In the realm of hungry ghosts

Depiction of a hungry ghost. (Claire Gordon)
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To start 2019 off on a positive note, my partner Peter and I decided to partake in “dry January.” After the alcohol we drank over the Christmas holidays, we figured that our livers (and wallets) would thank us. I’m not much of a drinker anymore, and I predicted that dry January would be a breeze. As it turned out, the cravings I experienced were tenacious.

The first time I noticed an alcohol craving was when I wanted to ‘relax’ and put on a movie. Shortly after, I identified the desire to drink after a long day. My alcohol cravings came up again and again when I felt the need to escape from what I identified as a struggle. I recognized what I was experiencing as the Buddhist concept of the hungry ghosts, which represent the human condition of desire and craving. They are described as beings with long, skinny necks and huge, bulging bellies. The hungry ghosts are always searching and chasing after a means to satisfy their appetite. Endlessly hungry, never satiated.

As we continued into January, Peter and I began to notice the unconscious strategies we executed as a means to satisfy our cravings: if we couldn’t have a beer, we would reach for a cookie. I became fascinated with the sly and cunning nature of desire. Along with a commitment to deepen my attention to my own habitual patterns of craving, I brought this interest and fascination to my meditation cushion.

One of my favourite meditation teachers, Tara Brach, explains that when an individual’s basic needs are not met, they look to external sources to fill an internal void. As Brach wisely explains, “we hope that the next moment will contain what this moment does not.” Chasing and rushing means that we miss out on what is truly happening in the present. When we live in a state of haste, we miss out on the experiences that we most long for, when they may, in fact, be right in front of us. Instead of living with a full-bodied awareness, we’re skimming the surface of our lives.

This is where the practice of meditation comes in. Meditation provides the opportunity to have a deeper relationship with your body and all of its sensations. If awareness of the present moment can be utilized, the possibility of choosing a nourishing and compassionate action is made available. When craving arises, choose to pause and take a few breaths to come home to your body. Being present doesn’t mean that you will always feel joyful. What the present moment offers is the fullest expression of your experience. Leaning into each moment with sincerity will attract a tenderness and sense of intimacy. Meditation doesn’t negate desire and craving but instead creates the space, the capacity, and the ability to choose your actions wisely.

The invitation here is to bring awareness to your own hungry ghost realm. Notice, pause, and deepen your attention. As Brach says, “sense what fresh possibilities might be available.”

For more on this topic, check out Tara Brach speaking on healing addiction.