Surrendering to Silverback Gorillas and Hungry Ghosts

By Dawn Graves 11/26/14

“If you are looking for love under rocks or bringing home water moccasins, you might be confusing love and pain.”


If you’re like me, you’ve spent most of your adult life trying to escape yourself. This means you likely have a "get-out-of-dodge" bag packed and ready to go at all times, and you may have made the mistake, more than just once or twice, of looking for affection in “all the wrong places.” This is to say, perhaps you thrive in chaos, because chaos is a rather enigmatic issue in your case. Because chaos, while messy and dangerous, is something that’s been a constant for as long as you can remember.

One of my favorite quotes by author David W. Earl encapsulated this experience best when he wrote, “If you are looking for love under rocks or bringing home water moccasins, you might be confusing love and pain.” If you are not a kid, but definitely not settled on calling yourself an adult, because perhaps you’ve never felt or really had to act like one, you aren’t alone. Whenever I began to ease into a moment, Red’s suggestion from The Shawshank Redemption rang with conviction in my ears. I was addressed by Morgan Freeman’s heavenly voice, which gave me something I could rely on, when he’d said, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

Hi… My name is Teisha and I am an addict.

Have you ever wondered what happens when a person suspends their animation, and finally plants their feet in one corner of the world or another? Are they bound to being rooted in the run of the mill, a middling median existence where more-or-less happy means one is to settle for less? Who wants that? I use to think I had a problem with settling down, or as some people say “putting down roots.” Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and leader of Acumen, a nonprofit that takes a businesslike approach to improving the lives of the poor, put to rest my faulty line of reasoning—that stability and soundness must be equivalent to suffocating boredom—when she said, “Listening is not only about waiting, but it’s also learning how better to ask questions.” It isn’t that I asked a faulty question, in fact I asked no question at all. Instead, I made a completely biased assumption, due to my predisposition for gravitating towards an environment that offers me the general scale of pandemonium and debauchery I am most at home with. This is all followed up with the subsequent numbing of pain and then bargaining with the untrustworthy and xenophobic God who I only prayed to when all else failed. No wonder I didn’t really believe in Him…I mean, myself.

Clearly, there is some faulty thinking here. I can often talk myself into or out of almost any rationale, however invalid, if I’m not being completely honest with myself about the nature of my intentions. Instead of admitting my character defects are at it again, I sometimes default to a series of rapid-fire explanations and justifications, exceedingly defensive of my most savored of penchants. By weaving an intricate web of convoluted questions around myself I am able to effectively conceive of an alternative reality, where while it appears as if I may have thought things through, really I am just blowing smoke. This masking of willful resolve has been beneficial in circumventing responsibilities and deferring head-on criticism and disapproval till a later date of unspecified time. For example, I used to contemplate if the boredom, complacency, and conformity of having a 9-5 job was my problem or whether my contempt for the American dream and its tidy, white picket fence was my issue. But if confronted with drinking, pill popping, stealing, lying, cheating, manipulating, the issue was off the table. 

One can argue that having reservations to being satisfied is just evolution at work and discontent is man’s natural predilection as it’s beneficial to the advancement of mankind. After all, without the instinctive need to fulfill our insatiable seeking for more, beyond just surviving, none of us would have come down from the trees and instead we’d be foolish beasts doomed to eternally dragging our knuckles across the savannas. Chaos rules the universe and in this non-linear tirade of my own matrix, I guess I get to give birth to the Milky Way, but I digress.

You might try this line of reasoning, if like me, you are crazy enough to find yourself dreaming in a room full of anonymous strangers with first names you hadn’t bothered to remember, never intending to chant “keep coming back” ever again. Until you find yourself confronted with yourself at the very end of the meeting by someone who obviously has their head on a bit straighter than yours, offers up some advice. It is the type of analogy, that for whatever reason, you allow yourself to surrender to, as if in love. For me, this moment occurred when a redheaded addict, we’ll call Joe, began to share. He reminded me of a gangly orangutan at first, which struck me as funny initially, until I began to sense my own knuckles scraping the floor, my arms growing heavier with his every word. The gravity of some people’s unique understanding of how lost you might feel in this jungle is a reminder that you are just a fancy animal that hasn’t adapted well in the real world. Yes, he admitted, he’d stopped evolving somewhere along the way, abandoning the pursuit of happiness for something more instant in it’s relief and permanence. Holding up his scarred knuckles, he pretended to circle a ring, shadow boxing with worn out jabs, and as if spent from a hard-earned beating, he collapsed into his chair as if caught by a heavy, right hook. I had to admit, this guy was good, he had me a bit hypnotized.

