Thoughts on Pema Chödrön’s Non-Aggression and the 4 Maras

All the maras point the way to being completely awake and alive by letting go, by letting ourselves die moment after moment, at the end of each outbreath. When we wake up, we can live fully without seeking pleasure, and avoiding pain, without re-creating ourselves when we fall apart,

Pema Chödrön

I’m not a Buddhist. Or maybe I am.

We are what we embrace. If we embrace the problem than we are the problem. If we embrace the solution we are the solution. If I embrace shame do I not become my shame? If I embrace the lie others graft onto me do I not become what others believe?

If I embrace labels am I not that label?

If I embrace the writings and lessons of Buddhism does that make me a Buddhist?

I have found in Pema Chödrön‘s book, When Things Fall Apart, a language describing my experience with loneliness, pain, loss, confusion, and grieving coupled to an excellent description of the unskillful behaviors and choices I have historically embraced to avoid, cope, manage, control, and navigate the underlying fears, trauma, losses, and shames.

The book is written in a concise language that touches me in a way I find both scary and relieving.

Chödrön’s book has helped me recognize my unskillfulness for what it is. It is devoid of the cliche shaming, emotional manipulation, religious moralizing, criminalizing judgment, self-serving labels, or the cultural taboos often poisoning conversations around change. It is devoid of armchair and pop culture psychology.

The focus of the book is on awareness, learning, healing, and moving forward. It has consistently provided a language that allows me to talk about my experiences in a more skillful way. It is not a replacement for my therapist but it has become an essential, and ancillary, building block for understanding. I find the book is reinforcing the sound principles of therapy, relationship philosophy and dynamics I’m learning.

Frankly, I’m shocked to discover my responses to trauma, stress, fear, loneliness, and anxiety is universally consistent with being human.

Every page is full of facepalm moments as I realize I’ve done this and that and that and this and more of those things. I really had no idea how badly I was conditioned to live life.

As I read more about Buddhism I have found myself adopting aspects of the language and symbolism that more accurately describe the internal and external obstacles governing my unconscious and unskillful responses to pain and fear. I cannot hope to address a lifetime of emotional and physical abuse based on what I already know to do with the emotional and symbolic languages I have been taught and possess.

The chapter entitled, Non-Aggression and the Four Maras, outlines the four ways we are attacked and how we respond in ways that perpetuate the cycle of suffering. The result is we find ourselves responding to injury by cutting ourselves off from what heals us and thereby are injured over and over and over.

In a more practical language, I would describe the Maras as the internal obstacles that cause me to lose my center and focus as I default to angles of approaches aggressively seeking ways to avoid being uncomfortable. “The forces of Mara describe the nature of obstacles and the nature of how human beings habitually lose confidence in our basic wisdom minds,” writes Chödrön.

It is akin to flying from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis via London so I can avoid a sixty-three minute layover in Chicago’s O’Hara airport. In the process, I expend a huge amount of resources relative to objectives in order to avoid an obstacle on my journey. I do this because I don’t want to sit with sixty-three minutes of impermanent discomfort.

As a result, I aggressively create new obstacles as I seek ways to avoid obstacles and in the process suffer unforeseen consequences that result in still more complex and self-created obstacles…and that is the fear (mara) driving infidelity. It is the engine of all betrayals. Almost everything about my betrayal was driven by a desire to avoid what needed to be done because I was afraid of my discomfort and the discomfort of others. With each act I created a cascade of obstacles that had to be diverted repeatedly. Each diversion requiring a more aggressive lie, secret, or smokescreen than the last. The weight of which grows exponentially over time.

Today, I am trying to sit with these obstacles and listen to the antagonistic forces innate to the human experience with curiosity and not aggression. Perhaps in this process I can turn these obstacles into experiences that enhances my life instead of creating new conflicts.

The Four Maras

“The Maras provide descriptions of some very familiar ways in which we try to avoid what is happening,” adds Chödrön. After reading and thinking about the four Maras and the way they are described I see myself repeatedly leverage these unskillful approaches in my personal life.

