The Hungry Ghost Inside Us
“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours. It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper and the workaholic. The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden—but it’s there. As we’ll see, the effects of early stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain.” - Dr. Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction
As a medical doctor, I have worked with some very, very addicted people. People who use heroin, cocaine, alcohol, crystal meth and every drug known to man. And these people suffer.
They lose their health, they lose their beauty, they lose their teeth, they lose their wealth, they lose human relationships and in the end, they often lose their lives. And yet, nothing can force them to give up their addiction. The addictions are powerful and the question is why.
If you want to understand addiction, you can’t look at what’s wrong with the addiction, you have to look at what’s right about it.
In other words, what is the person getting from the addiction that otherwise they don’t have. What addicts get is release from pain, what they get is a sense of peace, a sense of control, a sense of calmness, very, very temporarily. And thus the real question in addiction is not why the addiction, but why the pain?
Now, if you want to ask the question of why people are in pain, you can’t look at their genetics, you have to look at their lives. And in case of my highly addicted patients, it’s very clear why they are in pain. Because they have been abused all of their lives. They began life as abused children – physically abused, neglected, abandoned over and over again. And that’s why the pain.
The human brain develops in interaction with the environment so the kind of environment that a child has will actually shape the development of the brain.
The Buddhists have this idea of the hungry ghosts — the hungry ghosts are creatures with large empty bellies and small, scrawny necks and tiny little mouths, so they can never get enough, they can never fill this emptiness on the inside. And the addiction is all about trying to fill that emptiness from the outside.
From that perspective, you can understand that there are many, many addictions. Yes, there is the addiction to drugs, but there is also the addiction to consumerism, there is the addiction to sex, to the internet, to shopping, to food. For each person, there is a different way of filling the emptiness but the emptiness always goes back to what we didn’t get when we were very small.
Many of my patients are actually First Nation Indian people, native Indian people in Canada and they are heavily addicted. Why? Because their lands were taken away from them, and because they were killed and abused for generations and generations and generations.
If you can understand the suffering of these native people and how that suffering makes them seek relief from pain in their addictions, what about the people who are perpetrating it? What are they addicted to? Well they are addicted to power, they are addicted to wealth, they are addicted to acquisition. They want to make themselves bigger.
The addiction to power is always about the emptiness that we try to fill from the outside.
If you look at the story about Jesus and Buddha, both of them were tempted by the devil and one of the things that the devil offers them is power and they both say no because they have the power inside of themselves, they don’t need it from the outside. They don’t want to control people, they want to teach people by example, not through force. So they refuse power.
Jesus says the Kingdom of God is within, that the power is not outside of yourself but inside.
And the Buddha, says, “don’t worship me, find a lamp inside yourself, be a lamp unto yourselves, find a light within.”
And so as we look this difficult world, let’s not look to the people in power to change things. Because the people in power are very often, some of the emptiest people in the world and they are not going to change things for us. We have to find that light within ourselves, we have to find the light within communities and in our own wisdom and our own creativity.
If you find that light within, if you find our own nature, then we will be kinder unto ourselves and we will also be kinder to nature.