You may wonder why I chose a post on “hungry ghosts” for a poetry blog. How does it relate to writing? It does. Bear with me: explanation will follow the introductory excerpt.
IN THE REALM OF HUNGRY GHOSTS ~ Gabor Maté, M.D.
Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
~ William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
The Buddhist Wheel of Life revolves through six realms. Each realm is populated by characters representing aspects of human existence—our various ways of being. In the Beast Realm we are driven by basic survival instincts and appetites such as physical hunger and sexuality, what Freud called the Id. The denizens of the Hell Realm are trapped in states of unbearable rage and anxiety. In the God Realm we transcend our troubles and our egos through sensual, aesthetic or religious experience, but only temporarily and in ignorance of spiritual truth. Even this enviable state is tinged with loss and suffering.
The inhabitants of the Hungry Ghost Realm are depicted as creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs and large, bloated, empty bellies. This is the domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need. We don’t know what we need, and so long as we stay in the hungry ghost mode, we’ll never know. We haunt our lives without being fully present.
Some people dwell much of their lives in one realm or another. Many of us move back and forth between them, perhaps through all of them in the course of a single day.
My medical work with drug addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has given me a unique opportunity to know human beings who spend almost all their time as hungry ghosts. It’s their attempt, I believe, to escape the Hell Realm of overwhelming fear, rage and despair. The painful longing in their hearts reflects something of the emptiness that may also be experienced by people with apparently happier lives. Those whom we dismiss as “junkies” are not creatures from a different world, only men and women mired at the extreme end of a continuum on which, here or there, all of us might well locate ourselves. ~ Gabor Maté
How does this little essay relate to the art of writing? It’s an example of an indirect, metaphorical approach (in this case the Buddhist WHEEL OF LIFE) that relies on knowing an additional field (woe to poets who read only poetry). As Henry James said, “To be direct is to be inartistic.” Art is usually indirect: it tries to convey its message through unexpected imagery and metaphor. It is a special kind of “fused” thinking that uses fewer words, but makes the meaning larger.
Popular books on addition take the chatty “human interest” approach that relies on telling the story of one particular addict, and making general statements later on. The books meant more for professionals start with abstract generalizations and continue in that manner, with case stories here and there. But this Hungarian-born physician makes a wonderful leap, talking first about the Wheel of Life. Note, however, that the author does not go into excess detail about the Wheel of Life and each of the realms. He skips the realm of the demi-gods, and quickly gets to the Hungry Ghosts, adapting the metaphor to create an analogy with addiction.
Those of you who know my interest in “interweave” -- a skillful weaving of two or more realms -- will know what I am leading to: the importance, for a poet/writer, of reading in depth not only the work of other poets and writers, but also in some field that is of interest -- history, astrophysics, geology, botany, Buddhism, the life and writings of Saint Augustine, anything. Or it may be sensory and practical knowledge, the kind you gain from mountain-climbing, for instance. That “other realm” is likely to provide a wealth of metaphor and simile, and an unusual and more interesting angle to anything that you write about.
One example that comes to my mind is Sarah Hannah’s second book of poetry, Inflorescence. In it she combines the story of caring for her dying mother with, amazingly enough, botany. Hannah’s additional asset is her familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays. The layering creates a rich kind of writing to which the reader can return with pleasure again and again. Here is one of my favorites:
You never think it’s really going to happen --
That Birnam wood will come marching
Down to Dunsinane --
Until, suddenly, your wife’s got OCD,
And babies visit you in dreams,
And then those trees start walking.
I mean downright trouncing, toward you.
They do not come in peace,
And they are not willows or any other
Delicate variety; they’re rowans,
Oaks, and ash.
And they will kick your ass to Cardiff.
Hello? You were so damn hot and ready
To jump the life to come,
You misread all the signs, and now it’s Act V,
And you can’t rinse out what you’ve done,
Can’t redeem the time
Like Prince Hal, and besides, this one’s a tragedy
Well into hour two; the place is packed with folks
Who’ve paid good money
To watch you go down bloody with a bough.
