the hungry ghost uke

“What is your automatic reflex to life situations, especially difficult ones? Do you think about yourself and how you might profit or escape from a situation? Or do you think about others and how you can help? Progress on the path, and a sign that you’re well prepared for death, occurs when the former changes into the latter, when you default not into selfishness but into selflessness.”

– Andrew Holecek

I have to start by admitting it. Addiction has been part of my life…well, for a good part of it. My “hungry ghost”[1] has found a home in school work, cycling, exercise, professional work, hobbies, reading, and the occasional 20-year-old scotch or pint of Guinness. I’ve come to accept that the “hungry ghost” is not just a visitor, but as much a part of me as my shadow.  Well, it has been simpler many days to just call it my shadow, à la Jung.

Addiction, I’ve come to believe, is more common than most would admit, based on my observation of attachment and lack of self-control when it comes to matters of work, drink, internet usage, TV watching – in short, mostly anything and everything external to our selves. Think of something external to yourself, and you can likely find an addict online somewhere – or maybe even a 12-step group.

So what is one to do with such a ubiquitous, insidious shadow among our midst? Ignorance and succumbing to the urge is always an option – and the one many unfortunately choose. Easy to choose when the villain is work or other socially acceptable forms – such as drink, popular media or food, for example. Not so easy when it transitions into the less socially acceptable, such as more drink, other intoxicants, false relationships, or worse.

Other alternatives to ignorance and succumbing may include 12 step programs, treatment, retreats, or other external modalities that seek to alter our weakness to the affliction in question. For some, this has served well, for others, a rotating door of trying and trying again.

Over the past few months, I have come to conclude that external modes of treatment are as much at risk of becoming a crutch as the crutch itself. This is not to critique or undermine the validity of such approaches – it is my observation that external modalities have become the home of the “hungry ghost” in many instances.

These observations brought me to the assumption that if external treatment risks becoming the target of our “hungry ghost”, then an internal treatment could be an option. This is when I blended my thoughts about addiction with the many lessons from the aikido mat, and the classical teaching of O’Sensei in “masakatsu agatsu, katsu ayame” – true victory is self-victory, right here right now.

If true victory is self-victory, would this not make the  “hungry ghost” the assailant, the uke, in terms of living with an addiction? The “hungry ghost” as a uke assailing one’s spirit, mind and body, living and thriving at the expense of a harmonious self, could become an internal practice worth considering.

“When I think of the Buddhist precepts, which are ethical precepts, they are all about relationships. I’ve boiled them down to one: vowing to live in a way that is not at the expense of other beings. In a sense it’s very grand and impossible, but it’s also a really powerful motivation.”

– Alan Senauke

So…what would meeting and defending one’s self against the “hungry ghost” uke be like?

Well, it would start as does any confrontation – with a bow.  All assailants, internal and external, deserve respect, for they are our teachers on the path to self.  When the hungry ghosts rears it head, observe it, notice it arising, do not react to its presence – for it is familiar, even if not welcomed.

As with all Uke, immediately take up ki slack from the universe. Either through one of the five principles (keep one point, relax completely, extend ki, keep weight underside, or detach from all), or by allowing ki to flow from the universe into all of you, taking up ki slack will establish the conditions and state for an eventual attack, if Uke wishes to escalate it. With taking up ki slack, Uke is already being taken off-balance.

With taking up ki slack, a state of total, deep relaxation occurs. Not relaxation that makes one mellow and inattentive. Rather, a relaxation that makes one fully attentive, fully aware, fully active in all senses. In such a state, Uke cannot detect any signs of aggression or defence – no evident reaction, even subtle.  Uke may be concerned by such lack of reaction, or may misinterpret it as Nage being oblivious to the threat at hand.
Uke then chooses to strike. The strike can be slow and calculated; it can be fast and aggressive. Blend. Sense Uke’s intent and energy. With the hungry ghost Uke, the energy is visceral, subtle, can be all encompassing.  Be aware of and feel Uke’s ki – a ki, which is familiar, for it is your own.  In such an instance, Uke is especially dangerous, for his ki is your ki – and your ki is his ki. Confusion can ensue.  Maintain coordination, harmony of mind, body and spirit – and feel Uke’s intent, Uke’s ki.

Execute the technique that best serves the moment. Visualize Uke being subjected to the technique. Execute it slowly – don’t rush. Uke is strong and deliberate – and knows you well. Pin Uke, or choose to throw him. Either one will do – but trust your visualization to guide you. Feel Uke’s energy and sense how weakened, frustrated or agitated he may be as a result. Irrespective of Uke’s state, maintain harmony of mind, body and spirit. Uke will strive to disrupt such harmony – for victory is found in such loss of balance and centering.

If at any moment you grasp to strongly, fail to maintain harmony of mind, body and spirit, become attached to Uke’s movement or intent, become physically detached, or fall as a result of Uke’s efforts, remember to perform ukemi.  Protect yourself in the fall, then return to harmony of mind, body and spirit. Return quickly. Return deeply.  The hungry ghost Uke is a shrewd adversary – defeat is always a risk. But the more harmony is cultivated, practiced and maintained, the less likely Uke will get the upper hand.

At one point, possibly after one attack, possibly after an endless number of attacks, Uke will learn to recognize that today, victory is not within grasp.  Uke may choose to return another day – this has been my experience of late – bent on further attempting to defeat and challenge the moment. Uke may choose to alter his tactics – a sound strategy given Uke’s intimate knowledge of Nage.  In all instances, harmony of mind, body and spirit must be called upon to respond to any such changes in approach.

In all such instances, remember to bow upon Uke’s arrival – and upon his departure, thanking him for the lessons and growth that he brings to your practice.

Eventually, after many battles and confrontations, the hungry ghost Uke may come to accept that victory is not within grasp.  Although I have yet to see such a day (although I remain optimistic that it is a matter of time and practice), I believe that at such a moment, Uke will surrender his weapon and simply step into nothingness. I envision the moment being one where Uke ceases to extend ki, or manipulate ki – and become emptiness – allowing ki to flow freely and effortlessly.

At such a moment, a final bow will be given to the hungry ghost Uke, and words of gratitude uttered to thank him for a journey of growth. All past and future will cease, and the pure present will manifest.

Throughout the conflict, remember to love the hungry ghost Uke, for he has lost the moment he expresses aggression.  Accept Uke, for his presence and the challenge he presents is practice in its highest form.

As O’Sensei was often heard encouraging – protect the attacker, protect Uke. The Art of peace is not one that seeks to destroy Uke, but to blend and enable a path to peace.  This is especially true with the hungry ghost Uke – one who’s making is intimately known – for it is us.

The addiction Uke, the hungry ghost Uke, is most likely one of your greatest teachers. Welcome him. Bow. Respect him. And practice, practice, practice in his presence.

The eventual harmony with one’s shadow, through love as O’Sensei had expressed, becomes true victory, self-victory.

“The problem with interpersonal love is that you are dependent on the other person to reflect love back to you. That’s part of the illusion of separateness. The reality is that love is a state of being that comes from within.”

– Ram Dass

[1]: the hungry ghost realm is often referenced when speaking about addiction. A great work whose title was inspired by this point is Dr Gabor Mate’s “In the realm of hungry ghosts“. It is highly recommended.

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1 comment
  1. sandra said:

    This is wonderfully stated. Thank you for enunciating and elaborating on the relationship to be cultivated w the hungry ghost.

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