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Addiction and the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

I'm constantly amazed how certain religious myths map onto human psychology.

Psychologist Gabor Maté wrote a book called "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts" where he describes his years working in a notorious neighborhood of Vancouver which has one of the highest concentrations of drug users not just in Canada but all of North America.

The metaphor in the book's title struck me: The "realm of hungry ghosts" comes from Buddhism.

Specifically, it's one of the six realms in Tibetan Buddhism's "Wheel of Life."

On the wheel, the "realm of hungry ghosts" is the realm just before "hell."

These ghosts are depicted with huge bellies and shrunken limbs.

They run towards streams only to find them dry when they arrive.

They hunger for food, but when they get it it turns to ash or molten fire in their mouths.

In the rare times they get what they want: it causes them great agony.

Metaphorically, this realm depicts addiction in all its forms.

This realm can be thought of either as a temporary state of mind (infatuation, compulsive desire for a new car, getting "hangry") or it can be an engrained life-pattern: your life is run by addictive cycles whether it's videogames, porn, the attention of men, social prestige, or the most socially-acceptable addiction: workaholism.

The psychological reason that people get "stuck" in the realm of hungry ghosts is that they refuse to descend into the next realm: hell.

In other words: we refuse to confront the core emotional pain that our addictive behavior serves to soothe.

Gabor Maté writes about a patient whose father ingrained in him and his twin brother that they were both "pieces of shit."

His brother killed himself as a teenager.

He himself turned to heroin and crystal meth.

He says: "The reason I do drugs is I don't want to feel the fucking feelings I feel when I'm not on drugs."

Hell is feeling the anguish at the core of our being.

The more intense the hell — the pain of those feelings — the more intense the addiction we use to soothe those feelings.

If we are unwilling or unable to confront the intense pain of our personal psychological hell, we become stuck in the realm of hungry ghosts - the realm of denial, of escape, of addiction.

The greater point Gabor Maté's is driving at with his title is that it's not just drug-addicted people but our entire society that's stuck "in the realm of hungry ghosts."

We celebrate workaholics, alcohol, sex-as-status, sex-as-"feeling-OK-about-myself," non-emotional masculine heroism, compulsive acquisition of money, compulsive spending of money, gambling at casinos, gambling on the stock market, all manner of adrenaline-addiction, videogames, using gasoline as a drug—even spirituality, if pursued without caution, can become an addictive form of bliss-seeking.

All these things can be engaged in non-addictively. But we typically perpetuate these behaviors as a way to soothe our pain instead of confront it.

What hell are we avoiding?

What are we not confronting about ourselves?

We have built a society that encourages us to endlessly self-soothe instead of confront the anguish and pain within us.

If great addiction hides great pain, then the empire of pleasure, self-gratification, and distraction we have built up in our society suggests it stands on a foundation of immense pain we are not confronting.

I think one of the greatest unspoken forms of addiction is hatred.

Political hatred, ethnic hatred, class hatred, familial, romantic, personal hatred ...

Hatred is complicated, but I suspect that when we hate, we are in part protecting ourselves from our own painful culpability—what disgusts us most in others tends to be the shadow we deny within ourselves.

James Baldwin wrote: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

We all get stuck, either momentarily or cyclically, in the realm of hungry ghosts.

What the Tibetan Wheel of Life suggests is that the only way out of this realm is to progress through the Wheel and pass through the next realm: hell.

The only way out of pain is through the pain.

The flames purify the gold.

If we cannot confront the deep anguish we harbor within our individual and collective souls, we will keep denying it and instead chase soothing pleasure, compulsively filling our bellies like the suffering ghosts on the Wheel of Life, and we will never find true satisfaction, much less peace.

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