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in order to grow, we must learn to stay

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From When Things Fall Apart, the four maras (sometimes called demons) are four ways we habitually lose sight of the present moment, ourselves, and reality:

  1. Devaputra Mara, or seeking pleasure describes how when we feel awkward or uncomfortable we seek to comfort ourselves rather than engaging with the discomfort in order to learn about ourselves and improve our situation. For me, this looks like eating a handful of peanut M&Ms or firing up Civilization after one of my kids throws a bedtime tantrum, or pulling out my phone to browse Twitter at the first inkling of boredom. Indeed, thought itself (such as dwelling on the past or worrying about the future) is the most common way we abandon ourselves, our feelings, and the present moment.
  2. Skandra Mara, or the status quo describes how we cling to familiarity when our expectations are shattered, how we try to go back when we need to go forward. “The only way forward is through,” as it took me some time to realize when 2020 turned my world upside-down. For me, this has looked like barely writing for four years because parenthood took away the long, uninterrupted stretches of time I’d always relied on for writing (a habit which is an attempt to change)
  3. Klesha Mara, or emotion describes how we tend to get carried away by our emotions instead of merely listening to them. For me, this looks like catastrophizing when I have a difficult day at work (“That’s it, my career is going nowhere”) or getting snippy with my four year-old when she’s having difficulty being kind. The answer is not to ignore our emotions—they’re facts, and like all facts we ignore them at our peril—but to sit with them and see them for what they are. If I have a bad day, I might feel sad, and I can sit with that sadness in order to process it, but only if I stay, don’t run away to hypothetical disasterland.
  4. Yama Mara, or death describes not the fear of literal death, but our fear of letting go, of giving up control, of not being the perfect person we want to be. For me, this often looks like worrying more about what others will think than about what I really need. But this fear of “death” keeps us from really living:

    To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. 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. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.

Instead of chasing one of the four maras, the practice of meditation is about learning to stay—with the present, with our feelings, with reality—even and especially when staying is uncomfortable. We can only start growing once we stop running.