April 17, 2019

Staying Awake in the Land of the Hungry Ghosts: how to Quit Chasing Pleasure & Avoiding Pain.  

In 2013, I published an article on SolPurpose, the now defunct visionary culture web magazine, titled “Getting Off the Festival Wagon—The Ups and Downs of Festival Culture.”

In this article, I wrote, “The problem is, pleasure is a transient experience. No matter how high you get, you come down eventually. And the come down (whether that come-down is when you get back home from the festival or something else) always hurts. So what you get is a kind of hungry ghost syndrome. The ghost eats and eats, but all of their food falls through them, being nourished by none of it. You get a lot of people who keep instigating pleasurable experiences, then reaching for more pleasure when they come down. And it’s not sustainable.”

Although this article was focused on the “chasing-the-psychedelic-dragon” behaviour pattern that I observed in the culture of Burning Man and its offshoot transformational festivals, my personal life experiences and observations have seasoned me to realize that the perpetual chasing of pleasure-inducing experiences and consequent escape of painful ones is a perennial issue in my life and the lives of really everyone I observe around me, to some degree.

It is not too great an exaggeration to say that nearly everything we do is to gain pleasure and avoid pain, although some have developed more sustainable or more sophisticated means of this than others. The problem is that chasing highs and avoiding lows keeps one trapped on what some call “the hedonic treadmill” and is a significant barrier to finding real and lasting happiness in life.

Suffering is inherent in life. This was the first noble truth taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

What this means is that no matter what you do in life, there is some quality of suffering, some quality of dissatisfaction, some quality of just-not-rightness, some problem within it. People with a billion dollars in their bank accounts suffer, beggars who sleep on the streets suffer, famous people suffer, and the unknown suffer too.

The thing is that we are programmed to believe that the cessation of our suffering lies in our external circumstances. If only we had that perfect relationship, the right amount of Instagram followers, more money, or the perfect house, then we would really be happy. But what sucks is, it doesn’t work like this. There’s no perfect relationship, there’s no amount of Instagram followers or money or sex or anything of this sort that could change the fact we live in a temporal and decaying universe that doesn’t resemble any of our ideals of everlasting perfection.

What are the similarities between a yoga-buff and a heroin addict? Well, in both cases there is a motivation founded on dissatisfaction (either I don’t like how I feel right now, or I want to feel better than I do already) that prompts them to do a thing that changes their state and gives them pleasure. In the case of the yogi, their choice is much healthier and sustainable; the heroin addict is probably contending with a host of consequences that affect not only them but those around them, but the similarities are there nonetheless in the motivations of the behaviors.

If I am honest with myself, I do this a lot. I am constantly participating in behaviours with the anticipation of the reward of pleasure. It is so hard to just be, and it’s especially hard to just be when things feel sh*tty. For this reason I will usually do anything, even if it’s something as simple as go for a walk, or check my phone, or something more complex as to move to another country, to try to escape the discomfort.

From my perspective, almost everyone I know is trapped in this loop. You have a dream and you work tirelessly for it, only to feel that bitter tinge of dissatisfaction when you achieve it. And then you dream up something else and say to yourself, “Well that thing didn’t do it, but this one will! Yeah, this is the one that will make me really happy! This’ll be the high that never fades!” But it doesn’t work that way. It’s a constant loop. And you are never satisfied.

The thing is that the desire for more positive experiences is itself a negative experience. It is, in its essence, addiction.

Paradoxically, the way through this is acceptance. The acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience. The more we are able to just be with our experience of reality as it is, and to relax into it without wanting it to be different in any way, the more that suffering begins to dissipate.

I am by no means a master of this, but I have experienced it first-hand. The moment we begin to appreciate life and be present with it in all of its complexities and blemishes as perfect in its imperfection, is when we can really start to till the seeds of happiness. As the late poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in.” When we do away with our illusions and ideals of a universe that satisfies all of our ego-born desires, and embrace life as it is, we begin to feel more content and at peace.

My wise father used to tell me, “Life sucks, and then you die.” This is a fatalistic and facetious statement, but something that is definitely true is that the more you try to avoid the fact that life always kind of sucks a little bit, the more life feels like it sucks. Conversely, the more you accept and are at peace with the little-bit-of-suckiness of this reality we inhabit, the more freedom you will find.

Embracing our pains, discomforts, limitations, and shadows—great or small—is one of the hardest things we all contend with, and is part of the deep healing work we are all participating in around the world. I am not saying that this level of presence and acceptance is in anyway easy to obtain, but I will say that the mere awareness of this has provided me with more ease and clarity in my life.

I hope these words have provoked something positive in you as well.


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