|That devilish voice whispering in my ear may |
not be my enemy after all.
Self doubt can cause what is known in my profession as writer's block, a type of sneaking feeling that I am a no-talent sham. In other situations and occupations, self doubt causes all forms of stuckness. Doubt causes the inability to make a decision or move forward for fear that we might make a mistake. Ultimately, doubt causes us to suffer.
More than 2500 years ago a young Indian prince named Guatama Siddhartha wrestled with self doubt—and won. Siddhartha witnessed suffering in the world around him and vowed to find a way to put an end to it. Many people believe he was successful. His tale of enlightenment holds truth to how doubts arise, their value in our lives, and the way to dispel them— if we have the mind to try. Here's my interpretation. I don't believe the tale literally, of course, but it does hold a wonderful psychological perspective into the power of thought.
On the night of his enlightenment, Siddhartha vowed to meditate until he achieved pure awareness. As night fell, Mara, a powerful demon, entered Siddhartha's consciousness and did his best to distract him from his purpose. Knowing the weaknesses of men, Mara sent his sexy daughters to dance for Siddhartha and seduce him. But the holy man maintained his concentration.
Next, Mara send an infinite army of hideous creatures to attack Siddhartha with poison arrows. But as the arrows flew through the air, the holy man saw them for what they really were. The deadly weapons turned into young sapling shoots and flower blossoms, which perfumed the air around him.
Frustrated, Mara resorted to his last and most deadly of weapons. He crept very close and whispered in the Siddhartha's ear, "What makes you worthy of enlightenment? Do you think you're better than everyone else? I should be the Enlightened One! I am the rightful heir. Look at all my witnesses!"
Mara's army stood beside him, attesting to his claim. And Mara went on and on about how great he was and how Siddhartha was stupid and inept, but Siddhartha remained centered and focused on what was real and present. "You are just a fake and a phony! Why should you become enlightened?" shouted Mara. "Why are you so special? Even if you did become enlightened, no one will know and no one will ever believe you! You have no witness! You've achieved nothing! You are a nobody!"
All this time through temptation and threat of death, Siddhartha remained in deep meditation. But now, as Mara stood before him gloating, he reached forward and touched a single finger to the ground in front of him.
"The Earth is my witness," Siddhartha whispered.
With that, the Mara disappeared and Siddhartha attained the state of full enlightenment. He became known as Shakyamuni Buddha, The Awakened One.*
But the story doesn't end here. Mara doesn't just descend into Hell and Buddha, into Heaven. Rather, Buddha and Mara continue their relationship on earth. It seems Buddha could not exist without Mara's test and Mara could not exist with the challenge of the Buddha. In his teaching entitled The Mara and Buddha—Embracing Our Suffering, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh relates the moral of this story.
Years later, Mara visited Buddha and asked that they trade places. Mara was tired of always being the bad guy. He didn't want to be feared and loathed anymore. You'd think Buddha would say "Be gone demon!" but he didn't. He greeted Mara as his dearest friend. He embraced Mara and listened to his problems. The Buddha explained that it wasn't all fun and glory to be the Enlightened One either. He told Mara of all the crazy things people did in his name and how difficult it was to practice compassion and love all the time. Mara saw his point. "The best thing is for each of us is to stay in his or her own position and try to improve the situation and enjoy what we are doing," Buddha said.
Hahn explains that it's easy for us to think of Buddha as a flower, fresh and beautiful, and compare Mara to garbage, that is unwanted and stinky, but this is a limited point of view. "All flowers become garbage," Hanh says. "Although garbage stinks ... if you know how to take care of the garbage, you will transform it back into flowers ... Flowers and garbage are of an organic nature because both ... are living realities. Buddha and Mara are also organic, and they need each other. It is thanks to the difficulties, thanks to the temptations, that the Buddha has overcome his suffering and his ignorance and become a fully enlightened being ... That is why the people who suffer a lot now should not be discouraged. Suffering is their garbage. If they know how to take good care of their garbage they will be able to make the flowers come back to them, the flowers of peace, of joy."
Just as Buddha needs Mara, I need those negative thoughts to challenge and help me perceive the truth. Of course, sitting with my negative thoughts and not responding to them takes effort and self awareness. But ultimately, if I take good care of my garbage, I can turn my doubt into roses.