Buddha and Mara showing their love for each other
The Expedition Within
Meditation by Dr. Lorin Roche
When Buddha sat down to meditate, it was just his lonesome self and the Bo tree. The perfect yoga retreat. No one around for miles. Inner peace at last! Good to go, right? What could go wrong? But no, various monsters had to come over, find his tree, and start attacking him. Mara, the Tempter, really had it in for Buddha, and unleashed his gorgeous daughters to tempt our hero with Lust, Fulfillment, and Regret. Buddha saw through that and kept meditating, so Mara sent a storm and bolts of lightning. When that didn’t work, he unleashed armies to shoot him with arrows and spears. Buddha said, “I know you, Mara,” and the weapons turned into flowers in midair, and fell in a graceful shower around him. Mara then poured burning coals over him, but Buddha absorbed the energy and his inner fire grew brighter. When that didn’t work, Mara morphed into Dharma, the God of Duty, and told him, “Young man, the world needs your attention. You have duties. Jump up and do them.” Buddha simply smiled - this is my duty, to sit right here.
Buddha was demo-ing meditation as epic, an inner adventure story. Buddha had a Desire - he wanted to find an end to suffering. This was his Call to Adventure. And there were Obstacles, so many that it looked impossible. But finally, after undergoing many Ordeals, he became enlightened, and then he Returned to daily life with the Elixir of insight and inner peace. Although Buddha did not travel physically, he moved in awareness, on a profound inner journey, antaryatra. He did not wall himself off from the temptations and attacks. Rather, he welcomed every bit of energy flying at him and met it with a corresponding inner attitude, antarmudra (inner gesture). At the height of the crisis, Buddha simply touched the fingertips of his right hand to the ground,
in what is called bhumisparsha-mudra (earth-touching gesture). In this way he connected with the source of life and transformed attack into blessing. This one meditation was a legendary journey, a story that has been told and retold for thousand of years. The movie poster would read, “It was a battle against impossible odds - one man’s quest for enlightenment.”
When you or I close our eyes to meditate, the rhythm of the story is similar. There is a Call to the Inner Adventure. We have a Desire or intention to find inner peace, and to function at our best in life. Obstacles arise - Mara has now morphed into the song of the iPhone, a to-do list, the call of the outer world. “Don’t take a minute to center yourself before you rush out to do things! There isn’t a minute to spare!” There is an Ordeal, for when we open up to the inner world, we are shot with guilt over all the undone chores, poked by sharp thoughts and impulses telling us to jump up and do this or that.
There are surprising reversals on this journey, because relaxation often does not feel like relaxation. When tension in the muscles starts to let go, we become aware of what we were stressed about. Sometimes we have to relive the tension as bizarre little mental movies, often with agonizing detail, before releasing completely. Relaxation is the gateway to a weird universe of sensations as the flow of blood washes fatigue out of the muscles. Even though releasing stress is an important and healing phase of meditation, Mara tries to sabotage us with a very effective line: “You are having too many thoughts, so you aren’t really meditating.” A 20-minute meditation can feel like an ordeal, and we are often tempted to bail on the whole enterprise, give it up. When we let down our guard and face all those nagging thoughts that have been clouding our minds, sometimes they pour rain on us, sometimes lightning, sometimes they mysteriously disappear in an instant. Within the general rhythm of the inner adventure, there are infinite variations. No one knows what is going to happen from one moment to the next in meditation. This unpredictability keeps us on our toes, our attention riveted and engaged.
The man who sat down and leaned against the Bo tree was not yet Buddha. His name was Siddhartha, and he became Buddha, the Awakened One, (buddha in Sanskrit is awakened, awake) because he woke up in the process of facing Mara. Each attack inspired him to connect more deeply with life within and around him. In a sense, without Mara, there would be no Buddha. Mara is just everyday life, with its calls and demands, and in meeting them, we have the chance to wake up. The greater the obstacles, the greater the need for us to join up with our inner powers. As we live and love, we face inevitable challenges that demand our full vibrant self.
When we continue attending, breathing with each impossible obstacle that arises, we awaken. Siddhartha met each obstacle so totally that he transformed it into a strength. Every burning coal brightened his inner flame. Mara became the blacksmith, hammering Siddhartha into Buddha. Then Mara became the jeweler, crafting Buddha into the impeccable diamond whose luminosity permeates the world. In the larger view, Mara was not the enemy, because no Mara, no Buddha.
So don’t be discouraged if you are lying there on your mat in Shavasana, and want to jump out of your skin or run fleeing from the room. One of the definitions of myth is something that never literally happened, in the past - but is always happening now. The play of Mara and the Buddha is happening now, in the world inside. Whenever attention turns within, we are on the threshold of the inner journey, antaryatra. This is why reading novels and epic poetry, watching movies and plays, and listening to myths, is good for your meditation. Stories help alert us to what is always happening right here, in this moment.
It’s an adventure, every time we close our eyes. Mara keeps developing new lines. One of his favorites, that has been working well for him is, “Yeah you meditated, so what? You didn’t make your mind blank so it doesn’t count.” Mara also works through fear, making you afraid of your own thoughts and emotions - “If you don’t meditate, you won’t have to feel.”
Don’t let Mara sabotage your meditation. Just smile, “bring it on,” and touch your fingers to the Earth.
*I am not a Buddhist, so I guess my main qualification to write this is that I am in ignorance, since I live on Earth.
* “Young man, the world needs you” - this is a paraphrase from Joseph Campbell
If we look at the rhythm of adventure in meditation we see: