Hungry Ghosts and Benefactors: On Moving Through the Field of Motion Sickness.


Motion sickness is the feeling that arises when, driving on a balmy winter morning, I suddenly realize how much I desperately need to be parented: to be championed, understood, encouraged, and loved.

I see that this kind of parenting is not forthcoming from any external source. What is good about me, what is brave, what stands up for the dignity of life and the possibility of freedom, is not likely to get a big raise, or a lot of votes, anytime soon. Then I notice what Leonard Cohen is singing:

Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

… and my motion sickness becomes a pang for us all. In the midst of all we’ve been given, we choose squalor and fear. We choose to trap beautiful wild creatures for their fur, bewildering them, and one another, into things. This motion sickness stems from seeing how desecration happens — how I’ve been doing it all along, and how it’s been done to me.

I show up for coffee, and just as I’m reaching the door, the Asshat Team shows up. Four of them. Tall, taller than me, yet still, if I look closely, pups. Soft faces, awkward bones not yet knit into manhood. They lay claim of the door, push by me, and make a block at the counter, taking their time ordering $18 worth of lattes and blah-blah each, on mommy and daddy’s credit cards, while I wait for a decaf coffee.

To them, I don’t exist. They are the victors, loudly celebrating the previous night’s conquests, while I sit in tweed and sunglasses, reading at the bright edge of the terrace.

I should have stomped their feet. I did not. Instead, turning from the counter with my coffee, I see one of my students from last summer, someone in many ways like the Asshat Team (and perhaps even their colleague). I’ve never been so glad to hear “Hey, Professor!” Bright face, glad of his studies, glad to tell me of his work. This is important.

The parenting that I feel I desperately need, I must find through a field of benefactors, and beam forward onto others, as I did with this kid last summer, and again now.

I tell him I’m glad he’s drawing; I tell him I’m so glad to see him well. Not because he is a victor, but because he is a beautiful wild creature, who deserves to be free, to know the world through his own capacities, and thus to love it, and in turn, to parent it, and be parented by it.

I know we can do this. I know it’s not easy. I know there is no choice. I know it’s important to feel the full depth of grief and anger, because otherwise, we run around “there, there-ing” one another, and being conciliatory in ways that only keep injuring what is holy in the world.

My/our assholery is coming back to greet me/us in a big way. My/our willingness to fudge the details, take the costs out on others, invent beautiful stories that make it all into Science, Defense, Economics, the Arts, and Education — all of that is showing up now.

Hello! You would rather diddle around on Facebook, than do something meaningful in the studio, or in your town? Congratulations! Here is your future. You would rather pursue the Spiritual Life, than go find out why your neighbors are beating the shit out of each other in the driveway, just below your window? Good news! Here’s your President.

You would rather pull in this fat salary made of student debt, than inquire what other, less ruinous, forms of training we might make available to one another? Well, here’s Planet Greed, and have we ever got a spot for you at the table!

The magic is running out, and we know this because now the spinning of the wheel is making itself more apparent, wobblier, way more likely to result in motion sickness.

This is pretty much what the wheel of life says: when you are in the upper reaches of the cycle, it is very easy to get supremely comfortable, and to assume that your excellent qualities of judgment and hard work have got you, at last, to your just and final reward.

It’s easy not to notice the tiny incremental shifts, the way the moon is getting slimmer, or fatter, day by day; the way the anemone leaves curl at the edges, getting brittle and brown. The truth is, the wheel is turning, and if you identify with your place on it, and not with awareness itself, you’re going to get a shock when it turns you toward the animal realms, or the hungry ghosts.

Shit! Now it’s my pelt they’re after for their stupid Canada Goose parkas — my under-feathers they’re going to pull out while holding me down, so they can do it all over again, in four months. Shit! Now it’s me making $12 an hour and giving some rich asshole the finger, as he drives by in armored splendor. I feel sick. I think I might throw up. I need my mommy.

What about if you’re already among the hungry ghosts? What about if you’re already among the animals?

You can be awake anywhere. The Jataka stories are full of animals who decide spontaneously to manifest generosity. The gorilla saves the hunter who’s fallen into a hole, and then collapses, exhausted. The hunter takes a rock and brains her, planning to eat this dumb animal before resuming the hunt. “Oh, poor Man,” she says, “Now you’ll never be happy.”

We are told to practice self-care. We are told not to burn ourselves out, to avoid motion sickness, to be reasonable. But I am pretty sure we’re capable of moving through the discomfort of motion sickness, the wild Technicolor yawn of change, and finding new ground.


julieputtgenJulie Puttgen is an artist and a meditation teacher, which turn out not to be such different things. Both rely on a sense of trust in the unfolding, creative process of awareness as a perfect vehicle for waking up. Both also rely on improvisation — responding openly to what is, without getting too hung up on what ought to be instead. Her projects in art, writing, and activism are online at 108 Names of Now.


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