Category Archives: Mara

If you’re struggling, this will be music to your ears

In the last post we looked at the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion the Buddha identified as the source of dukkha (suffering). I offered some questions to help you investigate these three in your own experience. You may have had some aversion to this task, and I imagine many turned away. If you took the time to do it, perhaps you made an enemy of what you found, activating feelings of regret, remorse, shame or anger.

Maybe this additional teaching from the Buddha will help put things into perspective:

Having lived his life at both extremes — the lap of luxury and near starvation — Siddhartha Gautama knew them both to be empty of insight. So after six years of self-deprivation he gave up the ascetic path. After accepting some nourishment (to the horror of his fellow ascetics), he sat down with renewed intention and meditated under a ficus tree for many hours. Mara (illusion) tried hard to distract him by activating greed, aversion and delusion: all manner of delights and frights. As they appeared, he found that he could dissolve these lures by simply seeing them for what they were, illusions, and by acknowledging them without rancor. “Mara, I see you. Mara, I know you.”

We do know the delights and frights in our own lives that distract us and push our buttons. (You might think of those buttons as having labels on them: GREED | AVERSION | DELUSION.) That simple act of noticing is key to our practice. When we get caught up in a fantasy, can we just recognize it instead of shaming ourselves? Can we simply say “Greed, I see you.”? It’s just greed. It’s just aversion. It’s just delusion — lifelong companions we are growing weary of entertaining and tangling with. Then we come back to the fresh aliveness of the present moment, just as it is, anchoring our awareness in the breath and other physical sensations that arise and fall away.

When the lures of Mara finally faded away because Siddhartha was firmly present in the moment, he got up from the base of the tree.
In this awakened state, he listened to a woman playing a lute. This prompted an insight that made all the difference in the way he would practice and what he would teach. He noticed that the strings on the instrument were neither too tight nor too loose, in order to play sweet music.
Just so, he thought, when we strive too hard or don’t bother trying, we suffer. Denying ourselves creature comforts or over-indulging in them both cause us to suffer. Being mindful in the moment we can sense when we are attuned to life. We and those around us benefit when we are not living ‘off key’, when we are not so stressed out that we’re ‘breaking the strings’ or so lethargic that there’s no music.

It would be very easy to take the teachings of the Three Poisons and over-react or turn away in discomfort. Instead we can find what the Buddha came to call The Middle Way. We notice greed, aversion and delusion in our lives without falling into the blame and shame game. This teaching enables us to investigate without causing additional pain. Keep the lute in mind as you explore the thoughts and emotions that arise in your experience.

The Three Poisons combine in toxic ways
Identifying a specific poison may be difficult. For example, in class one student noticed she was experiencing comparing mind but she couldn’t assign it to one of the poisons. This is because all three poisons are present. Greed shows up in envying someone else’s life, looks, accomplishments, etc. Aversion shows up in the negative opinions we have about ourselves by comparison. And delusion shows up because we are deluded in believing that someone else’s life is somehow perfect and that they don’t suffer as we do.

As you give yourself the opportunity after meditation to notice thoughts and emotions arising, look for those Three Poisons in their infinite combinations. No need to make an enemy of them. Just recognizing them is enough — just as the Siddhartha recognized illusion, greeting it by name.

Living Lightly

166760main_s114e7138The other day when I picked up my granddaughter from kindergarten, she told me that her teacher had taught them about ‘a powerful force that holds us to the earth.’ Her eyes were wide with Newtonian excitement. ‘You mean gravity?’ I asked. ‘Yes!’ she answered, delighted to share this wondrous secret.

That night I had a dream of living without gravity, everyone floating around, dancing in space.  But then there was the ‘stuff’. In this dream world, to have stuff you had to wear a harness with strings attached so your stuff wouldn’t float away. The more stuff you had, the more strings were attached and the longer they had to be. So, although they didn’t weigh you down per se, they made it more difficult to get around because you’d get all tangled up in the string and spend your time struggling to untangle it. And if you were surrounded by all your stuff floating tethered to your harness, it was difficult if not impossible to get close to anyone else. All the joy of weightlessness was lost. Forget about doing fancy flips and loop de loops!

