An ordinary person behaves like a dog, which upon entering the hall of mirrors, barks at all the other dogs. The Sage, entering the hall of mirrors, sees only herself —Unknown
I work with the homeless. Although I hate clichés, I am going to start out by saying “all our struggles are the same.” Now, most people don’t know what it is like to sleep on the street or beg for money. But part of being human is to carry pain. Look around you to understand pain, and you’ll see we all share a common struggle. The margin between “me” and “homeless guy on the street” is a bit less wide.
The jargon in my field calls my clients “high risk” or “vulnerable.” A lot of them live on the street. Some are housed, usually in shelters or transitional living programs and struggle with basic necessities. Some of them use illegal substances. A large number have a mental illness. All of them have been consumed by poverty at some point in their lives.
Poverty means much more than being broke. Poverty is multifaceted and soul killing. It is handed down from generation to generation. It weighs the impoverished down like heavy stones. From day one, the clients I work with have been fated to endure some of the most malicious aspects of humanity, sometimes at the hand of their own parents.
Understanding vulnerable and underprivileged populations is difficult. Many will look at my clients and wonder, “Why can’t he just stop using drugs? Whatever happened to ‘Just Say No!’” or “Why does she keep going back to her pimp? Can’t she just get a job?” Before you can understand why someone would seemingly choose to inject a dangerous substance into their arm, one needs to understand the pain that made that idea appealing in the first place. Logically, needles are not fun and often dangerous. Can anyone logically conceive of someone waking up and saying “Hey, you know what would be fun: taking heroin intravenously.” When you try to understand pain, you begin to see deeper and deeper layers of trauma nesting inside a person and driving them towards certain decisions.
I remember when I first met Jenny. She was a bright and lively girl who sparkled, and was a friend to everyone she met. I remember being taken aback by her intelligence. Her energy and good spirits were contagious. She had recently finished high school and mentioned some plans for college. I encouraged her to look for scholarships, which she would easily qualify for, given her history in foster care.
Jenny had a rough life. She was born into a family that did not want her, or at least wanted to get high more. She was sexually abused. She was emotionally neglected. The first time I met her, she had recently run away from a group home and was living on the street. She was using and had fallen into sex work in the past, but was ready to put it behind her at the ripe old age of seventeen.
As I got to know Jenny, I saw layers of complexity that stunted her growth. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and in her manic states would talk a mile a minute. She would get impulsive thoughts and ideas in her head and follow them wherever they took her. She spent her money on friends who would surface the first of the month when her check was mailed. I was astounded by how quickly she could spend money meant to last a month, in only a few hours. Most disturbing were her boyfriends— skeevy men who wanted to date a tiny teenager hungry for love.
Once, she talked to me about one of the men she was dating. Occasionally she accidentally refered to him as “my brother” instead of “my boyfriend.” She brushed this off as a simple slip up, but I have heard the same slip-up before from other young girls. All were rejected by or lost their family and had to grow up too quickly. All of them were so hungry for unconditional love and support. All of them were hungry for a family and a place to belong.
Seeing spiritual hunger and pain forever changed how I think about poverty, as did an amazing book called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate. In this book, Mate borrows a concept from Tibetan Buddhism and paints a poignant picture of the layers of poverty.
Tibetan Buddhism outlines six realms into which one can be reborn. Existence is cyclic and the baggage we accrue over various lifetimes determines which realm we incarnate into (according to what my very Western mind can grasp). The eventual idea is to take lessons learned from existence in each realm and attain Consciousness. If you are reading this, you are most likely living in the human realm, at least in physical body. Human existence is the best to break free of karma, and therefore the most precious.
The realms stack one on top of the other. Starting from the bottom, they play out like this:
Hell Realm— The hell realm is as awesome as it sounds: not very. Think firey torments, terror, nauseating hopelessness. The inhabitants are so consumed by their own torture, there is simply no room for compassion for others. There is only rage and hatred, born from constant pain.
Hungry Ghost Realm— The Ghosts are needy creatures. Their existence is desire, constant craving, and consumption. There is a deep need inside these creatures which they try to satiate to no avail.
Animal Realm— The animals are characterized by survival. One’s entire existence is wrapped up in day to day survival, making spiritual growth impossible.
Human Realm— This realm is the most valued of all incarnations. Here we have free will, and can grow spiritually and work towards enlightenment. However, this power comes with a price: we can also create the state of any realm, from godlike to hell.
