the god-shaped hole

One of my favourite writers, Anne Lamott writes often about ‘the god-shaped hole’ inside us – the  abyss inside us which yearns for spiritual connection or deep acceptance but which we will fill with almost anything else….drugs, drink, food, social media, hoarding stuff, being too busy, seeking peer or parental approval, hollow ambition, procrastination….we throw all manner of things into the ‘god-shaped hole’ but none of it fills us up.

This idea stems from an earlier notion posed by the philosopher Pascal:

‘What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.’

While in the 21st Century, many people do not believe in ‘God’ in the sense which Pascal meant it (a monotheistic parental god) – I think people still yearn for spiritual fufilment, although they might have different names for it (i.e. acceptance, contentment, happiness, connection…) and still often look in the wrong places for these things.

There is a similar notion in Buddhism of ‘the hungry ghost’ – the idea being that there is a ghost inside us who is always hungry and no matter how much we feed it, it always needs more, leaches away our energy…it is insatiable, animalistic…it haunts us. It is a paradox, because how can a ghost be hungry? A ghost is ephemeral, dead…but that represents the negative and repititive mental patterns we have which are illusory, not based in reality, and yet we can’t help repeating…like a stuck record.

Where is all this metaphysical musing headed?

I have been thinking a lot about the ‘god-shaped hole’ and ‘the hungry ghost’ in my own life. I have been thinking about what I fill myself up with…and I wrote a little bit the other day about social media. I also fill it with other ‘junk’ in many forms.

This is not about being a puritan, though because…

the god-shaped hole is a tricky thing – sometimes I get tricked into thinking ‘positive’ things will fill it. I thought that finally publishing a book might fill it – it didn’t. I thought teaching yoga might fill it – it hasn’t. In fact, teaching yoga has put me right in the path of an avalanche of self-doubt and all that I battle with in myself. The god-shaped-hole does not get filled with external achievements or with other people.

Therein lies the conundrum of the hungry ghost, the god-shaped hole. To quiet the hungry ghost, I have to stop feeding it. To fill my own god-shaped hole, I have to sit, really sit, BE with, see and accept all that is ‘wrong’ and messy and difficult and tricky about myself. I have to stare down the abyss at it and find a way to be okay with it. Only when I accept the frayed bits of my character will I be able to co-exist with them, without seeking to achieve them away, or numb them out, or seek external approval which will never seep in, until I can give myself the acceptance I seek from others.

I think all my life I have been invested in a notion of the future me – the future me is a better me, a more evolved me, a new me who has left awkward difficult me behind. Of course this is ridiculous – as the old hippy saying goes ‘where ever you go, there you are’. I am trying to fully accept messy, tricky old me. I am trying to let go of a notion that being me will get easier, somehow. I am trying to get clear about what I am doing in my life for the real, integral me…and what I am doing in my life for the god-shaped-hole, the hungry ghost.

Does any of this make sense?

Do I sound crazy? (It’s ok, you can tell me…)

What do you feed your hungry ghost? & What do you throw into your god-shaped hole?


23 thoughts on “the god-shaped hole

  1. Oh yes, I know about this one. I eat, I hoard, I “treat myself”, I over-work, over-commit. You are not crazy or we both (all) are


  2. You don’t sound crazy at all. You sound sane and aware. You’re right – you do that thing you’ve always wanted, you still won’t become totally fulfilled, or a different, happier, more whatever person. I think you need to find the right amout of wanting. Too much and you’re unhappy, too little and you stop growing. I don’t think the wanting is all bad.


  3. What an interesting post, Helen. It’s given me lots to think about. I think you are absolutely right, total acceptance of self is important. Living in the moment helps too – I have a friend who teaches mindfulness meditation and she has helped me a lot.


  4. I hear you Helen. I have tried being busy, living up to the expectations have of me etc etc. I guess I have a great deal of difficulty with “I am enough”, yet I don’t have difficulty with that notion in other people. There is some part of me that thinks ‘being’ is not enough, I have to be ‘doing’. And yet when I sit quietly even for 10 mins a day I am so much better for it. I don’t have the answers, but am very much aware of that ‘god-shaped hole’ in me.


  5. I sometimes wonder if the notion of ‘happiness’ is just another means of oppressing populations, and forcing us to consume more than we need. Did it get invented to keep us in line around the time team-based religion lost its sway? Other fauna and flora seem to do quite well without happiness. No doubt, many vertebrates can experience ‘pleasure’. I expect even trees have some notion about their overall state of health. But humans have to take it one step too far.
    Of course, mere happiness is not good enough for Calvin:


  6. great post helen. the ‘god-shaped hole’ is something i have been thinking about a lot lately, but i didn’t know what to call it!
    you are not crazy, but thoughtful and wise.
    the god-hole idea has a lot of resonance for me as i had a very religious upbringing and never dreamed i would become pretty much an atheist, as i am now.
    where i am at right now (in trying to fill that shape) is living my everyday life in the kindest and most artful way possible, and this is a challenge that i will never tire of. at least, i can’t imagine it!


    1. You’re certainly a big inspiration to me (and many others) of how to live artfully every day, Melissa. I’m sitting here drinking tea and listening to Feist and feeling pretty lucky. Yesterday when I wrote this post I felt a bit wretched. It’s funny how much our human moods can swing in the space of a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour…. x Helen


  7. reading this again, what i really like is your talking about nothing filling the hole. i felt less alone with my hole, more able to bear it. for me, it seems best to think that there just isn’t a self at all and maybe for my ego that’s the hole -or whole.


  8. Wow – this really speaks to me right now. I’ve been doing a lot of writing and soul searching about that god-shaped hole, though I didn’t know what to call it til just now. Up to now I’ve been shoving food into it – for years. When I think of the food I’ve wasted…

    Now I’m on a completely different diet for medical reasons in order to heal an autoimmune disease, and I’m trying to use this healthy eating and the work it involves (preparing a lot of homemade fermented foods, for instance) as something sacred and beautiful for myself. Rather than, you know, moaning and weeping over the foods I can no longer eat. I feel myself connecting with myself for the first time in a long, long time, and this is somehow leading me to more teachers, more lessons, more fulfillment. Beautiful how the universe unfolds, isn’t it? I’m healing so many parts of myself.

    And wouldn’t you know, I’ve lost almost 10 lbs in the first couple of weeks, too. Go figure. 🙂


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