In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
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The paradox: the United States leads the world in scientific knowledge in many areas but trails in applying that knowledge to social and human realities.
One fact suffices to demonstrate the imbalance: Americans make up 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
A main cause of this shocking discrepancy is the antiquated social and legal approach to addiction. "We pay dearly for a vindictive system that often serves to make matters worse – much worse," in the word of a former Seattle police chief, Norm Stamper.
from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
I’ve written In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts because I see addiction as one of the most misunderstood phenomena in our society. People–including many people who should know better, such as doctors and policy makers–believe it to be a matter of individual choice or, at best, a medical disease. It is both simpler and more complex than that.
Addiction, or the capacity to become addicted, is very close to the core of the human experience. That is why almost anything can become addictive, from seemingly healthy activities such as eating or exercising to abusing drugs intended for healing. The issue is not the external target but our internal relationship to it. Addictions, for the most part, develop in a compulsive attempt to ease one’s pain or distress in the world. Given the amount of pain and dissatisfaction that human life engenders, many of us are driven to find solace in external things. The more we suffer, and the earlier in life we suffer, the more we are prone to become addicted.
The inner city drug addicts I work with are amongst the most abused and rejected people amongst us, but instead of compassion our society treats them with contempt. Instead of understanding and acceptance, we give them punishment and moral disapproval. In doing so, we fail to recognize our own deeply rooted problems and thereby forego an opportunity for healing not only for them, the extreme addicts, but also for ourselves as individuals and as a culture.
My book, in short, is an attempt to bring light to core issues shrouded in darkness. The many positive responses I’ve received encourage me to believe that I’ve succeeded in making a contribution toward that goal.
One of the six realms on the Buddhist Wheel of Life is the Hungry Ghost Realm, its inhabitants “creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs and large, bloated, empty bellies,” writes Dr. Gabor Maté in his excellent new book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
One of the book’s strengths is Maté’s detailed and compassionate characterization of the afflicted addicts he treats, but this is not just a memoir. Rather, using his own experience as well as the most advanced recent research, he attempts to delineate the closely interrelated psychological, social, and neurological dimensions of addiction. He describes the ways in which it affects the chemicals and brain centres responsible for rewards and decision making, but he is also careful to point out that those neurological elements are related to the emotional life of the addict. “When the brain is diseased,” Maté writes, “the functions that become pathological are the person’s emotional life, thought processes, and behaviour.”
In the end, for Maté addiction is neither the result of the seductive power of heroin or cocaine or alcohol nor the expression of an identifiable genetic predisposition, but the consequence of childhood trauma, social and cultural dislocation, and a sense of spiritual emptiness and lack of meaning. If addiction involves destructive behaviours pursued irrespective of the consequences, triggered by the need to fill a chronic inner emptiness, then the long road to recovery requires what Buddhists call “mindfulness”: a calm, unjudging, compassionate attentiveness to what is happening within.