Demi-God Realm— In the demi god realm, a taste of pleasure is mixed with jealousy. The demi-gods have a lot, but it is never enough. Consumed with envy and resentment, they are constantly at battle with themselves and everyone else,. They move incessantly and are never satisfied, yearning to join the gods, in the last realm.
God Realm— These creatures live a very pleasurable existence of sweet smelling bodies and rich nectars. Like all realms, it is not permanent, and while they are there, the pleasures are so distracting they are blind to all else. They succumb to lethargy and suffer because of it. They do not grow and turn away from the suffering of others. Their self absorption and forgetfulness poison them softly until all their karma is used up and they slip into other realms of more direct suffering.
Jenny had been born into a hellish existence. She was a human girl, with strengths and weaknesses, but had been born into pain and suffering. She survived as best she could, and now exists in the limbo of the Ghost Realm. Growing up, she missed crucial development of life and emotional skills. She searches to buy love with sex and fair-weather friends. She does work valiantly to “get her life together,” but faces an uphill battle. Jenny’s momentary peace provided by the people around her may feed the hungry ghost inside her, but also keeps her from the pain and terror of the hell realm.
Despite the pain of the ghost realm, some humanness still prevails. People consumed by an impoverished hungry-ghost consciousness still make communities within poverty and try to support each other. Although this support might be damaging, like one junkie helping another find a vein, it is still there. They are struggling in a twisted attempt to build the love and support they were denied in their formative years.
Mate brilliantly explores struggles such as these in depth. He has worked as a physician in Canada and has published previously on his theories of how disease and disorder stem from emotional imbalance. Hungry Ghosts expands on that narrative, and provides a groundbreaking examination of what drives people to their addictions and keeps them there.
The players in his book were his own clients at a safe injection site in Vancouver. Their stories illustrate the complexity of issues that create addiction. In very simple terms, he argues that the capacity for addiction is born when crucial emotional needs are not met. In anecdote after anecdote the reader sees the addict chasing a high on a superficial level, but also seeking solace from internal turmoil. He describes the social and psychological backgrounds that drive people to drugs, like haunting memories of physical and sexual abuse. He also looks at neurological factors, examining how brain chemistry changes from abuse, or when crucial emotional needs are not met.
The most poignant part of the book is his own self-exploration. He details his own addictions, to work and to success. He explores how they have hurt his family, and how they occupy his thoughts and his time. And he examines his own past: growing up in Holocaust-era Budapest, losing his family to work camps, his mother’s depression, and his immigration to a strange land. All these factors contributed to a tumultuous anxiety which drove him to seek external pacification. Mate sums up the struggle succinctly when he says “Addiction is a poor substitution for love.” Addiction is the hungry ghost realm.
There is a longing, deep inside for the solace of love. Hungry ghosts float through the world, clutching and consuming whatever they can. It does not matter specifically what. Some seek meth or heroin. Jenny used material things and relationships. Mate uses work. His book invites the reader to explore what they are feverishly consuming in order to quell and smother a nagging need inside, that when not placated, swells into a terrible monster bearing pain and suffering.
The work I do has made me familiar with the Hell and Hungry Ghost realms. And yet, all the realms contain suffering, be it straightforward or veiled. As creatures born into the human realm, we work to stay present and grow spiritually, but are often lured into distraction by addiction.
I find anger and self-righteousness to be addicting. I catch myself resenting colleagues and superiors, convinced of the magnitude of my own intelligence. I resent their presence, for I am surely the most compassionate and clever. I internally scoff at stupid things acquaintances say and at the same time jealously seethe at others’ success. I spiral into thought patterns fueled by rage, congratulating myself for being “the most selfless” and “most dedicated” and knowing their victories could have been mine, if only I worked harder. If only I was better. Sometimes it feels so good to be angry. Yet, none of this is helpful- only painful. But damn if it’s not a hard habit to break. I’m addicted to feeling morally and intellectually superior when I get lost in the busy and competitive Demi-God Realm.
I had a close friend who could walk into any situation and have people fall at her feet. Everywhere she went, people could not tell her quickly enough how beautiful and brilliant she was. And they were not lying. She was visually stunning and whip smart. Infamous for wearing rose scented oil that got on to everything she touched, her suitors were obsessed. But for all her intoxicating attributes, she was rather thoughtless. She could cruelly hurt, ignore, and abuse people with effortless grace. For all this, she was never held accountable; she merely turned her attention away from responsibility and on to people who sung her lavish praise. She manifested the easy pleasures of the God Realm all around her.
However, she was human and experienced very human consequences. A turbulent childhood and lack of parental support. A sense of self worth mixed up in external instead of divine sources. A painful interaction with day to day life.
