Headless horsemen and candy corn and ghouls and goblins everywhere you look this week, accentuated by October's seasonal cool and gloom.
Haunted by a few ghosts of your own these days?
Don't worry; we all are.
Maybe those apparitions look like remnants of the past that linger in your mind; maybe they're the looming fear of what is to come; maybe they're the whimpering wisps of craving for that which will never be.
However you want to look at them, these creeping, lurking, never-satiated spirits love to wrap their long winding fingers around our hearts, breathing eerie, raspy voices into our thoughts, urging us toward dissatisfaction, turmoil, tumult, and despair.
Here's a glimpse:
For many years, when feelings of grief or humiliation or self-hatred overwhelmed me, I reached for the anesthetic at hand — sometimes food, sometimes alcohol, sometimes an addictive kind of love and sometimes, in the beginning, even yoga practice.
Maybe you’ve identified your own numbing-out strategy, or maybe you haven’t, but most of us have struggled with these cravings. In fact, they’re so common that there is an ancient archetype associated with them — and it’s called the Hungry Ghost.
Who is this Hungry Ghost? Though I call her “she,” my own Hungry Ghost is androgynous and so ugly she’s lovable. She has an enormous and wrinkled head, and, unlike traditional representations, she has a great cavernous mouth into which I have poured various unhealthy substances in order not to feel. Yours, if you have one, may look different....
These creatures are withered, E.T.-like, with bloated bellies and necks too thin to eat or drink without feeling unbearable pain. Hungry Ghosts wander, insatiable, unable to nourish themselves. “The very attempts to satisfy themselves,” writes Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein in Thoughts Without a Thinker, “cause more pain….Attempts at gratification only yield a more intense hunger and craving. The Hungry Ghosts must come in contact with the ghostlike nature of their own longings.” They must understand their own emptiness.
Remarkably, the Boddhisattva of Compassion appears in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, “carrying a bowl filled with objects symbolic of spiritual nourishment,” says Epstein. It is only when we embrace the Hungry Ghost with compassion that we feed its starving spirit....
This image of the ever-craving empty-bellied ghost dances over and under so many of the West's most complicated religious and cultural concepts. Take a few minutes between Halloween parties to sit with Weintraub's beautiful writing, and in so doing, to come home with great compassion to your own Hungry Ghosts, to be gentle with them, to find peace and perhaps a glimpse of santosha (or contentment) in the midst of your all-too-human hauntings.
What is it that you crave? What is it that you grasp for?
What is that one thing that you think to yourself: "Oh, man, if I could just get [rich] or [skinny] or [the perfect job] or [the perfect partner] or [that new gadget] or [fill-in-the-blank], then everything'd be absolutely PERFECT, and I could finally be happy and complete and my parents would be proud of me and those high school bullies who were so mean to me would finally, totally feel like the jerks they were?"
As Weintraub points out, the archetype of the Hungry Ghost comes to us in many forms, across many cultures: as the Fallen Angel, as La Llorona, as the Sanskrit Preta.
This universal naming of the pain and pleasure of desire reminds us that we're all on this path together, craving and dissatisfaction and all, and that the practice of saying "It is enough" is in fact a shared challenge, a major victory, an utterly-comforting daily aim.
Can you be brave enough to glimpse your own Hungry Ghost in the mirror, and, rather than running away from her, or numbing her out, or shutting her down, give her a loving nod, maybe a wink, maybe a curious tilt of the head, seeing her for what she is, and thanking her for the inadvertent teaching she's wrought in your life?
It's a worthy practice, this sitting with ghosts, on an otherwise cool and shadowy Halloween week.
So get your ghost on already. Give her a fond squeeze.
And then let her go.
Guest post by studio BE Vice President Rachel Meyer
Rachel Meyer is an American writer and yoga teacher based in Switzerland. She draws from her roots in musical theater, theology, and the arts to teach a wholehearted, vigorous vinyasa. Rachel teaches at B.Yoga Basel and the Braswell Arts Center and serves as Vice President of Business Development (Europe) for studio BE. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, On Being, Yoga Journal, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Yoga International, Parents, HuffPost, and more. Prior to moving to Basel, Rachel taught for a decade in premier studios in San Francisco, CA; Portland, OR; and Boston, MA.
Learn more at www.rachelmeyeryoga.com or on social media @rachelmeyeryoga.
Feature image by Jon Tyson/Word Swag