I’m reading Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart” right now and I’m loving every chapter. The chapter titled “Nonaggression and the four maras” particularly resonated with me and I thought I’d share what it says.

“Traditional teachings on the forces of Mara describe the nature of obstacles and the nature of how human beings habitually become confused and lose confidence in our basic wisdom mind. The maras provide descriptions of some very familiar ways in which we try to avoid what is happening.

There are four maras. The first mara is called devaputra mara. It has to do with seeking pleasure. The second one, called skandha mara, has to do with how we always tyr to re-create ourselves, try to get some ground back, try to be who we think we are. The third mara is called klesha mara. It has to do with how we use our emotions to keep ourselves dumb or asleep. The fourth one, yama mara, has to do with the fear of death. The descriptions of these four maras show us four ways in which we, just like the Buddha, are seemingly attacked.

Devaputra Mara

Devaputra mara involves seeking pleasure. It works like this: when we feel embarrassed or awkward, when pain presents itself to us in any form whatsoever, we run like crazy to try to become comfortable. Any obstacle we encounter has the power to completely pull the rug out, to completely pop the bubble of reality that we have come to regard as secure and certain. When we are threatened that way, we can’t stand to feel the pain, the edginess, the anxiety, the queasiness in our stomach, the heat of anger rising, the bitter taste of resentment. Therefore, we try to grasp something pleasant. We react with this tragically human habit of seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain.

The devaputra mara is a good description of how we are all addicted to avoiding pain. When pain arises, we reach again and again for something that will blot it out. Maybe we drink or take drugs or just chew gum or turn on the radio. We might even use meditation to try to escape from the more awkward, unpleasant, and penetrating aspects of being alive. Someone has just shot an arrow or raised a sword, and instead of allowing it to change into a flower, we run, trying to escape in all kinds of ways. There are, of course, endless ways of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

However, we don’t have to consider seeking pleasure as an obstacle. Rather, seeking pleasure is an opportunity to observe what we do in the face of pain. Instead of trying to avoid our uneasiness and off-centeredness by running away, we could begin to open our hearts to the human dilemma that causes so much misery in this world. We could realize that the way to turn this devaputra arrow into a flower is to open our hearts and look at how weak we are. In this way we can discover that what seems to be ugly is in fact the source of wisdom and a way for us to reconnect with our basic wisdom mind.

Skandha Mara

Skandha mara is how we react when the rug is pulled out from under us. We feel that we have lost everything that’s good. We’ve been thrown out of the nest. We sail through space without a clue as to what’s going to happen next. We’re in no-man’s-land: we had it all together, working nicely, when suddenly the atomic bomb dropped and shattered our world into a million pieces. We don’t know what’s going to happen next or even where we are. Then we re-create ourselves. We return to the solid ground of our self-concept as quickly as possible. Trungpa Rinpoche used to call this “nostalgia for samsara.”

Our whole world falls apart, and we’ve been given this great opportunity. However, we don’t trust our basic wisdom mind enough to let it stay like that. Our habitual reaction is to want to get ourselves back-even our anger, resentment, fear, or bewilderment. So we re-create our solid, immovable personality as if we were Michelangelo chiseling ourselves out of marble.

Again, this process does not have to be considered an obstacle or a problem. Even though it feels like an arrow or a sword, if we use it as an opportunity to become aware of how we try to re-create ourselves over and over again, it turns into a flower. We can allow ourselves to be inquisitive or open about what has just happened and what will happen next. Instead of struggling to regain our concept of who we are, we can touch in to that mind of simply not knowing, which is basic wisdom mind.

Klesha Mara

The klesha mara is characterized by strong emotions. A simple feeling will arise, and instead of simply letting it be there, we panic. We begin to weave our thoughts into a story line, which gives rise to bigger emotions. Instead of just sitting in some kind of openness with our uncomfortable feeling, we bring out the bellows and fan away at it. with our thoughts and emotions, we keep it inflamed, hot; we won’t let it go.

Again we do not have to consider this process an obstacle or a problem. If we can look at and see the wildness of emotion, we can not only begin to befriend and soften toward ourselves, but we can also begin to befriend all human beings and indeed all living beings. By becoming aware of how we do this silly thing again and again because we don’t want to dwell in the uncertainty and awkwardness and pain of not knowing, we begin to develop true compassion for ourselves and everyone else, because we see what happens and how we react when things fall apart. That awareness is what turns the sward into a flower. It is how what is seemingly ugly and problematic and unwanted actually becomes our teacher.

Yama Mara

I think maybe all of the maras arise from fear of death, but yama mara is particularly rooted there. When we talk about a good life from the usual samsaric point of view, what we mean is that we’ve finally gotten it together. We finally feel that we’re a good person. We have good qualities, we’re peaceful, and we don’t get thrown off balance when arrows are shot at us. We’re the person who knows how to turn an arrow into a flower. We feel so good about ourselve. We’ve finally tied up all the loose ends. We’re happy. We think that that’s life.

We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of somoene who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. there’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control.

The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes and opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. there is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the next. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. 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.”

-Pema Chodron