There’s a certain time of day when I get the nibbles – usually late afternoon but sometimes at night, right before bed. I open kitchen cabinets, the fridge, the chip drawer scanning what might satisfy me. But there’s something insatiable in my being. In reality I’m not really hungry, I’m not really looking for food. The salty cashews or sweet dark chocolate will take the edge off, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter.
That feeling of insatiability is perfectly represented in the hungry ghost, inhabitants of one of the six Buddhist realms of existence. With a huge extended belly and a tiny throat that lets almost nothing through, the hungry ghost is forever craving yet never satisfied.
The hungry ghost is the part of us that feels a fundamental lack or insufficiency, regardless of how much material wealth or outer success we actually have. As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s the state of mind that Chögyam Trungpa so aptly coined “poverty mentality.” When applied to the spiritual realm, the hungry ghost shows up as a continuous craving for more teachings, more practices, more transmissions; our impetus for deepening our spiritual journey comes not from a sense of joy but from a fear of missing out or not having enough.
Eating can be a powerful mindfulness practice because, if we are privileged, we have the opportunity to eat several times a day. Eating is at the core of our well-being. It’s a profound way that we interact with our world, taking in what is seemingly “outside” and making it “me.” It is a complete sensory experience; when we pay attention to our senses, we inevitably find ourselves dead-center in the present moment of our lives.
I share a mindful eating practice with my Naropa students in which we each receive one cracker, one almond, one piece of chocolate and one slice of orange. We approach these items as though for the first time, engaging them with all our sense perceptions: listening to the sound of spray emitted from the orange peel, following the creases of the almond with one’s finger tips, weighing the lightness of the cracker in the palm of one’s hand. By the time anything enters my mouth, I have come to know it quite intimately. Yesterday, I sat with the smallest bit of chocolate in my mouth, letting it dissolve slowly between my tongue and palate. An exquisite intensity of pleasure coursed from my mouth all through my body. How amazing! How full, how complete! From this experience of total satisfaction, the thought that I could chomp down numerous pieces of chocolate at a time seemed almost inconceivable.
Often we may feel we don’t have time to savor each bite of our food, or we simply forget because we’re busy doing something else. I once ate lunch with a group of Thich Nhat Hanh’s monks as part of a planning meeting; we ate without speaking a word and I became acutely aware of how my mind was madly rushing about wanting to engage them with my questions and concerns. Mindful eating is a practice of bringing awareness to each bite, letting the full array of tastes and aromas enter my mouth, nose, body. I try to remind myself not to pick up the next spoon-full of food before I’ve completely chewed, savored and swallowed what I have in my mouth. Each bite holds an invitation: Could I fully experience this? Could I be completely satisfied? Could this be enough?
I read a teaching from Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche once in which he encouraged us to sit down on our cushion before each practice with the thought that this could be the practice in which we completely awaken. It’s a radical thought but totally reasonable. If Buddha Nature is neither created nor destroyed, then our practice is “simply” to awaken to it, over and over again, and perhaps once and for all. Too often I notice how practice has become yet another self-improvement project that I’m slowly chipping away at. I busily write down how much of which practice I’ve accumulated, making sure I can progress to the next “level,” get to the next retreat. Too easily, I slip into the spiritual materialism which Trungpa warned of. Where is that oh-so-distant endpoint I’m trying to get to?
Really, any practice session can be complete, whole, enough. In the array of spiritual practices we have access to in our modern world, it can be helpful to remember that any one practice is all we need; any one practice is the doorway to totality. “To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower,” William Blake reminds us. Just like the bliss produced by that piece of chocolate dissolving in my mouth, each practice introduces us to maha-sukha, the great bliss of timeless awareness, to radiant bodhicitta – awakened heart-mind – coursing through us. Regarding our true nature, “naturally occurring timeless awareness,” Longchenpa, the great 14th century Nyingma master, wrote “there is no need to strive for it elsewhere. It rests in and of itself, so do not seek it elsewhere” (The Precious Treasury of the Basic Space of Phenomena.)
The practice of savoring is an invitation to hold each moment in the potentiality of completeness, wholeness, whether in the mundane act of chewing a slice of orange or in the formal act of sitting meditation. In the act of savoring, the hungry ghost finally dissolves into the vibrant abundance that is always available to us.