Without this first step, all efforts to begin dealing with ‘what is’ as opposed to ‘what isn’t’ are doomed to failure. Just as you cannot study a frog by focusing on a rock – a process of understanding frogs starts with seeing and experiencing a frog as it is and understanding clearly and definitively that it is not a rock – attempts to remove the virtual distancing which we all surround the idea of self with begins by eliminating the distancing – and by keeping focus on the self rather than the mask. Otherwise we can spend a lifetime studying the virtual in a studied attempt to avoid contact with the real. (A good example in the Christian world is the reactions towards snakes – vilified in the religious theology, they are seen as vile creatures to be avoided and killed if at all possible. But snakes are just snakes – not demons or agents of the devil. In many other cultures snakes are deified – considered wise and good omens. They are, of course, neither demons nor gods – just snakes – a form of life that happens to share this small planet with us.)
So how long is this going to take? – I heard some of you just ask. Well, the short answer is ‘as long as it takes’. I remember watching an interview with John Forbes Nash, Jr. – the character at the center of Sylvia Nasar’s wonderful book A Beautiful Mind. He was asked how he recovered from a mental illness that kept so many enchained for most, if not all, of their lives. His response was “I became disillusioned with my delusions.” For most of us there is not such a moment of epiphany – no bolt of lightening which illuminates the landscape and suddenly allows us to see clearly. But the effect of long, hard work can produce something similar – a realization that changes the world as we know it and introduces us, often for the first time, to our very own self – when the instrument is tuned just right and the ear hears without distortion from the virtual. How long will it take you to become ‘disillusioned with your delusions’?
Another example comes from Robert Bly’s marvelous book Iron John. In retelling an ancient fable, Bly suggests that discovery is only the beginning of the process. The heavy lifting work – the ‘bucketing out’ as he calls it – is a tedious process that must be accomplished before the real goal – in this case, contact with Iron John – can be achieved. He also tells us that this is lonely work that only we can do for ourselves – we can’t outsource it or hire a maid or gardener to do it for us. How long will you be at the bucketing out?
But it is Your Life That Hangs in the Balance
All this must sound like a lot of work. So why re-tune at all? Like the concert master in a symphony orchestra, you must tune your fiddle correctly before the rest of your world can be experienced as in tune with it. If you want to experience directly what I mean, get thee to a symphony and watch the process. The first violin tunes and then the tuning spreads – like melodic wildfire – until the entire orchestras in tune. If the concert master is out of tune so is the entire orchestra – if you are out of tune, so is your entire world.
What is most damnable about the human dilemma is that almost all the discordance which occurs comes about because the concertmaster (you) got it wrong – the fiddle, and therefore the entire orchestra is out of tune with the world in which it finds itself.
Re-tuning the instrument begins with the concert master’s privilege (your privilege to choose the key and set the tuning for your world). But, it’s not just a matter of getting the four strings of a violin tuned in relation to each other – and this is the rub – correct tuning requires that the strings are also tuned to the standards that the world has set. So, you see, the privilege of the concert master is proscribed by ‘reality’ – by recognition of what is and an avoidance of what is not. Of course, you could ignore reality – or not recognize its existence at all – but then, you probably already have discovered where this leads to.
Actually the problem begins earlier than the re-tuning. Over the years vines, dust and rust have accumulated – clogging the violin. I think that Wallace Stevens had it right (although probably not what he meant) in his poem The Man with the Blue Guitar.
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts.
The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”III cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,
Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.
If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,
Say it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.
And so we all compose our serenade – mostly out of key and out of time. And, patch it as we can, it does not represent our self – only a badly distorted echo of some apprehensions – it does not bring us to that place that Nietzsche gained when he wrote Ecce Homo – behold the man.
Filling In the Holes
So how do you know when your ‘instrument’ is in tune? Well, here is the bad news. It doesn’t get that way by reading this or any other book. You don’t overcome the jarring jangle that you have allowed to grow up by listening to tapes or getting hypnotized or going on a diet or beating yourself with beech branches. Re-tuning begins when you realize that, from here on out, this is about you and not generic humanity or the generations of man – it is between you and you. I’m about done with my part. The best any Mentor can do is help you find the path. The rest is up to you.
There will be some indicators that your feet have found the path. The first is that the landscape which surrounds your self will begin to look quite different to you. Where you once almost casually assumed a unitary self, you will now see an array of masks and deceptions – and these will begin to seem jarring – unsatisfactory. You will have begun to become ‘disillusioned with your delusions’. A first experience might be the discovery of one particular mask – say the one which you have been using to keep those that you ‘say’ you care about the most at arms length. But soon you will find others until you have uncovered a constellation of them.
The exercise which you did earlier will help. Look around your fears, apprehensions, misgivings and self-deceptions. You will probably find masks galore. After a little practice you may find that you can ‘come around in front of’ each mask and view your ‘covered over’ self through the filter which you have been insisting that others use to see you through. You may even be tempted to draw a map of masks.
Pay attention to the efforts and energy that you are putting into maintaining each mask. What are the costs to you? What do you never experience because of them? What are the impacts of these masks on the others around you – particularly people you care about? All this should convince you that the masks have to be removed before your self can breathe clean, fresh air. But keep in mind that you had a lifetime to build and deploy them – they will not be erased simply because they have been discovered. And there will be some negative impacts to their disappearance.
When you begin dismantling the superstructure that has maintained the masks, there will be voids created. As each mask dissolves, the void will get larger. As the self’s horizons – which have been blocked by these masks – expand, there will be a sense of vastness – and of exposure. People can now see in. And you will begin to see other people differently – much more clearly. (Including their masks) Life will become more subtle – far more complex – as you discover that reality is a much more finely textured experience. The masks will appear quite primitive when compared with the amazing depth and subtlety of a human self – one or two dimensional fabrications that are only human creations – but not remotely human. So life gets more complicated in one sense – but far less complicated in another.
Think of all those ‘selves’ that you are trying to convince people you are and how they have helped you lose track of what is at the center of it all – or how you have come to confuse some or all of those masks with the reality of who you really are. Once you dispose of the masks the days of ‘herding cats’ is at an end.
So ‘bucketing out’ could be seen as a filling in or erasing from existence. (The latter being only possible when existence ceases – for, if you are – there you are) But it always begins with recognition of the void that is created by virtual distancing.