Inviting Mara to tea

I see this story most often attributed to Tara Brach – and indeed I first came across it in her book Radical Acceptance. I’m not quite sure of its origins. It could be a Westernized story with Buddhist roots, but it remains one of my favorite parables.

In this tale, Mara represents the negative emotions and experiences in our life. Buddha’s response to Mara’s efforts deflates the power and sway behind those negative influences.

Here is Tara’s telling of it:

“The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha fought a great battle with the Demon God Mara, who attacked the then bodhisattva Siddhartha Guatama with everything he had: lust, greed, anger, doubt, etc. Having failed, Mara left in disarray on the morning of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

Yet, it seems Mara was only temporarily discouraged. Even after the Buddha had become deeply revered throughout India, Mara continued to make unexpected appearances. The Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher, would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.

Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence, saying, “I see you, Mara.”

He would then invite him for tea and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two earthen cups with tea, place them on the low table between them, and only then take his own seat. Mara would stay for a while and then go, but throughout the Buddha remained free and undisturbed.”

“Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach

There is something truly empowering about changing your relationship with shame, fear, and other troubling emotions. While I’ve far from mastered the art, just making the effort has changed my life for the better.

A little over a year ago, my feelings of anxiety became debilitating. I had been through a lot by that point. When my doctor asked me if there was anything going on in my life that would cause anxiety, I briefly described the events of the last two years. She looked at me with wide eyes and said, “No wonder you’re anxious!” She prescribed short-term medication upon the agreement that I would see a therapist – and I did – and it was the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

I went into those sessions intent on conquering my anxiety; on eliminating it. But I quickly learned that isn’t how it works.

Life wouldn’t stop handing me experiences that trigger anxiety, but I had a choice when it did. I could change my relationship with anxiety. Instead of trying to kill, bury, or shove aside uncomfortable feelings, I could open up the door when anxiety knocked and “invite Mara to tea.”

I began to understand that these negative feelings weren’t something to be afraid of – even if they felt painful or terrifying or heart-wrenching. They’re merely information and like waves on the water they will rise and pass if I let them. But I have to make room for them to exist. I have to sit with my emotions, acknowledge them, and show empathy toward them and (especially) toward myself

In doing so, I learned a lot about myself:

  • I saw the impact of certain messages and experiences in my life and how they shaped my perspective, the way I thought and how I coped with day-to-day life – both in positive and negatives ways.
  • I saw the habits, behaviors, and cycles passed down through my family that I could embrace or break based on whether or not they were healthy.
  • I saw learned behaviors that helped me survive extreme circumstances as a child, but that no longer protected or served me as an adult – and that was okay. I could rewire that programming and teach myself new behaviors.
  • I saw that up until recently, I lived in a way that pleased others and took care of others, but often at the sacrifice of myself, my life, and my happiness. And I knew that needed to change.

All of these things played a part in my battle with anxiety. Yet when I put down my weapons and found compassion for myself and empathy for the things that led me to this place, I began to heal. It’s an ongoing journey, but one that I find gets better with every day.

My relationship with myself is exponentially better. The sway anxiety has over my life has significantly decreased. I’m living in the present more, and my relationships with certain people who left deep scars are slowly beginning to change and improve – not because they changed but because my own beliefs have begun to change the way I see them.

Like I changed my relationship with emotions, I’m learning to change my relationship with people. I’m learning to create boundaries to protect myself when necessary while finding ways to love around them – and from a safe distance.

I’m learning that life will never be “all happy” or “all sad.” It is a blend of heavy and light. And that’s part of it’s beauty.

I’m learning, and learning, and finding peace and healing as I go.

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