Back on Earth I deeply appreciate how our bodies adapt so well to the level of gravity our beloved planet offers in support. Yet when we are tethered to a lot of stuff, it can easily get in the way of authentic joy. And it’s not just physical posessions that entangle us and create baffles and buffers against connection and interaction. It is also our accumulated and often unexamined judgments, assumptions, beliefs, addictions, distractions, desires and fears. We each wear the harness of an identity. All the precious-seeming ideas we have about who we are as unique individuals keep us from being as free and authentic as we might otherwise be.

Our exploration of letting go and our dedicated practice of meditation show us how to cultivate spaciousness. We might think of this as a gravity-free zone where sensations, thoughts and emotions float through, each one arising and passing away of its own accord. In this spacious field of awareness we greet whatever arises with friendliness and compassion but without the need to succomb to whatever lure it might hold. (Remember the story of Buddha under the Bodhi tree greeting Mara, the temptor taking many forms to lure the Buddha away from his wise intention to awaken to the present moment. He would simply say, ‘Ah Mara, I know you.’ And Mara’s guise would evaporate.) Our greatest fear can be met in this way. Without pushing it away, hiding it or denying it, we can simply allow whatever arises to drift away of its own accord. If it is persistent, we can ask ‘What do you have to tell me?’ Our willingness to pay kind attention (without getting caught up in its story) will often be enough to gain a valuable insight. — Aha! and thank you. — Then what was hanging out is often able to soften, release, dissolve or just float away. But even if it doesn’t depart, our more open and skillful way of being in relationship with it means that we can live our lives more lightly.

The Art of Inner Conversation

Over the past weeks we have been exploring the characteristics of the inner aspects or sub-personalities that we have for so long mistaken for who we are. We have looked at how they are based in fear so that their intentions to protect us are tight, finite, constrained, skewed and distorted. We have looked at the greed, aversion and delusion – the three poisons defined by the Buddha as the cause of suffering – and how these aspects of self are expressions of them. And last week we looked at how they combine fear with our natural power and turn it into something toxic and potentially dangerous.

I have mentioned before the energetic quality of these aspects. Their voices have urgency, a caffeinated hyper-drive that is insistent, using the words ‘should,’ ‘must’ and ‘have to’ instead of acknowledging that we have infinite choices and free will in every moment. These voices are very much time-based, thus the urgency, and goal-oriented, wearing blinders to anything but what they fear will or won’t happen.

Meditation gives us the quiet spaciousness and clarity to notice these aspects and to distinguish them from the voice of our inner wisdom with its vaster view of the infinite nature of being. Listening to this voice gives us wiser options, but always as options. It brings our attention to the habituated pattern nature of our behavior and lets us see the beauty and bounty of each moment.

When I first encountered this inner wisdom in my adult life, I was a little concerned with this seemingly ‘don’t worry, be happy’ lackadaisical view. It activated fear-based aspects that were terrified that this vaster view wasn’t looking out for my survival. After all, from the infinite view, I am simply energy transformed into matter in a state of impermanence. What does it matter what happens to me? And that’s absolutely true in the grand scheme of things. Yikes!

Yet I have learned that when I am really listening to inner wisdom, it is looking out for me. Just as it encourages the plant to grow to be its fullest expression, it wants me to be the fullest most natural and joyful expression of life. So if I am about to step off the curb into traffic, it wouldn’t say ‘Oh well, easy come easy go.’ It would say, ‘Pay attention, be here now.’ Being present in this moment is my greatest chance for survival in all situations. The fear-based aspects might scream at me to act quickly in a situation, but I may be so distracted by their yammering that I might do the very thing they are trying to warn me against. Think about a time when you’ve had an accident of some kind. Would being fully present have made a difference? When I tripped and fell last summer on a hike in the mountains, it happened right when I stopped being present, when I switched from focusing on where my foot was placing itself to looking forward to resting and having lunch. And down I went, face to face with hard granite. That’s a hard way to learn a lesson to be present! How many hard lessons do we need before we pay attention to our inner wisdom instead of the urgent voices that take us out of this moment with their greed, aversion and delusion?

Last week we talked about power: How these fear-based aspects can subvert, compress and misuse it, resulting in harmful actions, and how when acknowledged as an expression of our true nature, our Buddha nature, arising from the loving-kindness and compassionate nature of being, our power is a force of creativity, joy, clarity, honesty, and equality.

