Every Sunday night when I facilitate meditation, I get to the final bell that closes the evening and say the phrases that are often used in my teacher's tradition. There are four phrases put into two long sentences. I have said them hundreds of times. I don't have them written in front of me. I know them by heart...except when I don't. One evening, when I first started facilitating, the final words of the last phrase left my brain. It was as if they went out for a walk and hung a "be back in 5 minutes" sign on the window. It was no big deal, just uncomfortable in that awkward way when something takes you by surprise and there is an audience before you. I paused for what felt like an eternity, but probably consisted of a couple of seconds and made up some other words that worked just as well. That was years ago, but, it has never gone away. I experienced this blanking out twice prior in my performing career, which was much more frightening. I would be deeply involved in my movement and some part of my brain stepped out of my solo, made a commentary, and came back leaving me lost in space. I would improvise until there was some cue in the music that brought me back to where I should be. Inside I was panicked, but no one would have known it. I just kept moving. But, I knew and my mind wouldn't let me forget.
The simplified story of the Buddha's enlightenment was that on the famous night that he sat under the Bodhi tree, Mara (you can consider Mara a demon) appeared and threw all kinds of arrows at the Buddha to tempt him and bring him down. The arrows would be states of mind like desire, self-doubt, confusion, pain, fear, restlessness, remorse...any of the hardships we all face. But the Buddha stayed sitting there and invited Mara in. He took each arrow and looked deeply at what was there and transformed them as they came. He did this until there were no more arrows and he was enlightened. More than any other spiritual story this one resonates the most with me. The demon is not some outside force, but our own mind working against itself. It is the judgmental, self-critical, doubting, desirous mind that we all get caught in. How the Buddha sat through this storm is what we practice when we meditate. We sit with whatever thoughts, feelings, sensations arise and don't push them away, or get swept up into them, rather we observe them with kindness and compassion and see what is truly there. We don't react, or we see when we do, and we transform it.
Mara comes to visit me every Sunday night at that closing bell. He is such a regular that I know to smile when he appears. Mara says, "you are going to forget the line; I know you will." I reply, "hello Mara, I know you are there" and I go on with the phrase. I haven't forgotten it again, until just the other night. I heard the voice and suddenly my words were gone, sucked from me like a vacuum. I thought, "ugh, he got me!" Picture me stumbling backward, an arrow in me, but a smile on my face.
Two days later, I met with a friend in the meditation community over tea. I talked about that moment and in the sharing, he gave me what I needed...the permission to make the phrases my own. He allowed me to transform the arrow of self doubt that gets thrown at me every Sunday. I have come up with my own words. I have not memorized them yet and maybe even those lines will cause me to stumble from time to time, but the transformation has already happened. I am changed solely by owning the words in a new way. They come from me. In a more global way, this is the shift that I needed...to own what feels true to me.
The arrows don't stop coming. As we become more aware of what we do, there may be fewer, but they don't ever stop. They come when a change presents itself in our career, when a challenge in our relationship rears its head, when our body stops functioning as we expect it to, when we are tempted by something, when we are asked to make a hard decision. In these moments Mara appears, often with a similar, personalized line, that gets under our skin and incites us with a reaction. Can we invite Mara in and have a conversation or do we build a wall and have the fight escalate?
The gift in all of this that we get a lifetime to work with this puzzle. We can ask ourselves, what are the arrows that get thrown at me? What causes me to stumble and doubt? Can I transform those lines that appear to have sharp edges, that appear real and true? The ones that revisit me uninvited. Can I transform them into flowers when they actually make contact with me? I remind myself often that this power lies within each of us. In my dear friend's house, there hangs a piece of calligraphy by our teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. It says simply, "the tears I shed yesterday have become rain." We can transform suffering in whatever form it takes. When we act in spite of self-doubt, when we do keep moving, we are changed. We may feel the earth tremble beneath us, we may momentarily lose our place, but we stay in it, trusting that it will be worthwhile. It always is.