On Embracing Your Ghosts

Headless horsemen and haunting and All Hallow's Eve everywhere you look this week, accentuated by the City's own seasonal cool and gloom.

Haunted by a few ghosts of your own these days?

Don't worry; we all are.

Maybe those apparitions look like remnants of the past that linger in your wakefulness; maybe they're the looming fear of what is to come; maybe they're the whimpering wisps of craving for that which will never be. However you want to look at them, these creeping, craving, lurking, never-satiated spirits love to wrap their long winding fingers around our hearts, breathing eerie, raspy voices into our thoughts, urging us on to dissatisfaction, destruction, turmoil, tumult, despair.

Fantastic Kripalu teacher Amy Weintraub has written a gorgeous piece on that classic Buddhist concept of the Hungry Ghost.  Here's a blurb:

For many years, when feelings of grief or humiliation or self-hatred overwhelmed me, I reached for the anesthetic at hand — sometimes food, sometimes alcohol, sometimes an addictive kind of love and sometimes, in the beginning, even yoga practice. Maybe you’ve identified your own numbing-out strategy, or maybe you haven’t, but most of us have struggled with these cravings. In fact, they’re so common that there is an ancient archetype associated with them — and it’s called the Hungry Ghost.

Who is this Hungry Ghost? Though I call her “she,” my own Hungry Ghost is androgynous and so ugly she’s lovable. She has an enormous and wrinkled head, and, unlike traditional representations, she has a great cavernous mouth into which I have poured various unhealthy substances in order not to feel. Yours, if you have one, may look different.

You may have seen a picture of the Buddhist Wheel of Life, a mandala that depicts the Six Realms of Existence, realms we cycle through endlessly, birth after birth. Beneath the Human, Animal and Hell Realms is the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. These creatures are withered, E.T.-like, with bloated bellies and necks too thin to eat or drink without feeling unbearable pain. Hungry Ghosts wander, insatiable, unable to nourish themselves. “The very attempts to satisfy themselves,” writes Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein in Thoughts Without a Thinker, “cause more pain….Attempts at gratification only yield a more intense hunger and craving. The Hungry Ghosts must come in contact with the ghostlike nature of their own longings.” They must understand their own emptiness. Remarkably, the Boddhisattva of Compassion appears in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, “carrying a bowl filled with objects symbolic of spiritual nourishment,” says Epstein. It is only when we embrace the Hungry Ghost with compassion that we feed its starving spirit....

I've long loved this notion, inherent as it was in my old academic work on desire, culture and consumerism; that image of the ever-craving empty-bellied ghost dances over and under so many of our most complicated religious and cultural concepts. Take a few minutes between Halloween parties to sit with Weintraub's beautiful writing, and in so doing, to come home with great compassion to your own Hungry Ghosts, to be gentle with them, to find peace and perhaps a glimpse of santosha in the midst of your all-too-human hauntings.

What is it that you crave? What is it that you grasp for? What is that one thing that you think to yourself: "Oh, man, if I could just get [rich] or [skinny] or [the perfect job] or [the perfect partner] or [that new gadget] or [fill-in-the-blank], then everything'd be absolutely friggin' PERFECT, and I could finally be happy and complete and my parents would actually be proud of me and those high school bullies who were so mean to me would finally, totally feel like the jackasses they were?"


As Weintraub points out, the archetype of the Hungry Ghost comes to us in many forms, across many cultures: as the Fallen Angel, as La Llorona, as the Sanskrit Preta. This universal naming of the pain and pleasure of Desire strikes me as somehow so heartening, reminding us that we're all in this together, craving and dissatisfaction and all, and that the practice of saying "It is enough" is in fact a shared challenge, a major victory, a super-sweet daily aim. Can you be brave enough to glimpse your own Hungry Ghost in the mirror, and, rather than running away from her, or numbing her out, or shutting her down, give her a loving nod, maybe a wink, maybe a curious tilt of the head, seeing her for what she is, and thanking her for the inadvertent teaching she's wrought in your life? It's a worthy practice, this sitting with ghosts, on an otherwise deep dark dank Halloween week.

So get your ghost on already. Give her a fond squeeze. And then let her go.

Compassionate Practice: Embracing the Hungry Ghost (Yoga Chicago)


Sarah McCarron said…
it is also very powerful to feed the hungry ghost with compassion.

Roshi Bernie Glassman, with the Zen Center of Los Angeles, developed a beautiful ritual called the Gate of Sweet Nectar - to re-envision our relationship to the Hungry Ghost:

The ritual, "The Gate of Sweet Nectar," was developed by Roshi Bernie
Glassman, a leading American Zen Buddhist teacher and social
activist. It creatively adapts a traditional rite for feeding hungry
ghosts (Kanromon) used in the Soto tradition of Japanese Zen.
Incorporating elements from other traditions--such as Jewish liturgy
and Theravada Buddhist loving-kindness (metta) meditation--it
expresses an evolving social vision in American Zen. As such, "The
Gate of Sweet Nectar" is a good example of the transmission,
translation, and transformation of Buddhism in an American social and
religious setting.

In Japan, the Kanromon (the ritual on which "The Gate of Sweet
Nectar" is based) is perfomed during the midsummer Obon festival,
when the dead return to the realm of the living. Priests conduct the
ritual both in temples for the whole congregation as well as in homes
of individual families in order to make merit to transfer to deceased
family members and ancestors. It is a prime source of income for
their temples.

In contrast, at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, the entire community
gathers to participate in the rite every Sunday morning. Although the
dead are addressed at various points of the ritual, the focus is on
the living. The hungry ghosts of the ritual get reinterpreted as
those forgotten and abandoned by our society, as well as those
aspects of ourselves that are forgotten and abandoned. The ritual is
thus about healing, making the participants whole, thereby
transforming their awareness so that they can extend their compassion
into the world. The community participants bring donations of food
that are placed on the altar during the ceremony and then given to a
local food bank afterwards.

The rite was developed by Roshi Glassman in the context of his work
in Yonkers, NY, during the 1980s and 90s, in which he extended the
social scope of Zen Buddhist practice by creating the Greyston
Foundation to address the needs of those who are marginalized by our
society-the homeless, single-parent welfare families, the chronically
unemployed, and those with HIV/AIDS. Roshi Glassman identified the
Five Tathagatas in the ritual with the Five Buddha Families of
Tibetan Buddhism as interpreted by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He
adapted the idea of the Five Buddha Families as an organizational
model for the Greyston Mandala, in which the Ratna Family relates to
livelihood and financial resources; Karma, to social service; Vajra,
to study and training; Padma, to integration and communication; and
Buddha, to the spiritual vision that pervades all the families.

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