The way the story goes, when Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree and meditated on the night he was to become the Buddha, the god Mara slung arrows at him all night.
Mara is essentially the god of Shadow, and his arrows were manifestations of all the unawakened thoughts and emotions of Siddhartha’s human experience. These included (among others) anger, lust, jealousy, shame, embarrassment, and self-doubt.
With each arrow that cut through the air towards him, Siddhartha brought awareness and compassion to it. The arrows, when received by his compassionate awareness, turned into flowers and fell at his feet.
By the time morning arrived, there was a sea of flowers surrounding the now awakened Buddha.
Even after he became “enlightened,” the Buddha discovered that Mara would show up from time to time when he was teaching. He would be teaching to a crowd, and describe seeing Mara walk around in the back.
His reaction to Mara remained this warm, compassionate awareness. “Hello Mara, I see you there. Let’s have tea.”
In modern terminology we can consider Mara to be our Ego. It is the place of all our thoughts, worries, fears, and behaviors which inhibit us from being completely open, lighthearted, and compassionate every moment of every day.
Our Ego is both our protection from pain and source of our emotional and psychological issues. It operates both consciously and not.
Having an Ego is part of being human. We can not eliminate our Ego from our being any more than we can eliminate our DNA. It is tied to us. However, it is not true that all we are is Ego, and we can learn to free ourselves from our Ego’s sticky grasp and see life from a bigger perspective.
You Are Not Your Ego
With mindfulness practice, we learn to see our Ego as an object in our awareness, not who we really are. We are able to see Mara and his arrows before they inflict their wounds.
The more practice we get at being still, the more easily we are able to witness the noise of our minds and not identify with it.
When we are still in meditation, our minds will speak up and try to get our attention. But if our minds are trying to get our attention, then we can’t be our minds.
We must be something else. We are the ones hearing our minds. If we are aware that Ego is present, we cannot be it.
You are the one who hears your Ego, who responds to your Ego. You are the awareness that resides beyond your Ego. For most of us, most of the time, we identify as the Ego.
Over time and with practice we learn to identify more with the background space of awareness, the space behind the curtain of Ego. This is the journey of enlightenment.
Being Mindful With Ego
A couple years back, things were particularly stressful for me. I had a lot going on with work and family and my to-do list felt longer than usual, filled with items that loomed large over my head.
I was sitting on my couch feeling overwhelmed when my wife asked me if I would like her help to triage my list of tasks. She offered to help me set up a schedule for the next few days so I could accomplish what I had to do in a clearer, calmer, more grounded fashion.
When she said that, this white-hot burning sensation of anger and resentment came bubbling up from my gut.
It wanted to shout at her, “Leave me alone! I’m fine! I don’t need you to tell me what to do! You’re not my mom!” That was my Ego, and I was acutely aware of its presence.
Given that awareness, I was empowered to respond, “Well, this white-hot burning sensation of anger and resentment came bubbling up when you asked that, so… yes, I think it’d be a great idea for you to help me.”
She did, and it was truly helpful as I broke up my long list into manageable bite-size pieces.
The Journey of Enlightenment
There is a notion about enlightenment that there is a complete dissolution of Ego revealing absolute bliss. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate.
Instead, consider the perspective that enlightenment is a process of learning not to relinquish control of our lives to our Egos. We learn to stay above them. We have our Egos sit in the back seat of the car of our life; we don’t give them the steering wheel whenever they show up.
Our Egos are going to have a reaction to life – such as getting angry at my wife for her offer to help me triage my to-do list.
However, the more I realize I am the awareness behind my Ego, the more I am able to see the reaction of my Ego as not me, and know that I am free to choose another way.
The Buddha said, “I see you, Mara, let’s have tea,” instead of “Here Mara, you take the microphone.” We don’t kill our demons, instead we learn to overcome them by recognizing we don’t have to fight them.
Another falsehood about enlightenment is that it happens all at once. The idea that there’s a spontaneous parting of the clouds and everything is perfectly crystal clear is a nice one.
It does happen, but that is not the only way it happens. Enlightenment is not a specific experience to have, but rather, a process to undertake.
Everyone I know who has ever had a spontaneous awakening has not permanently shed their Ego. It comes back. Having the spontaneous experience is great story-telling, but there is more to the story afterwards.
A zen story goes:
A student approached his master and asked, “How do I attain enlightenment?”
The master replied, “Chop wood, carry water.”
“And what do I do after I attain enlightenment?”
“Chop wood, carry water.”
Enlightenment is not the end. It is another step on the journey. May your journey continue.