Since all the students in my class currently happen to be women brought up in a time when power was not something a woman was encouraged to express, to say the least, I feel it is important to bring up the discomfort that was felt in the room when I began to talk about power. The blog version is much shorter, so if you only read that, you probably didn’t feel it the same. That discomfort as I talked was a clue to how much in the shadow power lives in most of our lives. The discomfort was further illuminated in discussion, when one of the sangha members said that she had just been on a kindness retreat and had felt a surge of power within her, something that felt quite counter to what she thought she was there to experience, so she appreciated the timeliness of our talk.

Later in the week I was visiting with a friend, part of the Open Embrace Meditation blog-reading sangha. She had a challenge that called for her to use her innate creative power, but she was locked in an inner battle with the voice that said that to make her needs known would be selfish and that kindness is inherently passive. She said she thought the Buddha taught to always put everyone else’s needs before our own. This is such a deeply entrenched belief that she held it even though she has read and listened to all kinds of wisdom teachings telling her to ‘give from the overflow not from the well.’ How often we carry two conflicting beliefs at the same time. How do we do this? Well, if we can recognize that we have a number of inner aspects operating on different wave lengths with different fear-based concerns, it’s easier to understand how we can hold conflicting beliefs. The aspect that is most fearful and most urgent will dominate and win the arguments, and that’s what was happening in her case.

The Buddha spoke extensively of kindness and generosity. Those of us who were brought up to be not just courteous and considerate but subservient to men and devoted to meeting the needs of parents, children, friends and neighbors, have to be very careful how we hear this kindness teaching. Listen carefully! Hear deeply! The Buddha wasn’t suggesting we be doormats! If the Buddha didn’t talk that much about power, it’s because most of his students had no problem being forthright when it came to asking for what they wanted. While his students were not exclusively male, they were certainly predominantly male, and any teacher creates curriculum appropriate for their students’ needs. This is not to say that men are inherently unkind and self-serving! But culturally men are encouraged to use their power, while women historically have been discouraged from open displays of power. Younger women have a hard time believing the things we of earlier generations were taught in order to subvert our own natural power in order to make men feel strong, smart and powerful. Our mothers didn’t necessarily teach us we were powerless. They just told us our power had to be suppressed for the greater good. We were taught to be ‘the woman behind the man.’ It is much easier to see in retrospect how this was dishonest and disrespectful to both men and women.

Inspired by how the Buddha spoke to the specific needs of his students, I am addressing what I see as the needs expressed by my students and readers. Kindness is not passive! It is active and empowering! And when we have a voice telling us to put up with something that is unacceptable, that is harming us in some way, then it is not a kindness to ourselves to tolerate it. Remember that in all our kindness practice, the Buddha taught to send metta first to ourselves so that we can attune to that powerful force of love that is our Buddha nature. In this way we are giving infinite deeply-rooted kindness, not a finite grumpy fear-based so-you-like-me knock-off brand of kindness.

Being kind to ourselves first – true kindness and compassion, not shallow fear-based giving our greedy aspects everything they desire – is not selfish but wise. How can we serve the world if we are operating on empty? What are we really offering if we are coming from the finite fearful place that says we ‘should’ be kind? When we hear an inner aspect speaking, we need to notice it, get into dialog with it, understand its fears and work with its needs. But we don’t for a moment need to believe it to be right. It is shallow-rooted, tensed, clinging to its fear-based perceptions of the world. It doesn’t serve us, though it thinks it does. Because it is trying so hard to serve what it sees as our needs, we can find a way to be compassionate to these aspects without indulging them.

With this insight into the nature of these inner fear-based aspects and how their voices differ from that of our wise deeply-connected nature, we have many clues to begin to recognize when we are acting from our true nature and when we are following the ill-informed fear-based advice of inner voices that we may have always believed to be who we are.

I hope each of you will take the time, especially after your daily meditation practice when the energy is quieter and more spacious, to really listen in. I hope you will use these clues to notice the difference between your access to inner wisdom and your cast of fear-based characters. These habituated patterns of thought and emotion need noticing. They need harnessing. They need respect and appreciation for their intention, but they need to be herded by a wise shepherd, and that is you when you align with your true loving nature.

As an exercise in noticing, take a few minutes now to sit with your thoughts and emotions. When you find a thought that grabs your attention, write it down. Then look at it and see if your can tell where it is coming from. Is it fear-based? Is it speaking from greed, aversion or delusion? Is it time-based, expressing a sense of urgency? Is there an emotion it is displaying? Does it contain a threat of some kind? Is it full of judgment? Is there a tensing up in the body that you notice happening when it speaks? Breathing into the area in the body that tenses up can make this voice more approachable, calming its fears.

