The Voices of Mara

A pith description of the Buddha’s whole teaching goes something like this: “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering.”

I don’t know if it is vanity or ignorance (or both) that make us imagine: if I am struggling, I must be doing something wrong. It is madness to blame ourselves for the inevitable snags and struggles we encounter. Yet we do.

The end of suffering does not mean the end of unpleasant experience. As one of my old Zen teachers used to say, “The whole of our practice can be summed up like this: not making things worse.” Life is already hard enough. We don’t need to pile on.

In a wonderful text titled the “Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow,” the Buddha explains that while being struck by an arrow is painful, we make it worse by “resisting, worrying, grieving, lamenting, beating our breast, weeping and become distraught.” We add a second arrow.

The first arrow is inevitable; life is ripe with difficult experiences. But the second (or third, or twentieth), arrow, he suggests, is optional. It is possible to train the heart-mind to turn toward, face and feel our inevitable difficulties directly, rather than plying ourselves with worry, resistance and self-judgment.

In the story of life of the Buddha, the slinger-of-arrows is personified in the figure of Mara. Mara attacks the ardent seeker Siddhartha as he sits resolute, under the Bo tree, taunting him with visions of beautiful women (greed) and decaying bodies (aversion.) But the soon-to-be Buddha refuses to budge. As arrows sail toward him, he halts each one mid-air with the potent power of mindfulness, declaring, “I see you Mara!” And with these words Mara’s arrows miraculously transform into lotus flowers, showering him with scented petals.

Mara’s final trump card is doubt. After his arrows fail, he slinks up to the seated yogi and whispers in his ear: “Who do you think you are?” It’s a great question; one that cuts right to the heart of the teaching. Who do we think we are?

But Siddhartha doesn’t bite. Instead of trying to defend himself, he reaches down with his hand and touches the earth. Instead of arguing or explaining, he connects and confirms his inherent belonging.

In our modern, psychologically-infused vernacular, Mara is known as the voice of the inner critic or judge; the energetic force that evaluates, belittles, threatens and cajoles in the (misguided) effort to maintain homeostasis, and to keep us safe and small. Getting to know and unhook from these voices is essential if we want to stretch, grow and awaken. This is true for us both individually and collectively. Each of us and all of us need to learn how to meet the voices of Mara with savvy, humor, persistence and ferocity.

How can we bring mindfulness to voices that shame and diminish—whether they are directed inward toward ourselves, or cast out toward those we label “other?” How can we harness the power of awareness to transform arrows of bias, oppression and hatred into fragrant flowers? And when we find ourselves in the grip of fear or doubt or divisiveness, what does it mean to reach down and touch the earth? How can we learn to welcome and even celebrate all the cast-off parts of ourselves, and the many diverse communities of people we encounter?