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In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction 0th Edition

4.7 out of 5 stars 386 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0676977417
ISBN-10: 0676977413
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon.com Exclusive: A Letter from Gabor Maté

Dear Amazon.com readers,

I've written In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts because I see addiction as one of the most misunderstood phenomena in our society. People--including many people who should know better, such as doctors and policy makers--believe it to be a matter of individual choice or, at best, a medical disease. It is both simpler and more complex than that.

Addiction, or the capacity to become addicted, is very close to the core of the human experience. That is why almost anything can become addictive, from seemingly healthy activities such as eating or exercising to abusing drugs intended for healing. The issue is not the external target but our internal relationship to it. Addictions, for the most part, develop in a compulsive attempt to ease one’s pain or distress in the world. Given the amount of pain and dissatisfaction that human life engenders, many of us are driven to find solace in external things. The more we suffer, and the earlier in life we suffer, the more we are prone to become addicted.

The inner city drug addicts I work with are amongst the most abused and rejected people amongst us, but instead of compassion our society treats them with contempt. Instead of understanding and acceptance, we give them punishment and moral disapproval. In doing so, we fail to recognize our own deeply rooted problems and thereby forego an opportunity for healing not only for them, the extreme addicts, but also for ourselves as individuals and as a culture.

My book, in short, is an attempt to bring light to core issues shrouded in darkness. The many positive responses I’ve received encourage me to believe that I’ve succeeded in making a contribution toward that goal.

Best wishes,
Gabor Maté

A Q&A with the Author

Question: The title of your book has its origins in the Buddhist Wheel of Life. In the Hungry Ghost Realm, people feel empty and seek solace from the outside, from sources that can never nourish. In what ways is our culture trapped in this realm? What can society learn from drug addicts who take the feelings of lack that everyone has, to the extreme?

Gabor Maté: Much of our culture and our economy are based on exploiting people’s sense of emptiness and inadequacy, of not being enough as we are. We have the belief that if we do this or acquire that, if we achieve this or attain that, we’ll be satisfied. This sense of lack and this belief feed many addictive behaviors, from shopping to eating to workaholism. In many respects we behave in a driven fashion that differs only in degree from the desperation of the drug addict.

Question: What makes your book so beautiful is its multi-layered, personal approach. You don’t rely solely on your patients’ stories, but also dig into your personal experience with addiction and the relevance of Buddha’s teachings. What were some challenges you faced when writing so frankly about your own addiction and your family?

Gabor Maté: In a sense my personal issues are not personal at all--just human. Once I understand something, I want to share it. There is no shame in having flaws--just challenges to keep learning. Many people have told me how much they have appreciated my being open like that--it helps them be open with themselves.

Question: Your book ends on a positive note, with the idea that brains do have the ability to change and grow in adult life and even to heal themselves. Does this undermine your previous assertion that you don’t expect most of your severely addicted patients to get clean?

Gabor Maté: No, there is no contradiction here. The human brain is exquisitely capable of development, a capacity known as neuroplasticity. But, as with all development, the conditions have to be right. My pessimism about my clients’ future is based not on any limitation of their innate potential, but on their dire social, economic and legal situation and on the essential indifference of policy makers--and of society--to their plight. In short, the resources that could go into rehabilitating people are now sunk, instead, into persecuting them and keeping them marginalized. It’s a failure of insight and of compassion. We are simply not living up to our possibilities as a society.

Read an Excerpt from In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts

I believe there is one addiction process, whether it manifests in the lethal substance dependencies of my Downtown Eastside patients, the frantic self-soothing of overeaters or shopaholics, the obsessions of gamblers, sexaholics and compulsive internet users, or in the socially acceptable and even admired behaviors of the workaholic. Drug addicts are often dismissed and discounted as unworthy of empathy and respect. In telling their stories my intent is to help their voices to be heard and to shed light on the origins and nature of their ill-fated struggle to overcome suffering through substance use. Both in their flaws and their virtues they share much in common with the society that ostracizes them. If they have chosen a path to nowhere, they still have much to teach the rest of us. In the dark mirror of their lives we can trace outlines of our own.

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


"A harrowingly honest, compassionate, sometimes angry look at addiction and the people whose lives have been disordered by it."
—Ottawa Citizen

"Maté does a great service by forcing us to confront the us-and-them mentality that drives the get-tough responses to addiction.... I highly recommend Hungry Ghosts to everyone seeking insight into addiction."
The Vancouver Sun

"Excellent.... One of the book's strengths is Maté's detailed and compassionate characterization of the afflicted addicts he treats, but this is not just a memoir. Rather, using his own experience as well as the most advanced recent research, he attempts to delineate the closely interrelated psychological, social, and neurological dimensions of addiction.... A calm, unjudging, compassionate attentiveness to what is happening within."
The Walrus

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Canada (January 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0676977413
  • ISBN-13: 978-0676977417
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (386 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,228,515 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Zoeeagleeye VINE VOICE on December 30, 2009
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
In all innocence I picked up Gabor Mate's book and in no time I was stunned to find that I was reading about myself. No, I am neither a drug addict nor alcoholic, but I have several other addictions I have been ashamed of my whole life. By the time I finished reading this insightful, compassionate, detailed book, I knew finally who I was, how I got that way and what I could do about it.