Or perhaps this thought grabbed your attention because it has a very different quality, and you can take this time to listen to that small still voice within, now that the other voices are still or at least less activated.

Perhaps you’ll notice both arising. Write them both down. Perhaps your inner wisdom says something, but then an inner aspect speaks up to slap it down. Your inner wisdom is not threatened by the fear-based heckling. Instead, it’s an opportunity for exploration.

In class the students said they were comfortable with simply sharing what fear-based voice they heard during our few minutes of quiet. They were given the opportunity to share the dialog they had with it, or to have me play the role of their wise inner voice in response to their sharing of what rude thing an inner aspect said to them. It was a very rich sharing.

It’s important to remember that our inner cast of characters may come and go but they are always available for cameos! It is just another fear-based aspect that believes that somehow awakening to being present will wipe the slate clean of all the habituated patterns of a life time. A powerful awakening will do that for a time, but even the Buddha had his cast of characters, his ongoing dealings with Maya, the tempter, in all its form.

But with the practice of awareness we are better able to see these aspects and recognize their true nature, just as the Buddha said, “Ah, Maya, I know you,” we say, “Ah, fearful aspect, I know you.” I have mentioned before that it is useful to give pet names to each aspect that we get to know. This is not to make them more real but to make them more easily recognizable when they crop up again so we don’t have to go through such a lengthy process each time. See an example of an inner dialog.

When we see and acknowledge them, imagine how wondrous it is for a frightened inner aspect to be known, to be acknowledged. Our inner aspects crave for us to awaken and take charge! They are like small children running amok because the babysitter wandered off with her boyfriend and the parents haven’t come home. You can feel their sense of thrill and terror. So we attune ourselves to the deep-rooted loving wisdom that is our true nature, and we come home to mind these inner aspects, to discover their concerns and to respectfully and responsibly negotiate solutions that have integrity.

Moderation is often the result of these inner dialogs. Needs get met but in a sustainable way. The Buddha talked so much about The Middle Way that finds a path between the extremes of austerity and over-indulgence. Finding of the Middle Way is an ongoing inner negotiation between the deeply rooted wise inner voice and the shallow rooted fear-based aspects. This is addressed in any discussion of Wise Effort. The fear-based inner aspect is trying so hard to do the right thing that it comes out all wrong. Why? Because it’s not about goals or how difficult it is or how much we sweat! It’s about sinking in to access the universal wisdom, and that’s a result of being here, now and relaxed, which requires intention but not tension. All the fear-based aspects are tense!! Uptight!! Freaked-out!! Attuned with inner wisdom we feel a compassionate affection for these voices, but we no longer let them lead us.

So, OUT OF KINDNESS, we lead our lives from that deep alignment, that sense of balance, empowerment, aliveness and joy.

Freedom to See Fear & Its Manifestations Clearly

Recently we discussed how fear is believed to be useful, but in every case we could come up with it was either useless or harmful. We talked about how it is contagious and is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I shared a little bit of how through the regular practice of meditation we eventually relax into a spacious fearlessness that is not acting out as a daredevil, seeking danger, but is opening to a deeper truth about the nature of the world and life itself.

In my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, I talk a lot about fear, saying that all negative emotions arise out of fear, as all positive emotions arise out of love. This book was written in deep meditation, and people reading it resonate with it because it rises up from the same source of universal wisdom that they themselves have access to when they are able to quiet down and listen in.

This book was written in the early 1990’s, before I began to study Buddhism, so do not take it as a transmission of Buddhist philosophy, which in general I try to share here with my own take on it. But Sylvia Boorstein, Buddhist teacher and co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, many years ago called this book ‘jargon-free dharma,’ so apparently it isn’t un-Buddhist! Which makes sense, since when I came to Spirit Rock and the Buddhist teachings, it was like coming home.

I haven’t read or heard anything in Buddhism to suggest that fear is the root of all negative emotion, but there is a valuable Buddhist-style question contained in the concept. Whenever a negative emotion arises, we can ask, “What am I afraid of?” and find a very useful answer.

