Buddha and Mara: Accept Your Negative Feelings

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the story of Buddha and Mara? What does it mean to invite your negative feelings in for tea?

In the story, the god Mara tried to sway Siddhartha but Siddhartha met every challenge with Radical Acceptance. Instead of trying to ignore Mara, Buddha acknowledged his presence by saying, “I see you, Mara” and eventually Mara would leave on his own. This story is about accepting your feelings instead of repressing them.

Continue on to learn about the story of Buddha, Mara, and Radical Acceptance.

The Story of Buddha and Mara

The story of Buddha and Mara begins like this: after bathing, eating, and resting, Siddhartha found solitude under a pipal tree—now called the bodhi tree—and began to meditate. In his meditations, he confronted the embodiment of the human shadow, in the form of the god Mara (the Sanskrit word for delusion). 

Mara tried to sway him with seduction, threats, and promises. However, Siddhartha met each challenge with Radical Acceptance; he neither pursued nor pushed away what Mara offered. Because Siddhartha refused to be ruled by the delusions, they had no power to harm him. Finally, the earth itself bore witness to Siddhartha’s right to be the Buddha, and Mara fled. 

Mara didn’t give up after their fateful encounter at the bodhi tree. He returned multiple times throughout the Buddha’s life to attack him or try to sway him from his enlightenment. 

Each time Mara appeared, the Buddha acknowledged his presence with a simple, “I see you, Mara.” Rather than trying to block Mara out or drive him away, the Buddha would invite him in for tea. Eventually Mara would leave on his own, powerless as always against the Buddha’s acceptance and kindness. 

Visits From Mara

All of us will have our own visits from Mara throughout our lives. These visits may come in the form of difficult emotions like anger and fear, or in the form of the stories we tell ourselves. Every time we tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, doomed to unhappiness, an embarrassment, or whatever judgments we pass on ourselves, that could be seen as a visit from Mara.

Like the Buddha, we can meet these experiences with unconditional friendliness. Sometimes we’ll catch ourselves lashing out at those around us, or stewing in frustration over every little problem. That’s a chance to name our experiences and invite them in for tea like the Buddha did. 

By naming our hardships, we rob them of some of their power. Approach this with a spirit of friendly questioning; you’re not seeking to judge, only to understand. For example, you might ask yourself if you’re really so angry because there’s a fly in your office, or if you’re stressed about your work and worried that you’re falling behind. Finding and recognizing what we’re actually experiencing is how we say, “I see you, Mara.”

Once we understand what’s happening to us, the next step is to welcome  it. In the spirit of Radical Acceptance, we can say “yes” to our experiences, no matter what they may be. Say “yes” to the frustration, to the sadness, to the desire. Love yourself and all of your experiences. In other words, greet Mara as an old friend and invite him in for tea. By welcoming the experiences in this way, we allow them to pass through us without gaining power over us. 

Say “Yes” to Your Life

While Radical Acceptance begins with saying yes to our moment-to-moment experiences, it doesn’t have to end there. We can learn to say yes to the entire life we’re living, whatever that life looks like at the moment. We can say yes to our appearance, our personality, our friendships, and our secular and spiritual work, all at once. 

This is an important practice in a culture that encourages us to aim for perfection. That unattainable goal means that, when we take a step back to examine our lives, we often feel like things aren’t working out quite the way they should be. That’s when Mara pays a visit, and we have another opportunity for friendly questioning and Radical Acceptance.

Perhaps, if your life isn’t “right,” the question could be, “Right compared to what?” What standard are you setting, and is it even attainable? Why should that be necessary for happiness? Rather than fighting against your own story of what life should be, invite your current messy, imperfect life to sit with you and have a cup of tea. 

Buddha and Mara: Accept Your Negative Feelings

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  • How to live your life fully experiencing everything
  • Why you need to let go of judging yourself or your experiences
  • How you can acknowledge and welcome any experience

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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