I honestly have no idea how anyone could read this book and give less than 5 stars. First of all, the 3-star reviewer totally missed several important points concerning Mate's actions at home and on the job. Money was given to his staff, not as a bribe, but as an incentive for him to stop being late and to give himself a little spiritual humbling. As for Mate's own addictions, I feel so much safer to be in the hands of a man who is frank and transparent with me and says, "Let's try this," rather than one who is distantly perfect and ultimately unknowable, who is given to uttering commands and pronouncements. I know who I would trust more.

Mate may suffer from ADD (which I also do) but let me assure you that his prose is every bit as fluid, clear and inspired as the prose you are presently reading. More, his writing is a joy to read. The book itself is very well presented, almost like a mystery story with as happy an ending as one can expect after several murders have been committed in the beginning! The book starts with the stories, the life histories and personality details of his patients. It goes on to then give the medical and psychological and political facts about addictive behavior, and the last chapters are devoted to help, healing and hope. It could not be more beautifully structured!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I left a 12-step group about 8 months ago and stumbled upon this book while looking for a Peter Levine Book. The title sounded right up my alley so I ordered. Did not disappoint and gave me an alternate view of addiction and all its manifestations. I cried many times as a sense of recognition hit. I read my self in this book over and over. I owe Dr. Mate' a great sense of gratitude for making the right, conscious decision for ME on leaving 12-step groups and the "disease" model. He validated a lot of my feelings in this book on where exactly my addictions came from and what pieces of me had yet to be seen where 12-steps overlooked those parts. As I am still reading this great book, and uncover more hidden gems within myself which is what I needed all along. I continue to stay sober/clean and work on my internal mess and come to the solutions that are best for me. Thank You Dr. Mate' if you changed 1 person, it's me and I owe you a huge hug and a resounding "YES!" from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for this wonderful manual of healing and hope!
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Dr. Mate's book is interesting and complete as he discusses the horrible problem of drug addiction. The book has sections about the life stories of addicts, the brain chemistry of addiction, the addictive process, the war on drugs, and the possibilities for overcoming addiction. Despite the very grim nature of the subject matter, the book is both hopeful and helpful.

There is a wide continuum of addiction from consumerism, to sugar, to tobacco, to alcohol, to narcotics. As I read the book, it become clear that many of us have at least some degree of unwanted behavior in response to the chemical promptings of our brains. Hardcore drug addicts are not so very different from the rest of us. Given this context, Dr. Mate's critique of the war on drugs is very compelling. I found his arguments for decriminalizing (but not legalizing) drugs to be very persuasive.

Near the end of the book he offers a four (or five) part approach to treating addiction that seems very helpful in part because it promises no magical overnight results, but instead calls for lots of mindful work repeated many times. "Hungry ghosts" is a metaphorical image from Buddhism for those with appetites that can't be met; the idea that mindfulness, often cultivated by meditation, is the best way to treat these appetites helps bring the book full circle.
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Format: Paperback
Those who are looking for a brief look at addiction ought to look elsewhere; whatever else can be said about Gabor Mate's In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, it represents a lengthy, multi-faceted look at the reality of addiction.

Mate is a Canadian physician who practices medicine in one of Canada's poorest and most socially challenged neighbourhoods: Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Drawing upon his years of experience working with addicts, as well as his expertise in the fields of stress management and attention deficit disorder, Mate has produced a book that capably examines addiction from a wide variety of vantage points.

That having been said, it is only fair to acknowledge that I, for one, was not equally enamoured of the book's every section. Mate is at his strongest as a narrator; I was truly gripped by the lengthy sections of the book in which Mate is content simply to share the experiences--the oftentimes harrowing experiences--of the clients with whom he works. I was equally impressed with his refreshingly accessible account of the implications of new discoveries in the field of brain science, as scientists try to explain the processes that create and perpetuate addiction.. In addition, the book's final section--on "the ecology of healing"-- contained some genuinely fresh insights and some genuinely practical suggestions. These sections most certainly justify the book's purchase.

I found other sections of the book less satisfactory. Although I share Mate's antipathy toward the "war on drugs", I found his own policy prescriptions less than fully convincing. (Then again, I'm glad to have had an opportunity to grapple with his recommendations).
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