Feeding Craving Doesn’t Nourish Your Hungry Ghosts

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Hungry ghosts have large stomachs and constricted throats, so they are not able to take in nourishment.  This leaves them unable to satisfy their cravings.  A student asked Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “What is life like in the realm of the hungry ghosts?” He replied, “America.” Psychologist Robin Cohen explains, “Turn on your television, open a magazine or start-up your computer and you will see all the shiny remedies to your pain and loneliness.” How many times have you looked in the refrigerator for something to eat when you were not hungry? Or watched something on TV because there was nothing better on?  Let’s explore craving and the two steps that allow us to replace craving with a conscious decision to make space for the happiness that will truly nourish our hungry ghosts.

According to Robin Cohen, “We tend to adhesively attach ourselves to unsatisfying relationships and actions, making it impossible to take in true nourishment. We are born with a powerful and healthy life force that drives us toward human connection. Through early disappointment and trauma, this healthy force becomes twisted into insatiable desire and craving and we replace healthy connections (with both ourselves and others) with activities and relationships that quickly soothe the pain, but do not transform it. If you feel this way, you are not alone.”

Craving comes out of the stress of unmet needs. When needs are unmet, there are fewer dopamine receptors, so we seek rewards from substitutes. The use of substitutes further decreases the dopamine receptors so we need more of the substitute. It is like trying to feed hungry ghosts—we are riddled with desire but unable to satisfy.

Feeding a hungry ghost is like drinking salt water to quench your thirst. The more you drink, the thirstier you become. When we feed our craving, it covers up the unwanted feeling, but only for a short time. The craving doesn’t die, it actually gets stronger. It is like throwing another log on the fire, the fire gets bigger, stronger and sometimes out of control. Each time we drink, smoke, etc. as a way to escape an unpleasant experience, we strengthen the neural pathway to do it again.  We have not fixed the problem.

In his book, The Craving Mind, Judson Brewer says, “Craving builds its strength through repetition—resistance training. Each time we look for our “likes” on Facebook, we lift the barbell of “I am.” Each time we smoke a cigarette in reaction to a trigger, we do a push-up of “I smoke.” Each time we excitedly run off to a colleague to tell her about our latest and greatest idea, we do a sit-up of “I’m smart.” That is a lot of work.”

One way to stop the resistance training, is to look deeply at our craving—the cause of our craving, and the results of actions to satisfy our craving. Usually when we have an unpleasant feeling or experience, we want to turn away from it. So instead of looking at it, and seeing what we really need, we throw things at it.  And if the substitute gives us short term relief from the unpleasantness, we continue to use it as a cover-up.  The substitute, whether is it drugs, drinking, smoking, eating, not eating, sex, shopping, working, or perfectionism, allows us to shut down our feelings quickly and fully. Until they return again and again and again. Thus, feeding our craving, but not nourishing our hungry ghosts.

Thich Nhat Hanh says we need to do two things to reduce craving:

  1. First, we can look deeply into what is feeding our craving. Our craving needs food to survive. If our craving refuses to go away, it’s because we keep feeding it daily.
  2. Second, once we have identified what feeds our craving, we can stop feeding it, and our craving will fade away. If the craving returns, go back to step 1.

Judson Brewer advises against “brute-forcing habit change.” Instead, when faced with a craving for the old reward, be curious about how you feel and why you feel that way. Being too concerned about overcoming the habit and too emotionally invested in progress and relapses could hinder true attentiveness. Being in the moment and watching things unfold are more impactful than trying to coerce oneself into quitting.

My craving was Diet Pepsi. I tried for years to give up Diet Pepsi. The more I tried to use willpower to give it up, the stronger my craving became. Finally, I decided I would not try to give it up.  And I would not beat myself up for wanting a Diet Pepsi.  I would just be very mindful about it. So, when the craving for Diet Pepsi came up, I would notice it and be curious about it. What is underneath my need for Diet Pepsi? Then I would pay attention as I drank it. The first sip tasted great. So did the second and third sips. But half way through the bottle, I noticed that it really didn’t taste so good. Then I paid attention to how I felt after drinking a Diet Pepsi. If I had a meeting, I would feel anxiety as I knew I would need to go to the bathroom. And would sit in the meeting wondering if I could hold it or if I should leave the meeting. After the meeting I would rush out to use the bathroom, instead of chatting with my co-workers.

In looking deeply, I could see that for me Diet Pepsi represented belonging and connection. Growing up, only the big kids got “P-O-P.” I was a little kid. After paying attention, I saw that drinking Diet Pepsi did not bring connection and belonging. It only brought a need to rush to the bathroom after a meeting, thus inhibiting my ability to create connections with my co-workers. This realization was not enough to stop drinking Diet Pepsi cold turkey. I continued to be mindful each time a drank a Diet Pepsi. By paying attention, I noticed when it no longer tasted good, and would stop drinking at that point. As I drank less and less of the bottle, the craving withered. Using mindfulness, I decoupled the link between Diet Pepsi and a feeling of belonging.

When you have a craving, ask yourself: “What’s the deep aim at the bottom of it?” Once you uncover the answer, ask yourself: “How could I pursue this aim in better ways?” By looking deeply, we know how to pull up the roots of the craving.  If we have not pulled up the roots, the craving will return again and again.

Instead of craving, we can make a conscious decision to make space for the happiness that will truly nourish our hungry ghosts. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Every breath and every step can be nourishing and healing. As we breathe in and breathe out, or as we take a mindful step, we can recite this mantra: This is a moment of happiness. It doesn’t cost anything at all.”

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