I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been binging a bunch of Netflix’s new true crime docuseries: Worst Roommate Ever, Bad Vegan, and the Puppet Master, to name just a few. I also stumbled upon the podcast Twin Flames, centering around an internet cult (and pyramid scheme, as per usual) that promises to be able to connect people with their twin flame- i.e. their soulmate. I had immersed myself in this strange, strange but very real world, and I started to think about the core themes and narrative threads that wove throughout all of these stories.
The first thing that struck me: people are very, very lonely. Despite being more connected via devices and technology than at any other point in human history, we have never felt more isolated or disconnected. I looked into it, and found that there is a “loneliness epidemic” underway, with almost 50% of Americans reporting they feel lonely. An astonishing 43% feel isolated from others and that their relationships are not meaningful.
The second thing that struck me is the pervasiveness of time and financial scarcity. Remember when we were all sold on the idea that computers and laptops and iPhones and Apple Watches were going to make our lives more efficient, ultimately giving us more time with our friends, family, or doing the personal we wanted?
Yah…that was a bunch of bullshit.
The average person spends one third of their life—more than 90,000 hours—at work. When you consider that roughly another third is spent sleeping, work takes up overwhelmingly more time than anything else, including time with our families or on personal interests, like spiritual development. And, when you consider how pervasive your work has become via your mobile devices- when you’re trying to cook dinner, spend time with your children, or head out to the gym- there’s almost no space left to be a human being. The scope creep is real, and so is inflation and the increasing costs of simply living. So, we’re working harder, for longer hours, and we don’t have much at all to show for it.
The third thing that struck me was just how desperate so many people are for a deep sense of meaning, of belonging, of purpose and- for want of a better term- “specialness”. In Bad Vegan, chef and restauranter Sarma Melngailis says it outright, articulating just how important it was for her to feel special and to connect with something deeply meaningful…and how that drove her into the arms of an exploitative conman whose ultimate impact crater comprised more than $6 million dollars.
Whew. It’s not a pretty picture, is it?
Reflecting on all of this, I remembered a concept from Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism: The Hungry Ghost. What is a Hungry Ghost, you ask?
In Tibetan folk traditions, this is a ghost that is driven with an insatiable appetite for someone or something, consuming those that cross their paths. Many rural communities will put out food and drink for these wandering devourers in an effort to keep them at bay.
But, from a more philosophical perspective, the Hungry Ghost represents the person that cannot be present or satisfied. They are constantly ruminating on the past while simultaneously worrying about the future, effectively taking themselves out of the state of living- and effectively making themselves a ghost.
Additionally, this archetype of the Hungry Ghost is starved for meaning and happiness, acting as a bit of a human Pacman, consuming and eating and purchasing and accumulating “stuff” in lieu of connecting to something real, and enjoying the contentment and nourishment that comes from genuine meaning and purpose.
Sound familiar? Our whole society is built on consumerism and debt, an endless cycle of purchasing and buying and eating and drinking that never, ever ends.
We live in the era of the Hungry Ghost.
So, what do we do about this?
Shamanism has a solid but challenging answer. Shamanism is based on the assumption that NO ONE ELSE is ever going to give your life any meaning. What’s more: shamanism is a personally apocryphal spiritual system, meaning that while it arms us with consistent tools and processes, each shaman’s experience of the divine is as unique as their fingerprint.
It’s just you and the spirit stuff. No middleman.
In shamanism, we understand that we must- with the help of our personal guides and through our lived experiences- give ourselves a sense of meaning, purpose, and connection. Shamanism asserts that no religion, no personal development group, no relationship or coach or guru or love interest or fancy new car or mega yacht can ever feed you enough to keep you from becoming a hungry ghost.
Rather, we must fill this void ourselves in a realistic, pragmatic, and ultimately resilient way.
Part of this shamanic work requires that we embrace a kind of low-grade, background existential dread as a daily reality. Shamanism will never give you all of the answers. Within its framework, there will always be mysteries, and this surrender is crucial to the practice.
If we throw out our fairy tales and magical thinking and happy heuristics and snazzy little addictions, we will inevitably encounter the void. This is called an ego death in shamanism, and despite how much it sucks (and it always sucks), it also always results in a better, stronger and more grounded sense of self and belief in spirit.
In other words: shamanism is not a cult, and while that’s good…it is HARD. Cults, despite their inevitable exploitative reality, offer adherents a sense of focus, meaning, community, and purpose. They answer our existential questions. They stop the dread.
But they’re false.
And, what’s more: they come with a price.
And, while I am a shaman, I still struggle with this Hungry Ghost phenomenon. In recent weeks, I was working a lot at my computer, writing and making edits to a book proposal. This work disconnected me from my natural rhythms and ability to be present, and I very quickly found myself engaging in an old behavior from my time in corporate America: shopping online.
I don’t actually need anything. I wasn’t driven to the virtual marketplace by a specific utility, like needing a new pair of running issues to exercise. Rather, this was the aimless perusing that lights up our brains’ dopamine and serotonin centers, giving us the “hit” that a Hungry Ghost gets while consuming. But, as with the stories of the Hungry Ghosts wandering Tibet, the experience did not leave me satisfied. In fact, I came away from the experience feeling a bit empty and confused by the few boxes that showed up in the days afterwards.
Why did I buy this again? What feeling did I think it would give me?
So what did I do to turn this Hungry Ghost-ing around? Well, I dug into content ( hence all the true crime docuseries and podcasts), and that is always a consuming behavior that actually nourishes my mind and spirit, teaching me new things and encouraging an internal vs. external focus.
