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Strengthening Our Resolve by Dialoguing with Mara

This exercise can be done on the penultimate day of an intensive.

It takes about 45 mins, plus 15 mins for large group discussion/reflection.

An introduction by Joanna :

“In Buddhism, there are two mudras, or hand gestures, that I cherish. Statues and paintings of Buddhas and bodhisattvas often show them. One is the Fear Not or abhaya mudra--right hand raised at chest level, palm outward. It says, "I will not be afraid of the fear. I will not close down, I stay fully present." It's strikingly similar to the gesture of greeting associated with American Indians. "How!" they said, as I saw in the movies, and later I learned the meaning of that raised empty hand: "See, I carry no weapon, don't be afraid."

The second hand gesture I give you tonight is the Earth-touching one, the bhumisparsa mudra. Its other name is Calling the Earth to Witness, and it connects with the story of when Gautama, soon to become the Buddha, sat down under the bodhi tree. I picture him saying, in effect, "I am not going to get up until I have broken through to the secret of the suffering we cause ourselves and others. Until I wake up to that, I am not going to move." Well, this infuriated Mara, the embodiment of sin and death. Mara sent demons to frighten Gautama and dancing girls to distract him; but the Buddha-to-be didn't waver. Finally, Mara challenged him outright. "By what right and authority do you think you can solve the mystery of suffering? Just who do you think you are?"

And Gautama offered no personal credentials. No curriculum vitae. He didn't say, "I'm the son of a king. I graduated summa cum laude from the Yoga Institute or went to Harvard Business School." He said nothing at all about himself. He just touched the Earth. It was by the authority of Earth that he sought liberation from suffering. “This is my right to be here; this is my right to seek freedom from endless suffering and inflicting of suffering.” The scriptures say that when he did that the earth roared.

So we can make that gesture too. We can touch the Earth. That act, even if only mental, reminds us of who we are and what we are about, as we confront the collapse of our oil-based economy and our oil-damaged climate. We are here for the sake of life. By the authority of our belonging to Earth from the beginning of space and time, we are here.”

The dialogue with Mara strengthens the resolve of Buddha. So often we try to be solely positive in our strength, and push down those voices which throw us off track – the voice of fears and doubts as well as the voice which seduces us into pleasant distractions, away from our clear resolve. But adversaries can help us on our path. This exercise gives a chance to voice all that fearful seduction, criticism, undermining of confidence, and this in turn gives the chance to stand up to Mara, to find our ground. In this way we are grateful to Mara.


Split into groups of 3 people.

Each person takes it in turn to become the ‘focus’ person for 15 minutes, while the other two people are listening allies in this dialogue with Mara.

The focus person has two cushions, which s/he sits on alternately.

Cushion 1 is the place of resolve/determination/confidence.

Cushion 2 is Mara.

The focus person starts in the place of resolve, telling her/his two witnesses of something s/he intends to put into action on returning home. This could be a very small plan, or a much larger project. It is probably something the focus person feels a little fearful of doing, as it is close to their heart and important work. The focus person may need to start by taking a few moments of silence to centre him/herself. Ground yourself in your body and in the earth. Feel the support of the earth and the whole earth community. Trust in your life experience. Don’t hide your dreams – some of the greatest things people have done have grown from seeds of ideas that might have seemed mad at the time. 

After stating their intention, the focus person moves onto cushion 2, and becomes Mara voicing fears, doubts and criticisms (eg who are YOU to think you can stand up and do this, you haven’t got time, you don’t know enough, etc)

Move back to cushion 1 and respond to Mara.

Be aware that you may need to re-centre yourself on cushion 1, you don’t need to respond to Mara immediately. It’s easy to panic in the face of Mara, and feel you have to justify yourself with grand ideas. Find your ground quietly.

Continue the dialogue for about 10 minutes.

The two listening allies who are witnesses to this process can help in two ways:

1) At some points the focus person may wish one of the listening allies to become Mara.

2) At other times, especially if the focus person is finding it difficult to respond to Mara, one of the listening allies may gently move behind the focus person, put their hand on their shoulder, and speak on behalf of the focus person to Mara.

Finish with Mara saying to Focus person: “By what authority are you doing this?” and reply with all resolve you can muster, touching the earth, “By the authority of the earth……and so on”.

Take a few minutes to talk over the exercise together. 

Then move on to the next focus person.

After all three people have had a chance to be focus person, come back into the large group and share reflections on the exercise.

Things to be aware of in the process and to bring to the attention of the group in your instructions:

  • Notice how much energy Mara holds
  • As you go further with the dialogue, both Mara and the place of resolve will change.
  • A word of warning: this is a powerful exercise. Some people have very strong inner critics. The Mara voice may remind the focus person of a critical parent. This can feel particularly upsetting if the focus person is unable to stand up to Mara. It is here that the two allies can be of help, supporting the focus person in their place of resolve. The facilitator(s) can be on hand for anyone who gets stuck in this process.
  • For this reason it’s helpful if the facilitator(s) are available during the process to help any focus person (and their allies) who feels stuck or upset.