INVITING YOUR DEMONS TO TEA
My favourite tale in Buddhist mythology.
And a great metaphor for how we should face our challenges in life…
Practising mindfulness during tense and distressing times isn’t particularly easy, quite the opposite in fact. Our default is to run, distract or react in some other way. Whatever helps to make this thought, feeling or physical pain go away.
That’s been me over the past few months in Germany while I’ve been taking an honest and rather painful look in the mirror. Not physically looking in the mirror of course, but looking at my subconscious mind, the automatic self that runs my life. My unconscious, limiting thoughts and resulting behaviours.
I’ve been trying to change certain self-destructive habits for years, without actually addressing the underlying thoughts and emotions that drive my actions (or non-actions). And ooh let me tell you, it’s been an intense roller coaster ride.
I’ve been reading and journaling a lot. Quieting my monkey mind although it wanted to race during my morning yoga practice. Always coming back to my breath - thank God for pranayama.
Reading encouraging tales that this is human nature feels rather soothing during times of change and transformation, and so I’d love to share with you one of my favourite tales in Buddhist mythology. As it turns out, even the Buddha himself suffered from this.
I first read this story in Tara Brach’s outstanding book Radical Acceptance, demonstrating the power of a wakeful and accepting heart. Enjoy this uplifting little tale!
Inviting Mara to Tea
During the night of his enlightenment the Buddha fought a great battle with the Demon God Mara, who embodies everything that is malevolent in the world: anger, fear, lust, greed, pride...
The then Siddharta Gautama sat in the lotus position as Mara constantly attacked and challenged him, sending his beautiful daughters to seduce him, demons to attack him, and offering the riches of the world to sully him. All the while, the Buddha sat steady in deep meditation underneath the Boddhi tree. Having failed, Mara left in disarray on the morning of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
But the Demon God was only temporarily discouraged and continued to make unexpected appearances, even after the Buddha had become deeply respected and admired throughout India.
Ananda, the Buddha’s loyal companion, was always on the lookout for any harm that might come to his teacher and would report with dismay that the “Evil One” had again returned.
But instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would calmly acknowledge his presence and say:
“I see you, Mara. Come, let’s have tea.”
He would invite the Demon God and serve him as an honored guest. Offering Mara a cushion so that he could sit comfortably, the Buddha would fill two 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.
Does this sound familiar? Minus the happy end and enlightenment maybe :)
But what a great metaphor for how we should tackle our challenges in life. Seeing your own demons, acknowledging and embracing them without reacting - phew, not that easy. But it does get easier with meditation and practice of mindful awareness.
By saying “I see you, Mara” you are recognizing the challenge that has been presented to you. Sometimes it comes in the form of physical or emotional pain, sometimes it’s outer circumstances like a financial crisis. Heartbreak, cravings, illness, anxiety, fear or anger are human nature, we’ve all been there, and you can be certain that these challenges will make their appearance again.
Acknowledging, with an even and calm keel, that this storm has entered your life, is the first step to healing your wounds.
By saying “come, let’s have tea” you’re taking it a step further. You are holding space for your struggles instead of fighting them.
What you resist, persists…
When we go through particularly rough patches in life, our first instinct is to run from them. We try to find outlets in order to numb the pain. We party, eat, procrastinate, waste time online, make excuses, shop for things we do not need, turn into workaholics, or use relationships as a crutch for our suffering.
I’ve been through them all, but there comes a time when you have to learn to embrace the storms of being alive and ride the wave instead of fighting it.
Our habit of being a fair weather friend to ourselves - of pushing away or ignoring whatever darkness we can - is deeply entrenched. But just as a relationship with a good friend is marked by understanding and compassion, we can learn to bring these same qualities to our own inner life.
When Mara visits us, in the form of troubling emotions or fearsome stories, we can say “I see you” and clearly recognize the reality of craving and fear that lives in each human heart. By accepting these experiences with compassion, we can offer Mara tea rather than fearfully running away.
Every time you embrace your hurts and fears there is an opportunity to grow.
Life is not always easy, it ain’t a fairytale, but every challenge is a messenger. Listen to what it’s trying to teach or reinforce in you. Find your stillness in the middle of the storm, and be your rock to lean on.
Pema Chödron, the Tibetan Buddhist nun, says that through spiritual practice “we are learning to make friends with ourselves, our life, at the most profound level possible.” We befriend ourselves when, rather than resisting our experience, we open our hearts and willingly invite Mara to tea.