Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars. Khalil Gabrain
The greatest cause of suffering in life is our inability to experience what is happening to us with an open and accepting heart, and this is never more true than when we face a serious illness or injury. Even a minor ailment like a cold or the flu puts most of us in an angry, defensive state. We fight the symptoms with a slew of medicines and then rage at our bodies if they refuse to recuperate on command. And if our illness or accident is life-threatening or disabling, our anger is compounded by fear: fear of pain, fear of helplessness, fear of loss, fear that we will never get well and—most importantly—the fear of death. Uncertainty overwhelms us, and our instinctive reaction is to push it away—push it all away at any cost. Human nature kicks in, and we defend with all our strength against the emotional pain.
In her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach relates the legend of Siddhartha and his confrontation with the god Mara. In Sanskrit, the word “mara” means delusion, and Mara represents the delusional attachment humans feel to our “stories,” our entrenched beliefs about ourselves and our need to defend them at all costs. The story goes like this:
After many years of searching for enlightenment, Siddhartha had come to rest under a Bodhi tree when Mara approached. The god first attempted to entice and seduce the young man, who, rather than running away or rising up in anger, simply sat calmly with the knowledge that Mara’s threats and enticements were a delusion—a product of his grasping mind. Mara’s attacks came in many forms, each one more violent than the last, and continued unabated throughout the night. Still Siddhartha remained calm, meeting Mara’s attacks with acceptance, compassion and an open heart. By morning, Mara had retreated, and Siddhartha emerged from the battle victorious. He was now The Buddha, “The Enlightened One.”
When we face overwhelming physical or emotional pain, we are confronted by Mara at his most intense. Our minds work overtime, trying to convince us that we must fight back or run from the assault; yet the path to enlightenment—to freedom from suffering—lies in acceptance of our feelings and our reactions–being present with an open and loving heart. It is immensely difficult to do, but it is the only way to free ourselves from the terrible suffering we feel when we resist.
Begin your journaling session in the usual way, by taking three deep, cleansing breaths. Then, before you begin writing, sit quietly for a few moments, allowing your feelings to rise to the surface of your awareness. Each time you inhale, set an intention to let “Mara” into your heart, and with each exhale, acknowledge your fear of what he might bring. Try to imagine yourself, like the Buddha, in an attitude of calm repose, watching with tenderness and compassion as your fears and insecurities unfold. Try not to push anything away; just let whatever comes up for you enter your awareness, and respond as fully as you can. This may be very difficult, so go only as far as you feel comfortable. The purpose of the exercise is to open your heart, not overwhelm your defenses. STOP if it gets to be too much.
When you are ready, write in your journal about what you just experienced. Be as specific and descriptive as you can without over analyzing or interpreting what you feel – intellectualizing is just another way of distancing yourself from the pain, so avoid it if you can. Simply tell the truth and accept that “this too shall pass.”
“The great gift of a spiritual path is coming to trust that you can find a way to true refuge. You realize that you can start right where you are, in the midst of your life, and find peace in any circumstance. Even at those moments when the ground shakes terribly beneath you—when there’s a loss that will alter your life forever—you can still trust that you will find your way home.” Tara Brach