~ Sarah Hannah, Inflorescence, 2007
The “Birnam Wood” comes from the Weird Sisters’ last prophecy to Macbeth: “Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him.” In the literal sense, this seems impossible, and so Macbeth is lulled into a false sense of security. He doesn’t think metaphorically. But Birnam Wood turns out to the enemy camouflaged with branches.
But never mind metaphorical thinking. We prefer not to think at all. “You never think it’s really going to happen” -- that constant denial of death that is perhaps necessary to keep us going. This is a ruthless poem, unlike Sutton Breiding’s soothing
tell me, stranger,
. . .
are your days like shadows passing
and your nights a sweet taste of the longsleep?
No, this is no lullaby. Like Macbeth, we are crazed to defend our kingdom and our life. This is a battle that each of us is doomed to lose, so ideally we need to have an answer to the question that is never asked, yet central to each life: “So what are you doing about mortality?”
For me, the best answer was supplied by Rilke: “To work is to live without dying.” Of course Rilke meant meaningful, fulfilling work. I want to keep writing to the end.
To write means to have the courage to reveal more of yourself than at first feels comfortable. But that’s where lies your richest material. It would be evasive to say that I chose the opening the opening of Gabor Maté’s book on addiction strictly because of its stylistic merit, as a way to discuss the technique of interweave. As you probably suspect, I instantly felt a personal connection to the content.
I recognize my Hungry Ghost years very well: the years when I couldn’t get enough of the things I didn’t really want. What did I really want? I don't care if Freud said it first: love and work. When you can't find reliable love and meaningful, fulfilling work, crazy substitutes emerge, often in the form of addictions. For me it was crazy behavioral compulsions rather than substance abuse, and that was my great good luck, since drugs and alcohol kill faster.
My writing talent -- which I was first told I didn't have -- also saved me in the end, and that's where crazy persistence (this is a genetic trait) turned out to be beneficial. In addition, over the years I managed to soften "love" to affection, and that's easier both to give and get. Affection does not have the dark side that romantic love has -- though losing a friend can be almost as painful as losing a lover. Loss as a part of life cannot be evaded. But if we have something to fall back on -- doing the work you love, your other friends -- we have a certain “safety net.”
Another thought: seeing what having developed a writing skill laid a foundation for the rest of my life, making everything else fall into place, I suspect that everyone could benefit by developing some kind of "valuable skill.” For people in trouble in particular, the need is tremendous. Once I read that addicts are typically people who “have been trained to be incompetent.”
Part of that incompetence is an absence of vocation and work skills. This is not always the case, but if it happens to be, then it would be wonderful if there were more places that teach various valuable skills. As I’ve discovered through my misadventures and eventual overcoming of the discouraging “curse” by someone I mistook for a mentor, talent is something that develops. And once you are able to use and expand your talent, the farther away you get from the realm of the Hungry Ghosts.
From Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:
“Six realms of existence are identified in Buddhism: gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells. They are each a result of one of the six main negative emotions: pride, jealousy, desire, ignorance, greed, and anger.”
[Oriana: Ignorance is not an emotion, but let’s not be fussy; Sogyal means ignorance as a negative state of being -- hardly so for animals, but undesirable if we want to be fully human.]
Sogyal continues: “The main feature of the realm of the gods is that it is devoid of suffering, a realm of changeless beauty and sensual ecstasy. Imagine the gods: tall, blond surfers, lounging on beaches and in gardens flooded by brilliant sunshine, listening to any kind of music they choose, intoxicated by every kind of stimulant, high on meditation, yoga, bodywork, and ways of improving themselves, but never taxing their brains, never confronting any complex or painful situation, never conscious of their true nature, and so anesthesized that they are never aware of what their condition really is.