Essentially there are four Maras. I’ve listed them below using the briefest of oversimplified descriptions followed by their traditional labels. I’m choosing not to use the Buddhist label only for my own clarification.

It helps to define words I don’t know with language I do know for comprehension. Don’t quote me as there are layers upon layers of nuance I’m sure I am minimizing. This is a big elephant and the only way to eat it is one small bite at a time.

  • Seeking Pleasure (Devaputra) Mara
  • Status Quo (Shandha) Mara
  • Emotional (Klesha) Mara
  • Death (Yama) Mara

Below I’ve talked about my experience with each as I currently understand.


Seeking Pleasure (Devaputra) Mara

"When we feel embarrassed or awkward, when pain presents itself to us in any form whatsoever, we run like crazy to try to become more comfortable."

“We are all addicted to avoiding pain,” writes Chödrön.

When my ex-wife and I had a problem I ran and ran and ran. I isolated, withdrew, and avoided saying to her, “You hurt me.” After all, a core lesson of being a man I was taught was, “a man doesn’t hurt else he is weak.”

Instead, when struck with the feelings of pain, edginess, anxiety, and the queasiness that Chödrön describes I ran. I ran to work. I ran to bed. I ran to the shower. I ran to food. I ran to Texas. I ran to counseling. I ran to anyplace where I didn’t have to confront K with “the heat of anger rising, the bitter taste of resentments” I carried towards the things that hurt.

I ran to avoid the conflict, not with her, but with my own fear of the conflict.

That was never her fault.

K is a good person but we all have things, but how I responded to her was my choices and not her fault.

The reality is I sought out pleasant things and places. I chased things and people that would make me feel important, safe, needed, wanted, and heard. I chased things that balanced out my pain with pleasure. Which is the point. “I feel bad! Maybe this will bring me pleasure. Or this. Or this. Or this…”

I chased experiences that would provide “a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment.” I did this to avoid the things that make me uncomfortable.

There will be of course, those that will simply point at infidelity and claim it is the Alpha and Omega but if we want to heal and grow we have to abandon the cliches, self-serving labels, over-generalizations, and martyrdom entitlements. Infidelity is not the actual Thing that caused so many problems but simply the Way of the Thing. Betrayal is a way to avoid the very Thing that hurts.

I’m done blindly chasing pleasure…or if I do, I am committed to admitting it for what it is and not what I want it to be. “In this way we can discover that what seems to be ugly is in fact the source of wisdom and a way for us to reconnect,” writes Chodron.

Status Quo (skandha) Mara

“We’re in no man’s land: we had it all together, working nicely, when suddenly the atomic bomb dropped and shattered our world into a million pieces.”

If devaputra is chasing pleasure to avoid suffering than skandha Mara is how we respond when we experience the loss and the rug is yanked out from under our entitlement, expectations, and desires. It is the way we feel when we “have lost everything that is good.”

Or perhaps, lost everything we judge as good.

Here’s the thing, I might be happy because the status quo works for me. I have the job, house, car, money, and relationships I want. It is mine.

I might think the people around me are happy with the status quo, I think everything is doing fine because I am getting what I want. I like things the way they are and therefore it never occurs to me my partner, child, friends, boss, or clients need or want something else.

And if they have the audacity to change the status quo intentionally or accidentally I can become defensive, sarcastic, contemptful, judgemental, sullen, vengeful, and angry. I am not simply grieving the loss but I am grieving the loss of the status quo and all the entitlement, expectations, and desires tied to the status quo.

I might even try to coerce, bribe, punish, or convince them to do things my way. Not because my way is better but because it is better for me. We punish people for mistakes, failings, and doing what they need to do for themselves because they upset the status quo. They upset my entitlement. They upset my expectations. They dumped my apple cart of desires.

When they yank the rug out from under me I become indignant, angry, frightened, and self-righteous. I exclaim, “How dare they do this to me! How could they be so selfish to take this away?!”

This is my indignation at the inconvenience of it all, being forced to take responsibility for my well-being, live my life in a different way, to confront my expectations, arrogance, and rigidity. Confront my resistance to change.

No one wants to do that. We demand change even as we resist it.