I also made an effort to take my TOTEM Orange Glow flower essence, supporting my efforts to reconnect to my body, to the earth grid, and to slow down to enjoy the moment-by-moment experience of living. Sometimes, you just can’t immediately access psychotherapy- nor do you necessarily have the energy for it! This is why I love flower essences so much: they work, all the time, regardless of whether or not you’re thinking about them or turning the whole situation into a project.
I also went back to basics: what do I love about my work? I love tarot cards, so I sat down to read my cards, reorienting myself to the present and affirming my grounded path into the future. My reading was so positive and spectacular that I was able to give myself permission to get back to the present, confident in the possibility of future success and ongoing survival, financially or otherwise.
I started exercising, instantly feeling better and sleeping more peacefully. I walked my dog, whose eyes provide me with a hilarious canine window into the world, realizing with every step just how great it is to simply be alive.
Had the victims of the true crime docuseries I watched developed personal tools to get back to themselves, to what they love and what gives them intrinsic purpose, they would have had been significantly less vulnerable to the conmen, parasites, and full-blown Hungry Ghosts that consumed their lives.
Had they managed to acknowledge how much of their everyday experience was already magical- and that they could give themselves the feeling their Hungry Ghost initially provided- the temptation to go along would be abated.
Mark Vicente, one of the survivors and whistleblowers of the NXIVM cult, recently reflected on the podcast A Little Bit Culty: “I was looking at the ocean and was overcome with this feeling- this incredible feeling of profound happiness. I realized that the feeling had always been there, and I could have always given it to myself”. For more than a decade, Mark and his awesome wife relied on Keith Raniere and team for these experiences, thinking (and being convinced and hypnotized and pressured to believe) that NXIVM was the only way they could access this ephemeral, peak experience.
In this way, Raniere- an absolutely malignant narcissist and sexual predator currently serving a 120 year sentence in prison- is the ultimate conman. He knew that humans could access their own happiness and give themselves meaning, but he flipped the script and convinced everyone that he had stumbled on a scarce and specific greatness. It reminds me of those cans of “mountain air” people used to buy at National Parks, a packaged and monetized version of something we can all get for free.
And the proof is in the pudding: both Mark and his wife Bonnie have returned to thriving careers and fulfilling lives immediately after leaving NXIVM, demonstrating that NXIVM did not enhance their lives and, in fact, greatly eroded them. It makes me very happy that they’re reconnecting to themselves and their own sources of nourishment, instead of subsisting on NXIVM’s version of spiritual Soylent Green.
Sometimes, life is actually about “chopping wood and carrying water”, as one of my friends would say. In other words, it’s about the experience of life itself. Not a goal in the future or a regret in the past. Not a necklace or pair of earrings or new vase that will give us a momentary bump of our mood-elevating brain chemicals. Not a meal or a drink to “come down” from our day and give ourselves a “treat”. As Aristotle would put it, approaching life as a good in and of itself- as opposed to a mean’s to an end- is the greatest honor you can give yourself.
It's also one of the most functional and resilient ways to live in a world that bombards us with fear, anxiety and scarcity, then offering us products and services to remedy the very problems it causes.
As we kick off the energizing and sometimes manic Aries Spring Season- on the heels of this weekend’s Equinox- it’s going to be more important than ever to guard ourselves and our energy from the Hungry Ghost phenomenon. We’re all human, and our egos and wills are what drive us every day to achieve things- they’re not inherently evil. But they do need to be managed, else they get out of balance…and make us HUNGRY for more.
A few tips and tricks that have worked for me and my clients include:
· Honoring New and Full Moons. Moon cycles are a great way to mark the passage of time without looking at a calendar on a screen. Doing a simple Moon Ritual by yourself can help you take a moment and acknowledge the shifting celestial energy. I’ve also found that, if you write out what you want to manifest or release in the coming month, you can then refer back to the note on the next moon event, always discovering that you’ve made more progress than you realized. We get SO MUCH done every day, week and month, and by simply looking at this progress, we can instantly feel more present and accomplished.
· Spending time in nature. Nature doesn’t give a shit about what’s on the news, what meetings are in our calendars, or what products are being sold. Spending time in nature, absorbing the energy of trees and plants and looking at the greenery around us, instantly resets our body functions, lowers our cortisol levels, and ameliorates adrenal fatigue. What’s more: watching animals is so illuminating and freeing. The adolescent hawk that’s been posting up in my backyard isn’t worried about the stock market or political machinations or gossip or his retirement fund. He’s too busy LIVING for all of that.
· Making things. So much of our “knowledge work” is intensely ungrounding and disorienting. It can also leave us neurotic and deeply unsatisfied, with nothing tangible to show for our day of suffering. So, make some stuff. I’m obsessed with growing flowers and making flower essences- it connects me to something concrete that I can send out into the world. Try to learn a new skill, like making candles, pottery, or even origami. These activities not only produce something tangible (and often beautiful), but they are deeply meditative, forcing us to be present to execute them properly.
· Structuring unstructured time. Our downtime isn’t just good for us- it’s when we engage our inner dialogue and get to converse with ourselves. This is crucial for us to be able to hear when our inner voice is blaring the warning sirens! Downtime is also the fertile field from which ideas and innovations pop up, so in this way scheduling unstructured time isn’t just good for us: it’s a crucial business function. By putting it in your calendar- either daily or weekly- and not scheduling anything else during this window, I promise you are investing in something that is going to produce personal and professional ROI.
If you want to learn any more about shamanism, the Hungry Ghost paradigm, or even just how to schedule unstructured time, reach out anytime here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m so passionate about the benefits that shamanism can provide us in a landscape of pitfalls and almost-mythic monsters. By cultivating our own voice, by listening to our intuition, and by developing tools and identifying resources, we can become increasingly impervious to the coercive control penetrating nearly every area of our society.
Feed your soul, and you never go hungry.