Buddha, Mara and the Illusion of Self-Doubt

We all have doubts. In fact self-doubt is one of the things I sometimes refer to as a common cold of psychotherapy. I frequently see people in therapy struggling to believe in themselves - people who struggle to see themselves as the loving, smart, capable people that their friends and loved ones see.

In fact, in her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach quotes Mother Teresa saying, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis but rather the feeling of not belonging.”

So I thought I’d share a story form the life of The Buddha that speaks to this issue.

Siddhartha Guatama, soon to be The Buddha, was on the verge of enlightenment when he arrived in what is now Bodhgaya, India. He had been wandering for years, seeking the solution to human suffering. On this day he sat in deep meditation and began the final exploration that would lead to his awakening.

Mara, the God of illusion, appeared before him to stop The Buddha’s awakening. He tempted him with riches, women, sensual pleasures, every distraction he could come up with. But Buddha remained steadfast. Finally Mara became enraged and hurled a plague of self doubt, “What makes you think you are someone who can be awakened?”

Buddha reached down with one hand and touched the earth, as if to say, “just because I’m here.” and he was enlightened in that moment. Then he opened his eyes and saw through the clouds of illusion to see Mara sitting in front of him. Then he smiled and said, “I see you Mara, let’s have tea,” and vanquished the god of illusion.

After that Buddha would occasionally see Mara in the crowd when he was teaching or skulking around at the edge of the woods. And he would always just smile and say, “I see you, Mara, let’s have tea.”

For me, the take away from this story is that even Buddha was occasionally visited by his doubts and issues. And rather than be caught up or swept away by them, he simply smiled and did the best he could to make friends with the parts of himself that he found difficult to love.

Flash forward 2,500 years and I had an opportunity to meet with a senior Buddhist teacher. She kindly listened to my issues and self-doubts and then reminded me of Buddha and Mara. She suggested that when I encounter my own self-doubts, as we all do, to stop struggling, look right at them and say, “I see you, Mara, let’s have tea.”

I think this is an important teaching. We all have issues. My friend Richard Liu used to tell me “we all have out top five.”

These can include;

  • Feelings of inadequacy,

  • Impostor syndrome,

  • Not being smart enough,

  • Feeling damaged,

  • I’m wounded and I can’t get well,

  • Fear of screwing up,

  • Feelings of incompetence,

  • Anxiety about money,

  • Fear that something bad is about to happen,

  • Anxiety about our appearance or body image.

The list is endless. And many of these issues are passed down from generation to generation. Writer and teacher Stephen Levine used to say, “If you look at your conditioning, it’s in someone else’s handwriting.”

In therapy sessions I’ve worked with people who have anxiety about money, despite having adequate means. It turns out as children of the depression, their parents passed their financial anxieties on to their children, who passed them on to the next generation.

Children who grow up with constant criticism often become adults who have trouble believing in themselves. Adult abuse survivors frequently struggle with the devastating messages they got from their abusers and fall into patterns of codependency and intense self-doubt.

I’ve often said, be careful what you say to your children. It becomes their inner voice later.

I’m not minimizing the hard work involved in healing these issues. But too often I hear people voicing the need to reject the wounded parts of themselves. Or they’ve lived in denial of their self-doubts and feared inadequacies. And instead of facing them, they’ve unconsciously played them out in relationships that don’t work for them and behaviors that don’t serve them.

As a young therapist in training, I witnessed an encounter where a recovering addict told a therapist he wanted to “take my addict self out and kill him.”

The therapist responded, “Why don’t you take him out and love him.”

I believe the path to healing lies not in rejecting the parts of ourselves that we find painful or distasteful. I believe to feel whole, we need to learn to love all of the parts of ourselves, including our wounded selves that have adopted these negative beliefs and patterns.

The task, then, is to learn to love ourselves, not in spite of our wounds and perceived shortcomings, but with all of it.

This path involves learning to offer ourselves the same kindness and compassion that we would offer to a wounded child.

So, the next time you’re being visited by your doubts, fears or feelings of inadequacy, try to remember these are illusions - offerings from Mara - and say, “I see you, Mara, let’s have tea.”

It takes practice and patience. And if you feel that you can’t do it, or you’re not getting it right because you don’t always remember, just smile and say,

I see you, Mara. Let’s have tea.

I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful. If you’re struggling, I’m here to help. Please call me at (812) 371-6330, or email me at ken@insight-counseling.org