Hungry Ghosts, Pixar, and Louis CK: Dealing with Distraction in the 21st Century

There is a movie studio out there that is finally calling attention to the dire existential predicament of the 21st century. A studio that bravely points out all the ways in which we delude ourselves, the dangers of following such delusions, and provides glimpses into how we might recapture an authentic relationship with our world. A studio making bold films that challenge us to live richer, more present lives.

I’m talking, of course, about Pixar.

The movie Wall-E depicted a future in which humans, effectively blobs with stumps, get around on hovering easy chairs while negotiating their day-to-day reality via screens projected in front of their faces. It takes a brave little robot to wake them up to their stark reality and make them literally come to their senses. In the age of Google Glass and Apple Watch, when the number of obese Americans outnumbers those who are merely overweight, this reality doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

Last year Pixar released Inside/Out, the story of 11 year old Reilly, and the five primary emotions (anger, sadness, joy, fear, and disgust) that take turns at the control panel in Reilly’s head, staring out the large window of her eyes and reacting to the world outside, with insightful, hilarious, and poignant consequences.

Taken together, Wall-E and Inside/Out paint a bleak picture: not only are we subject to the competing whims and impulses inside our head, the world outside our head is designed to take advantage of this disarray, lambasting us with blinking lights and endless distractions. The result is a society of seekers with short attention spans looking for a quick fix. The medium for Wall-E’s message was of course a projection of blinking lights on a large screen, for which Americans, sitting in cushy chairs and consuming mass quantities of soda and popcorn, paid over $223 million dollars to see. We have become a nation of hungry ghosts.

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References to hungry ghosts date back thousands of years. Images of these ghosts, displayed colorfully in Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese art, and displayed on monastery walls, are gruesome: ghouls with distended bellies and long, thin necks that drink only their own tears. Historically, these images and their accompanying descriptions served as incentives to act generously, lest one be reborn in the realm of the hungry ghosts. More recently however, especially in the West, where even the more esoteric aspects of Buddhism find practical re-interpretations, hungry ghosts are discussed as a state of mind. As Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson of the Red Rocks Zen Circle explained during a 2012 dharma talk:

When I came into Zen practice I would hear reference to these Hungry Ghosts, which seemed like part of an exotic Buddhist cosmology, and I didn’t relate to them. But I’ve come to understand Hungry Ghosts quite differently. The Hungry Ghost – or the state of being that it represents – is something found inside us. The type of Hungry Ghost may be different for each of us, but the energy behind the hunger is the same. There is something we crave, something we feel that we desperately need to be happy.

“There is something we crave, something we feel that we desperately need to be happy.” 

The problem for modern humans is that the ability to indulge our cravings is constantly at our fingertips. On a 2013 appearance on Conan, the comedian Louis CK made light of this predicament with a rant about the urge to answer his phone while driving. Louis began by stating how phones are taking away “the ability to just sit there.” He continued:

You know, I look around and pretty much one hundred percent of people driving are texting. And they’re killing! Everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second.

Louis’ hyperbolic description isn’t without scientific basis. In a study published in the journal Science, researchers found that two-thirds of men would rather electrically shock themselves than be alone with their thoughts for fifteen minutes. Timothy Wilson, a University of Virginia psychology professor and lead author of the study, explained, “We wouldn’t crave these things if we weren’t in need of distractions. But having so many available keeps us from learning how to disengage.”

Like the humans from Wall-E, modern society is increasingly plugged in. Look around on the subway and almost everyone is staring at a screen. Our phones are often the first thing we touch in the morning and the last thing we touch at night. Have we completely lost the ability to disengage?

“What’s very different today is the way that the incredible innovations in technology in the past decade have been so closely linked with a way of being that celebrates the culture of distraction and continual entertainment,” Eisho recently told me. “This emphasis on constant distraction, constant entertainment, strongly encourages us to seek something external for meaning without any deeper sense of the self and our connection with the universe.”

“This emphasis on constant distraction, constant entertainment, strongly encourages us to seek something external for meaning without any deeper sense of the self and our connection with the universe.”

Oren J. Sofer, a dharma teacher who focuses on communication, believes that perhaps faulting technology misses the forest for the trees. “To me this ill of modern society is a reflection or manifestation of the deeper thirsts the Buddha pointed to,” said Sofer. “The yearning to be something, to have something, to get somewhere.” In other words, the iPhone didn’t arise from the ether to dazzle us with apps, but is itself a manifestation of our cravings. We don’t thirst because we have iPhones, we have iPhones because we thirst. But, Sofer agrees, in the 21st century there are more and more ways for the outside world to capitalize on this thirst. “We think we need a new smart phone because something inside is longing to identify with the perception created by the image of associating with that object. This kind of mechanism is an unconscious reflex, one might even go so far as to label it a pathological thirst.”

So, inundated as we are, how can we work with this state of mind, with the ghosts that cause ceaseless hunger and pathological thirst? “The first step,” said Eisho, “is that we have to see the Hungry Ghost very clearly, see how it operates in our life. It’s important to really feel the sadness, loneliness, despair, whatever it may be, that is arising for us.”

“Joy, seeing that Sadness is not only useful, but necessary, learns an important lesson.”

Hearing this, I was reminded of a crucial scene in Inside/Out. One of the problems Reilly encounters is that Joy keeps trying to dominate the emotional spectrum. But when Joy fails to cheer up an imaginary friend deep in the recesses of Reilly’s mind, Sadness steps in, allowing the friend to fully experience and process his emotion, after which he is able to move on. Joy, seeing that Sadness is not only useful, but necessary, learns an important lesson.

One method for really feeling and seeing clearly is, of course, meditation. “Zazen is really an essential foundation for this,” said Peterson, “something we come back to over and over, where we can more clearly see what the mind is experiencing, what the stories are that thoughts tell us, and how the body feels.”

What happens when we allow ourselves to see clearly, to fully experience our reality? “Little by little,” said Peterson, “we learn to be able to tolerate our feelings, to not run away or slam the door or immerse ourselves in distractions.”

At the end of Louis CK’s cell phone rant, he describes this process in slightly more colorful terms:

I started to get that sad feeling and I was reaching for the phone and I said, “You know what? Don’t. Just be sad.” And I pulled over and I just cried…and it was beautiful! Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments! I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip and the thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kind of satisfied with your product, and then you die.

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Whether one is using an iPhone, a rotary phone, or a gramophone, the newest technology will always tempt. But, as Peterson pointed out in her 2012 dharma talk: “There’s an expression that when the clay, or the mud, is deep, the Buddha is big. It is how we transform suffering into wisdom. So the wanting mind can be a powerful ground for us to take the backward step, to look deeply at what is happening.”

As in a Pixar movie, this is the complex yet happy ending: hungry ghosts can be a gateway to practice, an opportunity for us to see our minds and to work with what is arising. Just as Reilly begins to embrace all her emotions, and to understand that happiness is found in balance, dealing with hungry ghosts is an opportunity to find balance in craving, and to accept that craving is not something to be condemned. It is, after all, what makes us human.