We spend much time in our lives failing to live fully, going through the motions. Being mindfully present allows not only clarity, but also invokes a state of peaceful oneness, providing the opportunity to be of benefit to all others. We are constantly lured away from this state by enticements that are powerful, insidious and almost irresistible.
About 2,500 years ago, the Buddha sat down under a tree and made the commitment to sit in that very spot until he became enlightened. After a while, Mara came to the Buddha to tempt him away from his quest for enlightenment.
In this story, Mara is seen as the personification of influences that entrap our minds, frustrating our efforts at cultivating clarity, equanimity and mindfulness.
Mara set about attempting to draw the Buddha from his task, and each time the Buddha resisted Mara, the greater the temptations became. The first was an army of fearful demons and beasts who, upon their assault, became powerless, their weapons losing their points and turning into flowers. The second was a bevy of beautiful women intent on seduction, but the Buddha easily turned them away. The last attempt consisted of Mara challenging the right of the Buddha to the boddhisatva’s seat, claiming that he had done all that Buddha had done, calling upon his minions as witness. The Buddha merely touched the earth in response.
You see, as each of the temptations toward distraction is thwarted, they become more irresistible. They begin with fear and proceed to the temptations of pleasure. The last attempt at derailing the clear mind is the most tempting of all. It is an appeal to pride, and an assault on human insecurity. The touching of the earth was the Buddha’s way of calling on the earth as witness to the truth of his experiences. A less confrontational way of dealing with a challenge to one’s capabilities has yet to be invented.
In it, we can find the clues to deciphering distraction, determining when an experience that appears as a genuine gift of insight, a glimpse of clarity, or a window into an improved understanding has merit. Sometimes that which feels good can be growing experiences, but so often they are cleverly disguised hindrances. We are all gifted in the art of self-delusion.
Fear can be a powerful motivator for checking out from our present circumstances. It can provide a litany of demons and armed foes that we can use to dissuade us from making decisions that are uncomfortable or cause us to challenge our assumptions. Most of these enemies are those of our own imagination, and, as in the story, by facing them calmly, allowing the emotional charge associated with them to dissipate, we become fearless and they become powerless over us. Fear has its place, but cultivating self-consciousness about its validity is crucial.
To call the next set of enticements the temptations of the “flesh” would be obvious, but it’s more; it’s about the distractions of the world at large. Yes, there’s food and sex and comfort, but also there are the elements of the everyday that can occupy us, taking us out of being present.
Planning, worrying, remembering and obsessing are all distractions that tempt us away from the goal of being completely present. They take us into a past that’s gone, and a future that doesn’t exist. This is the temptation of distraction. Distraction can look like fantasies or like your to-do list, one diverting and pleasurable and the other giving the illusion of achievement or progress. Neither is inherently bad, yet neither is beneficial when it takes us away from what’s important and right in front of us right now.
The most enticing draw from a state of openness and equanimity is our ego. It is the need to prove our worthiness, competence and accomplishments, to oneself and others. It is the voice that justifies our actions because they reinforce our beliefs, or when we intrude into the choices of others, believing we know best. The fear of ego-death provides great motivation to develop rationalizations for our behaviors.
This is the last, great temptation. Only by being vigilant can we fully live. You see, Mara is with us always.