If some parts of California and Australia spring to mind as the realm of the gods, you can see the demigod realm being acted out every day perhaps in the intrigue and rivalry of Wall Street, or in the seething corridors of Washington and Whitehall. And the hungry ghost realms? They exist wherever people, though immensely rich, are never satisfied, craving to take over this company or that one, or endlessly playing out their greed in court cases. Switch on any television channel and you have entered immediately the world of demigods and hungry ghosts.”
It’s interesting that Sogyal chooses examples from the world of the rich, while Gabor Maté starts his books with examples of homeless street junkies as the Hungry Ghosts, trying in vain to escape from the realm of Hell. But hell is universal, and so is greed. The mob that trampled to death a Walmart security agent on a “Black Friday” was a crowd of Hungry Ghosts. “Greed is the failure to choose.” There are things more important by far than a flat-screen TV, but for this we need to stay calm for a while, until we are able to think at a higher level.
(A shameless digression: during a recent trip to Walmart in pursuit of a larger soup pot -- my soup therapy is working! -- C and I spotted a nun with in a peculiar headgear: on the cap on her head, there was a red dot that made me think of the Third Eye -- also called the Sixth chakra, Ajna, the chakra of forgiveness and compassion, of God the Mother, “beyond wisdom,” intuition.
On top of the cap was another red dot, which could symbolize the crown chakra, Sahasrara, the thousand-petaled lotus -- the chakra of pure non-dualistic consciousness, the union of the masculine and the feminine. But I noticed that there were dots also on the sides. Intrigued, C and I approached the nun. She explained that she belonged to the Sisters of Saint Brigid, and the dots stand for the five wound of Christ. The order is dedicated to prayer and contemplation of the five wounds.
At the check-out, we ended up behind three of the Brigidine nuns, carts full of flannel pajamas, cat food, and an abundance of other colorful, practical objects. “Going to Walmart is probably the most exciting event in their lives,” C observed. “They don’t just have one sister go shopping. They travel in a pod.”)
I wish to end on a more joyful note: trips to the the realm of the Hungry Ghosts are not the only way to gain respite from the hell of fear and despair. I discovered this through my experience of the Paradigm Shift that ended my depression. My recurrent dreams about being in a concentration camp also ended. This poem celebrates this liberation.
THE ROAD TAKEN
Only a year ago I finally understood
the kingdom of hell
is within you
and chose to walk out of
that concentration camp
the gate’s wide wings stood open
the guards diligently did not look
the road led through sunlit woods
past bride-like birches: the road to heaven
I must have seen in childhood and forever
only yesterday I looked out the window
and thought this is my country now and not
a Nazi camp or a Siberian gulag
astonished that after all
I wasn’t sentenced to hard labor
only this morning I understood
my task is to keep on walking
reading sunlight and shadow
listening to birds in all their languages
singing the holy word home
~ Oriana © 2012
By now it’s been more than three years, without a single relapse. I take no special pride in this: “shift happens” and makes staying out of hell effortless. True, full recovery takes time. Memories of positive experiences are blocked at first; they can be gradually rebuilt (our memory is constructed; it’s not like a videotape). The capacity to experience pleasure also takes time to blossom again.
I’ve posted this poem before, I know. I’m doing it again because few things are as important as understanding that both heaven and hell are within. They are states of mind. We can choose to walk out of hell, and not into the brief artificial paradises of the hungry ghosts, but into the astonishingly beautiful world we live in.
The art work is beautiful and well chosen. Of course I loved "bride-like birches" and the "nuns travel in pods."
"We haunt our lives without being fully resent" is certainly true of all of us but especially the addicted.
"Hungry Ghosts": hungry to be free of fear, rage and despair but lost in addiction.. trapped in the terrible guilt.
I enjoyed the reference to Macbeth's Birnam Wood. I always loved that twist, and especially after seeing it performed in the outdoor theater at the Old Globe. Eerie and magical.
The final photo of woods is perfect, the way the trail bears that intermittent light.
Thank you Hyacinth for that “intermittent light.” You made me see the beauty of it. Forest light is beautiful because it’s not “full blast”; it’s interrupted, softened, intermittent. The same way, we wouldn’t want our lives to be an eternal sunshine. We need to travel between realms.
