Distractions: Meeting With Mara – a Talk by Madelon Bolling

Posted by on Sep 17, 2022 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Distractions: Meeting With Mara – a Talk by Madelon Bolling

What ails you? Lack of faith in yourself is what ails you. If you lack faith in yourself, you’ll keep on tumbling along, following in bewilderment after all kinds of circumstances and being taken by them through transformation after transformation without ever attaining freedom.

Bring to rest the thoughts of the ceaselessly seeking mind . . .

The Record of Lin-chi, (Discourse X)

Awareness practices fascinated me when I was quite young, due in part to being very near-sighted and in part to being a natural-born introvert. I say “awareness practices” but this doesn’t mean I knew beans about the formal focused work of Zen or any other contemplative practice. It’s just that I didn’t necessarily believe what grownups said about this experience of being human. I guess it was a fair enough exchange—they didn’t believe the things I said, either.

One sticking-point was the matter of sentience. My teddy-bear did communicate with me, as did other things they considered insentient, such as windows, blankets, and bedposts, not to mention the more obviously living, such as trees, mushrooms, bodies of water, and mud puddles.

The world quickly taught me to keep those thoughts to myself and to act on the adult-accepted reality only. And so I lost touch with the closeness offered by things. Apparently, I was to blame for whatever caused disapproval. Without approval I was in danger of losing access to food, shelter, and protection, so it was efficient to just disapprove of myself. That would show accord with the adult view, and keep me alive. Being aware of wrongness is the first step in undoing it. I knew this was right because we were taught the saying: “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.” Emil Coué, a late 19th to early 20th century psychologist and pharmacist, invented this phrase to encourage his patients to recover. When used outside the context of illness, though, it is covert evidence that every day in every way I need improvement.

But as Linji said, Lack of faith in yourself is what ails you.

In learning to practice contemplative arts, I’ve been plagued forever by the advice to “watch the mind,” to let thoughts go by without grabbing on to them or pushing them away. Just notice and let them go, the teachers said.

Whenever I felt badly, thoughts appeared, saying, “I am a bad person; I am bad.” I noticed and let those words go then, as best I knew how, but it did not change how often they showed up. For a few years, instead of the phrase, “I am a bad person,” a desktop icon flashed in my mind—a yellow cartoon of a head and arm wielding a cat o’ nine tails (click it: lash! lash!). And worse, to me there was an additional element of blame in the instruction to “let thoughts go by.” I heard the implication that I should not have generated such thoughts in the first place. Good people wouldn’t have to let thoughts go by and discard them, would they?

Further, there was the instruction to not identify with thoughts. Well, I didn’t identify with thoughts! Thoughts are tools that have a use, they aren’t persons. Of course I wasn’t my thoughts—that’s impossible! Again, I had a strange interpretation of the instructions.

Ironic, you know? Watching thoughts in this mistaken way just reinforced the notion that there is an I, a separate, blameworthy entity.

Lack of faith in yourself is what ails you.

Much later—I mean decades into practice when I was fed up with the never-ending repetitiveness of feeling bad and taking blame, calling myself names and still being powerless to change it, I put my foot down. Like: enough, already! Let’s assume I do have a part in this tiresome business. Let’s say I am making and using these pervasive unwanted thoughts. There must be a reason for it. I looked for their utility. And then I looked right at the point in each experience when these thoughts showed up. It became clear how uncontrollably automatic the thoughts were. They were simply reflexive, instantly appearing in the presence of unpleasant feeling-sensations. So, instead of constantly taking blame (and feeling the worse for it), I saw that the shaming, finger-pointing voice was not generated or willed by anyone—it was an automatic, reflexive response to escape discomfort. Apparently, it wasn’t just word-thoughts that were problematic: emotions—or bodily sensations associated with emotion—were involved.

Disclaimer: please understand as I go on telling this story that, fundamental conflicts with my father notwithstanding, I had good parents: kind, intelligent, courageous, artistic, resourceful, and highly principled. But they were not psychologically sophisticated. The misunderstandings I report are all my own.