Until this experience I would never have given this much thought. Too often I probably operated under the “This is good so it must be good for you too” entitlement. This is how I close my mind and heart to living, loving, experiencing, and exploring life.

This is the self-created, self-defined, and self-serving obstacle.

I see over and over how I am in love with suffering. How I embrace the very patterns that create so much discomfort and chaos because I fear change more than I fear the pain I am living in. I embrace the status quo because to change demands I look in the mirror at my own reactions, choices, decisions, arrogance, and contempt. Change requires I shine light onto the very injuries and traumas that have been driving my actions.

Historically, I chase stability, predictability, the status quo and in the pursuit justify lying and secret keeping as a way not to address the difficulties of life and it’s ever constant change. Lying and secret keeping is one way to maintain the status quo.

“Our whole world falls apart, and we’ve been given this great opportunity,” writes Chödrön. Yet our habitual reaction is to “want to get ourselves back–even our anger, resentments, fear and bewilderment. So we re-create our solid, immoveable personality as if we were Michelangelo chiseling ourselves out of marble.”

One consequence of my actions is my life fell apart. I valued the status quo more than my integrity, the relationship, the people, or my truth.

Like Michelangelo’s David, I only want people to see what is best of me and so I chisel out an image. I don’t want them to know where I screwed up, failed, carry fear or shame. I want to hide what I judge to be flaws in the marble. At the core of my life experience is a belief that to fail and make mistakes is to be unlovable, vulnerability makes you weak, and to be safe is to hide those things people will use to hurt you.

Through that lens, if my motivating ambition is to be loved, and I live in constant terror of abandonment and rejection, of loneliness and death, everything I have done makes complete sense.

Everything.

Of course, that doesn’t excuse my behaviors or choices but I cannot address the broken windows in my life if I simply keep covering them up with curtains while spending my resources trying to fix up someone else’s house to prove my value.

Changing relationships changes nothing if I do not change.

Emotional (Klesha) MAra

“We could just sit with the emotional energy and let it pass. There’s no particular need to spread blame and self-justification. Instead, we throw kerosene on the the emotions so it will feel more real.”

Throughout this experience what I thought about how I felt had far more weight to it than what I actually felt. If I felt something it must mean I had to do something. “A simple feeling will arise, and instead of simply letting it be there, we panic,” observes Chödrön. I would throw kerosene on the feelings.

For example, when this came to a head, out of grief and a sense of entitlement C went and spread lies, rumors, innuendo, and self-serving half-truths about my behaviors. It was her act of self-preservation. Once I recognized her choices, like mine, for what they are I could forgive her. Hurting people hurting people is the root of all betrayals. That doesn’t make it personal unless I take it that way.

Which for a while I did. Plus, I’m Irish so I often am in love with both my suffering and words.

However, when the Flying Monkey Squad began their twisted quest to discredit me in my hometown, online, and hushed whispers I felt anxiety and panicked, throwing kerosene on what was simply their self-serving gossip. I engaged with people not interested in helping but in being variations of C’s new heroes. Every response to them was my internal need to defend myself and confront the willul and ignorant misrepresentations of my actions and my life with C.

As a result, I brought “out the bellows” and found myself habitually fanning at the internal flames being stoked by other damaged people. I kept the emotional pains alive by engaging in the drama instead of seeing their actions, and mine, for what they were: hurting people hurting people.

I tried to fix my feelings by shouting down externally what was happening internally. “Instead of just sitting in some kind of openness with our uncomfortable feelings” writes Chödrön, I stoked disharmony by giving them energy and time and in the process I perpetuated the impermanent. I weaved my “thoughts into a storyline” giving “rise to bigger emotions.”

Perhaps love as defined culturally is simply the storyline we tell each other. The meanings we apply to indigestion or food poisoning. A mutually beneficial conspiracy theory. “While we often accept the statements bubbling up from within the river of incessant internal chatter as being factual,” writes Dr. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, “most are actually a complex mixture of evaluations and judgments, intensified by our emotions.”

