By Dana Gornall
Pushing the cart through Target, I feel my warm breath against the cotton mask, and adjust it, pulling it down a little.
I can see it in my line of vision. I swear this mask also clouds my thinking, and yet I don’t complain. We are in the midst of a pandemic, and shopping is a whole new world now. Yet, I need bananas and other groceries, and I really do need some clothes.
Most of my jeans have holes in them—some were bought that way, others have become worn, and a lot of my summer clothing is in need of replacing. I browse through the women’s clothes, holding up a pair of pants to my waist. Dressing rooms are all shut down, so I need to eye them up and judge whether or not they may fit.
I toss them in my cart and make my way past the books—-because I always make my way past the books. Perusing the fiction section, a few titles catch my eye, then I turn toward the non-fiction section, picking up a book about willpower. I flip through it letting it hover over my cart.
Do I buy it? Do I leave it on the shelf? Is it available at the tiny little library we have in town that is only open for curbside pick up? I doubt it. I set it back on the shelf and keep going to find the bananas. Yes, it piques an interest, yes I am curious, but I’m not sure if it is what I am looking for.
It seems like I am always searching, lately. Or maybe I have always been searching.
“I need a guru,” I have said in the past. Or a teacher. Or a guide. Or even a life coach. I mentioned this to a Facebook friend of mine recently, saying that when I’ve brought this up before, people tend to say: You are your own guru.
She agreed this is terrible advice.
“If we don’t think people should be their own surgeon or psychiatrist, why would we encourage them to be their own guru?” she wrote. I nodded in response at my phone screen and typed back that yes, exactly, that was my feeling as well.
Buddhism often states that our searching for a something to fill our emptiness just exacerbates our suffering. We search and search to find fulfillment and yet nothing really satisfies the need and so we create more and more desire, yet never get anywhere. This concept is reflective in the hungry ghost metaphor in Buddhism. Images of emaciated bodies with swollen bellies and anguished faces are often shown, emphasizing the never sated appetite, no matter where they turn. Yet, in their skeletal bodies, no matter how much they attempt to fill the void, nothing ever truly gives the sustenance they are searching for.
I don’t want to be a hungry ghost.
In our society, this metaphor plays out in food and overeating, addiction in looking for that dopamine kick, and even in perfectionism—whether at work or at home in our personal lives—and constantly pushing ourselves up the next rung of the ladder. It plays out over and over in our day to day, so much that it drives many of us to a therapist’s couch as we struggle with our own personal demons, or if not to a therapist, to the next thing, person or vice.
Walking through Target, I am searching—searching for my guru fix.
In aisles filled with scented candles and aromatherapy gadgets, promising a more peaceful home (a Zen home) in the self-help book section pointing toward a more improved version of myself (more efficient, more minimalist) and in the fiction section inviting me toward an escape from reality. As I troll through the women’s clothing and workout wear, I see brightly colored photos of smiling, fit women and headless mannequins posed, suggesting that with the right clothes I can work toward more rounded glutes, sculpted thighs and maybe even a better career with the right mix of professional tops paired with the perfect wide-legged cropped pants.
And I even feel it in the grocery aisle, while looking for the best mixture of plant-based protein and healthy foods packaged in bright boxes with pictures of green veggies, promising a longer, fitter, life.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be better, but at what point do we draw the line between striving to fill an empty hole and wanting to be a more well-rounded person? Where does the seeker separate from the hungry ghost? That is the million dollar question, Bob.
These images of things we can buy bombard us day after day on television and social media and tease out the strands of our egos one by one, giving us a hint of something more, something better to just become meaningless tstochkies that sit around and collect dust as we move on to the next fix aiming to fill the empty void.
I am reminded of a quote I read this week in Atomic Habits, by James Clear: “Once we fit in, we are looking for new ways to stand out.”
I get in line at the cashier check out, standing six feet away from the person in front of me with her own items fulfilling her empty spots. I complete my purchase, load my car, and head home to my empty house, with my young adult kids out doing the things they need and want, leaving me in my very empty nest. I try on the pants when I get home, pleased that they fit, hang them up in my already stuffed closet, making note that I need to donate some of these worn out clothes.
And then I pause in the silence looking for my next task to fill the time. I need a guru, I think to myself. Making myself a small snack, I turn on the TV.
The hungry ghost in me honors the hungry ghost in you. Namaste.
Editor: John Lee Pendall
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