The Hungry Ghosts

The Game of 100 Candles originated as a Japanese ritual.  It started in the Samurai class, the warriors of premodern Japan. They later made up the ruling caste with weapons of bows, arrows and spears but the main weapon was a sword that represented their personal power. The Samurai participated in the ritual to demonstrate their courage. The ritual or game was played by the Samurai lighting 100 candles, one at a time, each telling stories of the paranormal. As each story was told a candle was blown out. When the final candle was blown, they were to sit in preparation as the ritual opens the window to the spirit world which includes the shadow side. Once the window is open the ritual provides no instruction on how to close it.  From what I have learned it can be formidable.

Recently I read about Anthony Bourdain’s new comic series titled The Hungry Ghost.  Esra Erol wrote “the main plotline revolves around a Russian oligarch who is hosting a party at his beach house on Long Island.  As the night grows darker and stormier, he and his rich cronies get bored, so he invites chefs over to play a version of 100 candles. They tell terrifying tales of ghosts, demons and unspeakable beings. This Japanese Edo period game gets the “Bourdain touch” with chef storytellers including tales about food and hunger.”

I never heard the term “Hungry Ghosts” until recently. I was reading a book by Dr. Christiane Northrup where she referred to people as hungry ghosts, meaning they have a restlessness, an emptiness inside that can’t be filled no matter how much you love and attend to them.  It gave me pause.

 “In Buddhist cosmology one of the psychic domains described is the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts.  They are depicted with scrawny little necks and huge bellies, riddled with powerful desires they can never really satisfy.

-Tara Brach, Ph.D.


Could it be possible that many people struggle with their own version of the hungry ghost?

Switching gears slightly, remember when you were a young adult and had your first place of your own?  Mine was a small ground-level studio apartment in mid-town Atlanta. It overlooked a storm drain runoff.  I had a small porch with a sliding glass door as my only entrance.  There was a divider between the tiny den and my bedroom, which didn’t even touch the ceiling.  I rented everything from furniture to pots, pans and silverware. I owned little other than my car and my clothes. My dad gave me a small hibachi grill for my porch where I would cook a hotdog or hamburger. I thought I was in heaven!  I loved it and everything about it.  I would get the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday mornings, drink my coffee and read the paper.  Later in the morning my sister would come over for a visit.  We would run from my apartment into downtown Atlanta around the Bellsouth building and then back. Independence was even better than I had anticipated.  I was on my own and it was awesome.  However, over time and living life the desire for more began.

Like most young people I went through a period of evaluating who I was and how I wanted to move forward in the world.  During that process I knew feeling grounded was important to me.

Later, when we are in mid-life we may ask, is this it?  It is a period of change.  Our parents may die, we may question our career choices, our friends and our activities.  Our children leave home and our health may become more fragile.  Our regrets surface and we ask ourselves have we lived our best life? Did I represent myself well?  Does my life have meaning?  We enter a transitional phase where we feel a restlessness, a kind of unsteadiness that seems hard to right.    We might find it difficult to accept what we have is enough and be grateful for it.

These are the hungry ghosts.

How do we deal with these ghosts?  Some of us distract by being busy.  We fill our schedules, so we are one step ahead of the hungry ghost.  Some of us numb ourselves with drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping and social media seeking something outside ourselves to curb our insatiable yearnings for relief. Others seek fulfillment through relationships hoping to avoid the ghost by having another person fill the space inside of us. Regardless of what we do, on some level we know it’s there. Always chasing us, the unsettled restlessness.

 If you never felt the “hungry ghost”, or you never question your journey through life I would venture to say you are probably out of touch with yourself.  Everyone feels a missing, a questioning, a wondering at some point in their life.

I think what matters is how one deals with the Ghosts when they come to visit.   “When we practice going after the substitutes, we strengthen those pathways. Maybe instead we take a deep breath, we slow down, and we say hello to the ghosts that visit. We don’t play host, but we recognize it for what it is. An opportunity to authentically try to ground our being.   Tara Brach says so well “the invitation here is that, in any moment, we can notice what is happening and choose to pause and bring a real tenderness to the parts of us that feel empty…the hole in our soul.  We can touch a quality of grace and tenderness that can hold us.”

Back to Anthony Bourdain.  I found it curious his comic series was titled “The Hungry Ghosts” and that the oligarchs played the game of 100 candles.   On a deeper more inquisitive level I wonder if he was referring to the Hungry Ghosts that took up residency in him, the ones he had trouble fighting, the ones that ultimately took his life.

Until next time,

Sat nam.