The man stops speaking. He looks at the skull crown, which disappears. You sit, trying to process this information, your brain desperately trying to disprove the empty portrait of yourself that has just been painted. You run through possibility after possibility, but only one stands out.
“What about the soul?” you ask.
The man chuckles.
“What about it?” he replies.
“Isn’t it permanent? Isn’t that the part of me that never changes?”
“That,” he says, “is a very complicated question, and not what you need to focus on right now. At the higher levels of the game, you will find the answer to this question. All I can say at the moment is that what you’re referring to as a soul can only be found in the space between your thoughts. Right now, though, you need to focus on defeating Mara.”
Annoyance creeps back into your mind, a feeling of frustration at being told what to do and not getting enough answers. Snappily, you ask “Why should I listen to you? I feel like all this is a dream anyway, and I’ll just wake up and you’ll have never existed.”
The man chuckles again.
“The only difference between a dream and your normal life is that you keep waking up in your normal life.” Again, the power of these words and the profundity of his calmness deflate your own anger. He pauses, then continues.
“I understand that all this seems strange and nonsensical to you right now. But, please, listen to what I’m telling you. If you don’t defeat Mara, you will suffer again and again and again. Even if you make a billion dollars and buy your own island, Mara will find you there. As long as you ignore the rules of his game, you will never know true peace.”
“Okay, okay, okay,” you repeat, processing everything he’s told you, “so life is a never-ending game run by some devil-creature called Mara, the goal is to get out of the game, I don’t really exist, and I’ve been ignorant of these facts. Now what? What do I do? How do I play this game, anyway?”
A deep smile crosses the man’s face, an elated grin that says I thought you’d never ask. In the distance, across the great void, a faint light begins to glimmer.
“At this point, all you have to do,” he replies, “is watch your mind, every moment of every day, and, eventually, make it stop.”
The man starts to speak more and more rapidly. He remains calm, but there is an increasing urgency in his words.
“It works like this. Every single choice, every conscious action you make, is laying the seeds for your future choices and actions. Nothing you do is by accident, really; when you look deep inside your own mind, you will find the seeds of everything you’ve ever done. For example, when you make an impulsively bad choice on a Friday afternoon, it wasn’t created in that moment, but earlier, when, say, you had a miserable commute to the office. This is why you often feel not in control of yourself, because you’re not fully aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is how Mara operates – he wants you to not go looking into the cause and effect that takes place in your own head.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” you interject. “I have a few questions about this Mara thing. Is he real? You said he’s like the Devil – is there a hell, then? Does he want me to go to hell? How does he operate?”
The light in the distance is getting brighter and brighter.
“I’m sorry,” the man says, speaking with real urgency now. “There isn’t much time left. Mara is your bad thoughts, your ignorance, your greed and hatred; above all, he is your tendency to grasp to yourself, your problems, your sense of being a real, existing being instead of a collection of impermanent phenomenon that come and go. Whether he’s real or not, whether there’s a hell or not – that’s not important right now.”
“What is important is that you understand your own mind, and how it works. You must watch the aggregates I’ve described to you, watch how they interact, and, most importantly, understand what makes you want some things and not want others. This understanding is essential, because until you get to the bottom of your own momentary motivations, you will continue to act mindlessly and not make any progress in the game. I wish I could explain more, but we’re almost out of time. ”
The light is quite bright now. As it intensifies, you can feel this reality becoming less tangible, less clearly defined. One look in the man’s eyes confirms what you’re thinking: This place is about to disappear. You are about to wake up in your normal life. Anything you want to know, ask now.
Three questions come to the forefront of your mind.
“I have three questions.”
“How do I watch my mind? What do you mean by making it stop? And who are you?”
The light is very bright, as bright as the sun on a desert horizon. The man becomes vague, indistinct, and his answer sounds distant, like voices drifting over water.
“Start with two things: analyzing the impermanence of your thoughts, and watching your breath. As for your second question, it will feel a little like -”
The light suddenly becomes brighter than an exploding star, engulfing the man, the disc, petals, and the void. His words cut out mid-sentence, merged in a roaring multisensory vibration that envelops your entire body, dissolving it into clear white light. Your brain becomes electricity, a blinding brilliance filling the space where your thoughts normally reside. Everything begins to meld into one frequency, one wavelength, one phenomenal taste.
You wake up with your head face-down on your desk at work, the keys of your laptop pressing into your forehead. A soft poke in your side is revealed to be the coworker who sits behind you, a look of concern on their face.
“Hey, you alright?” they ask. “You just kinda passed out for a minute there. We were wondering when you were going to wake up.”
You give them a big smile.