Making Friends with Mara

Jennifer O'Sullivan
5 min readMar 20, 2023
Mara’s Demons
Mara’s Retinue, Folio from an Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita (The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses), artist unknown. Source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet that one of the things we have in common is compassion as a guiding principle. I’m sure that, like me, you believe in the inherent value of all living beings and that everyone deserves love and kindness.

And yet, one of the hardest things to do is extend compassion to ourselves.

I think part of the reason is that even though individuals value compassion, most societies don’t model it. In fact, we get the opposite: shame.

Shame underpins morality in many world religions. Institutions use it as a method of social control. Collectively, we see shame as an acceptable form of punishment. Spend even just a little time on Twitter to see this in action.

With so much shame around us, of course, we’d wield it against ourselves. Our inner critics use it to keep us in line. Other Parts employ shame to avoid vulnerability or cover up feelings we’ve come to believe unacceptable.

Years ago, when I was first introduced to metta (loving-kindness) practice, the teacher told us not to be surprised if we find extending loving-kindness to ourselves a big challenge. “A lot of people get stuck there,” she said, “because many of us believe we don’t deserve it.”

Oof.

Sociologist Brené Brown defines shame as

“the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” (Atlas of the Heart)

It’s heartbreaking to know that most of us are walking around with this belief, even if it’s tucked away in exile. One of my Internal Family Systems (IFS) instructors described shame as the root of all burdens. If you do enough inner work, you’ll eventually find it. I see it in even my most accomplished clients and know it in my own system.

Unfortunately, many self-help strategies out there — tools ostensibly designed to release shame — actually use shame as the primary tactic.

Back to Brené. In Daring Greatly, she writes:

“If you put shame in a petri dish and cover it with judgment, silence, and secrecy, you’ve created the perfect environment for shame to grow until it makes its way into every corner and crevice of your life.

Any growth practice that uses judgment, silence, or secrecy — however stealthily — will have the opposite of the desired effect. The so-called undesirable parts of us don’t go away; they bide their time until they show up again with fresh energy. So many of my clients tell a familiar store: “I’ve already done so much work on this; I don’t understand why it keeps returning.” It comes back because we keep trying to push it away.

I know this doesn’t make logical sense, but stay with me.

If we want to make peace with our shadow, we must befriend Mara (the Buddhist avatar for our inner demons). When Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath the bodhi tree in the lead-up to his enlightenment, Mara attempted to thwart him with sensual temptations, offerings of power, and then with shame. Siddhartha persevered and became the Buddha not by successfully beating back Mara but by staying with him.

Mara returns to the Buddha repeatedly throughout his life in the same way that our shadow Parts revisit us.

Mara is not just “in” us, as that would imply we could cast him out. In fact, Mara is a part of us. A normal, healthy person shows up skillfully sometimes and unskillfully other times. We can be so loving and judgemental and everything in between. We’ll experience high highs and face very low lows.

Accepting ourselves, warts and all, is real growth. This idea is summed up in the unofficial Internal Family Systems (IFS) motto: “all parts are welcome.” Karen Faith calls it “Unconditional Welcome.”

For those that like the science, let’s go back to Brené’s research on shame and vulnerability; she offers this antidote:

“If, on the other hand, you put shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, shame loses its power and begins to wither. Empathy creates a hostile environment for shame — an environment it can’t survive in, because shame needs you to believe you’re alone and it’s just you.

Before I share an IFS-based approach to dousing your Parts with compassion, I want to point out that welcoming Parts doesn’t mean we endorse their behaviors or tactics. This isn’t an invitation to let your unskillful habits flourish and cause harm.

Instead, we’re accepting all the shame, fear, longing, sadness, grief, doubt, and disappointment that fuel our unskillful behaviors. It isn’t easy to be with these feelings (especially when culture derides them). I get that.

But… What the Buddha discovered, what Brene Brown’s research shows, and what I’ve seen in my own work and with my clients is that if you don’t try to push these feelings away, they really do lose their fierceness.

Mara wasn’t banished by the Buddha; he just kinda gave up and left. And every time Mara returned and the Buddha received him with loving-kindness, Mara would go again. Brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s research on the chemicals involved in emotions sheds light on why Mara leaves.

And now for the practice…

Whenever you notice Mara (vulnerability, hard feelings, inner critics, perfectionists, etc.) around, try this:​

​Step 1: Pause​
Slow down and get quiet. Our brains are wired to respond quickly to stress, but most situations don’t require an instantaneous response unless we’re in real physical danger. Stretch out the moment so you can be with yourself.

Step 2: Soften​
Instead of contracting around your negative inner chatter, open up space for it. Feel your body and see if you can relax around the edges. Deliberately slow your breath down. I usually put my hand over my heart to remember my compassionate intent. Note: this isn’t about turning off the feelings; it’s about creating a little calm so you can fully connect with what’s happening.

Step 3: Connect with Empathy​
Acknowledge the Part that’s around. Depending on the situation, one or more of the following phrases may be helpful to transmit to your upset Part: I see you. I know you show up when you’re feeling vulnerable. I can see that something is wrong. This is painful; I get it. Wow, this really sucks; no wonder you’re having a hard time.

Step 4: Stay with Compassion​
Compassion is empathy in action. It’s taking an extra step to ease the suffering of the hurting Part. BUT (and this is a big one), this is not about eradicating, dissolving, or fixing the Part that’s in pain. In these situations, the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself is to be a loving witness. Let your vulnerable Part know you’re there to witness whatever it wants you to know about why it feels this way.

Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, Internal Family Systems, functional anatomy, and a bit of this and that about living a wakeful life. Based in the Washington, DC area, I share gentle yoga, Buddhist mindfulness, and facilitated IFS Parts work in person and online. Find me at www.sati.yoga. I also co-host Skillful Means Podcast, which covers spirituality and yoga.

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Jennifer O'Sullivan

Shame-free embodied practices, rooted in timeless wisdom. Yoga, Buddhist Mindfulness, Internal Family Systems (IFS) www.sati.yoga