Last week I was all about creating happiness, then Mara visited me. Mara is the demon god [in the Indian tradition] in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories. At some point in life, we all go through difficult times. What do we do when things are difficult and there is nothing we can do to change it – we can be angry and want to take revenge. But the Buddha said holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Can we be with difficult situations as well as with difficult emotions that surface? If we have to be with a difficult situation, we might as well have tea with it. There is a story of a yogini meditating for years in a cave. Then the demon god Mara visits her. There were horribly violent sounds and the cave shook. The yogini continued with her meditation undisturbed. This makes Mara even more angry and throws every possible terrifying tricks within his capability. Eventually the yogini got up and started a fire to make some tea. This made Mara even more violent and he asked her what she is doing? The yogini replied, you have been here before and you will be here again, you might as well have some tea.

Even the Buddha was not spared by Mara. When Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree and meditated on the night he was to become the Buddha, Mara slung arrows at him all night. Mara is essentially the god of the Shadows, and his arrows were manifestations of all the unawakened thoughts and emotions of Siddhartha’s human experience – anger, lust, jealousy, shame, embarrassment and self-doubt. With each arrow that cut through the air towards him, Siddhartha brought awareness and compassion to it. The arrows, when received by his compassionate awareness, turned into flowers and fell at his feet.  By the time morning arrived, there was a sea of flowers surrounding the now awakened Buddha.

Even after he became “enlightened,” the Buddha discovered that Mara would show up from time to time when he was teaching. Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

When Mara visits us in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories, we can say, “I see you, Mara,” and clearly recognize the reality of fear that lives in each human heart. By accepting these experiences with the warmth of compassion, we can offer Mara tea. Seeing what is true, we hold to what is seen with kindness and recognize our pain and fears. We are able to see Mara and his arrows before they inflict their wounds.

The more practice we get at being still, the more easily we are able to witness the noise of our minds and not identify with it. We are the ones observing our minds. This is the journey of enlightenment. Enlightenment is not a specific experience to have, but rather, a process to undertake.

A student approached his Zen master and asked, “How do I attain enlightenment?”
The master replied, “Chop wood, carry water.”
And what do I do after I attain enlightenment?”
Chop wood, carry water.”

Enlightenment is not the end but another step on the journey. May your journey continue.