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Earl R. Smith II, PhD

(Read More From My Blog)

There is an important difference between Coaching and Mentoring. Coaching tends to deal with the finishing details while mentoring focuses on foundational questions. I value the work done by Coaches and have done a considerable amount of it myself but, over the years, I have gravitated towards Mentoring because it tends to involve Transformational Journeys and the remaking of a life. Helping a person make that journey successfully is a source of great joy and satisfaction for me.

My decision to focus on the Mentoring is as much a reflection of who I am as it is of the problems and challenges that attract my interest. I can say confidently that every lesson learned, every mentoring session I have been involved in and every challenge faced by a person I am working with yields benefits both to they and me. For me, Mentoring is a win-win undertaking.

The fundamental question that Mentoring focuses on is "Who am I and what should I be doing with my life?" Most people who seek me out are dealing with this question in one form or another. Some have had extensive and often very successful careers but have arrived at the point where they are questioning whether what they are doing with their life is what they should be doing with it. Others have been experiencing an increasing dissatisfaction with their life and are seeking an alternative path. In a fundamental way, it makes no difference the path they have followed; the need is the same. There is an old Zen saying - "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear". My experience has been that when the student is ready they begin to seek out a Mentor who can help them discover the answers to these very basic questions.

You Are What Eats You

A friend recently suggested that people are defined by those things that bother them the most. I think there is something to be gained from this perspective. Here’s a suggestion; eavesdrop on a group of close friends talking in a relaxed setting. Inevitably the conversation becomes colored by their apprehensions, phobias, maladies and discomforts. If you listen closely you’ll also notice that certain individuals seem to be avoiding certain topics.

If you couple this with the idea that every individual must face the same demon over and over again until they finally slay it, you might begin to see people as stuck within a certain cycle - only breaking the cycle when the circle is opened and it becomes a spiral. The gatekeepers that persist in maintaining these ‘vicious cycles’ are those very same un-slain demons. So to paraphrase the theme song from the original movie version of the Thomas Crown Affair, life may not be a ‘circle in a spiral’ but a circle which, once broken, becomes a spiral which inevitably establishes itself as a new, and hopefully wider circle. In any case the idea of the ‘windmills of your mind’ may seem useful when thinking this way.

A Dangerous Experiment

Here is an experiment you can do during a quiet time. It will take a bit of courage and the comfort that you will not be interrupted – that nobody will be looking over your shoulder. Make a list of those things which distress, frighten, offend or cause you unease. It will be important to be honest about this list for, if you’re not, you will end up thinking about some mythical individual who you have constructed in order to keep others (and you) from meeting your true self – you will end up criticizing the mask rather than getting to know the maker who has felt the need to construct such a thing.

Now connect items on the list with parts of who you are or who you are becoming. In other words, try to connect items on the list with behaviors that you see as part of you as a person. A simple example might be “I do not travel because I’m afraid of flying”. Still another might be “I avoid heights because I suffer from vertigo” or “I do not swim in the ocean because I’ve seen the movie Jaws”. A more serious example might be “I avoid intimate relationships because I do not trust myself in them”. (I refer to this as the ‘list of the lost’ - the idea is to convert it into a ‘bucket list’ – things you are going to do or experience while you still can – before you ‘kick the bucket’.)

Finally connect the behaviors with the costs that they bring. “I have always wanted to tour Europe but it will never happen because I’m afraid to fly or I am uncomfortable in countries where English is not the primary language.” Or “I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon but I’m afraid that I couldn’t get close enough to the edge to really experience it – so I don’t go.” “My life is lonely and I crave intimacy with a special person, but I will never experience it because I fear the exposure.” (I am reminded of a wonderful short story by Truman Capote – I believe it is in his collection Music for Chameleons – in which he asked an elderly lady what she had learned during her decades of life. To paraphrase, she said “I’ve learned that I don’t have to be afraid to eat lobster. I don’t like it, but I’m not afraid to eat it anymore.” Overcoming may simply substitute a real aversion for a virtual one – I leave you to decide which one is better had.)

If you take this exercise seriously, you will be on your way to discovering something very important about your self.

