How to Care for a Hungry Ghost

I don’t believe that I’ve ever experienced an encounter with a disembodied spirit, but anyone who has ever experienced depression knows what it’s like to be haunted.

In traditional ghost stories, spirits are usually bound to this realm by unfinished business. In Hamlet, a slain king appears to his son to report that he was murdered. In A Christmas Carol, three apparitions, from the past, present, and future, stick around to nudge wealthy businessman Ebenezer Scrooge from miserliness to philanthropy.

The story of many of these ghostly tales is about how, through mortal intervention, this unfinished business can be completed and the ghost is freed to move on.

In Chinese mythology, the hungry ghost dwells among the hell realms in a state of perpetual insatiable hunger. This variety of ghost is sometimes viewed as a metaphor for addiction. In an attempt to stave off physical or emotional pain, the addict engages in substance abuse: cigarettes, alcohol, over-eating, opiates, or social media. But, since the substance doesn’t address the cause of the hunger, addicts remain stuck in their own personal hell realm.

Most of us suffer from hungry ghost syndrome at some point in our lives. If we’re haunted by an unmet need for recognition, we might run ourselves ragged at work, lose sleep, eat badly and never exercise. We consume far more calories than we need to satisfy our hunger, when something other than hunger makes us feel bad. We may starve ourselves to attain an unhealthy body type so that others will find us attractive.

Two approaches to caring for a hungry ghost, freeing it of its unfinished business so that it can move on into the light, are a mindfulness exercise with the acronym RAIN, to deal with the appetite itself, and metta, or loving-friendliness, which can help address the true source of the hunger.

Judson Brewer’s book, The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits explains how the RAIN technique can help people stop smoking.

Brewer notes that cigarettes are more addictive than heroin because we can indulge in them many times a day and still remain functional. Thanks to neuroplasticity, every time our urge to light up is triggered, we engage in the behavior, are rewarded with the stress-relieving effects of the nicotine, and our brain strengthens the fetter that binds our hungry ghost to the behavior.

In order to get unstuck from the behavior and move on, we must become aware of the triggers. To do this, we must practice studying the hungry ghost’s appetite as it arises.   

Recognize/relax when the hunger comes on. What is the trigger that signals the brain that it’s hungry for a cigarette?

Accept/allow that hunger to be there.

Investigate all the physical sensations that combine to make up the concept we label as hunger.

Note as a disinterested observer all the moment-to-moment changes that occur as the hunger arises and eventually goes away.

Using tools like RAIN to identify what triggers the hungry ghost are useful for curbing self-destructive behaviors. But, there’s a difference between curtailing a destructive behavior and finding a healthy source of sustenance.

In “Anti-Social Media and Social Comparison,” we looked at the ways that the media and other people can give us the impression that we need to buy Product X or Service X in order to be happy, accepted, or loved. The concept that our happiness is conditional is the surest way to keep us hungry.

Researcher story-teller Brené Brown wrote in The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, “If you roughly divide the men and women I’ve interviewed into two groups— those who feel a deep sense of love and belonging, and those who struggle for it— there’s only one variable that separates the groups: Those who feel lovable, who love, and who experience belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging.”

Hungry ghosts do not believe they are worthy of love. For whatever reason, the idea that they are unlovable or incapable of love has been reinforced along with the substitute behavior that can never satisfy that unmet need.

Unlike RAIN, which relies on a trigger for us to spring into action, we can begin building up a habit of unconditional self-compassion through metta practice right now.

The one hurdle I faced before making the metta practice part of my daily self-care regimen was that it struck me as wishful thinking. Scientifically, it’s easier to accept the effectiveness of the RAIN technique because it’s all based in empirical observation of our moment-to-moment experience.

If we’re feeling depressed, isolated, unloved or unlovable, it’s a stretch to think that positive affirmations or thoughts that we’re worthy of happiness, health, and inner peace can do any good. It seems like merely wishing we weren’t depressed any more, which we know doesn’t work.

If metta practice stopped at strengthening the habitual belief that I am worthy of happiness, health, and inner peace, it would be easy to shrug off. But, even if I don’t think I’m worthy of happiness, health, and inner peace, I can think of someone in my present or past who is or was.

Once we’ve identified one or more persons who are worthy of happiness, health, and inner peace, we challenge ourselves to extend that intention to people we may occasionally see in the course of our day. If this feels like a stretch, admitting that even people we don’t know personally are worthy of happiness, health, and inner peace, that’s good. Because it will prepare us for the next, bigger stretch.

When we force ourselves to admit that the people who cause tension in our lives, the people we have the most trouble with, are also worthy of happiness, health, and inner peace, our brains might feel ready to explode. Sometimes these people engage in harmful, antisocial behavior. We’d be irresponsible for letting them off the hook!

This is where metta does its most important work. If we happen to be assigned to a jury trying a murder case, we can determine, based on the facts presented, that the defendant committed the crime. But, we can still believe that they’re worthy of happiness, health, and inner peace. We deliver our guilty verdict, but do it without hatred or malice for the defendant. We leave the sentencing to the judge.

We can do this without feeling irresponsible because we understand that the effects of being unhappy, unhealthy, and in turmoil can drive us to do things that are harmful to ourselves and to others. Unless the challenging people in our lives are sociopaths, the things they do to hurt us are merely their unskillful attempts to feed their hungry ghosts.

Once we’ve extended the intention to treat all living beings as worthy of happiness, health, and inner peace, it’s a struggle to rationalize any basis to exclude ourselves.

As our metta practice becomes more habitual, we recognize that our intentions don’t create happiness, health, and inner peace for others. They have to create these for themselves. But, as we  engage in our daily interactions with the intention of maximizing happiness, health, and inner peace for all parties, over time, we experience more and more moments of spontaneous happiness.

We recognize that our ghost is not as hungry as it used to be.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.