What the Hungry Ghosts of Thailand Teach Us about Addiction
There is a strong belief shared among many people here in Thailand that ghosts not only exist but these phantoms can potentially cause mischief for those who are still alive. You have probably noticed that many homes and businesses here will have a spirit house on the property somewhere – these structures are built to give supernatural entities a place to hang out so they are not getting in the way of humans.
One of the most terrifying of all of the phantoms wandering around Thailand is the hungry ghost – known locally as pii praed. These are dead people who were particularly selfish, jealous, and deceitful in their last life, and their karma means they now have to deal with an unsuitable hunger and thirst. Hungry ghosts are strongly associated with addiction – in fact, addicts can sometimes be described as people who have transformed into hungry ghosts while still alive.
The Thai Belief in Ghosts
“And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”
Robert Pirsig – Zen and the Art of Motorbike Maintenance
A few years ago, when I was living in a village in rural Phitsanulok, I was woken up one night by some loud banging on the front door. It would have been around 2am, and I knew that it had to be bad news. I guessed it would have something to do father-in-law because I’d seen him drunk at a party earlier that evening.
Sure enough, when I opened the door my disheveled-looking father-in-law was standing there with a policeman. He had obviously crashed his motorbike while riding back home drunk. At least it didn’t appear as if he had any broken bones – he looked frightened but physically okay.
Hungry Ghosts of Thailand
The policeman told us he had also been coming back from the party. He noticed my father-in-law lying at the side of the road beside an upturned motorbike. Once the Thai cop had established that my father-in-law only had a few bruises, he brought him back to the village.
It seemed undeniably obvious to me that my father-in-law had been drunk and lost control of the motorbike. This wasn’t the story he gave to the policeman though. In his version of events, he had been innocently riding home from the party when a ghost appeared on the road and pushed him off his bike. The shocking thing for me wasn’t that my father-in-law would come up with such a story but that the policeman believed him.
The reason I share this story is to highlight the fact that for many Thai people ghosts are an undeniable fact of life. To say to such a person that ghosts don’t exist would make as much sense as saying atoms don’t exist. It can be tempting for those of us who come from a western society to dismiss anything supernatural as pure nonsense, but I would suggest that this is too rash – it may be that the ghosts of Thailand have something important to teach us about addiction recovery.
Addicts Are the Real Hungry Ghosts
“Being cut off from our own natural self-compassion is one of the greatest impairments we can suffer”
Gabor Mate – In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
Gabor Mate is a Canadian physician who has spent many decades studying addiction. In 2010, he wrote a book called ‘In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts’ where he shares his insights gained from working with addicts in an a part of Vancouver that has one of the highest density of drug users in the world. Just like the Buddhists here in Thailand, Gabor Mate noticed there are many similarities between hungry ghosts and people caught up in the living hell of addiction.
Hungry ghosts are often described as having tiny mouths and huge stomachs. These restless souls are always hungry, but no matter how much they consume, they are never going to feel satisfied. Doesn’t this sound similar to our life as practicing addicts? It can be like we have a ‘hole in our soul’ that we are trying to fill with alcohol or drugs, but no matter how much we stuff in there, this hole is never going to feel filled.
Hungry ghosts are caught in a nightmare of endlessly trying to satisfy an unsuitable hunger because of ignorance. If only they could accept that consuming more food wasn’t the answer, they could at last be free. If only they could see the comfort they yearn for needs to come from inside themselves, they could be happy. Do you understand why this applies to those of us who fall into addiction as well?
4 Things Hungry Ghosts Teach Up about Addiction
The hell of addiction is something we have created, and this means we have the power to escape it
Feeding the hunger of addiction is never going to lead to satisfaction – it just triggers further hunger
Once we understand that alcohol or drugs can never deliver what we need, it will become much easier to walk away from addiction
Serenity is the realization that we no longer need to fill the ‘hole in our soul’ – it is our attempts to fix this feeling of incompleteness that is the actual cause of it
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