As such, I imagined intentions and meanings to my feelings were there was none. Tara Brach says “The mind secretes thoughts like the body secretes enzymes.” Much of the mind’s secretions are applying intentions and meanings to feelings. I was conditioned that everything has to mean something.

So there is no confusion, my responses to these outsiders was never attempts to justify my betrayal, secret-keeping, or lies. I never blamed C, K, or my Family of Origin for my behaviors or actions. I knew then, just as I know now, what that was about. As such, I also know C choosing to end the relationship was a reasonable consequence.

However, every response to the nonsense being pedaled by men and women that were never in our relationship, in our bed, or in our life was a response to the shame I carried. All they were doing was echoing “the uncertainty, disappointment, shock, embarrassment” I shamfully carried throughout the three years of shitheadery in this chapter of my life.

For example, when one of the Monkey’s publicly suggested that, as a unredeemable person, I “had no place in society” and I “should just disappear” I took it as a drunken bully’s attempt to encouragement suicide. Which frankly, it was.

However, he was simply echoing the message Shame was already telling me: “Kill yourself.” My shouting into the void was for my benefit not theirs and simply inflamed the drama creating new. Instead of sitting with what was mine, I grafted the ill-intentioned opinions of others onto this experience. As a result, I took the emotional “queasiness and uncertainty of being in no-man’s land and enlarge the feeling” keeping it “inflamed, hot.”

This approach to my emotions only prolonged my suffering, and the drama. Partially because I am inexperienced with grief and partially because it allowed me to still feel C in my life.

Only last October when the Good Doctor helped me cut the mental strings attaching me to C was I able to disengage my thinking from the emotions, and start a more honest conversation about my relationships with C.

It is only once I began to “just sit with the emotional energy and let it pass” did I begin to find peace and allow myself to feel joy and happiness. Only when I abandoned blame and self-justification did I begin to deny the emotional fire oxygen and fuel. Only then did the emotional heat begin to subside.

This sounds overly simplistic but it’s not. I recognize it is only through a real heartfelt vulnerability and hours and hours of grief and emotional counseling have I become conscious of how unconscious my emotional and thought choices are. How often I fuel the fires in order to give them purpose. I see how I turn the hot fire of emotions into a double edged weapon that when let loose cuts those closest to me and myself.

I don’t want to do that anymore…or more realistically, I at least want to do it less often.

“By becoming aware of how we do this silly thing again and again because we don’t want to dwell in the uncertainty and awkwardness and pain of not knowing,” writes Chödrön, “we begin to develop true compassion for ourselves and everyone else, because we see what happens and how we react when things all apart.”

Avoiding uncertainty, awkwardness, and the pain of not knowing is why I emotionally hoard the past and the future. It is why I work so hard to give meaning to what I feel. It is why I create the stories around my feelings. Chödrön writes that this awareness of how my approach perpetuates injuries to myself and others “is what turns the sword into a flower. It is how what is seemingly ugly and problematic and unwanted actually becomes our teacher.”

Death (yama) Mara

“Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death.”

There may be some embellishment here.

I’m a perfectionist.

I overthink. I overplan. I want things to be secure. Too often I want to know how to do things before I do things. Once I start it has to be perfect. I once installed a flapper on a toilet and one problem led to another.

I wanted it to be done perfectly and not simply correctly.

And in this process I kill the moment.

An outcome of this experience is I see, like C, I am chasing security and certainty. As such, I froze my relationship with C in emotional amber in an attempt to ensure safety and security. “Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death.” writes Chödrön. “It doesn’t have any fresh air…we are killing the moment of the experience.”

I told C on more than one occasions, she was perfect for me. I didn’t need her to be anyone other than who she was. I thought we liked to travel, meet people, see the world, and explore among other things together. I thought, despite it all, we were better together than apart. I thought she understood me. I thought she wanted some of the same things I did.

I say, “I thought” but it’s all a guess. A story I weave to make sense of my grief. In C’s silence there is only guessing.

All I’ve ever wanted is to be accepted and loved, to be seen and heard, and to be part of a team or tribe. To belong to a family.

Maybe it is all anyone wants.

