Your List Revisited
Maybe it’s time to return to your list. Remember this is an effort to relate you to your relationship to your self – and here is an important warning. It is easy to get trapped into an intellectual discussion – a diversion from the more important project. Take out the list and read it this time with an ear for discordance – those off-key mutterings that populate your internal dialogs – personal efforts to misdirect your attention. If you are honest with your self and firm in your intentions, you will end up saying something like “Well, that doesn’t make any sense” or “This seems like an odd way for me to deal with that situation”.
There is an old saying that one of the best ways to look at a complex problem is out of the corner of your eye – that the eye sees details from that perspective which eludes the direct gaze. One of my favorite ‘tricks’ is to have a client look at their list as if it was prepared by a stranger – a compendium of ‘another person’s off-key mutterings’. This approach can often disclose in high relief the masks that are deployed. Another technique which has worked wonderfully is to focus on these masks as actual people rather then distorted representations of your own self. (One client responded to a mask that shouted ‘I avoid intimacy’ by breaking down and sobbing “How can a person avoid what every human craves to the core? This is inhuman!” Another’s revulsion was so strong that they could barely talk about it without descending into a rage.) One client reacted by claiming “I don’t know this person – this mask – it’s certainly not me.” It is a major leap forward when you can accept that statement – that the masks which you so carefully constructed are not you. Another reacted more violently. “I don’t like this person at all and would avoid them altogether if I could”. Here is the harbinger of the necessary funeral.
Unmasking the Mask
The important part of this process is to come face to face with your artificial faces – to look them in the eye one by one and experience them as you have asked others to. It might be helpful to see this process as a pivoting around – moving from behind to in front of each mask. By doing so, you leave behind the apprehensions which lead you to create it and confront the aspect of the mask on those who are trying to get to know you. You may find yourself having much the same experiences that others who have been trying to get to know you have – “Why is this thing in the way? What purpose does it serve other than to deceive me? And, why does he feel the need to deceive me – this is not the ‘him’ that I know and have come to like?” The experience can be akin to looking carefully at your face in a mirror. The longer you stare, the more details you see – some rather unflattering.
As you work your way through the list, try to isolate those masks that you have deployed. They are ‘all the lives of me’ – all the ways you have insisted that you are even in the face of knowing that they are inauthentic. Sometimes it helps to give them names – descriptive ones are better. In any case, you should strive to see them in high relief without giving in to the temptation of either denying that they are of your manufacture or blaming some other source – like society – for their existence.
The Wind, One Brilliant Day by Antonio Machado in Times Alone: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, Wesleyan University Press, 1983
The wind, one brilliant day, called to my soul with an odor of jasmine
“In return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like all the odor of your roses.”
“I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead.”
“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals and the yellowed leaves and the waters of the fountain.”
The wind left. And I said to myself “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”
Well, all of the flowers in your garden are probably not dead – poetic license can lead to extremes. But maybe they are in poorer shape than you would like. Antonio Machado does have a point. Self reflection can lead directly to a suspicion of self bad faith – of inauthenticity – and that is its own kind of desolate place. Still, there is gain to be had in making the journey inward. You must remain ever conscious of the risks involved. It is very important to keep your balance and so very easy to descend into an exercise of self-flagellation. Self punishment is just another mask – ‘I am the torturer of my self’. No, this is exactly the point to turn upward towards the light. We have gone down as far as we need to.
Walling Off the Wall
The first reaction to discovering that your mutterings have been ‘off-key’, might be to wall off the wall of masks surrounding your self – to reinforce the legitimacy of the virtual ‘self’ by declaring it illegitimate. (If it is illegitimate it still exists – the goal here is eradication) The first strategy is generally denial. But denial – particularly strenuous denial – only empowers. Some may embark, as a distraction, on a great crusade to reform others or tell them of what has been found. (The difference here is between the crusader who shouts “I have found the disease” and one who shouts “I have found the cure”. A journey half done is yet begun.) Another common strategy is to find some ‘peace’ and ‘sense’ in a cause or purpose. But this entire effort can quickly become a kamikaze raid on a vacant lot. Is ‘your life’ your purpose or is ‘your purpose’ your life? For if it is the latter, then it isn’t your life at all – it is your ‘purpose’s life’ and you have only constructed another mask. There is certainly value to having a purpose in life. It helps you to become a more productive member of society. But having a purpose in life is a double edged sword because it can keep you from realizing who you really are and experiencing all of those things that you are capable of during your life. Remember our journey here is inward – ‘society’ can wait until we are finished.
However you do it, walling off the masks only reinforces their legitimacy and makes it more difficult to get at or do without them.