Andrew's Reviews > In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté
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's review
Nov 25, 09

bookshelves: one-book-per-week-09-10, non-fiction-books-that-i-love
Read in November, 2009

I cannot say enough good things about "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts". It is informative, well-written, touching, and inspirational. I have already started recommending it to friends and family as a must-read. The information is timely and important; our behaviour (collective and individual) towards addicts is at best of minimally useful and at worst counter-productive. “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” should be a wake up call for individuals and society to think differently about this pressing social concern.

“In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” is at its best when it is personal. Mate tells his own story and the stories of dozens of his patients in great detail. Some of these stories can be hard to read, but there is always an undercurrent of hope and love in the words that Mate writes. He sees his patients as people, and asks us to do the same. But more than that, he also acknowledges his own humanity and imperfection; he does not shy away from admitting his faults and his biases, and how they impact his work with patients. In doing so, Mate is modeling for the reader what he sees as one of the most important aspect of mental health and freedom from addictions: mindful awareness of one's self and inner experience.

After the first few chapters of stories about himself and his patients, Mate discusses the neurobiology of addiction and then the problems with the way society currently fails to deal with addiction. Although these chapters are very important to the book and to a full understanding of addiction, I find it hard to comment on these sections. I already had a fairly decent understanding of the neuroscience that he discussed, and so while I found it a bit tedious and slow moving, I suspect that a reader less familiar with these topics would find them more interesting. Similarly, I already agreed with political stance that Mate takes with respect to the “War on Drugs” and so I am not sure how convincing his arguments are. What I can say is that this is not meant to be a comprehensive account of the problems with the “War on Drugs”, and Mate wisely directs the reader to more complete resources.

One of the aspects I enjoyed most about “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” was the way Mate tied together spiritual teachings with science and medicine. While he certainly does not promote any particular dogma or religion (in fact, quotes from most major religions can be found in one place or another), Mate understands that great teachers of any tradition often have insights that can be usefully applied to modern problems. Furthermore, the truth of much of this wisdom has been borne out by recent scientific studies, so Mate feels free to use either argument (or both) to make his point. While I suspect his writing in these chapters may be a bit tough to follow for a reader who has not studied some form of mindfulness, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” is probably the best book I have read for drawing links between ancient and modern wisdom.

My only complaint with “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” was that there could have been more discussion of why some substances or behaviours are more addictive than others. In his pursuit of the conclusion that drugs aren't the cause of addiction (a void in an individual's life is the real cause), Mate tends to blend all potentially addictive substances and behaviours together. While it is true that anything can have addictive properties, there are clear differences in the ease with which addictions can arise.

“In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” is not just a book for addicts or people who work with them; it is the kind of book that everyone would benefit from reading. As Mate writes, how we treat addicts is a reflection of our entire society, and anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the world can start by taking a good look at the way we think about drug addicts.
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