Wherever You Go There You Are

Where it comes to self knowledge, there is no avoiding your self – the only choice is to avoid the process altogether. (As the old saying goes, “if you don’t want to hear the answer, avoid the question”. But then, why live at all?) To begin the process – to shake your own hand in greeting – is an electric event. Coming in contact with your self for the first time can bring on severe vertigo. Once the virtual distance is erased, there is nothing but the self as self – alone, isolated but sufficient unto itself. But, before real contact can possibly occur, the dance must end – a dance which can go on for decades – unproductive and self-deceiving until the very end. It becomes a matter of how close you allow yourself to your own self.

Life is Simple and Natural. We Make It Complicated and Unnatural

This complex idea may take some time and careful reflection before you come to see precisely what it implies. The idea of maintaining a discreet distance from your self – perhaps as a result of guilt, shame or a feeling of inadequacy – is presumptuous in that it ‘presumes’ that you can be divided into a true self and that which prevents close contact with that self. But, in fact, the two are one in the same. The distance is virtual (imagined) and is assumed as a convenience rising out of a decision to avoid self knowledge.

The Ancient Greeks Understood What We Tend To Forget

Wherever you are is the only place which you can be at the time. The ancient idea of noema is Greek for the meaning of something. It is the mental equivalent of a schema or schematic of something. It is the "representation" of an experience of a meaning based system through its own self-referential process. It could also be considered as the projection of one's own experience onto oneself. Something noetic has to do with something involving intellectual activity (from the Greek nous, "mind"). One can speak of the noetic faculty as the "intellect proper." Another Greek word for mind is novhma (noema), which translates as mental thought or perception: that which thinks of an idea. There is a noema corresponding to every act of memory, expectation, and representation. This is based on the assumption that the ‘meaning’ is separate from ‘being’ – that the implications of ‘being’ are it’s ‘meaning’.

But All Understanding is Contextual

Although this may be useful for things outside of the self, it has some insidious implications if allowed to pollute self-reflection. Self reflection is a special category – where the concept of noema is a non-sequitur. The idea of bringing the ‘self’ to the self is only viable if that self has been artificially divided into self and ‘self’ – self and ‘mask’. The tendency towards virtual distancing is, if anything, stronger when the self reflects on itself – but it is a trap – a road to nowhere - and the tendency towards convenient self-deceptions more compelling once it is sprung. It induces an addiction to unknowingly not knowing.

Memories and the Corners of Your Mind

Consider the idea of memory. Most people casually assume that their memories – particularly those intensely re-lived – are connected out there – in a world that has been experienced. But that world is gone forever – it no longer exists, if it ever actually did - and memories are only imperfect recollections of occurrences from a single perspective. (Modern historians recognized this when they redefined ‘history’ – no longer a recounting of ‘what actually happened’, history is now a collection of remembrances – some reliable and others less so – to be sifted through in search of … well, probably whatever it is that the searcher set out to find!!)

Imperfect memories are the residual images – the detritus – of a past which we carry through our lives. We tend to see those accumulated memories as part of us – as a component of a more complex whole. But a famous guru’s formulation – "I poked my finger into my eye which disturbed my mind" – clearly demonstrates a problem which cannot be avoided. If it is my finger and my eye and my mind, what or who is left?

Memories, like all such things, are masks and echoes of masks. Are they my memories or part of the self that I am – without a possessor? The distinction has tremendous implications. The very act of creating a mask – and memories as possessions are a mask - is an overt attempt at suicide of the self – with the mask as a funeral shroud to cover the corpse which is being denied.

If my memories are me, then how irrelevant is the mere possessor of them? The assumption of my memories, my feelings, my pain, my shame, my guilt, my joy is an attempt to empty the self of meaning until it can be cleanly assassinated. The problem being, of course, that the bastard won’t die so easily and the self grins at us from behind the shroud – threatening ever to reveal the secret of who we are and what we have tried to do. It is the self – not the masks – that is enduring.

Mutterings Off-Key

Off-key mutterings are the common currencies of misdirected or inauthentic self reflection. (Here I am using the term ‘misdirection’ as magicians use it – a diversion from the real that results in a false impression of what has occurred or what is – by the use of misdirection, slight of hand is transformed into magic! ) Mostly when we think or talk about ourselves we deploy parts of these visions of a fragmented self. Such a strategy prevents us from reaching any kind of enlightenment. We opt for these constructions because we have decided to avoid self knowledge. (I refuse to accept the proposition that these decisions are unconscious – for, if they are, then there is something behind the self – of which the self is unaware and cannot access - and this is a rabbit hole that only Alice could survive!) The reinforcement of opting out over and over again – taking the ‘easy way out’ – allows us to construct a life stratagem with the apparent goal of making it all the way to the grave without ever meeting our self.

Another Dangerous Experiment

Here is a useful exercise which might help you understand what I’m getting at. There must be someone in your life that you would rather not be in regular contact with. Let’s assume for purposes here that this person offends you to such an extent that you would actually cross the street if you saw them coming towards you. Now reflect on how that situation came to be. Perhaps it was a remark or an odor or simply their appearance that set you off – or maybe it’s the sound of their voice that you can’t stand. In any case, you now avoid if at all possible coming in contact with them.

Now think about what you really know about this person – how well you really know them. What should come to mind is that your attitude towards them is based on a limited understanding of whom or what kind of a person they really are. You can’t be bothered with details that might contradict your impression. In life we do this all the time. Under the pressure of living, we’re reaching conclusions about people, situations, experiences and ourselves based upon very limited knowledge. And so we purposely mutter off-key as a form of avoidance and convenience.

What If It Is You?

But, underlying this apparent reaction to another is a far more insidious implication. What if the other is your very own self? If you have created the mask – the virtual ‘self’ – it must abhor, indeed avoid contact with and all reference to, the self that brought it into existence. Like anti-matter encountering matter, these two – the real and the virtual – can come into direct contact only to disintegrate the virtual in this world and/or the real in the virtual world. The virtual ‘self’ – the mask – must avoid the self at all cost because contact inherently implies infanticide – the parent will destroy the creation of its self-deception.

I hope you will admit that there is a difference between dying never having met a particular person again and dying never having met your self. (Of course, having met yourself implies, in Zen Buddhist terms, discarding the illusions of the world as you have created it in favor of the world as it is – and your self as you have created it in favor of the self that is – but more of that another day.) There’s something unfortunately comforting in the former and something deeply tragic in the latter.

So what do you do once you become determined to dispose of the illusions of the virtual and greet your self as yourself? How is it possible to dispose of all those schizophrenic echoes of willful misdirection? (Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m schizophrenic and so am I!) How does a pluralistic personality return to being unitary self? How do you eliminate all those virtual distances and multiple masks that have encrusted it for so long? How do you manage to cut through all of the noise that has crept into a harmony that should be so sublime? Maybe you re-tune the instrument!

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.

Poetic Interlude

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.

A Circle In a Circle

A circle is a spiral unresolved. In life, resolution is the gateway from ‘here’ to ‘here’ – only to be experienced, upon arrival, as a new ‘here’. Progress is non-linear – not from ‘here’ to ‘there’ – but from ‘here’ to ‘what was not here and now has suddenly become here but was always and ever here’ – or if you prefer the optimistic slant, from ‘what is not here and now has become there’ to ‘suddenly here’. We grow when we cease to be able to inhabit a way of being and, because of some bit of enlightenment or an accident, have to vacate the cottage in favor of a more substantial house. From that perspective, life’s journey is not a gradual stroll from beginning to end but an erratic and jerky experience – a journey to a new ‘here’ which is again and suddenly ‘here’.

In life some understandings are only reached based upon critical realizations. (Realizations that most certainly involves slaying a demon) Knowledge becomes useful, indeed enticing, if you first understand its purpose. Learning calculus, for instance, can be incredibly difficult if you don’t understand its purpose. If its purpose is of interest or value to you then the study will go easily and be productive. If you don’t understand its purpose or value its capabilities then no amount of intensive effort will make much difference. The same is particularly true of self knowledge.

To understand what I am getting at, imagine yourself entering a carpenter shop. Over there are stacks of wood and elsewhere there are very intriguing tools – some of them quite elegant. Some of the spirit of the shop can be experienced even if you never pick up a plane or chisel and learn how to use them. But, for the carpenter, the shop is a useful – even magical - place. Understanding the purpose of the tools and the wood and appreciating how they can help achieve a purpose in life – for instance, building fine furniture – transforms the shop into a highly productive and supportive environment without diminishing its elegance in the least.

The same experience can occur when an individual reaches a deeper self knowledge. Suddenly accumulated knowledge, experience and understandings can be deployed to a broader and more subtle understanding.

A Wheel Within a Wheel

The idea of a wheel within a wheel is useful when thinking about context. The ‘within’ within the within wheel is, of course, the self. It will ever turn in a frustrated attempt to become known. The spokes that radiate outward support the masks. If, for instance, the ‘self’ which avoids emotions – doesn’t trust its own emotions – it will cycle again and again to, but not through, the point where emotions are appropriate. Your ‘self’, upon seeing that point reached, may remind your self (If it makes things easier, substitute the word ‘mask’ for the word ‘self’ in this context – then keep the meaning of self for only when the ‘ ’ do not appear) of the danger of feelings. At that point your ‘self’ would begin to pressure to maintain the circle and avoid both the demon (fear of feelings) and the dangers of the spiral (the unknown beyond). Without an epiphany – a sudden understanding of this dynamic – the cycle may continue for an entire life.

The Illogic of it All

There is an ‘illogic’ in all of this – you would assume that you have your own best interests in mind when you construct these masks – but nothing could be further from the truth. Masks are properly seen as an attempt on the life – the very existence – of the self. (It is one of those unavoidably ‘illogical’ results of thinking about the self – when only the self is capable of thinking – that arguments between the self and its masks become focused on limits set by the masks. The self asserts ‘you are better than you have become and there is more in life than you will allow yourself to experience’ only to have the mask (the self’s own creation) reply ‘you’re wrong – we are less than we have made our ‘self’ out to be’ – hence we deceive’. There is no way around this – the purpose of the mask (the child) is to conceal an assumed but non-existent inadequacy of the self and to eventually exterminate from memory the progenitor – in other words, to commit patricide.) I suppose all of us know individuals who seem determined to finish their life without ever experiencing joy. If we look at them we would say “what a pity to live without experiencing such an emotion”. But how often might we look at ourselves and the list of things that we avoid and say “what a pity”?

So you can live within this marvelous carpenter shop called ‘your body’ - inside this incredibly varied village called ‘earth’ and not appreciate – even begin to comprehend - the things that they can show you. We can, because of our fear of sharp objects, never learn the elegance of a chisel expertly applied to a piece of wood. We can, because of an aversion to the idea of cutting, never come to experience the wonderful simplicity and amazing capabilities of a hand saw. Or we could, because of an aversion to the idea of direct action, never experience the wonderful asymmetry and elegance of a brace and bit. All of these characteristics of the ‘self’ keep us from experiencing the magnificence of the carpenter shop. What a pity.

Interregnum - The time between two reigns, governments, etc.

The pitcher stands statue-straight on the mound – his head cocked to the left as he eyes the lone base runner. The runner inches forward and then, thinking the better of it, settles back towards first. As the pitcher’s right eye transfers to the catcher behind the plate, the catcher’s right eye holds the runner. The sign is given and the pitcher nods an agreement.The batter stands in – hugging the plate. The count is three and two – three balls and two strikes – only one out. “This is it”, the batter mutters under his breath, “Here comes the old fireball – fastball all the way”.The pitcher goes into his windup – the runner begins a dash for second – the batter digs in and waits for the old number one. From behind the pitcher’s body his arm speeds forward. “Wow”, the batter thinks, “A sidearm fast ball is a thing of beauty.”But, of course, it isn’t a fastball – it’s a curveball – the batter fans – strike three. As the ball drives into the catcher’s mitt, he rises and fires towards second base. The ball slaps into the second baseman’s glove a split second before the runner’s foot reaches the bag. Congratulations – you have just struck your ‘self’ out and thrown your ‘self’ out at second. The inning is over. Virtual realities and splintered ‘selves’ can be a real bitch sometimes. (If you don’t believe it, try arguing with your self. Now, who exactly is it that who is arguing with whom? “I’m of two minds!” Yeah right!)

Digging a hole to nowhere through nothing – synthetic realities

Every person’s world is full of synthetic realities. In the commercial world, corporations have raised to a fine art the ability to manipulate human wants. (And many would brag ‘to create out of whole cloth’) They would have you believe that by using their product you will be faster, more attractive, more intelligent, live longer and/or be more successful. They hope to put you in contact with those synthetic realities (and have you consider them as ‘real possibilities’) as an inducement for buying their product or service. (A classic example are the gyms which offer year-long contracts that they know will probably not be used after the first couple of months – in fact the profitability (not to mention the survival) of these organizations depends on their ability to sell memberships that will not be used. If everybody who was a member suddenly started using the facilities, the gym would be overcrowded.)

Classically, synthetic realities are used to induce an action by providing a vision of an alternative way of being which is easily seen as more desirable. Ideally, these synthetic realities will dissolve shortly after the desired action is taken. (In other words – and this is critically important – the mouse will loose all memory of the maze at precisely the point which it, having followed the proscribed pathway, reaches the cheese – and, upon reaching the cheese will, based on focused conditioning along the way, find it the most delicious cheese that it has ever had – and that that thought will dissipate to make room for the next maze - instant gratification and instant forgetting in the same package.)

Consider the advertising for diet programs or pharmaceuticals. These tell you of a life which is considerably different – and by implication considerably better – than the one you are presently living. Their purpose is to induce the ‘vision’ of what ‘is not’ and compare it favorably with what ‘is’ – and then to suggest that what ‘is not’ can be what is. (With appropriate proscriptions and provisos provided by lawyers, of course)

Celebrity - Who?

Now think of this ‘modern’ celebrity focused culture that we live in. Who are your heroes and how much do you know about them? These celebrity ‘persona’ are manufactured and carefully groomed ‘virtual’ realities promulgated by what used to be called ‘snake oil salesmen’. People actually live their lives in negative comparison with these ‘idealized’ visions of non-existent people – automatons whose principal purpose is to deceive and misdirect. So, for some, life becomes a burrowing into these synthetic realities. But in reality, this amounts to digging a hole to no ‘where’ through no ‘thing’. (It is a short journey from accepting these synthetic people as ‘real’ to accepting masks – synthetic versions of your self – as ‘real’?)

There is a real problem when synthetic visions of your self are substituted for the real thing. Synthetic realities are entirely virtual. There’s nothing ‘there’ but the ‘vision of the virtual’. (Without constant affirmation or intensive operand conditioning, virtual realities tend to dissipate rather quickly – hence the extended time and effort required for maintaining brainwashing.) Take this idea and turn it inward – what of those masks you have constructed because you bought into some anti-humanist load of crap that was ‘sold’ to you by people and companies that have no interest in who you really are?

Its time to take a fresh look at your list.

Returning to the List

By now you should begin to see your list in a very different light. At first, they have seemed like lies that you have told yourself – you have been both the ‘snake oil salesman’ and the ‘mark’ – seller and buyer. But I hope that vision is beginning to be supplanted by another. The masks are challenges to overcome and markers for the demons that need to be slain. In fact, we have been developing a road map to recovery. It should now be possible to see these ‘virtual realities’ and ‘manufactured masks’ as deadwood that needs to be cleared away.

Well, you can’t just call in a bulldozer and push them off the map – self-deceptions are made of sterner and more enduring stuff. So how do you attack these demons?

The True Meaning of Being Born Again

Well, first and foremost, you realize that not only are they of your manufacture (Yes – you manufactured these demons – they are not real) but there are support structures – like the spokes of a wheel – that keep them in place and maintained. (A wonderful example of what I am talking about is the 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet. Dr. Morbius’ creatures of the id destroy all that opposes his will. The Krell – the race that developed the ability to empower these creatures – was destroyed by their own inability to come to terms with these creatures’ power – a fable of some relevance to our discussions here.) The spokes are their weak points. The self’s complicity lies in the maintenance of these spokes – the superstructure that keeps the masks in place. (In Forbidden Planet, Dr. Morbius dies in an attempt to deny his ‘creatures’ “I deny you!”, he shouts. But, of course, his pronouncement had no real effect. You face no such fate unless you die with out having made the attempt.) The first step in this process is to bring those off-key mutterings into better tune by removing the spokes that keep the sources of dissonance in place.

Mutterings In-Key

Empowerment (And, indeed, the path to enlightenment) begins when you start to see things as they are rather than insisting on them being what you would prefer them to be. (It is what it is and isn’t what it isn’t) This is a very powerful idea - think about it for a minute – or a decade – some ideas are very good constant companions. Then ask yourself, “What do I gain by self-deceiving?” (In this case I am making a distinction between misperceiving and self-deception and attaching an intentionally to the very act of self-deception – whether you choose to call the decision conscious or unconscious – the self decides to self-deceive – and, for me, that is a conscious decision.) Come on now – don’t let your self off the hook so easily – think about it – think hard. What does it seem like to you?

If it seems like a form of self-sabotage, then you are on the right track. The intention implied in self-deception implies a decision to deceive – and that intentional decision can only have been made by the self. (Someone else or some set of circumstances might mislead you – that is different – self-deception begins with the conscious decision to deceive the self.) How do you break out of this circle into a wider spiral? You begin by challenging that intentionality to self-deceive wherever you find it. That intentionality is precisely the energy which your self is deploying to maintain the masks – your intentionality.

A Death and a Smile

As a first step you need to assume responsibility for ferreting out those inclinations which you have used to create virtual distances within a synthetic recasting of your self. In short, you must begin to plan a death and burial for the burial shroud which you have so carefully woven over the years of your life – a ceremony that will take place, of course, without a corpse - only the shroud.

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.

From Here On

You have your list and map – the rest is mostly up to you. They can become intellectual curiosities, dust collecting relics or the first steps on a path that will significantly change your life and way of living. I have six suggestions to leave you with.

1. Don’t try to do it all at once: It took you a long time to build this artificial edifice and it will take time to remove and dispose of it. It is important to take your time and be deliberate.

2. Journal your efforts – leave tracks in the snow: Remember to leave the proverbial trail of bread crumbs – not so that you can find your way back – but so you can see how far you have come. It is a very good idea to start a journal of your efforts and take a bit of time at the end of each day to record your efforts – failures and successes – and remember to be honest lest the journal become another mask!

3. Keep at it: Consistent diligent effort is what is called for. Don’t give up because you had a bad day – remember the masks will fight back!

4. Chart your progress: The journal will help you keep track – but also spend some time thinking about the progress that you are making – take a look back at what used to be – it will help you to keep moving forward

5. Celebrate each victory: Each time a mask falls, give your self a treat – and invite some of those around you to join in. Celebrate each victory for what it really is – a step towards complete liberation.

6. Get Thee a Mentor: There is ever a danger of wandering off the path into a forest of self-deception – so take steps to avoid this ignominious fate. All of the work that you have been doing can come to nothing if you don’t share it with someone – a person who will help you keep on the track and call you if you begin to sabotage the process. The nature of the work you will be doing is so sensitive that you might not feel comfortable sharing it with someone you know well – indeed, someone who has been the victim of one or more of your masks – the deceptions that you have fielded. I can’t make this point forcefully enough. Trust someone with the work you are doing – ask for their help in doing it. You are going to be doing some very heavy lifting – a good Mentor can help you make it count.


Good luck on your journey. If you need a bit of help now and then – or just want to crow about your successes, drop me an e-mail at I would love to hear about your experiences. I will leave you with a poem by William Stafford.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
And I don’t know the kind of person you are
A pattern that others made may prevail in the world
And following the wrong god home we may miss our star. For there is many a small betrayal in the mind
A shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
Sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
Storming out to play through the broken dyke. And as elephants parade holding each other’s tail,
But if one wanders the circus won’t find the park
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
To know what occurs but not recognize the fact. And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
A remote important region in all who talk:
Though we could fool each other, we should consider
Lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark. For it is important that awake people be awake
Or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep
The signals we give – yes or no, or maybe –
Should be clear: the darkness around us is deep

© Earl R Smith II, PhD

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