(Animation from GIPHY.com)
Why do we do what we do? There is no shortage of texts, theories and hierarchies pertaining to motivation, its purpose and its connection to survival and existence. “Why did the chicken cross the road?” “To get to the other side.” Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) breaks down human motivation laying out the elements that meet the “conditions within the individual that are essential and necessary for the maintenance of life and the nurturance of growth and well-being.” —Beata Souders, Positivepsychology.com. These needs can be simplified to three primary categories. Basic needs, psychological needs and self-fulfillment needs. The basic needs include physiological, the raw fundamental needs required to perpetuate our basic (biological) state, along with safety/security. Belonging, union, self-esteem and accomplishment. Lastly, the need for self-actualization, and achieving one’s “full potential”.
When it comes to the living, there are a great many reasons why we do the things that we do. Even the more heinous, deplorable of human actions can be explained using motivation. “Motives for murder can be condensed into four sets of ‘Ls’: Lust; Love; Loathing; and Loot.” —Peter Morrall, Murder and Society, 2006. Lust and Love, both connected to attempts at achieving psychological needs (or perversions of such): union and self-esteem. In the barbaric sense, two or more conflicting parties, whose disagreement reaches its pinnacle will lead to violence, murder/defeat being the accomplishment of ‘ending’ an enemy (the mentality that stirs before many homicides to this day. Also, according to Friedrich Nietzsche when it comes to acts of cruelty and acts of benevolence: “On the doctrine of the feeling of power. Benefiting and hurting others are ways of exercising one’s power over them”, thus a similar motivation could account toward contributing factors for significantly implicating another individuals existence. An expression of power, a sense of accomplishment, good or bad, irrelevant). Lastly, and likely most obviously, the motivation to acquire ‘Loot’ or wealth from murder is driven by the prospect of personal gain (among other variables).
Consider anything any living soul has ever said or done and with enough contemplation, you’ll soon discover a myriad of (possible) elements that may explain the motivation that led them to do whatever it is they’ve done.
But could the same be said for the (theoretical) dead?
When it comes to the basic understanding of ‘ghosts‘, many cultures share an idea regarding the incorporeal presence of what was once living, most often human (or animal), somehow lingering after death. (The Shinto Tsukumogami 付喪神 being one of the exceptions, an inanimate object believed to gain a ‘kami’ or spirit after 100 years. If the object is treated poorly by its owners, the item’s spirit will take on an insidious persona. Other exceptions might include the likes of demons, jinn (جن), ‘shadow entities’, essentially sentient beings of religion, folklore & myth that have never existed on earth in a natural mortal state).
*Haunting: “A belief in the lingering presence of an unwelcome and often malicious intruder.”
Fantazmë, прывід, φάντασμα, spøkelse, גייַסט, ուրվական,幽霊, Hayalet, Exspiravit, Ysbryd, 유령…
Mentioned above are just a few of the many ways in which human language from all over the world can express the word ‘ghost’. There are approximately 7,097 languages (according to ethnologue.com, 2018) and you would be hard-pressed to find one that did not have a means of expressing what we in the western world call ghosts.
—A Compendium of Fear, C. M. Johnson, 2019
The Ghost/Phantom/Specter, stuck between the mortal world and beyond, in such a predicament either by choice, accident or punishment. Ghosts can be regarded as ‘lost souls’, blindly following the motions of life into death, glimpsed by the living as a sort of memory or echo of what once was (The Stone Tape theory). Ghosts in this light could be interpreted as something closer to a residual recording of some kind, as opposed to a truly sentient existence, that reacts to new stimuli. Though this benign, disconnected understanding is not highly popular among paranormal communities, believers or culturally. *This could be because fear, entertainment and intrigue have aided in the dispersion of widespread understanding of ghosts. A campfire story involving an echo, a ‘record’ of a ghost simply isn’t as frightening as a thinking/reacting supernatural entity.
What could possibly motivate the dead to do anything, if it is done so at all? What could the dead possibly want, if the dead were capable of wanting? Is it will alone that governs the existence of specters, if so, whose will? Could a ghost end its own existence? What purpose, if at all, does the existence of ghosts (fictional or otherwise) serve?
One popular conceptual basis for motivation for the dead has been called unfinished business. Implying motivations, desires held in life can transcend into the afterlife. Spirits of the dead lingering on earth watching over their loved ones, committing precarious deeds of chance otherwise blamed on luck, fate, guardian angels or a variety of mythological creatures. In many cultures around the world, particularly tribal cultures, the spirits of the ancestors are said to bring fortune and guidance to the living. Motivated by the love they held for the families/group in life and a desire to assist in the preservation of that group/lineage. The ghost of a murder victim believed to linger until the murderer is brought to justice. The ghost of a missing person lingering until the biological remnants are discovered, and so on, sometimes aiding in their own discovery. Almost always universally seeking a poetic, tidy ending, without any loose ends. But why (as so many clairvoyants claim) would a deceased person fret about ‘the missing ring’, or ‘the lost inheritance’ or ‘Name needs to forgive Name’? Is there really so little beyond this world that such trivial affairs concern us into the beyond? Estimations suggest that approximately 109 billion homo sapiens will have died on Planet Earth, as of year 2020. The dead well and truly outnumber the living, but the presence of ghosts, alike their actions are not commonly detected. Despite some surveys suggesting that 42% of Americans believe in ghosts (The Harris Poll, 2013).