Sounds like my clients. Sounds like me.
It does not matter what realm we manifest in. Every single one is just an illusion. The realms are a mechanism, giving us false hope and numbing the invisible pain born from the distance we maintain from what is truly nourishing. Addiction is a poor substitute for love.
I recall a client I met during street outreach. She was another very tiny girl, not older than nineteen. She lived on the street and dressed in punk clothes and was peppered with tattoos. I recoiled at our first meeting; she was surly and had a bad attitude. After getting to know her a bit, she mentioned she injected heroin. I pushed a little, inquiring if she would like substance abuse treatment and her story spilled out of her. It was not particularly unusual, but extremely painful for everyone who lived it. She did not get into specifics, but when she talked about her parents I felt pain and terror inside my own body.
“After what they did to me,” she said softly, “heroin is the only thing that helps.” But it wasn’t working anymore. She needed to get higher and higher for the same effect. On more than one occasion she woke up on the street with needles in her arm. She spoke plainly about trying to kill herself multiple times. “But I just keep waking up,” she said.
Heroin addicts tend to have soft, needy voices and sad cloudy eyes. In that moment she was still sad, but she was present. I was right there with her. When an addict is ready to take action, it needs to be taken right then- one never knows when their mood will change. I began calling every detox I knew that was free. This one had a several month waiting list. That one couldn’t accept new patients. That one only did intakes on Friday. This one actually wasn’t free. With each dead end, I could feel myself losing her. She was slipping back into the Ghost Realm. She stepped into reality and was met with another disappointment, the same she had experienced from birth.
I promised her we could work together. I swore we could try again tomorrow. We just needed to push a little more, I said. But it was too late. She agreed to meet me the following day in my office, but I never saw her again. I watched her rejoin her group of friends, other users and ghosts. They had provided her with more support than someone like me ever had. I can’t say I blame her; why should she gamble on sobriety when it brings nothing but pain? Whenever I hear addiction is a choice, I think about her.
Sometimes individuals seem to choose poverty. I have met many who cannot stay housed. In fact, they abhor the idea of a shelter or a program. Many assert they like the street. Trading showers and stability for freedom and community is an exchange many gladly make. But a lot of times, it is simply because there is no room for people like them, for Jenny, or my little lost client. The emotional burden they bear is too great for a tough love boot camp or strict curfew to correct. You can’t scare my clients with threats of lost privileges, disease, assault, or death. If someone has already walked through Hell, how much more can you possibly scare them?
I will not argue that I am always compassionate. Sometimes I get so frustrated with my work I want to cry. The constant consumption gets you down. The ingratitude and more-more-more-ness their lives. Things sometimes feel so hopelessly insurmountable. Especially when you see impoverished people making babies, and bringing more humans into poverty and suffering. However, the conditions I call suffering are what they call life.
Humanness again prevails, and shines through the clouds of poverty. They yearn to live and grow. A new life represents a new start, and the hope and love they never received, through no fault of their own, might be salvaged. On some level, whether consciously or not, they hope that if they can’t prioritize and love themselves, will can prioritize a baby. Rarely do I question the love my clients have for their baby. The love is there, but healing is a different journey.
Essential love is pure and healing. But when love masquerades as pleasure and positivity, it becomes an addiction. Turning to bliss and pleasure in an attempt to escape from pain is not love. It’s a ticking time bomb. Eventually the pain will encroach. If one can pause in moments of terror and sorrow and still find a connection with divinity, that is when love will heal you. Sometimes a baby does heal and change a life in an amazing way. Sometimes it does not, and the cycle of poverty, pain and abuse begins again. For every one of my clients who has a baby fulfill their need, I see babies destined to become receptacles of their parents’ neuroses, pain, and flaws, continuing the endless cycle of the realms. Even Money and high expectations for success can mask insecurity and pain.
It is with this knowledge I ask people to consider how little removed they are from poverty. Material things are so fleeting and erratically distributed. I know I have seen a huge spike in people utilizing food banks and shelters as the economy has constricted. As a community we see firsthand how everything can be lost in the blink of an eye in a recession. Combine a few financial hits with childhood trauma and the odds seem insurmountable. So next time you see a drug addict or an indigent person collecting change on the street, please hold that understanding in your heart. In my own journey in this field, I have learned that compassion can teach you a lot about the world, and a lot about yourself
But I am resolved to try and remember that all of us are only human. For better or worse, we were granted the most precious gift the cosmos can bestow, a human life.