However, that has never been my path. “The essence of life is that it is challenging,” writes Chödrön, and I found conformity to these things challenging. I struggle with boundaries, fear of missing out, expressing myself, and patience. I struggle with conformity and subjective and arbitrary rules.

Perhaps its the INFP in me. Perhaps it is genetic, a long shadow, or generational trauma.

My grandmother had a plaque in her office of two buzzards sitting on a cactus overlooking a cowboy in distress. One buzzard turning to the other saying in response to some implied question, “Patience my ass! I’m going down there and killing something.”

And in this lesson from my grandmother, Helen, perhaps this is why I feel compelled to do something about how I feel. A drive to fix whatever is injured instead of simply giving it time and space to heal. Perhaps this I why I treat emotions like a jigsaw puzzle to be perfectly finished instead of as a painting with layer upon layer of color with no two people ever seeing the same exact shades.

In this way I have too often, like the buzzard on the plaque, gone off and just killed love, relationships, intimacy, vulnerability, and the occasional marriage because I couldn’t simply sit and wait for an emotional fire to cool. “There is something aggressive about that approach to life,” adds Chödrön, “trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.”

This is the lie we tell each other about love: if it doesn’t flow easily there must be something wrong with it. “It” being however we define it. “Sometimes it is sweet. Sometimes it is bitter,” Chödrön reminds her readers.

I did my part to kill my marriage. I did my part to kill my Partnerships with C. I have to own what is mine and true about me and my choices. Their choices simply add a layer of color offering a shade of perspective and understanding.

In the process of trying to keep things perfect and secure I ended up relying on deceptions and lies and thereby killed vulnerability, intimacy, safety, and security. The fucking things I longed for in my relationship with others. Instead, through my choices, I brought death to the things I wanted most. As C said to me upon discovery, “You didn’t keep me safe.” Through my choices I cast myself adrift.

“Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together,” adds Chödrön. And behind every lie and secret was an attempt to hold onto what I had: a family, love, acceptance, a community, friendships, and a place I called a home for the first time in my adult life.

“So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.” I feared losing all of the things that I loved about my life with my Partner and held on to them so tightly I killed it.

Being Human

“Trying to run away is never the answer to being a fully human being.”

“Running away from the immediacy of our experience is like preferring death to life.” I’m not sure when I started to chose death over life. I know it hasn’t always been that way.

I can remember time after time that I stood in the fire.

When the lawn dart broke the windshield and my peers scattered. When my classmates tortured the fish to death. When my brothers mouth started bus stop fights and I took the beatings for him. When a Marine Corp buddy bit the ear off a drunk in a bar fight and flushed it down the toilet. When I spoke up at village board meetings. When my grandfather died and my family abandoned me to stand alone at the eulogy because it was hard for them. When I stood with my best friend when we got jumped at the mall and everyone else ran. When C’s resentments caused her to stop going to the copper studio.

On and on.

In each one of those moments I owned my integrity, my life, and my truth.

When did I stop living and submit to Shame and Fear? When did I stop exploring life and latch onto a need for security and safety as a drowning man to a raft?

Chödrön writes, “We can let ourselves feel our emotions as hot or cold, vibrating or smooth, instead of using our emotions to keep ourselves ignorant and dumb.” Frankly, I’m tired of pretending to be ignorant and dumb. I’m tired of living dead.

I thought I could hide from the consequences. I thought I could avoid the pain for me and for others but the bell cannot be unring once struck. I thought I could avoid the hard things by focusing on just the blue skies instead of the storms. A uniquely nad naively modern attempt at bending the Universe to our will.

Chödrön reminds me, “Trying to run away is never the answer to being a fully human being.” I don’t have to go anywhere to run away. I simply have to ignore what it is I am experiencing and remain ignorant and dumb.

I want to run.

The idea of sitting with my loneliness, fear, loss, and grief makes me want to run to someone, something, and somewhere. Anywhere other than where I sit.

Frankly, I’m terrified.

However, I’m finished running. I’m finished dying. I’m finished waiting for death to catch up with my breathing. I will not do this perfectly but I will do this differently.

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