We can have so many wise and skillful intentions in our lives—to be generous, to be patient, to be kind, and to live compassionately. Yet we can feel so frustrated when our intentions are forgotten or sabotaged. The greatest saboteurs of intention and attention are the veiling factors of craving, ill will, agitation, worry, dullness, and doubt. In the teachings, this collection of patterns is often referred to as Mara, the personification of the habit patterns that lead to creating and recreating the world of distress.
Each of these patterns has an extended family. Craving carries with it deep beliefs in insufficiency—in not being enough, not having enough, and not being good enough. Ill will has an extended family of impatience, frustration, jealousy, anxiety, and the need to be in control. Numbness is not just about falling asleep on a meditation cushion. Dullness, numbness, and dissociation arise when we don’t want to feel, or when we don’t feel resilient enough to be connected with the world, both inwardly and outwardly. Doubt carries images of a self that is incapable and powerless and needs certainty in an uncertain world. The Buddha speaks of these patterns as being at the root of our psychological and emotional storms. They are the root of generating the stories that too easily become our nightmares.
A meditative journey to the development of a well-trained heart and mind is a journey through these patterns. They are our classroom, our curriculum. This is where we learn to sustain attention and intention. We learn to be undiverted in our intentions to gather, to calm, to still, and to cultivate calm abiding in the midst of these patterns arising.
In a climate of collectedness, calmness, and stilling, the habit patterns of Mara cannot find a foothold in the mind.
This journey begins by developing an emotional literacy that knows craving as craving, aversion as aversion, restlessness and worry as restlessness and worry, dullness as dullness, and that truly knows doubt as doubt. We learn not to feed these patterns with thought. They don’t have an independent self-existence. When they are not fed, they begin to lose their power. The Buddha used the image that if you want a fire to keep on burning, just throw logs on it. If you want the fire to begin to cool, stop feeding it.
We see the ways in which story and narrative set up, reinforce, and deepen these patterns of reactivity. But when they are not fed, we see them arise and pass instead. We develop an emotional literacy, and we’re able to ask the question: What does this pattern need? What would be helpful? Is it a greater cultivation of contentment or kindness? Is it a greater sense of energy? Or is more investigation needed?
Calming and stilling are the willingness to commit to just being wholeheartedly present in one moment at a time, to commit to one breath, to commit to the sense of our feet touching the ground. To know this, we begin to train the mind. We begin to train the heart. We give greater authority to our intentions than to Mara. We give greater authority to our intentions than the mood of the moment or the mental state of the moment.
Samadhi does not uproot Mara. The Buddha was very clear on this. But samadhi blindfolds Mara. Samadhi blindfolds Mara in the sense that in a climate of collectedness, calmness, and stilling, the habit patterns of Mara cannot find a foothold in the mind. Samadhi creates a space to investigate and understand those habit patterns.
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