Friday, August 28, 2009

Hungry Ghosts

The Buddhist depiction of the Six Realms of existence is, on the one hand, a traditional way of categorizing the various types of beings that are said to exist: from the lowest, most miserable hell-beings up to the most blissed-out, prideful gods -- and everything (including human beings) in-between.

But more to the point, the Six Realms are a way of looking at how we tend to solidify ourselves into certain states of mind that color our experience of the world based on the mental habits we cultivate. A person who repeatedly indulges in anger becomes more and more easily angered, until at last he finds himself locked in a hell-realm state of mind where everything constantly pisses him off and he's always at war with his own life and everyone he meets. A person who repeatedly indulges in self-pity and despair becomes more and more easily trapped in those feelings, until at last she finds herself mired in the quicksand of an ongoing depression that seems, to her, inescapable.

No one likes being pop-psychoanalyzed by another person who doesn't fully understand them, or who tries to reduce the complexity of their experience using an overly simplistic formula. Using the Six Realms to explain another person's depression, rage, addiction or other negative states of mind runs the risk of being mis-applied as this kind of Buddhist pop-psychology, a reductionist approach to a complex phenomenon that is made up of many factors. Telling someone who's locked in a struggle to the death with their own emotions that it's all in their mind is obviously too glib, and of course it's easy to say this when you're sitting comfortably outside of the war zone of that person's life. Still, the Six Realms do provide a helpful way of understanding the full spectrum of human psychology, as well as its elasticity: they show how thoughts and emotions can, over time, snowball into full-blown, seemingly intractable neuroses. (Emphasis here is on the adverb, seemingly. From the Buddhist point of view, nothing in our mind or experience is really as solid as it appears.)

Imagine there's no Heaven -- it's easy if you try.
No Hell below us -- above us, only sky.

-- John Lennon, "Imagine"

In the schema of the Six Realms, the second-lowest realm -- just above the Hell Realm -- is called the Hungry Ghost realm. Here, it is said, beings go through extreme anguish because they are hungry and thirsty, but their mouths are so small and their throats so thin that they cannot swallow much of anything. For a Hungry Ghost, there is never enough -- no satisfaction, and no rest. This image is a good metaphor for what happens to us when we get trapped in poverty mentality and depression. Tara Brach calls it the "trance of unworthiness": the all-pervasive feeling that there's something wrong with me, that I'm not sufficient to face the circumstances of my life. Like a Hungry Ghost, when we get trapped in poverty mentality, we cannot allow in positive thoughts or emotions because we are so focused on what is wrong with us, or what is wrong with life. If you have ever held a conversation with someone who was in the throes of a severe depression, or with an addict who was locked in the throes of addiction, then you actually know very well what a Hungry Ghost looks like. (If you've ever been one of those people yourself, then you also know what being a Hungry Ghost feels like.)

Western psychology now takes a largely materialist approach to explaining our negative states of mind, relating them primarily to the body and to chemical imbalances that can be corrected with pharmaceutical intervention. From the Western point of view, there is little or no difference between the mind and the brain. Buddhist psychology, on the other hand, holds that mind and body are involved in a mutually dependent relationship, but mind and matter are not the same thing. There is a feedback loop between mind and body in the sense that one's mental habits and the phenomena arising in one's material body reinforce each other. This feedback loop can be a virtuous circle or a vicious one, depending on the kinds of habits we cultivate.

Through years (or lifetimes) of habituation, of training ourselves in certain patterns of thought and emotion, each of us develops a "set-point": a more or less hardened, habitual way of relating to our experience. Our set-point can seem like a very solid thing -- and we're good at justifying it, explaining why we cannot deviate very much from it. I feel this way because of X, Y and Z. "I lost my job, I had a bad childhood, society did me wrong, I've experienced trauma, I've been diagnosed with such-and-such, I have a chemical imbalance that causes me to feel this way." We build our identity around these wounds; they become the core around which we weave the cocoon of our own suffering. Eckhart Tolle, in "The Power of Now," calls this the "pain-body," an invisible but pervasive cloud of mental anguish and sorrow that we carry around and project onto the situations and people we encounter -- like Pig-Pen in the Peanuts cartoons, who goes everywhere surrounded by a cloud of his own dirt and stink.

Our "set-point" defines the psychological realm we live in. Operating from that habitual starting place, we tend to use everything that happens to us as bricks in the walls we are constantly building around ourselves. The thicker and higher we build the walls, the harder it becomes to see beyond them -- in fact, we forget we are even building them. We become totally convinced that this is who we actually are -- a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. But our conviction, our belief in the solidity of the walls of our realm, is the only thing that really keeps us trapped there. In other words, when we become enclosed in one of the Six Realms, we become our own jailers. From the inside, the walls that enclose us appear to be "out there," and so we search "out there" for freedom. But we are the only ones who could possibly hold the key to such a self-made prison.

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