A great deal of interest and belief in life(?) after death comes from spirits and ‘unusual activity’ affiliated with haunted areas, who or which reveal themselves, to be seemingly bound to specific locations (for seemingly indefinite periods of time, if not vanquished, smudged, exorcised, ceremonially/ritualistically cleansed such as the Tibetan Exorcising-Ghost day ‘Gutor’ ༼དགུ་གཏོར་༽ a ritual of spiritual cleansing, or simply just persuaded to leave).
Many individuals who experience hauntings of various severity suggest that the haunting within of itself, is a means of willful sentient communication. Unique and targeted towards various individuals with differing enthusiasm, depending on the (psychic/spiritual) sensitivity of the victim (or countless other factors), or ‘energy’ of the spirit(s). More often than not, the will of said apparition is perceived to be, “get out”, “you’re not welcome here”, “I hate you”, threats, insults etc. Leading many individuals and cultures alike to believe the noticeable acts of a poltergeist, be them visual apparitions or physical interactions (moving objects, banging walls) are efforts to inspire fear in the living to achieve an end result. Weaponizing fear to either scare the living into staying away, inflicting harm through psychological duress, or because they gain somehow through the ordeal/connection (emotional/psychological energy absorption, etc).
It’s often suggested that the behavior (often malevolent) and the implications of such on the living are a means of the dead perpetuating an existence by proxy. Subject A) is biologically alive, Subject B) is the common understanding of a ghost or even an imaginary entity. If subject B) implicates A) by any means whatsoever (paranormal event/erroneous hallucination) B) exists, to some degree, through A). Essentially a parasitic form of existence, riding on the coat tails of another being’s bond with reality.
According to interpretations of Tibetan Buddhist concepts, an entity that gains its existence very similar to this parasitic method, is called Tulpa (སྤྲུལ་པ་). A ‘being’ formed entirely from the mind of a living mortal, that through careful meditation, cultivation, imagination, and possibly no small amount of psychic/supernatural ability, a spiritual (ghost-like) manifestation is willed into existence. Are there an infinite supply of ghosts scratching at the inside of our imaginations, slowly being willed into reality with every second glance, with every skipped heartbeat when we hear a muffled whisper in the dark? Slowly (and literally) creating our own incorporeal assailants?
“Tulpa is a concept in mysticism and the paranormal of a being or object which is created through spiritual or mental powers. It was adapted by 20th-century theosophists from Tibetan sprul-pa which means “emanation” or “manifestation”. Modern practitioners use the term to refer to a type of willed imaginary friend which practitioners consider to be sentient and relatively autonomous.”
The popularized sentiment of ghosts haunting their previous homes, territory, property, treasure is rooted in an idea that these deceased individuals desire(?) or seek to perpetuate a form of “ownership”, ‘control’ over the mortal world, into the afterlife. But the concept of ownership, proceeding mortal death (regardless of whether or not ghosts/spirits exist) is also implying that ghosts not only retain consciousness/sentience but despite the death of the mortal body, the ego remains (or attempts to sustain a part of itself).
“Physical materialism is the belief that possessions can bring release from suffering. They may bring temporary happiness but then more suffering in the endless pursuit of creating one’s environment to be just right.”
—Chögyam Trungpa, Lords of Materialism, c. 1970
Could a ghost’s desire to retain ownership over something in the physical world act as an anchor to simply linger on? I still own this place, the place exists, I haunt the place to assert my ownership, therefore I exist. Could existence, even achieving the faint echo of such, be the motivation? An eternal defiance of loss, standing on the other side of the doorway, attempting to fake it until they make it? Holding on to the memory of life, because it’s simply better than nothing, or the only other options presented to the dead?
“The underlying motivation for materialism is finding happiness based on the mistaken notion that one’s ego is inherently existent and a valid point of view. That is incorrect, and therefore the materialistic approaches have an invalid basis to begin with. The message in summary is, “Don’t try to reinforce your ego through material things.” The point of religion is to show you that your ego doesn’t really exist inherently. Ego is something you build up to make you think you exist, but it is not necessary and in the long run causes more suffering.”
—Chögyam Trungpa, Lords of Materialism, c. 1970
Is the desperate, seemingly futile motivation toward ownership, influence over the living (commonly through fear) merely attempts at retaining ego (self), because such creatures are actually holding onto the notion that ego “is something you build up to make you think you exist, but it is not necessary and in the long run causes more suffering.”—Chögyam Trungpa.
“To live is to suffer.”
From what most are led to believe at least from the popularized sentiments of ghosts and their common demeanor, is it possible that under certain circumstances, death (like life) is suffering also?
Unfinished business, may be the desire to hold onto the memory of the individual self, to simply suffer a little longer. Before letting go of the illusion of life itself.
“All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.”
―Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854
A ghost may be, simply because it has but two choices:
To be, or not to be.