I first met Hungry Ghosts a couple years ago while riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor from Philadelphia to Orlando. I was reading Savor by Thich Nhat Hanh and R. Lilian Cheung, who write, “Buddhism describes creatures known as pretas, or Hungry Ghosts, who have insatiable appetites for food, drinks, or other cravings. They are desperate beings who are always hungry, with tiny mouths; long, narrow necks; and distended bellies. Though they are constantly ravenous, driven by the desire to eat, their tiny mouths and necks prevent them from swallowing the food they ingest.”
On the unhappy way to see my father and step-mother, both of whom were suffering from dementia, I immediately recognized myself as a member of the Preta family. The train rocked, jerked and clattered, but it may as well have been a monastery. Since everybody was a stranger, the journey was mostly conversation-optional, which was convenient. I wasn’t in a chatty mood. The condominium complex where my father and step-mother lived struck me as sterile and surreal, like something out of a Tim Burton movie—irk! And the two people I was traveling to visit were sure to repeat themselves constantly and bristle at my encouragement to move into an assisted living facility. Maybe because I was bracing myself for the forty-eight cruddy hours ahead, the insight that the Preta clan’s DNA twined in my soul wasn’t depressing. As long as I was in a dark space already, why not uncover a little brokenness? It was as if Savor were diagnosing me with a condition I knew afflicted me, but couldn’t name.
I don’t have a tiny mouth, narrow neck, and distended belly, but I am frequently ravenous and occasionally desperate. And, sadly, I can swallow lots of food and drink. My real relation to the Pretas, though, is the way I sometimes eat: quickly, mindlessly, excessively. It’s not pretty. I’m much better now than I used to be, but as the saying goes, “Two steps forward, one step back.”
Today was one step back. Two dear friends and I shared breakfast at Perkins Family Restaurant, and I went at my order like a Hungry Ghost: eggs Benedict, home fries, and potato pancakes. Since I engaged in a modified fast yesterday (diabetes makes a strict fast difficult), I started dreaming of this meal over twelve hours in advance.
And, man, was it good. Perkins has fantastic hollandaise sauce, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I ordered extra on the side. The home fries were crisp, the potato pancakes with salt, butter, and sour cream were—I’m just going to say it—almost sexy. Were my eyelids fluttering as I ate? Were my eyeballs rolling back? Maybe.
When I finished the first half of the eggs Benedict and home fries, the mindful, buzz-kill side of me said, “Wow. That was great. And actually, you’re full. You could stop now, take the rest home.” Ha! By the time I had one pancake left I was uncomfortable. But the company was great, the conversation light, and ten minutes later I looked at that lonely pancake and thought what all we Pretas think: “Ah, what the hell.”
Hell is right. After exorcising myself from Perkins, I sat at church in the pastor’s study in a stupor, too full of fat, salt, starch, and chicken embryos to think. If it’s possible to be drunk on food, that’s what I was. The work got done, but I’m not sure how. The only thing that kept me from napping at 10:30 a.m. was that it really would have been an abuse of the company clock. My congregation is great to me, a gift not to be taken for granted.
But when normal siesta time came around, I was a bloated, white walrus in boxer shorts, slack-jawed on my bed at home. (For your own safety, don’t try to picture it.) Four hours after pushing the cleaned plates away, I still felt like I was with-child. Sometimes when you overeat, you can feel food sloshing around in your stomach, right? No sloshing here. There was no room for liquid or air. My whole torso was a sad, weary, dense wad of breakfast.
Here it’s important to pause and confess–the point of this post–that a siesta isn’t always a glowing expression of good health. Some afternoons, sleep is an expression of disappointment and self-loathing—that’s only a slight exaggeration. I napped lustily a few hours ago not only because the Preta in me was exhausted, but also because I was tired of myself. As everybody knows, the weaknesses that keep circling back to you again and again are a drag. Just when you think you’ve left a struggle behind, it shows up in dirty sweatpants and a wife beater and sprawls on your couch in all of its whiskery, flabby glory. Tiring, very tiring.
It’s nearly 7:00 p.m., but nothing for me anytime soon—still full. Maybe some soup later on. The nap did help, and I did get to start my day by laughing with friends, for whom I give thanks every day. I’m grateful that my Hungry Ghost isn’t a frequent visitor anymore, but when he arrives, the truth is, sometimes he gets the better of me.