The Four Maras.

In my last post, I made a big show about how I encountered an ugly situation occurring in my life, and successfully diffused it through meditation. An email was sent to me, from a person obviously suffering from sadness and anger, and all of it directed toward me. Like a bodhisattva warrior I stood tall, deflecting the arrows, turning them all into flowers. Feeling the anger, dispersing it, sending out love to the person suffering, as well as to anyone in the world at that moment suffering from anger or hate or pain. Afterwards, I floated off the cushion, “cured” of my ugly email through successful implementation of Buddhist tonglen and loving-kindness practice.

Except it was all a lie. Sure, in those first hours I felt lighter than air, cleansed of the situation. But slowly, assuredly, old habits crept back in as they tend to do. I felt so proud for having dissolved the hard edges of anger and turned them into flowers of joy. What I realized was I had sapped myself of every ounce of energy in the process. Rather than deflecting, I had absorbed.

So much so when I arose the next day I was completely useless. I spent the next two days in an emotional and physical tailspin, unable to do much of anything except get out of bed and shower, but unable to eat, unable to write, unable to do anything except obsess about why this person could possibly be so angry with me. What had I done? The possibilities, the thoughts, the stories we so often create, spun and spun around in my head like an out-of-control psychotic loom.

I was deep in the Buddhist notion of “mara” or how we react to obstacles in our lives. What do we do exactly? How do we fall apart? There are four maras, and much to my chagrin, I found myself acting out all four at the same time like some insane play.

Devaputra mara involves pleasure seeking. In other words, any time we feel uncomfortable, we run toward the nearest thing that will make us feel better whether it’s food, sleep, drink, shopping, whatever will help us forget we’re hurting. Let’s see, and a whole bowl of queso and chips anyone? Devaputra mara – check!

In skandha mara when pain occurs you automatically re-create yourself into the person you WISH you were. Paint on that smile girlfriend. Pretend it doesn’t hurt. Tie on that emotional girdle and protect your emotions. Tighten those strings. Gird your emotional loins! You don’t need any help, you’re fine. Bury those feelings deep, deeper. And yes, this was me all over in the wake of my incredible meditation experience. Instead of feeling gratitude toward the amazing MOMENT I had just had, I felt proud. And that pride turned into skandha mara. I was fine. I would be fine. All will be well – FROM NOW ON. No more pain, no more drama. You’d think I was Mary J. Blige the way I was walking around.

With klesha mara, strong emotions are the order of the day. You feel pain and because of it, you’re going to stir the pot, and stir it, and stir it, until what was a cup of turmoil is suddenly an entire seething cauldron of anger, hate, and pain. If you hurt, so is everybody else. No need for you to go it alone. No need to suffer in silence – shout it from the rooftops! Not only will it get you sympathy, but maybe your friends will light some torches and go on the witch hunt with you.

The next day, deep in devaputra mara, this is exactly what happened. I stirred and stirred, obsessed and thought and conjectured, until my story was so illogical and out of control anger took over. I lashed out in my mind, on the written page, to everyone and anyone who cared to listen. I was being hurt didn’t anyone care? Like a wounded warrior fishing for compliments on his valiant courage I was unstoppable.

Finally, there is the beautiful and talented yama mara, maybe the most diabolical coping mechanism of all. Yama mara stems from feeling if you just did all the right things, you’d be perfect. Exercise, meditate, eat right, get enough sleep, never be angry, volunteer at a shelter, pat your dog on the head every day, and never yell at your spouse. Except perfection doesn’t exist. And neither does security. You can do ALL of those things, but eventually things still fall apart. You change. You fall apart. Life is flow. Life is change. There is no security blanket to hold onto and until you get comfortable with the groundlessness that is this life, you will suffer.

Boy, is this me! I keep lists, or I used to, checking off the amount of time I spend writing, did I take my vitamins, did I call my Dad this week, did I exercise? And you know what? It never fails to make me feel bad about myself. It’s never enough. In the wake of my incredible meditation moment I once again thought, “Well, I just didn’t meditate LONG enough. If I sit for at least 30 minutes, it will be easier, I will be better, and this anger will all go away. For good.” Except it won’t. Because life isn’t stagnant. Life flows apart, and life flows together.

 So what did I learn from this experience? Holding on to maras is TIRING. It’s a struggle to put up roadblocks to your emotions (queso and Zappos) and very exhausting to wear that fake, painted smile. That much anger and hatred and stirring of the cauldron feels like an enormous weighted pack of lead on your shoulders, and the checklist? Who’s it for anyway? I’m learning to have AN UNCONDITIONAL FRIENDSHIP WITH MYSELF. Why do I need a checklist for that?

Thank god I had this experience of maras. What a blessing. What a moment to learn! Even though it was shocking to discover I do these things, now I’m AWARE of them. The more I read, the more I realize, awareness is key. It’s the whole shebang in fact. And this is way they call it meditation PRACTICE after all. Surrender is a wonderful gift. And life is about being comfortable with groundlessness. As Pema Chödrön says:

 “The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride. 

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.” 

You think I could get that tattooed somewhere? ;D

The teachings on the four maras can be found in Pema Chödrön’s book, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”

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