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Hungry Ghosts: Buddhism and Recovery from Addiction

Updated on May 13, 2010

Chapter 1: Hungry Ghosts

In Buddhism there is a myth about a hell-realm populated by beings whose appetites exceed their capacity for satisfaction. Their stomachs are huge but their throats are tiny. No matter how much they try to eat, their hunger remains. In ancient India, they are called hungry ghosts. We call them alcoholics and drug addicts.

We’re all in some sense or another hungry ghosts. No matter how much we get we aren’t content. We eat and drink and smoke and use and gamble and love and lust and shop and exercise and obsess about anything that resolves the sense of incompletion, imperfection, or suffering we find inside. We believe if only we can obtain just the right combination of drugs or alcohol or sex or love or food or money, we’ll find the serenity we so desperately seek.

Sometimes we do this at the increasing expense of our selves, our families, our friends, our work, our health, and ultimately, our lives. Our efforts evolve from being merely delusional manifestations of ego to something far more insidious. It doesn’t matter whether it’s alcoholism, drug addiction, over eating, or behavioral addiction, the underlying process is essentially the same. For we who fall fully into the realm of hungry ghosts, the pain and suffering these issues cause are almost beyond comprehension.

People who aren’t inclined towards such an extreme fate have serious difficulty understanding addiction. The outward behavior they observe seems grossly and obviously dysfunctional, the consequences horrific, and the solution ostensibly easy. And because they themselves aren’t addictive in this extreme sense, they struggle to comprehend why people with substance or compulsive behavior issues don’t simply cease their dysfunctional ways. Of course, just not drinking or using (or whatever) isn’t really an option for hungry ghosts. Were it so, we would not be addicts in the first place. No one – absolutely no one – meaningfully chooses to drink alcohol or use drugs to the extent of addiction, destroy their loved one’s lives, ruin their jobs and careers, fail in school, commit a majority of society’s crime, and eventually die in any of the myriad and especially unpleasant ways addicts meet their demise. This isn’t, after all, the manifestation of some improperly applied act of free will.

In fact, there’s plenty of science explaining the addictive process. Hungry ghosts are wired differently. We’re biochemically inclined towards addiction. Whereas non-addicts learn early in their adult lives the perils of such behavior, we who don’t possess quite so luxurious genetics find ourselves compelled towards abuse because the alternative, without more, leaves us fundamentally unhappy, anxious, and overwhelmed. For most active addicts, no matter how far into suffering our lives spiral, when push comes to shove we simply cannot fathom an existence without our medicine.

And worse yet, it’s in the nature of addiction that the sense of pleasure, completion, and meaning our use gives us decreases over time, so that the task of sustaining some sense of balance even with the drug of choice becomes dramatically more difficult. Our usage increases exponentially as we chase after the sunrise our egos tell us we once enjoyed. The highs we seek occur less and less frequently, the pain we avoid at all costs reoccurs more regularly, and so our addictive behavior intensifies. Eventually, at least for many of us, we face only four options: we either enter recovery, we’re sent to prison, we go insane, or our addiction kills us.

Escaping the realm of hungry ghosts, for those who’ve made it our home, may be the most arduous task anyone can imagine undertaking. The work of recovery involves a kind of change nearly everyone can only at best imagine very abstractly. The physical addiction issues alone keep many from ever honestly considering sobriety. Having drunk and used to the point of physical dependency, our bodies require our drug of choice in the same biochemical way we require food and water. This makes the physical detoxification aspect of recovery an overwhelming event that usually requires medical intervention and often hospitalization.

And resolving the physical addiction is by far the easiest part of recovery.

The problem that haunts addicts, alcoholics, and anyone who makes a conscious effort to understand addictive dependencies is the question of what it is exactly that makes recovery so difficult? After all, we’re not strangers to sobriety, if for no other reason then when we’re in jail, in detox, or otherwise temporarily unable to feed our addiction. We repeatedly go through treatment programs, make sincere pledges to change our ways, and sometimes even string together significant amounts of clean time. And yet, relapse rates from these sorts of efforts alone are horrendously high. Almost no one sustains recovery based solely on that initial determined effort.

This is why, historically, the view has been that addicts were somehow weak willed, lacked fully formed adult senses of responsibility, or were in some way morally impaired. We were seen as genuinely incomplete, lacking in an adult sense of reality, and simply incapable of manifesting sufficient character to remain drug free. The solution therefore was to lock away the worst of us, put up with higher functioning addicts, and occasionally help to educate the few who seemed amenable to the necessary “character growth.”

