A “hungry ghost” is a Buddhist image – a metaphor depicting one who is lost in confusion and delusion, one who is consumed with need but cannot feed or take in the nourishment of what is offered. Being a “hungry ghost,” according to Mark Epstein, a practicing Buddhist and Freudian analyst is “a typical Western predicament, experienced at one time or another by nearly all Western practitioners of Buddhist meditation practices and especially American culture because we grow up being dependent on the nuclear family, on the attentions of, at best, two over-committed parents, and our educational and social-development is oriented and towards the development of independence. If the parent-child relationship is strained, if the child is forced to grow up too fast, there remains a gnawing sense of emptiness “a perceived flaw that is experienced as something wrong with me,” (Epstein, 1995, pg., 173-74). In more simple terms we cut ourselves off from what we most need and from the people we most need it from. We imprison ourselves and limit what is possible in our lives –we do this to the extent we continue believing our self-spun childhood stories, cultural norms that teach us to fear pain, run from fear, and hide our shame. We tell ourselves all sorts of things explaining the how of stuff but when tested we often cannot put a finger on why.
The other day, fittingly enough up at the local cemetery (one of my haunts) I encountered a Hungry ghost and we had a conversation of sorts. He told me that his name was Clell, and he knew my father well and when I was quite young we had concocted a story to repeat to ourselves that explained why it was that life was so scary and crazy. “The story we created,” Clell said, “is universal though simultaneously special and unique. Like young Mr. Potter, the poor little Match girl, and hundreds more of sadly brave little children who believe they must shoulder the weight and carry on because they are tragically flawed in some core way…” The story we made up (he and I) was of the kid standing on the outside of the feast looking in. Wanting to be inside but holding back lest others see his desperate need and desire to be one of the happy and laughing ones on the other side – his emptiness filled with shame and the gnawing sense that he is both unlovable and unloving deep down.
All the while Clell was telling me this, I was standing rooted to the spot feeling sensations of rising fear and anxious heat moving about through my body. But oddly enough I wasn’t running to something else inside my head or to rid myself of these very unpleasant feelings and for some reason it did not seem silly or I crazy to be standing in a Cemetery having a conversation with a ghost who went by the name of Clell. “Then,” he added, chuckling softly in a remorseful kind of way, “we forgot. You forgot your part, you forgot about my part, and me and we forgot that we made that story up to fit the way we were and the way life was then. We never intended it to become a life-long story.” he said with a sad hang-dog look.
So being needy – having needs became shameful. Just as I had to learn how to hide my needs from others, over time I also forgot and hid my needs from myself as well. Hiding in these ways necessarily requires secretiveness and subterfuge, which in turn creates the need for more stories to explain the numbness away and more stores to explain the distance from others, and still more elaborate stories to explain why things continue and why “I” continue to be the same and all these stories just spin and spin continuing to feed shame and its fear of being discovered. Addicts understand this cycle well and understand that it is a painfully vicious cycle – it’s hard to break – it’s easy to get trapped in.
I left the cemetery and wondered down to 3rd Ave. I saw it instantly – Gorgeous color and light. It was love at first sight – this Maple on the corner across from the church. I don’t know how long I stood there experiencing lightness and happiness in just looking, playing, observing and photographing. On this day I clearly understood I needed to find new ways to relate to a very old feeling, a very old self-denying story, a very old, tired and boring story about shame. I stood beneath this magnificent tree, I looked up and this image was revealed. I experienced a kind of shifting or perhaps a softening and I saw how the creation of that story had served me and protected me as a child, how Clell and I had co-conspired to find a way to keep me safe in very unsafe conditions, that the motive was love…and how I was free now to create new stories….if I choose to do so.
I do not think it possible for one to experience a perception of beauty – to be absorbed into a such a moment and simultaneously be held fast in the grip of fear, or doubt or shame. I do not think shame and grace can co-exist.
There was a sense of innocence and purity of intention and heart in the moment. The weary and heaviness of Clell’s spirit hovering over me had lifted and the world was aglow and light was dancing everywhere while inside gladness and gratitude smiled and shined. I turned to go then stopped and glanced back and when I did I saw as a parting gift this image of the Maple below: Shimmering in joy.
Opening to grace, shame is seen for what it is – a fabrication – a story we tell ourselves that at the time, makes sense of the craziness around us. A story created from good intentions and from a place of nobility – created not to harm us or keep us imprisoned but simply to help us make it through another day.