The message I had received from the grownup world (whether it was the message intended or not) was that emotion was bad, shameful, unreliable, not to be made public under any circumstances. There was name-calling if emotion was shown or expressed: cry-baby, selfish, silly, so sensitive, or (in a scornful tone)—”she has hang-ups.” And if in pain? Oh c’mon, it didn’t hurt that much.

Negative emotions weren’t alone in being disapproved, either. Happiness or excited anticipation were also scorned, discounted: “Don’t expect it will be anything like the last time. Things are never the same.” Now that’s a very Buddhist sort of remark: impermanence, change! intended, no doubt, to save a kid from disappointment. But the kid’s interpretation? You’re stupid to expect anything to be like it was before. This was confusing. After an event – a visit with friends, a trip to a park with a wading pool, watching fireworks, a day at the zoo –we’d be asked, “Did you have fun?” just as we’d be asked if we’d enjoyed a tedious ballet class or music lesson. The kids had to guess what adults wanted to hear, and then report in a dispassionate way, not appearing to be too invested in or attached to the experience. “Um, yeah? It was nice.”

It’s no wonder I was attracted to impersonal spiritual paths. Humans were just too hard to figure out or relate to, so a human form of the transcendent principle held zero attraction. It was dismaying, then, to hear Zen teachers refer to Mara in reports not only of the Buddha mythology, but also as a figure we students must necessarily contend with. I sidestepped the issue as much as possible. But recently, Lee pointed out that Mara is none other than a feature of our own functioning: the distractions that we love and hate to pursue and wrestle with—calling that “Mara” makes sense. Turns out that, troublesome as it might be, Mara is not a fearsome, incomprehensible, demonic entity to be fought and banished, but a feature of human functioning.

When watching the mind, then—sometimes I heard the words first: “I love this house, I hate that one over there,” like, out of the blue, on a perfectly pleasant morning as I ran an errand. It was irritating, and it made me think that I’d failed in studying the non-dual way, as my head was so full of black-and-white oppositional thinking. But after reading somewhere that distraction might be the function of such irritating thoughts, I looked for what I was trying to get away from.

I noticed that different responses were called forth in different situations. All of them were automatic, as simple and functional as any cause-and-effect sequence: knock your hand on the edge of the table and it will hurt. Throw a ball up and it will fall down. Touch a stove that’s hot and you’ll get burned. Nobody’s doing this to get you—this is just the way things are. If I felt uncertain or unsettled, the mind would say—oh hey! That’s a neat house—not like the one next to it. It would be tempting to go on comparing houses all along the way. But what had just happened? Distraction! The mind went, “Oops! You don’t have to deal with the discomfort of uncertainty—look over there! Here’s some certainty for you.” Compare and contrast, as they used to say in school, compare and contrast! . . . now found as one way to turn attention away from the actual experience of the present moment.

Well, that’s interesting. But is it just compare and contrast? Keeping an eye on the subtle interior experience of the body and the verbal reactivity associated with it, I found other simple mechanisms for shifting attention away from present experience. Because they seemed to function like on-off switches I decided to call them widgets. The definition (from Oxford Languages) is amusing:

A small gadget or mechanical device, especially one
whose name is unknown or unspecified.

In computing:

An application, or a component of an interface,
that enables a user to perform a function or access a service.

Hmm. “Enables a user to access a service” such as escaping discomfort, for example?

Bring to rest the thoughts of the ceaselessly seeking mind . . .  The mind is always seeking elsewhere for something to help us not be right here where we are, as we are.

Lack of faith in yourself is what ails you.


Here are a few widgets from my basic list. Each person likely has different ones just depending on their history.