The truth is addicts are anything but weak. In fact, our ability to charge ahead into difficult situations may be unequaled. When we set our sights on goals, likely as not what we seek will indeed come to pass. So too, addicts are emphatically not irresponsible.  Indeed, an over-active sense of ownership regarding events far and beyond anything reasonable is a common perception of hungry ghosts. And finally, addiction is no more a moral issue than depression, cancer, diabetes, or any other illness. Addict’s behavior may often appear ethically impaired, but right conduct requires free action, and addictive behavior is by definition never freely chosen. And while a great deal of work in recovery goes towards making amends for past harms caused, this endeavor has much more to do with therapeutically reclaiming ethical autonomy, as opposed to genuinely correcting past wrongs.

Like everyone else, addicts’ experience is governed by our sense of ego. We’re driven by the same kinds of concerns, worries, desires, and motivation as other people. Indeed, although researchers have sought for years to secure a diagnostic method of predicting substance dependency, the data show there’s no particularly reliable way to discern who becomes addicted and who doesn’t. There’s no such thing as an addictive personality disorder that predicts future dependency. And while it’s true that children from exceptionally dysfunctional families, people with serious mental illness, and individuals with chronic pain issues more frequently become drug and alcohol dependent, the data suggest such persons mostly do not become hungry ghosts.

If nothing else, addiction is a sensitivity problem. We experience the world, including our thoughts and emotions, at a very very high volume. Everything impacts us. We internalize and memorialize life such that it routinely seems impossibly overwhelming. In order to cope, we feel compelled to seek distraction through any mechanism available. And while solutions like watching television, a nice meal, or even a few cocktails fit the bill nicely for non-addicts, these remedies come nowhere near resolving the sense addicts have that life is simply too much. Indeed, the joy most people obtain in life’s simple pleasures seems to us seems utterly empty, overwhelmingly dull, and ultimately wholly inadequate to meet our needs

Without more, we believe we’re doomed to meaninglessness, lack of purpose, and an absence of joy. In such a world, our thoughts and emotions remain chronically entrenched in perceptions of sadness, anger, remorse, incompetence, and fear. Nothing exists, we’re convinced, that holds sufficient power to relieve us of our pain.

We seek a bigger and more comprehensive solution. We experiment with extremes. We’re daredevils, artists, athletes, lovers, and deep thinkers. We’re ruminators, poets, people of great beauty and deep conviction. And most of all, we’re determined survivors.  

Ultimately and unfortunately, only the big bang of our substance or behavior of choice fits the bill. In it, we finally experience the exhilaration and relief we’ve sought, directly through its specific effects and indirectly by how it resolves our larger issues. In short, our high allows us at best to finally let go, experience joy, and capture some semblance of completion. And at worst, we at least obtain a measure of relief from the agony of existence.

Even then, though, it’s a temporary measure of decreasing effectiveness and increasing complication at best. Of course, even a temporary solution is better than no solution at all. Even the momentary relief proffered by a drink or a pill still counts, especially in comparison to the alternative.

Just like everyone else, addicts live under the auspices of ego. We possess any number of varying beliefs, perceptions, ideas, concepts, and truths through which we make sense of the world. But whereas most non-addicts find sufficient stability to allow a modicum of joy, peace, meaning, and success in ways that don’t trigger massive suffering, we hungry ghosts routinely struggle simply to get through our days without being overwhelmed.

We perceive ourselves continually under assault from life’s demands, usually in the guise of what our loved ones, friends, colleagues, coworkers, employers, and teachers expect. Our efforts to satisfy these requirements may or may not prevail, but regardless, the price we pay is in our own horrific suffering. We find our lives continually unsatisfying. The world seeks more from us than we can give, and from this place we quite reasonably crave some sort of relief.

We discover our substance of choice usually by accident. We don’t know before hand the wonders drugs and alcohol create for us. We expect we’ll be like most, who drink and use drugs moderately, who over time realize the price misuse carries, and who aren’t driven towards addiction.

For us, however, such self-regulation becomes impossible. Instead, what we’re aware of is simply that when we’re drunk or high, we aren’t in pain. Our problems fade to the background, our concerns ebb like low tide, and our lives seem – at least for the moment – manageable and worthwhile. As foolish as this appears to others, intoxication completes us.

Being drunk or high becomes our nirvana. We experience it as a state of grace within which we find some semblance of joy, peace, meaning, and purpose. We romanticize and gradually allow its splendor more and more space in our lives. We suffer the hangovers and calamities inebriation requires as the relatively small price of admission to heaven. And we increasingly find our lives devoted to the eternal quest for the sweet spot that occurs in the space between butter sobriety and unconsciousness.

