The Hungry Ghost

Check out my conversation about my experience in my body and with food on the
Yoga Moves You Podcast.

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I want to share a part of me that in hindsight paints itself with clarity, and only now, years removed am I able to send compassion and tenderness to the young woman in my memory. A girl and her dance with the hungry ghost.

I was 20 when I stopped eating. I had witnessed peers in high school experimenting with different methods to find thinness, but it wasn’t until college that I turned towards deprivation to try to “fit in.” I stopped eating  because I didn’t feel like I was doing “enough” to be worthy of love. I felt overwhelmed by my finances,  the pressure of a rigorous academic course load, surviving in a new and powerful city, and my uncertainty of what I wanted in my life. At the time, I did not have the wisdom to pause and check in with myself, the scared little girl underneath all of the noise. I did not have the clarity around why I was feeling  as if I were caught in a spiral, spinning and winding further out of my own control. What I knew was that I had complete control over what I ate, or in my case, did not eat. I turned to making myself small and compact to prove that I could count on myself. My mission was to shrink and by doing so prove that I had self-discipline; that even as my life seemed to be living me, I had one portion of it that I was in complete control over. 

I shrank. I ran and worked out in my university’s gym until I almost passed out. I stayed up late studying and got up early to workout. I chased an image of physical perfection and the validation of my academic environment. If I could be perfect, I wouldn’t be rejected, I wouldn’t fail, I wouldn’t feel pain. I didn’t have time for relationships, and I didn’t care. I poured my energy into my pursuit. I was looking for someone to tell me I was doing okay, to hear the words “I love you,” and to be able to believe them. 

 

What I realize now, is that I was not alone. Even if at the time I felt that the insidious thoughts and the self-lacerating practices I employed were mine only, they were not. I have since spoken to hundreds of women personally, and read the stories of thousands more, who sing of their own struggle with the addiction to perfection. Whether it’s over-eating or not eating, disordered relationships with food stem from a source way deeper than the skin, and its an epidemic plaguing women, particularly in the west. 

It’s the plague of the hungry ghost, an obsession that has us consumed under a false belief that in order to be loved we have to look and behave in a certain way. When we develop an addiction, whether to a substance or a behavior, it is because we are not satiated in some other aspect of our life. For me, I did not feel stable. I was a college student with debt, a few jobs, academic expectations, and a lack of self-love. I wanted to be perfect so intensely, because I believed that if I was perfect than I would be worthy of receiving love. I was not satisfied by the relationships in my life, especially that to myself, and so I turned to food and my physical body to try to satiate my desire. 

The word “desire” comes from the Latin roots meaning, “to move away from the star.” In my case, the desire to feel a deep sense of love manifested in my trying to create a circumstance in which I could feel worthy of it. If I had had the tools to pause and offer myself compassion, I may have been able to separate myself from the behavior and look honestly at the source of my suffering, I may have saved myself a lot of struggle. 

We each feel the call of desire, that to fulfill a specific need at a moment in time. If we can witness ourselves in the moment of being triggered - to reach for the alcohol, the food, the perfectionism routine - we can facilitate our own healing through awareness. Once recognize the approach of the hungry ghost, we can ask the honest question “In what way am I not being fulfilled in this moment?” or “Which of my needs is not being met right now?” From there, we take the courageous step in offering ourselves compassion as we sit in the heat of a desire that we can see with clear eyes does not serve our most optimal life if we act upon it. 

It took me years of letting my hungry ghost control my life to finally pause, take a breath, and ask my heart to trust that it was not only worthy of love, but that it had been surrounded by it for a lifetime. It took me a roller coaster of disordered eating to see that ghosts are only scary if we believe them to be real. I satiated myself with honesty, forgiveness, support of community, and self-love, and it was only then that the yearning ghost felt full and let me be.