  1. FIND & BLAME = NOT ME, I DIDN’T DO IT Recently, the kitchen counter felt grubby, like something was spilled and allowed to dry on it. Feeling wary, urgent. Expecting blame and criticism if someone else notices. Quick, deflect! “someone else (the spouse) never wipes up after themselves. Sigh. I’ll have to tell them to be more careful.” But in fact, in this case I was the culprit. In the background was another uneasy feeling, because placing blame was a lie. Lies are dangerous. The solution? Quick! Point a finger elsewhere. The effective solution? Feel wary, allow urgency to be there, breathe it in and let the breath out. Let it pick up the damp cloth, wipe up the counter.
  2. NOT NOW NOT YET = PUT IT OFF Feeling uneasy anticipation. (re: both pleasurable or not-pleasurable tasks ahead) Don’t do it! Don’t do it—stop, you don’t know how, and even if you did, it wouldn’t be right, wouldn’t be good enough. Not yet. Just don’t go there, it’s not worth it. Do something else. Run away, hide, freeze, bury your head in the sand. This is the response of distraction advising distraction as a response. But an effective solution? Allow feelings of uneasy anticipation to simply color the experience. And set your hand to the task.
  3. PLAN AHEAD = ANTICIPATE / BE PREPARED Not sure how this retreat will go—we’ve never done it exactly this way before. (But that’s not a problem, no worries, right?) There’s a slight but pervasive bodily discomfort, and the mind runs away, toward planning out details. The planning drive is triggered and persistent. But the realistic solution? Well, there is pervasive bodily discomfort. Let it be the atmosphere of practice. Breathe.
  4. FIND CAUSALITY = WHY? The computer crashes, and I don’t know a way out of it. Massive discomfort, touching the uncontrollable state of panic. Why does this happen right in the middle of a project? Why? Why? Why?! Of course, content as I am with not being a knowledgeable computer user, I will never know the true cause of the crash. But this distraction, imagining I have control, keeps me from feeling/acknowledging the sheer discomfort of the situation, dangling the elusive and tempting find the cause and you can fix it Down-to-earth solution? Remember I don’t have to know why, only that the computer crashed, and the flavor of it is this state of sheer discomfort. Actual solution? First, keep breathing, experiencing the flavor of desperation. Second, a hard reboot. Then call a knowledgeable friend or the repair shop if needed.
  5. COMPARE/CONTRAST Feeling uncomfortable, uncertain? Look over there: The fence blends into the front porch woodwork, not like that one over there, with the chain link fence that doesn’t match or blend in with anything. You can keep on comparing houses or yards or trees or . . . those are certainties, aren’t they? We can do this as long as need be. Or, if the drive to compare and judge irritates you, consider opening yourself to the sensations of uncertainty, breathing that atmosphere of your experience without adding or subtracting anything.
  6. PUT IT IN WORDS (EXPLAIN / EXCUSE) This is more insurance when noticing inexplicable discomfort or threat: Why did you wear the green sweater instead of the red one? Why is your house so messy? Make up an explanation, whether it’s true or not, because you’d better be able to explain your actions, even the insignificant ones, under all circumstances. There! Now you’re so wound up in the intricacies of explaining that you hardly notice the mysterious discomfort that you’re pushing away. A less arduous response? You know – breathe with the experience of inexplicable discomfort or threat. You’ll be much more alert and available if and when its actual cause shows up.

This is how it works whenever uneasiness (or a widget) shows up. Stop. Notice the discomfort in the body. Breathe. What’s actually present, right here, right now? Respond appropriately. In classical mindfulness traditions, this sequence is known as a breathing space.

Responding appropriately is the real trick, and the point of this discourse: here’s discomfort: notice its shape and qualities. Be kind to the creature experiencing it, simply saying, there’s discomfort, or That’s uncomfortable. Notice the urge to get away from those feelings. What shape does that urge take? It’s likely a widget. Huh! Ordinarily I’d get into a snit and blame someone else. Even if the expected criticism is a real possibility, give yourself a break. Do you ever suspect that habitual critics may be acting on their own widgets?

Since learning about these impersonal, mechanical quirks of the mind, I’ve caught myself about to be run by them, and refrained, just for one here and one there, sometimes before they begin, sometimes after the widget is activated (it’s harder to work with, but . . .) By learning to notice and allow present discomfort to be present, there’s already more space and calm in my experiencing. I even suspect that – it even feels like – I have more faith in myself, a little confidence that it’s OK to be just as I am, before words kick in.


What ails you? Lack of faith in yourself is what ails you. If you lack faith in yourself, you’ll keep on tumbling along, following in bewilderment after all kinds of circumstances and being taken by them through transformation after transformation without ever attaining freedom.

Bring to rest the thoughts of the ceaselessly seeking mind . . .

The Record of Lin-chi, (Discourse X)