Hungry Ghosts - Trust

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

Hungry Ghosts

You will fail.

It sucks, and I hate to say it, but it’s true. You will take creative risks, and often they will not pan out. I once threw away an entire completed book because it didn’t work. I diligently finished the thing, but it really didn’t work, so I ended up throwing it away. (I don’t know why it didn’t work! How can I know? What am I, a book coroner? I have no certificate for the cause of death. The thing just didn’t work!)

It makes me sad when I fail. It disappoints me. Disappointment can make me feel disgusted with myself, or surly toward others. By this point in my life, though, I’ve learned how to navigate my own disappointment without plummeting too far into death spirals of shame, rage, or inertia. That’s because, by this point in my life, I have come to understand what part of me is suffering when I fail: It’s just my ego.

It’s that simple.

Now, I’ve got nothing against egos, broadly speaking. We all have one. (Some of us might even have two.) Just as you need your fear for basic human survival, you also need your ego to provide you with the fundamental outlines of selfhood—to help you proclaim your individuality, define your desires, understand your preferences, and defend your borders. Your ego, simply put, is what makes you who you are. Without one, you’re nothing but an amorphous blob. Therefore, as the sociologist and author Martha Beck says of the ego, “Don’t leave home without it.”

But do not let your ego totally run the show, or it will shut down the show. Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master—because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward. And since there’s never enough reward to satisfy, your ego will always be disappointed. Left unmanaged, that kind of disappointment will rot you from the inside out. An unchecked ego is what the Buddhists call “a hungry ghost”—forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed.

Some version of that hunger dwells within all of us. We all have that lunatic presence, living deep within our guts, that refuses to ever be satisfied with anything. I have it, you have it, we all have it. My saving grace is this, though: I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul doesn’t even have language for such notions. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder. And since creativity is my most efficient pathway to wonder, I take refuge there, and it feeds my soul, and it quiets the hungry ghost—thereby saving me from the most dangerous aspect of myself.

So whenever that brittle voice of dissatisfaction emerges within me, I can say, “Ah, my ego! There you are, old friend!” It’s the same thing when I’m being criticized and I notice myself reacting with outrage, heartache, or defensiveness. It’s just my ego, flaring up and testing its power. In such circumstances, I have learned to watch my heated emotions carefully, but I try not to take them too seriously, because I know that it’s merely my ego that has been wounded—never my soul. It is merely my ego that wants revenge, or to win the biggest prize. It is merely my ego that wants to start a Twitter war against a hater, or to sulk at an insult, or to quit in righteous indignation because I didn’t get the outcome I wanted.

At such times, I can always steady my life once more by returning to my soul. I ask it, “And what is it that you want, dear one?”

The answer is always the same: “More wonder, please.”

As long as I’m still moving in that direction—toward wonder—then I know I will always be fine in my soul, which is where it counts. And since creativity is still the most effective way for me to access wonder, I choose it. I choose to block out all the external (and internal) noise and distractions, and to come home again and again to creativity. Because without that source of wonder, I know that I am doomed. Without it, I will forever wander the world in a state of bottomless dissatisfaction—nothing but a howling ghost, trapped in a body made of slowly deteriorating meat.

And that ain’t gonna do it for me, I’m afraid.