The truth, of course, is our medicine’s side-effects can and often do ultimately kill us. Along the way, its effects diminish and change. The sweet spot turns coy and evasive like an ambivalent lover who only appears when she sees fit. By now, though, wholly and fully embedded in the realm of hungry ghosts, we have only this single remedy. Our cravings explode and we chase even more madly after the rainbow our minds tell us lies just around the next corner. While before we maybe possessed a variety of solutions to existence’s demands, now our eggs occupy a single basket. Without alternatives, and finding sober life intolerable, only one choice carries sufficient force to solve life’s quandary.

No meaningful decision but to carry forward exists. Like a rudderless boat in turbulent waters, we weave and bob along with little regard for anything other than the illusive peace we believe with every last ounce of available conviction awaits us in our substance of choice. We abandon our families, our loved ones, our friends, jobs, and routines. We defend and protect our way of life at all costs. And with fierce determination we vow that nothing shall come between us and our insatiable hunger.

Still, the price escalates. What started with hangovers, obsession, and single-minded determination now evolves a far more horrific and sinister face. We’re always either sick, hungry, empty, and sober or we’re sick, hungry, empty, and drunk or high. Our use changes. Before, it was something we did; now, it’s something we are. Our days and weeks of frozen floundering bliss turn into months and years of numb and blind insanity, as everything – absolutely everything – worth having in life disappears.

And in the end, and but for the chance-spark of realization that what we’ve seemingly become dooms us to something far worse than whatever we thought before we needed, our addictions continue to ruin ours and our loved ones’ lives.

Chapter 2: Recovery

In the United States prior to the 1940s, efforts to help addicts and alcoholics relied primarily on prison, hospitals, sanatoriums, and evangelical religion. Outcomes were terrible. Locking up or converting hungry ghosts at best kept the sufferer sober in the most basic sense but ultimately did nothing to resolve the deeper issues that make drinking or using clearly appear as a very good idea. External force and appeals to higher truths rarely reach the psychic depth necessary to support real change.

Alcoholics Anonymous in the late 1930s changed everything. Through it, recovery became a meaningful possibility. Within a few short decades, AA and its progeny (Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and so on) grew to be the hallmark and solution of choice for anyone struggling with addiction. Since then, AA has continued to serve as the primary avenue for recovery in America. It exists in most communities, its literature is published in all major and many minor languages world wide, and the fellowship has helped literally millions of addicts and alcoholics return to sober productive lives.

Even the medical community, with its emphasis on primary treatment, recognizes this. Nearly all hospital-based  and free-standing programs throughout the US follow a 12-Step model of recovery. Indeed, the standard modality for helping hungry ghosts everywhere involves a few days to a week or so of medically supervised detoxification, a longer period of intensive immersion in the principles of AA, and an aftercare model that funnels graduates towards the fellowship.

This is so if for no other reason than because AA members understand first hand the real work of recovery doesn’t involve getting sober, it involves staying sober. For most of us, the effort to sustain recovery quickly assumes an order of magnitude that dwarfs any life endeavor previously or subsequently undertaken. Indeed, quality sobriety entails a kind of commitment that is simply incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t actually done it. And with the success of AA’s recovering community, there finally appeared an ongoing community whose singular commitment and capability was and is to support, educate, and enable addicts to get and remain sober through life’s ups and downs.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a wonderful thing. It embraces the scope of ongoing change people in recovery must undertake. It provides an easy functioning and accessible kinship system. Its program is comprehensible and accessible to nearly anyone. And its willingness to welcome newcomers is close to perfect. The collective wisdom of the fellowship serves as a goldmine of truths that resonate deeply within the hearts and minds of recovering people everywhere. And the loving commitment it fosters for suffering addicts may very well exemplify the purest kind of compassion in action the world has ever seen.

But AA isn’t perfect. Its language and underlying principles, to varying degrees, are outdated and sometimes petrified, its message seems at times far too simplistic, and its insistence that recovery requires a commitment to an external higher power (implicitly and often explicitly “God”) increasingly fails to resonate even with theistic members. The AA tradition favoring mentorship of newcomers by more seasoned members sometimes fosters cult-like tendencies, and ultimately, for better or worse it’s very easy for recovering persons to simply substitute an AA addiction for their initial drug of choice. And while no one ever died from participation in the fellowship, without the deeper inward effort recovery requires, the allure of resuming active addiction frequently becomes overwhelming.

After all, if merely subscribing to a new outward identity were sufficient, AA wouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

To recover is to escape the realm of hungry ghosts. And we who have addiction find ourselves in this realm not because our throats are in fact too small nor our natural appetites too large, but because we’re utterly and beyond all doubt convinced we’re doomed without some external substance. Our lives are the experience of profound insufficiency. The belief we simply cannot survive without some sort of relief colors reality in such a hue that without more we are literally blind to everything else.