Letting his limp forearms wilt at his sides, he said, “Yeah, know what I realized when I got my ass kicked that last round? I couldn’t throw a single punch that would land where I needed it to day-after-day. I really thought I could win the fight every time I put on my gloves. But it was as if this thug knew my every move before I did and sometimes, I wasn’t sure how or whether or not I was still standing upright. I knew I was getting knocked out every time but I took it over and over, just getting destroyed. Still, it was like I wasn’t ever done jumping in that ring and beating my chest. I was like a deranged monkey with an invincibility complex…and what I was pursuing in that ring was a silverback gorilla that had my number all along. Until the day, someone finally, somebody in my corner finally…clued me in, saying, ‘Hey Joey, you don’t have to fight. You know what happens to you in there, right? So, just stop getting in the ring and you won’t have to fight.’ And it clicked. So, anyway, I’m a grateful and recovering addict of three years, in December. Thanks and with that, I’ll share the time.”

Maybe it is in a moment like this, or in many moments when you begin to concede that, perhaps, you too have been outsmarted, realizing you are not as fully-evolved as you’d once assumed. Then you are suddenly and inexplicably are on your knees surrendering to the fact you know very little, maybe nothing about survival. 

I found myself visiting where I came from, a road-trip to my hometown, the place I had avoided for years because of fear or regret or shame. 

Perhaps you visit an old little league field, or the playground outside your grade school. Maybe you decide to try and climb your favorite tree and your aren’t so numb that finally you genuinely feel happy for the first time in years, remembering smoking cigarettes you snuck from your mother’s purse. You were wary, even then, of anyone passing by, until you realized hardly anyone bothers to look up. Fascinated by their tunnel vision as they hurried along towards their final destination, made them forget about the changing clouds above, and you saw they had not time to watch the sun set from start to finish. Sometimes, a hiker or a romantic-type would pocket a feather or pine cone on their way back from where they were sure to be on time. Once you even saw an old man place a baby bird back into its nest after it’s first attempt at flight ended in an awkward nose-dive. A few very whimsical types, usually fall tourists from the city, took pictures with complex cameras, often on tripods aimed at this valley’s boundaries.

These hills that surrounded you once seemed to tower, until you saw skyscrapers in Boston, until you comprehended the scale of mountains in Colorado, until your curiosity had you so rapt in being on-the-go, that your point of view narrowed into a straight line. With every checked box, on every new itinerary, you stopped considering the details. Lost, was the past you, the starry-eyed tree climber, the newcomer to the world, who fantasized about being in another person’s shoes, the child who tried to beckon the attention of strangers telepathically, because you had faith in mystical dimensions, higher powers you were free to turn over your doubt and fear to.

We all promise ourselves that we won’t forget these things, or lose sight of our dreams. We don’t plan on overlooking ourselves, or rather future selves down the line. What matters to us changes, even the place we came from, that seemed to define us at one time, fades into the backdrop. The dreamer and the dream focuses on the hooks of attention the adults bait them with, and they are tugged to the surface, where they skim the top layer of reality, searching for meaning. Some of us try to find meaning in the rush of the latest thrill, showing no gratitude or devotion to each glimmering moment where hope is offered to us en route to spiritual bankruptcy. The key to happiness is always just around the bend and fulfilling this hollow’s swell gets more and more difficult—this throbbing need begins to imitate and mask the heart’s pulse. This false impetus is the most deceptive of thirsts. With each swallow, the progressive need is fueled. The more one tries to drown it, the wider its throat opens, and the more its abiding belly swells in uncompromising discontent. 