Last week when discussing the self-fulfilling nature of fear, one student mentioned a jealous boy friend from her distant past. His jealousy was rooted in his fear of losing her, his fear that he was not enough in some way to keep her. So it’s easy to see that jealousy is rooted in fear.

It’s not surprising that so many of us feel we are not enough somehow, given how saturated our lives are with messages that tell us we could be so much more if only we would use this or that product. We remind ourselves that these messages are not about us but simply corporate efforts to reap profits, but it is very challenging to let go of the belief that has been so long instilled. When this message comes from an individual, if we pause to think about it, we realize this individual has been duped into believing that they are not enough, and are trying to make themselves enough by the unskillful means of making us feel unworthy in comparison.

As we come into more steady consciousness, these kind of messages are seen for what they are and begin to fall away, or at least loosen and clarify. When we see clearly, we see that we at our core are fully acceptable, worthy of being loved, and if we open to it, we can sense that there is a universal loving-kindness that loves us, with a love that does not have to be earned. When we can fully relax into that understanding, quite quickly we can see our patterns of behavior and belief that have been disrupting our lives and probably the lives of those around us. We are able to see these patterns of behavior as misguided attempts to gain what we believed we were lacking. We can see they arose out of a fear that we were not enough.

Once we access that spaciousness, that Right View (see post of 1/14/09), then when these left-over beliefs and behaviors show up again, we can acknowledge them, as Buddha acknowledged Mara the tempter again and again under the Bodhi tree the night of his great awakening. “Oh Mara, I know you.”

“Oh pattern, I know you,” we can say to an addiction, a reaction, an erosive belief. “I know you, and in knowing you I am not afraid of you. I know you, and in knowing you, I know you are not me. I know you, and in knowing you, I can be curious about you. I can sit with the experience of you and learn all your ways, so that I will recognize you as Mara even sooner next time we meet. Not so that I can run the other way, but so that I can greet you by your true name.”

Whatever we encounter, we can remind ourselves that this is not the only ‘voice’ present for us. When I fall into an old habitual pattern of circling around to graze in the kitchen, I can open to the inner spaciousness of my mind and recognize that there is more than one ‘voice’ present, more than just the “ooh, ooh, yummy, yummy, gimme gimme” chant. I can take a relaxing breath, slow my pace, and open to an inner wisdom that questions whether I am really all that hungry for food right now, whether I wouldn’t find a walk in the garden or a phone call to a loved one even more satisfying. The first time I recognized that there was not a monologue but a dialog inside me, I was amazed. It opened such possibilities for breaking the chain of my habitual behavior. But that wise voice is so quiet and calm, I really do have to slow down and listen in.

When we feel a negative emotion arising and we think to ask, ‘What am I afraid of?” we have a tool for coming in to the present moment. We can sense into the body to see how this fear is manifesting itself. When we find a particular sensation – a tight chest, jaw or a pain somewhere, for example – we can let that sensation tell us how it feels. It may speak of sadness, loss, anger, depression, confusion, impatience, judgment, envy, jealousy, etc. Whatever emotion it tells is fear mixed in with story. As we sit with the sensation and the emotion, keeping our attention as much as possible in the present moment, the emotion gets clear of the story and appears as the pure fear it is.

Once we have touched pure fear we can hold it in an open loving embrace, just as we would hold a terrified child, with great kindness and compassion. If we try to nurture ourselves when we have only touched the sadness or the anger, we will most likely get involved in the story they embrace. Instead of simple kindness and compassion, we will probably use excuses, explanations, accusations, justifications and dramatic plots. None of this is useful. It just entangles our thinking mind in a tighter knot. When we relax, breathe, and sense in to the physical sensation of the fear, we can give it our full loving attention and acceptance in a quiet spacious deeply loving way that is transformative, without judgment or expectation.

Given the unconditional love of metta, fear may soften its grip on us and pass away. For now. We accept that this is a life long condition, awakening to what is true in this moment frees us enough to see clearly. But if we believe, ‘ah ha, now I’ve conquered fear,’ we get sucked into yet another delusion, believing ourselves to be immune to fear in all its forms. Instead it is more useful to be open and curious to whatever arises, to develop meditative techniques that enable us to more easily access the present moment, where we see clearly. We remember that Mara visited the Buddha all through his life, even though he was awakened. His awakening was not being free of Mara, but being free to see Mara in all its many aspects, and to hold it in an open embrace of curiosity and compassion.