I’d like to introduce you to my Hungry Ghost.
She’s been around a while: Earlier in my life she was bold, strong and rampant. Now, though she’s mouthy and her timing’s pretty spot on, she’s slowly losing her power – unable to gain the strength she used to have, back in the days when I fed her regularly.
What is a Hungry Ghost?
The idea of Hungry Ghosts comes from Buddhism. In Buddhist imagery, there’s a realm populated by these creatures – people who are constantly craving. They look everywhere and anywhere for nourishment, yet no matter how much they consume, they are always hungry for more; always searching, always restless, never at peace.
I’m not surprised I’ve got my own version of this ghost – I grew up in a Western society obsessed with success and convinced that validity lies outside oneself. Unless we were fortunate to have very conscious care-givers, we’ve been trained into that way of thinking; rewarded for the things we achieved and left striving to please by being better and better at stuff.
Everyone’s Hungry Ghost has subtly different ways of showing up.
Mine makes me reach for things that don’t serve me and pushes me to continue doing so even when, apparently, I’ve got there.
She’s worked some pretty serious stuff on me:
Early on it was food. I started becoming overweight aged 5 or 6. It continued in my teenage years, until aged 20 I got to 20 stone (280lbs). I didn’t eat for hunger. I ate looking for a satisfaction. And, boy, would I eat! Kilogram bars of white chocolate, packet after packet of sweets, biscuits stolen from the tin when everyone else was watching TV. I was never satisfied.
From the outside, it looked like I had slain that demon when I lost half my body weight.
But she was still there.
The door of food held shut to her by the sheer force of me leaning on it from the other side, she pushed me in different ways. “Let’s earn some money” – I set my sights on a ‘good’ job. I got it, but then I wanted more…and more…and more. Until she’d hounded me all the way to working for Microsoft, driving a BMW and consuming far too many cigarettes and red wine to make up for how ‘not me’ that world was.
Must be successful, must earn more, must get to the top.
Again, another part of me stepped in. I have to get myself out of this. With some difficulty, I did.
Yet that tenacious ghost kept regrouping and coming back at me.
5 years later, I’d got myself to Italy – the country that I loved – and was building my own online coaching business based around writing and sharing my life. After 2 years of much ground work, I started to get some real success. Clients were coming in from around the world and their lives were transforming.
I remember talking to my own coach in Canada about it. I just told her I’d got 6 new clients that week.
“Wow,” she said. “How do you feel?”
And I thought.
“Kinda empty. I feel like I need to get more,” was my response.
As the words left my mouth something deep inside me scrunched up. That’s not right, Alison. Come on girl, stop for a moment and acknowledge your success.
But I couldn’t.
That realisation helped me see that my Hungry Ghost was dripping over everything I was doing – all that I was working for.
My coach then asked me to define my version of success. She asked me just when was enough. When did all this striving stop.
And I realised, it didn’t.
When I had 6 clients, I’d want 12. When I had run a retreat, I’d want to write a book. Then I had to make the book a best-seller. Then I had to be speaking worldwide. And yet, after all that, I knew instinctively that the craving wouldn’t go away. It’d (or I’d) not even be good enough then.
Thankfully, the world stepped in and put a big boot into my plans. After having my son, Gabriel, the life that I knew came crumbling down. The huge shift into Motherhood, health problems for both of us, feeding issues – everything around me collapsed and forced me to reassess.
And I knew I couldn’t carry on on that path that I’d been walking.
This is when I started painting. A few weeks after first seeing Flora Bowley’s work on Instagram, I had a small space kitted out with an easel and was daubing paint onto a spanking white canvas for the first time in my life.
And that once choice – to let myself do what I really longed to – was the biggest blow that’s ever hit my Hungry Ghost.
Before then, even though something inside me knew I was an artist (I had even said it, in tears, to my partner, several years before) there was no way I could have done it. The Hungry Ghost and all my societal conditioning was ruling the show: be successful, earn money, reach higher, do the thing that other people tell you will work.
I’d tried, when setting up my life coaching business in Italy, to do it on my terms….and though I was being joyfully creative a lot of the time, I wasn’t, as Mary Oliver beautifully says in her poem Wild Geese, allowing my body to love what it loves.
So now, I create. And since practising my art, I have a new piece of armour.
Thats doing the work.
Whenever I feel that restless, not-good-enough, must-do-more sense crawling through my body, I sit myself in my little studio, get down my natural pigments and start mixing paint; I gather together the fir branches I collected from the floor that morning and gently tease them into a design; I play with flowers I’ve dried, arranging them into a pattern and then delighting in it whilst I snap away with my camera.
I am in the moment. There is no ‘more’, there is no concept of ‘not enough’, there just is.
At those times, I can almost feel my Hungry Ghost’s balloon deflating as she recedes from my psyche. I’m transported to a new space, a real space, one where I’m Alison, sitting on the floor, playing with something that brings me such joy. Even when the work that I make isn’t what I wanted it to be. Even when I’m disappointed. Even when nothing comes together. I doesn’t matter. It’s the act of doing that makes the difference.
And with every creation that leaves my fingers, I feel a whole new part of me getting stronger. It’s a physical reminder of that state of mind, that way of being.
And yet, my Hungry Ghost hasn’t just disappeared. Oh no, she’s had too much practice to just lay down and die! Right now, she’s trying to get me to work, work, work on my website, my email list and my promotion. To be ‘successful’.
At this level, it’s an interesting dynamic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be successful. But it’s why I’m taking the actions I do every day that matters.
Am I doing it to share my joy, or because I want to show people just how wonderful I am?
Am I doing it to bring in some money so I can be freer to spend more time in the studio, or because I have something to prove because I am ‘obviously’ not enough as I am?
Am I doing as I want people to be moved in a way that I am when I create or because of the sheer drive to be a success?
Those are questions I check myself with every day.
And mostly, I can feel the answer inside me. The more I act in integrity, from wholeness, the calmer, more grounded and more at peace I feel. When my Hungry Ghost is rearing her head, I am so often shifted into overwhelm, panic and comparison.
So, I take notice of my actions and observe their results. It’s an engaging and powerful habit – simple observation is such a large part of change. For now, I’ll watch my Hungry Ghost do her thing and try to dance the fine line between her craving and my desire to be the whole, real, honest me.