Why it’s OK that Mara Returns: Transforming the Functions of Self-referencing-related Stimuli Through Meditation

“Mara returns” is a phrase commonly used in Dharma talks given by instructors belonging to the Insight Meditation tradition (Jack Kornfield in particular). Mara is the name given to the satanic figure of pre-modern Indian mythology, who is depicted as the author of illusion leading to clinging; perpetuating the round of rebirth and suffering for all non-liberated beings. What is this illusion that leads to clinging? In simple terms, it is the illusion of self-identification – that is, the belief that experiential phenomena of any kind (mind or body, private or public, internal or external) can be accurately categorized as inherently-existing in the form of I, me, or mine. At the moment of his full awakening (or total unbinding), the Buddha is said to have successfully conquered the armies of Mara, liberating himself from clinging to anything as I, me, or mine; thus, becoming free from the round of perpetual rebirth and, most importantly, suffering.

However, although the Buddha had successfully conquered Mara, there are a number of stories in the Buddhist scriptures where Mara comes back to visit him. Being that Mara represents the illusion of inherently-existing selfhood, it would seem that the Buddha’s awakening did not entail a complete eradication of the privately experienced phenomena that was previously interpreted as a “self.” And yet, when Mara returns to visit the Buddha, the Buddha’s reaction is quite jovial and friendly. “Ah, my good friend Mara has come back to see me. Let’s have a visit!” So then, if the illusion itself was not permanently eradicated from the Buddha’s experience, what changed? More specifically, what processes are responsible for the reduction in suffering that is reported by so many meditation practitioners, both ancient and modern?

One possible explanation of why suffering can be alleviated through practicing certain types of meditation can be found by applying certain core concepts of Relational Frame Theory (RFT), a purely psychological theory of human language and cognition based on a philosophy of Functional Contextualism. One such core concept of RFT is that the functions of stimulus relations are contextually controlled. To explain what this means, consider the following analogy. Let’s say you go to the zoo and visit the snakes exhibit. You may then peer through a clear glass cage into the eyes of a massive anaconda. This huge snake may even hiss at you, or snap its jaws in your direction (Yikes!). And while this may be startling to experience, consider the context: you’re standing on the other side of cage designed to keep the snake from being able to sink its teeth into your neck, or perhaps swallow you whole. In fact, there’s a good chance you would not have approached the snake at all had you thought you were in any real danger.

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit. Let’s say you come home from work and head straight for the bathroom. You open the door and flip on the lights, and you see that on the floor directly in front of you is the same massive anaconda! How different do you think your emotional reaction would be from when you saw this same snake behind protective glass at the zoo? VERY different, right? In the simplest terms, the change in your emotional response to the snake is not due to the snake, but rather the context in which you encounter and experience the snake. This is an example of how the transformation of stimulus functions is contextually controlled. In other words, your response (i.e. function) to the snake (i.e. stimulus) was transformed when the context was changed (i.e. from the zoo to your bathroom).

How does this relate to meditation and liberating insight? Prior to beginning a meditation practice we grow up perceiving and engaging with the world in a particular way, and relating ourselves to it as if we were inherently-existing entities. There are many benefits to this kind of self-referencing. Without having a clear idea of who we are in relation to others, our ability to survive as an organism in our environment would be seriously impeded. Our physical bodies have specific needs, and we humans behave and speak in ways that aid us in manipulating our environment in order to get those needs met. Identifying as a self is an integral part of this process. Without the ability to develop self-referencing behaviors, I don’t think human beings would have survived – let alone thrived – as we have as a species on this planet. We are social animals, and socializing requires relationships. Relationships between humans require individuals – that is, separate selves.

However, this self-referencing behavior has a dark side; or, we could even say a Mara-side. For, this illusion of self could theoretically generate an infinite number of ways in which we can needlessly suffer. Of course, physical pain is a variety of suffering that is a common experience for all human beings, as it is necessary for survival. As far as I know, meditation cannot permanently alleviate all forms of physical pain. But, a huge amount of psychological suffering is brought into being through verbal and physical behaviors within a self-referential context. This psychological suffering is largely due to one’s attempt to control their unwanted inner experiences (i.e. private events) through grasping at something one thinks is better, resisting what one doesn’t like, and/or ignoring those aspects of experience that one considers neutral (those things that don’t stand out, or that are not seen as being important).

What I think the Buddha discovered, and I believe many people continue to discover today, is that by engaging in the skillful practice of meditation one can effectively make changes to the context of present experiencing in way that reveals features about experiential phenomena (i.e. stimuli) that is not otherwise directly perceived. This direct apprehension of phenomenal experience in a previously unknown way further alters one’s context, which can have the effect of transforming the functions of stimuli related to self-referencing. When self-referencing is perceived clearly just as it is – which is totally arbitrary, transient, inconstant – it becomes much less distressing over time. Some might even say that it is possible to completely alleviate the distressing function of stimuli related to self-referencing, which would be akin to the total unbinding (nibbana) purportedly attained by the historical Buddha. Whether or not this level of attainment is actually possible, there is a growing body of clinical literature that suggests it is possible to significantly reduce this form of distress.

What I want to make clear, though, is that it is not necessary for self-referencing stimuli to eradicated from one’s experience forever. Actually, I think that could be potentially harmful, for reasons already stated. I think this is what some meditation teachers mean when they say “Mara returns.” The illusion remains accessible to one’s experience, but it can be understood as being like a mirage rather than a concrete reality. No one would chase after a mirage if they knew, by direct experience, that it was truly a mirage. It doesn’t matter how many times the mirage returns to one’s experience – it’s still not an oasis that can quench our thirst. Therefore, it isn’t necessary to eradicate self-referential thoughts and perceptions from one’s experience. The activity of trying to eliminate phenomenal appearances is itself an aversive act, and thus a potential cause for further suffering. But, we can use contextual controls to transform the functions of self-referencing-related stimuli. That is, we can get to a place where Mara returns, but no longer bothers us.



Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Psychology, Religion & Philosophy

10 responses to “Why it’s OK that Mara Returns: Transforming the Functions of Self-referencing-related Stimuli Through Meditation

  1. Jelaky

    Hi Jackson,

    This piece is interesting.

    It is quite obvious you are rallying against the practice of others, those who think that awakening is about something more, traditional I suppose. The end of all suffering? By all I mean all.

    • Jackson

      Hi Jelaky,

      I am by no means rallying against the the meditation practices of others. I’m simply sharing what I find to be helpful.

      Best of luck to you in your practice.

  2. Jelaky

    Hi Jackson,

    You wrote “Actually, I think that could be potentially harmful, for reasons already stated.”
    While I think you are quite aware that several people in the ‘Hardcore Dharma’ community have said this is the case for them, and it had nothing but positive consequences (Tarin, Trent, Kenneth also says that self-refrencing is gone for him but seems like a different case for him).

    Where is the danger, then?

    • Jackson

      Hi Jelaky,

      Yes – my current position is that attempts to manage, suppress, eradicate, or otherwise control private experiences usually results in more harm than good. In fact, such behaviors are generally categorized under the term “experiential avoidance” (or EA) in the theoretical and empirical psychological literature that has surfaced over the last 15-20 years or so (though, the concept is much older than this). Chawla and Ostafin (2007) define EA as being two-fold: “(a) the unwillingness to remain in contact with aversive private experience (including bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, memories, and behavioral predispositions), and (b) action taken to alter the aversive experiences or the events that elicit them” (pp. 871-872). The best available literature supports that EA-based behaviors play a major role in the development and/or maintenance of a long list of psychological disorders, including those involving symptoms of depression, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and substance abuse (to name a few).

      It is because of the supporting evidence that I tend toward approaches to meditation that do not necessitate the elimination or other control over thoughts and/or emotions. The risks far outweigh any potential (though highly improbable) benefit. And, as irony would have it, attempts to control private experiences often leads to an increase in the unwanted psychological events.

      My views are not traditional, though I allow them to be informed by tradition so long as there isn’t any solid empirical evidence that says otherwise. This makes my approach to meditation and the alleviation of suffering different from the individuals you mentioned. I encourage you to practice whichever approach you think will provide you the most benefit. Just know that there are many ways to practice, and that it’s OK to switch it up if you are not getting the desired results.


      Reference: Chawla, N., & Ostafin, B. (2007). Experiential Avoidance as a Functional Dimensional Approach to Psychopathology: An Empirical Review. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 63(9), 871-890. [http://contextualpsychology.org/system/files/Chawla%282007%29.pdf]

  3. Jelaky

    Hi Jackson,

    This is not some Psychology essay that you can prove your point via ‘Empirical’ articles.

    The fact of the matter is, more advanced practitioners than yourself have found that you are wrong in this matter – that further eradication of ‘Self’ results in nothing but positive mental well-being.

    You can cite Psychology articles all you like, but they have nothing to do with these practitioners who have proven that this point you are making is perhaps ‘logically-sound’, but does not stand reality testing , in the field of contemplative practice.

  4. Jelaky

    In addition,
    In the same line of thinking – one could use modern Psychology articles to argue that Suffering is an essential and inherent part of human existence.

    This is directly opposed to the basic working assumption in the Buddha’s practice instructions in the Satipatthana (the sutta upon which your practice is based) – that suffering can be eradicated (all of it).

    • Jackson

      I hear that you disagree with me, Jelaky. And, I agree that I am certainly not the most experienced and skilled meditation practitioner posting their opinions on the web. Thank goodness.

      Again, I wish you the best in your practice.

  5. Jelaky

    Hi Jackson,

    I sure do disagree.
    I’m glad you’re taking the time to read and respond to my rants.

    The main point I wanted to make is: when I read your article, it seems like a more advanced practitioner’s explanation on why ‘suffering is good for us’, like Freud’s view that a certain amount of ‘healthy suffering’ keeps us motivated.

    Thanks for the well-wishes.

  6. Jackson

    I think you may have misunderstood the message. I do not think that “suffering is good for us.” I’m saying that unpleasant experiences never go away completely (i.e. “Mara returns”), and that suffering (the “second dart”) is exacerbated by attempts to control negatively evaluated experiences, which for me includes attempts to manage and/or eliminate certain thoughts or emotions. This, to me, doesn’t seem all that controversial.

    The myth of the Buddha’s awakening is very telling in this regard. He did not move from his seat as the armies of Mara unleashed a most brutal attack. He didn’t get up and fight Mara off; nor did he run away and hide. The Buddha discovered that he could (and thus, we can) approach our difficulties in way that allows them to pass, without suffering the consequences of grasping, aversion, and/or delusion as a misguided means of eradicating them. He found freedom in this, as do I.

    Which part of this seems unreasonable?

  7. Jelaky

    The part where you claim something is dangerous and unwanted, while several trustworthy people have done exactly what you claim that is unwanted and dangerous, and their direct experience, from which their report, negates your opinions which are based on thoughts and evaluations with quasi-scientific models, rather than direct experience.

    Here’s an analogy: The analogy of Going to Turkey.

    Scientists have claimed that going to Turkey is dangerous and crazy, while one could be happy wherever they are.
    Several of your friends who you know and trust, have went to Turkey and reported it is a very safe place with friendly people.
    One keeps claiming that going to Turkey is dangerous, while basing one’s opinion on articles which claim so as well, but those who have written those articles, have never been to Turkey, either.

    Who would you trust? Thoughts based on evaluations or direct-experience?

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