Making Friends with Mara

Lessons from Siddartha and Tara Brach

By Ryan Willms

I’ve heard several times, mainly from distance runners, “make friends with pain, and you’ll never be alone.” It’s true, funny, sad and everything in-between. Pain comes in many forms and it would seem that there is no complete escape, or any hope at all if you consider the infamous Buddhist saying, “life is suffering.” But that statement isn’t meant to sound so hopeless, rather if you dig deeper into what is being taught, specifically in the story of Siddhartha, as he has to confront Mara on his day of enlightenment, there is a lot more to take from these simple phrases that have been misused through the years.


Mara represents more than pain, and pain is really more than pain. Whether it’s created in our own minds, felt physically or feels like it’s coming from another person, our best chance of ‘beating’ pain is to take a step back, acknowledge it, and sit down to tea together.


I spent the majority of my life suppressing my pain, consciously and unconsciously pushing it aside and ignoring it, in its various forms. We seem to be really good at doing this as humans, especially when we’re not generally taught an alternative route through these issues. After around 20 years of ignoring various signs along the way, I finally got to the point where I was just barely aware enough to understand that something was knocking at the door and I was going to have to open up and let Mara in.

Lessons from Mara

While pain is undeniably unappealing, I believe that the fear of pain is usually much more debilitating than the reality of it. In my case I was pushed to the tipping point where my fear of not dealing with whatever was lurking in the dark began to outweigh the fear of confronting the unknown, and that made it clear to me that I had no choice but to face it head on.


In Siddhartha’s story he had to confront age-old foes such as greed, hate, delusion and lust. In essence these forms of suffering all still exist today but thanks to the evolution of our society and general distancing from spiritual teachings, elders and connection to universal love, we are left to defend ourselves from Mara, all on our own, and he’s evolved as well finding new ways to get to us. For the most part, this doesn’t work out so well, and in my story Mara snuck up on my very subtly over years, and unlike Siddhartha I didn’t have the awareness and connection to call on the universe for support, at least not in the same dramatic fashion.


Instead of putting one hand in my lap and touching the earth with my other, I spent thousands of dollars on supplements, tests, naturopaths and retreats before I decided to do something more dramatic. I quit my career, packed up my loft and left New York City, abandoning the path I thought I was meant to travel. Over the past 18 months I’ve been slowly going from all out war with my pain and suffering to learning how to make friends with it. There is no way of beating Mara, you have to make friends with ‘him’. By growing in awareness and connection, I’ve learned how to navigate this process and but it takes continued practice, every day. I’d generally viewed myself as a ‘doer’, but this journey towards personal freedom is different. There is no winning and much less ‘doing’ in the sense I thought was needed to achieve anything. A calm and thorough acceptance can allow you to see clearly in the light as well as the dark, and whatever your manifestation of Mara is, generally, it isn’t as bad as you think it is.


A good friend of mine helped me to reframe this approach. We spoke about beating my chronic physical issues of fatigue, digestion, depression, overcoming it by all of the things I was ‘doing’ to beat it. But I couldn’t beat it or out-do it, I had to accept it and be present with it. Through baby steps of acceptance, I could slowly take the power away from Mara, and lighten my suffering. Rather than conquering it, I began to slowly let it dissolve into me by being with it. It is part of me, and I have to accept that as I am light and dark, yin and yang, male and female, at the same time.


Siddhartha was able to attain enlightenment and Mara let him be, fortunately Siddhartha had training, understanding and the ability to achieve this in his lifetime. I continue to find myself learning the skills I need while in the middle of the battlefield. There was no real training or preparation, but as I picked up one tool after another I was able to confront different aspects of my pain and slowly take away its power over me. As my journey continues, the non-linear ‘battlefield’ of the ego continues to bring challenges to the forefront of my consciousness but now my tool belt is feeling more equipped and after some success, my fear of the unknown has dissipated and my faith in this path has strengthened. It’s a powerful combination, one that I couldn’t have imagined cultivating only a short time ago, but now I feel more prepared for anything that I might encounter internally or externally. While it’s not always fun, I am happy to shine light into the dark. More often than not sitting down with Mara for tea is incredibly uncomfortable and still very scary, but I believe that by the end of it, we’ll be friends and he’ll get tired of not being indulged, and I’ll be a step closer to the inner peace and freedom I’ve been working towards.

This article was written by Ryan Willms and published on January 11, 2019