THE BLOG

Pema and Me and the Essence of Life

06/04/2013 06:00 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2013

This morning I woke up to the sound of rain and I felt blue. This thought came to me: "I am tired of my life. It's just too hard, the losses, living with the unknown..."

A month ago, I lost my beloved dog, Lucy, a beagle who had been with me for the past 13 years and was truly the most devoted companion I've ever had in my life. She and I had a bond that was beautiful and comforting.

Six months ago, I lost one of the finest people I've ever known -- a dear friend for over 25 years, my friend Emily. Everyone who knew her and loved her is still reeling from the shock of her death, and tonight I am going to another memorial service for her. She was one of those rare people who touched so many lives that it wasn't until she got seriously ill and we could see the breadth of devotion and love that people felt for her. There were throngs of people in the hospital corridor when she was in the critical care unit. We all walked around feeling lost and stunned when we realized she was not going to survive.

So this morning, between the rain and the feelings of loss, I felt myself slipping into a very dramatic "pity party." And then fortunately for me, every morning I do some kind of spiritually nourishing reading, and this morning it was Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart. I read that book when I was going through a divorce and at the same time my mother died. I probably have re-read it numerous times, but I always forget the lessons and find myself re-learning them each time I pick it up.

This morning the chapter I was reading is called "Nonagression and the Four Maras." It talks about the night in which Buddha was to attain enlightenment and he sat under a tree. As he was sitting there, he was attacked by the forces of Mara. In Buddhism, Mara are the tempters, the ones who distract us from our spiritual lives. Mara provoke the impulses that lead us to forget what's important -- to replace a more enlightened way of living with the superfluous things of this world.

So the story goes that Mara shot swords and arrows at the Buddha -- but then the weapons turned into flowers. In other words, the challenges that life throws at us, though they seem like they are swords and arrows, are actually important and beautiful lessons. Which isn't to say that life is all flowers and dark chocolate, but that our struggles are part of being alive and there is no way to avoid them.

The four maras are:

1. Devaputra mara. This involves seeking pleasure, the idea that, as Pema Chodron writes: "When we feel embarrassed or awkward, when pain presents itself to us in any form, we run like crazy to try to become comfortable." Our human habit is to try to seek pleasure or blot out the pain with drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, even chewing gum, or turning on the radio or television. I think what Pema Chodron is saying is that when we can become comfortable with whatever has presented itself in our lives, then we are learning the lessons we need to learn and find a source of wisdom.

2. Skandha mara. This mara is one I am very familiar with -- it's how we react when the rug is pulled out from under us. We go through a break up, we lose our job, we move, our whole world falls apart. How do we handle it? I experienced this mara a few years ago and I allowed myself to fall apart. And then gradually I put myself back together. It was a huge gift. "We can allow ourselves to be inquisitive or open about what has just happened and what will happen next. Instead of struggling to regain our concept of who we are, we can touch in to that mind of simply not knowing, which is basic wisdom mind."

3. Klesha mara. This mara is about feelings, and the best analogy I can think of is weather. Sometimes it's raining, sometimes there are clouds moving through the sky, sometimes it's a bright blue sky -- all of it is always changing. When we feel strong emotions, sometimes we panic because emotions are so powerful they can scare us. "We could just sit with the emotional energy and let it pass." That has always been challenging for me, I don't like feeling angry or scared, especially at 3 o'clock in the morning. But: "We do not have to consider this process an obstacle or a problem. If we can look at and see the wildness of emotions, we can not only begin to befriend and soften towards ourselves, but we can also begin to befriend all human beings and indeed all living beings."

4. Yama mara. This mara is most closely associated to our fear of death, but really, according to Pema Chodron, it is actually more a fear of life. "We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that's death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn't have any fresh air. There's no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we're going to have an experience we can't control; our house is going to burn down, someone we love is going to die, we're going to find out we have cancer, a brick is going to fall out of the sky and hit us on the head, somebody's going to spill tomato juice all over our white suit, or we're going to arrive at our favorite restaurant and discovered no one's ordered produce and 700 people are coming for lunch.

The essence of life is that it's challenging. Sometimes it's sweet and sometimes it's bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it all together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your life experience. There is something aggressive about this approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.

"To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest."

I think I should get a tattoo (if I were ever going to get one) with the four maras written out:

-- devaputra: seeking pleasure
-- skandha: feeling lost
-- klesha: fear of emotions
-- yama: fear of death

I need this to remind myself that all of life is to be embraced, that all experience is here to teach us important lessons, even the most painful ones, and all human beings struggle with this at some point in their lives -- it is part of being alive and connected to each other.

And I may also have to give up chewing gum.

For more by Robin Amos Kahn, click here.

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