Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Hungry Ghosts

I believe there is one addiction process, whether it manifests in the lethal substance dependencies of my Downtown Eastside patients, the frantic self-soothing of overeaters or shopaholics, the obsessions of gamblers, sexaholics and compulsive internet users, or in the socially acceptable and even admired behaviours of the workaholic. Drug addicts are often dismissed and discounted as unworthy of empathy and respect. In telling their stories my intent is to help their voices to be heard and to shed light on the origins and nature of their ill-fated struggle to overcome suffering through substance use. Both in their flaws and their virtues they share much in common with the society that ostracizes them. If they have chosen a path to nowhere, they still have much to teach the rest of us. In the dark mirror of their lives we can trace outlines of our own.

—from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts  by Gabor Mate

It's all about addiction. Hungry ghosts, in Buddhist mythology (and in varying guises, in others, including Taoism) are departed souls who did not get "enough" during their lifetimes. They are consigned to a special hell of wandering the earth, trying but failing to fill their bloated, starving stomachs, which remain empty because no sustenance can pass their skinny throats. Humans actually have the task of trying to satisfy these rather unappealing creatures, that they may go on to their rest, so they supply them with food at Hungry Ghost Festivals.

Keepers of ancient wisdom, such as the Buddhists, understood  human psychology and human behavior, even if they didn't have the fancy words and diagnoses that we do. What we call addiction, the Buddhists called  tanha ~~ grasping, desire, or craving, and they saw it as a normal part of the human condition, albeit one to be overcome through the practice of meditation and the Four Noble Truths.

This understanding of addiction works well for me. Having grown up in a family of addicts and alcoholics, and then continuing to be surrounded by them for all of my adult life, I think it is fair to say that I have earned my degree in addiction. You know the degree, the one earned at the School of Hard Knocks and the University of Adversity? My life has been a laboratory for the study of addictive behavior and its many blessings and curses.