This delusion regarding the necessity of addiction is, for us, so deeply entrenched in our identity that it thoroughly covers and colors every last bit of our waking and sleeping moments.

Even in sobriety, we continue to obsess and wallow in the collective belief we’re broken people with few redeeming capabilities. We litter our talk with discussions of core character defects, addictive tendencies, and fundamental flaws. We actively run from life’s commitments and opportunities. And we habitually insist without more the doom we evade through ongoing recovery lurks just beyond our conscious reach. This nearly universal experience flows not from anything we did during the years of active addiction. It precedes those times and serves as the cognitive basis for why we used in the first place, and continued long after its limitations became apparent.

These perceptual truths don’t just disappear when we swear off our substances of choice; indeed they intensify after sobriety. People who are new to all this sometimes experience a bit of a honeymoon during which they find satisfaction in being sober, attending more fully to the details of their lives, making amends, and participating in the fellowship of recovery. Almost invariably, however, that experience ends. In its place comes increasing sensitivity and emotional pain, a myriad of discouraging thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions, and a sense of meaninglessness and lack of purpose that easily becomes overpowering.

AA’s diagnosis and prescription, at heart, grapples with all this rather nicely. We’re invited to accept whole heartedly that a life of continued active addiction dooms us, that there is a way out which leads to a meaningful and fulfilling destiny, and that we can and should embrace with a deep sense of hope, faith, and commitment the idea that this better way is indeed accessible to each of us.

At once, we’re then invited to turn our attention inward and begin to fearlessly examine our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and history. We’re asked to review and accept the past, to identify our mistakes, and to try to clarify the patterns and habits that fueled our behavior. We’re encouraged to directly or symbolically clean house and make amends, and we’re advised to adopt a far more honest and transparent approach to daily life.

Finally, we’re urged to internalize and continue this reflective process on a routine ongoing basis, and to turn our attention to helping others with the same problem come into and remain in recovery.

These ideas aren’t controversial. Viewed from a distance the foolhardiness of active addiction should be obvious. Clearly there exist innumerable ways to navigate life more effectively. Just as surely lives based on honesty, integrity, openness, and decency prove more beneficial than the insanity we once embraced. These are AA’s values. No one – addict or not – who embraces such ideas ever willingly discards them.

So the difficulty the program struggles with isn’t in its basic prescription. The trouble instead resides in the way that message is often presented. AA’s founders inherited a primitive religious view of addiction they accepted as basic reality. Seen through this prism, addiction became primarily a spiritual sickness whose symptoms involved character defects, moral insufficiency, and lack of faith. They viewed belief in God as an absolute necessity. They thought the path to a recovered life flows from cognitive and behavioral change in favor of new, more honest, and wholesome ideas. All this can be learned through meetings, sponsorship, the Big Book, and prayer. In the end, so this vision teaches, recovering alcoholics have the opportunity to graduate not from addiction itself, but into the fellowship of the spirit, a place where – but for routine maintenance – recovery is largely complete, and where thereafter the primary task is service and mentorship to less evolved members.

Some of these mistakes are mitigated by the efforts of the larger fellowship, the actual experience of recovery by the founders themselves, and the structural openness AA emphasizes. But the program nevertheless routinely risks becoming quasi-religious, institutionalized, and bent upon its own survival at the expense of actually helping people recover.

In a sense, AA has acquired an ego and now finds itself in the difficult struggle to sustain relevance in a Universe that no longer fully subscribes to its world view. Whatever the founders meant by “character defects”, “moral inventories”, and “spiritual sickness”, we now view these ideas with justified suspicion. We often experience meetings less as an opportunity for sharing experience, strength, and hope, and more as evangelizing and cheerleading. We sense a tendency to elevate the literature to sacred-text status that makes even the most benign constructive criticism unacceptable. We endorse a de facto leadership defined by years of sobriety and charisma that allows some individuals a great and improper ability to define the meaning of recovery. And all this, to varying degrees exists at the expense of the founders’ original goal: to zealously and by any effective means help addicts recover from the horrors of addiction.