Addicts badly need an alternative reward, a feel-good condition that's not destructive -- something that makes them feel content and like a good person in a lasting way: an entry into the kind of world that offers something richer than what addiction can offer. Instead of “escaping into drugs” (which are “never enough”), they would be able to “escape into life” -- into volunteer work, for instance. (Milosz spoke of “escaping forward” as his defense against brooding about the past.)
I think that dear old Sigi (Freud) was right: we need love and work. If we have those two, or even just meaningful work, the rest will take care of itself.
Half-way houses seem to offer “love and work” (especially if we substitute “affection” for love). We need more half-way houses. If some people need to live in a half-way house for the rest of their lives, that’s not a tragedy. The tragedy is not providing help.
Loved Hannah's poem and that line...'and they will kick your ass to Cardiff.' Macbeth is my favorite of the Bards's plays. There's a great Macbeth allusion near the end of Moby Dick!
In Chapter 117 'The Whale Watch' Fedallah, Ahab's agent of his demise, tells him that before he dies, he will see two hearses and 'the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.' Melville had been re-reading Shakespeare around the time of Moby Dick, especially Macbeth, and this was a clear allusion to the prophecy of Birnam Wood to Macbeth's end.
Thank you, Scott, for never ceasing to astonish us by finding references to Moby Dick in everything under discussion.
Seems to me that "the Hungry Ghost" phase is that period in anybody's life when one is in great need of change. Some people choose the pursuit of greatness and some people are chosen by addiction. Great goals and drug addiction opposites.
That’s more or less what I read about drug addicts: they don’t have a vocation or any real goal in life. But then some great writers were alcoholics. Still, Hemingway had terrific self-discipline: he got up at dawn and wrote until 11 a.m., at which point he began to drink. Without writing, he’d have been drinking the first thing in the morning.
It’s interesting that you mention being a Hungry Ghost as a phase in life. For me the main source of hell was romance with dysfunctional men -- it’s hard to believe how many of them are out there. Functional men are “taken” early, leaving behind the undesirables, often addicts.
It wasn’t until my late thirties that I could say: “Writing is the most important thing in my life.” Once that happened, once I had a clear sense of vocation and the excitement of seeing myself grow as a poet, romance lost most of its power to turn me into a hungry ghost. I remember the first time I turned down a date because I wanted time to write. The old joke about discovering something more interesting than sex -- it’s true. But hormone levels have to go down.
Liked the hungry ghost post a lot. Those realms have always spoken to me. Did I tell you about my fairly recent visit with a friend when i fell asleep on the sofa and was woken by a voice saying "You are already dead! Do not look back! keep going!" Something like the announcements on the London Underground (Mind the gap!). My friend thought it was a good idea to put the film of the tibetan book of the dead on while I slept.
It wasn't a dream, it was the actual voice in the film, reading the Tibetan book of the dead. It woke me up, but, not realising a film was on, I wasn't quite sure where I had woken into!
Thanks for sharing this fascinating story. So interesting about cultures sharing the prohibition on looking back while you are in the land of the dead. “Keep going!” is the imperative -- our eyes on whatever slender light is guiding us.
I immediately identified with the Hungry Ghosts. For many years I despaired of ever breaking free. I knew that if only I managed to drop ambition, I’d be happy just living, writing whenever I felt like it, for the pleasure of writing and sharing with whoever might come by, so to speak. And finally, finally, it simply happened. The grasping desire fell away, part of my insight that I am posthumous now, so I can relax and be happy.
In fact, now that I posthumous in terms of the life of striving, I am in heaven. Or, to be precise, I am in heaven on days when I get to do whatever I feel like doing, no longer whipped by “hungry ghost” desires. I don’t have to achieve anything, I don’t have to prove anything -- not to others, not even to myself. It’s an imperfect heaven, with bursts of unpleasantness such as noisy neighbors, but still, that passes -- and there is so much beauty around me!