; our storylines intersect and often become big, snarled webs of difficulty, complication, and trouble. We painstakingly weave our storylines, they cause suffering (that is, turn to fire and ash in our mouths), then we drop them and weave new ones. Again and again. I’ve heard insanity defined as doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. That’s what we do in samsara.
Buddhist practice is about stopping samsara. When we still our minds, we learn to let go of tight ego constructs and recognize our Hungry Ghosts for what they are: mental phenomena which serve to reinforce egocentricity. In the Hungry Ghost mentality, everything’s all about ME, ME, ME. Except that it isn’t. Not really. What’s ME? It changes all the time. When we still our minds, we lessen our tendencies to wander, we calm our restlessness, and we can examine with increasing space and clarity: What is this “ME” who continually wants, seeks, demands, and deludes? Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche gives excellent advice when he suggests that we all look in the mirror first thing in the morning and remind ourselves, “It’s not about you.” Talk about a reality check. Or an Awakening Check. No pun intended.
Putting an Awakening Check on our Hungry Ghosts helps us to be more grateful for what we have and to recognize what, in our day-to-day lives, is most important. When our Hungry Ghosts no longer drive us across the mountains and valleys of samsara, we free ourselves to develop skill and equanimity in the face of challenges. Instead of mindlessly reacting to difficulties with volatility and unskillful behavior, we bring wisdom to bear in order to skillfully attend to the present moment while reminding ourselves that this storyline, too, shall pass. We grow in clarity, wisdom, and compassion. We become aware of our deep connection with other sentient beings, with all life. We awaken to Original Mind, source of all flux and flow, and there, we discover our place of calm abiding.
We no longer try to stuff samsaric phenomena into pinhole-sized mouths. Instead, we open up. Not our mouths, but our minds and our hearts. We maintain perspective. We keep our seats.
I’ll close with a quote from Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama: “Life is universal. When we’re born, we come from this universal life. We are all, without exception, universal. Only our brains get caught up in the notion that we are individual. We’re universal whether we think so or not, and reality doesn’t care what we think.”