Craving Doesn’t Nourish Your Hungry Ghosts

If You Prefer to Listen

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.

In Buddhism, hungry ghosts are depicted as having large stomachs and extremely constricted throats, disabling their abilities to take in nourishment, and eternally sentencing them to unsatisfied and insatiable craving and longing.

According to psychologist 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.”

A student asked Thich Nhat Hanh, “What is life like in the realm of the hungry ghosts?”, he replied, “America”. 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.

The Buddha said that craving is like holding a torch against the wind; the fire will burn you. When someone is thirsty and drinks only salty water, the more he drinks, the thirstier he becomes. If we run after money, for example, we think that a certain amount of money will make us happy. But once we have that amount, it’s not enough; we think we need more. There are people who have a lot of money, but they are not happy at all. The Buddha said that the object of our craving is like a bone without flesh. A dog can chew and chew on that bone and never feel satisfied.

When we feed our craving, it covers up the unwanted feeling, but only for a short time. The craving doesn’t die, it just gets stronger, you just throw another log on the fire and the fire gets bigger, stronger and sometimes out of control. Each time we drink, smoke, or do some other behavior as a way to escape an unpleasant experience, we train ourselves to do it again—without having fixed the problem. If we keep going in that direction, our suffering will continue endlessly.

Craving builds its strength through repetition—resistance training. According to Judson Brewer in The Craving Mind, “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.”

Until we clearly see what we are actually getting from our actions—which actions led to happiness and which one perpetuate stress and suffering—we cannot see how to change them.

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

  1. First, we can look deeply into the nutriment that is feeding our craving, examining the source. No animal or plant can survive without food. Our craving, just like our love or our suffering, also 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 cut off this source of nutriment, and our craving will wither. When we stop feeding our cravings, we discover that we already have everything we need to be happy.

If we can’t clearly see the craving, we don’t know how to face it or feed it. We throw things at it in ways that are easy: drugs, drinking, eating, not eating, obsessing, worrying, smoking, love or sex addiction, buying, excessive working, or perfectionism. This allows us to shut down our feelings quickly and fully. Until they return again and again and again.

Justin 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.”

“Counterintuitively, by turning toward or getting close to the craving, you became less enchanted with your intoxicants by directly observing what reward you were getting from acting on your urges…. By simply being aware. Instead of trying to get in there and untangle the snarled mess of our lives (and making it more tangled in the process), we step back and let it untangle itself.”

Brewer’s research showed that mindfulness decoupled the link between craving and smoking. The decoupling craving and behavior seemed to be important for preventing cues from becoming stronger or more salient triggers. Each time we lay down a memory linking a cue with a behavior, our brain starts looking for the cue and its friends. Anything similar to the original cue can trigger a craving.

Which mindfulness skill was the biggest predictor of breaking the link between craving and smoking? The winner: RAIN. While formal meditation practices were positively correlated with outcomes, the informal practice of RAIN was the only one that passed statistical muster. RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate and Non-identification/Nurture.

Craving is a cover up for a feeling. As big and as scary as the feeling may seem, it is a feeling and not a tornado or a flood. You don’t need to run away, nor do you need to frantically seek something to take in– although it feels like you must. RAIN allows us to look deeply at this feeling to see what we really need.

Ask yourself: “What’s the deep aim at the bottom of it?” And when you get 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.

“Just as a tree, though cut down, can grow again and again if its roots are undamaged and strong, in the same way if the roots of craving are not wholly uprooted sorrows will come again and again.” Dhammapada 338

Instead of craving, we can make a conscious decision to make space for the happiness that is available in each step and each breath. 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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