The Buddhist tradition talks about these hungry ghosts, which are depicted as strange paisley-shaped beings with bloated stomachs and very narrow necks. Food cannot pass down, as it is incredibly painful to eat with such tiny throats and so their appetites are never satiated, and they suffer this torment eternally. Many of these accounts describe these tortured spirits as having "mouths the size of a needle's eye and a stomach the size of a mountain.” So, the legend goes that inside all of us, such manifestations of hunger is present, some tamer monsters lying more dormant than others, depending on who you are. The theory being, that if a person has a predominance of the hungry ghosts in their makeup, they may too often find they are always looking outside themselves to fill the craving within, but become just as insatiable as these spirits throughout life. Such individuals may never gain a true sense of harmony and peace, if they don’t take the necessary steps to build their self-restraint against the influence of these interfering entities. This is where practicing self-awareness comes in. Through exercising this consciousness and being vigilant to identifying invasive obsessions and compulsions, as well as the true root of one’s emotions, the hungry ghosts begin to gradually weaken in their ability to rule its host over time. Ser na, the Tibetan word for this haunting spirit, literally translates to "lack of generosity" or "yellow-nosed.” 

It has benefited me to focus on the universal figure, The Tree Of Life, as a place and representation of safe refuge and synchrony with every strand in the web of life. In early recovery, I’ve begun to conceptualize my higher power as this symbol, as I have found that throughout the world, in a great range of cultures and mythologies, it is quite prevalent and for good reason. The Tree of Life embodies the virtues I feel most in line with and would feel most comfortable placing my faith in. Likewise, I wish to aspire towards nurturing these qualities within, by cultivating them through routine practice. These virtues include wisdom, courage, justice, loyalty, discipline, humility, temperance, faith, charity, hope, honesty, responsibility, and unity, to name a few. 

When considering The Tree of Life, the tree’s single trunk, many branches, and all its roots are an intricate and united system that symbolize the journey to recovery of one’s self. The trunk, here, symbolizes the essential act of seeking refuge and conceding to the will of guidance. Asking for help, usually entails a sort of surrender and this invariably occurs after some crisis in a person’s life. Often, this individual is facing an unmanageable set of circumstances that they can no longer adequately handle on their own anymore. The many branches symbolize the different traditions and meditations practiced in order to thrive. The tree begins its life as a seed, but as the seed grows, it roots itself in the ground, its matter. The self’s matter include the environment one springs from, what one is affected by, and what one cares about. Ultimately, the goal of the roots are to ground oneself in the direction of security, tradition, and comfort, and then transcend one’s boundaries, in order to eventually reach towards the undiscovered goals and ambitions aloft. These are the branches of the tree, which represent the pushing up and out towards the heavens, in search of illumination, innovation, and freedom. 

While this independence is liberating, it is always wise to remember to never lose one’s rootedness when seeking the upper branches, as the underpinning is what sustains the entire tree. It is better for a person to be cautious and strive towards securing safety over inciting adventure, as the risk of dislocating oneself (letting the ego take over in pursuit of greatness) is always a gamble. In fact, many wise characters, on the path to recovery, could avoid this volatile situation altogether, by steadying themselves, always, close to the substantiated source of their progress.

The Tree of Life’s systems, including the trunk, root, and branches, parallel human development of the body, psyche, and spirit. This is a way one may envision one’s higher power, the faith in a system one can turn to, when their autonomous evolution seems to have come to a grinding halt. The prospect of reverting to former behaviors and associations and the resulting degenerative chaos that ensues in the grip of active addiction brings shame and panic. This is when these obsessions and compulsions are best served though meditation, prayer, and entreaty towards a power greater than self. 

Perhaps a stroll down memory lane, to a place you left behind because you thought you had outgrown it, is just the place to start renovating one’s perception. Trees offer an intuitive allure that leads both the young and old to find comfort and peace beneath them. Perhaps some of us, the rush seekers, and showoffs, the daredevils and egomaniacs, the anti-hero and desperados should follow this example. This time at the base, hitting our knees, from the ground up, before trying to climb to the top. 

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