What were envisioned as the collective living truths learned through one addict joining with another have tended to evolve towards a dogmatic insistence that recovery requires rigorous attendance at meetings, full acceptance of hyper-active sponsorship, early securing and defining of a higher power, and then turning individual autonomy (often mediated by the sponsor’s intercession) over to that entity. Failure to sufficiently undertake this behavior leads to judgment and criticism. To resist such efforts is to be in denial, to allow our addiction to speak for us, or to be unwilling to accept real recovery. Those who don’t fully subscribe to the orthodox view face ostracism and exclusion. And in the end, when this process gets loud enough, people who might have  recovered simply don’t.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine what recovery might consist of were it not for the fellowship and program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

To be released from the shackles of active addiction is to escape the realm of hungry ghosts. There’s no particular one-size-fits-all “right” way to do it. We’re all, in this sense, pilgrims on an unknown journey to the new world. If the vision of recovery just criticized here does in fact work for particular addicts, they’d be fools not to rely upon it. That being said, for those of us who find great value in the fellowship of AA and its core program, yet struggle with its less helpful tendencies, this is a reminder:

Recovery is a broad avenue of increasing choices, opportunities, and solutions. AA is a community of explicit equality. The Big Book is but one of an entire library of texts. And no single member, group, or larger recovering community has the capability or authority to define what anyone’s continued sobriety requires.

Abstractly, the work of recovery involves an initial deep and abiding commitment, based almost wholly on personal faith alone, to significant fundamental change. Usually at first we simply commit to attendance at AA meetings and promise not to drink or use in the interim. Later, and again based largely on hope and faith, we’re asked to do much much more. That is to say, right away and always we do whatever we can simply not to drink or use. But it takes time – a lifetime – to turn and attend to those aspects of the ego self whose needs required drinking and using in order to survive. Without this larger effort, simply going to meetings and not drinking usually ultimately fails. So does memorizing the Big Book, performing service work, talking to our sponsors every day, talking to sponsees every day, and trying to discern what our ego’s notion of God would have us do in perplexing situations.

Recovery is the grandest of endeavors. It calls on those who enter the path to turn and face their demons in ways people who don’t have addiction simply cannot fully understand. There is a sensitivity in alcoholics and drug addicts that, before sobriety, we manage only through the numbing authority of chemical substances and addictive behavior. Removing our drug means removing the best solution to meaninglessness, sadness, anxiety, and massive suffering we addicts ever encountered. There’s something about hungry ghosts that makes life loud and unhappy with or without the substance, so much so that drinking and using past the point of addiction and well on towards death itself seems at times like a very very good idea.

And so, ultimately, the work of sobriety is the task of finding meaning, purpose, joy, and satisfaction in life without the searing anesthesia of active addiction. How that happens is as unique to each person as snowflakes on a winter night. While some in AA argue there’s only one true path, the real truth is no one recovers the same way as anyone else.

There are however, certain principles in recovery that carry a tremendous amount of force for nearly everyone. The sense of doom, hope, and commitment outlined previously are centerpieces to most people’s ongoing efforts. Likewise, the program’s middle steps, having to do with fearless and loving introspection, end up being the ongoing primary requirement of continued success in long-term recovery. And as we resolve our issues and meaningfully reconnect into the world as it is, the last requirement of AA – helping others who come after us – becomes a wonderful method of reinforcing our own life journey while also assisting our brothers and sisters to find and remain on their path when times get hard.

Buddhism teaches that life has suffering that comes not from outside us but instead from what’s within. By letting go these internal struggles we overcome pain and find fulfillment. This isn’t (or shouldn’t be) at odds with anything anyone encounters in recovery nor in AA. Indeed, those of us with addiction have no trouble understanding from the very beginning the nature of suffering. Time and work usually leads to the second truth, that the genesis of pain lies within us and in our responses to experience. And, although AA teaches that it’s God who lifts our delusions, the texts also provide a conceptually concise method of manifesting that change which is God-neutral and completely consistent with what the Buddha taught.

And so, only in ultimately trivial and easily overcome ways does Buddhism not fit squarely within the same process as 12-Step programs in general. Indeed, the spiritual solution of AA is the same solution any serious meditation practice uncovers, and if we come to understand all the talk about character defects in 12-Step programming is really talk about ego-self and delusion, even this aspect of recovery becomes uncontroversial. After all, the Buddha himself probably holds the copyright on the idea we need to see, accept, and let go any aspects of ego that lead to suffering.

AA redeems itself whenever members speak from the heart about experience, strength, and hope. Buddhism too, as well as all religions, all psychologies, and all personal disciplines and practices are saved in the ongoing effort to honestly discern truth and wisdom. It is a fluid process, not a static thing. Words, ideas, concepts, and proclaimed truths ultimately don’t reach the Universe because they always come after the fact, after the experience, after the awakening. And whether we’re active or recovering addicts, whether we’re awakened or deluded, and even if we’re the proverbial and illusory well adjusted perfectly normal individual with no issues or concerns whatsoever – none of this ultimately changes the far deeper truth which is simply that we are all seekers on the path to wisdom, redemption, and peace.


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