A lot of the processes of yoga seem geared towards revealing the “authentic self” which I find fascinating. The dissolution of the ego is a hobby of mine. I’m always curious about what lies beneath, what lives at the very core of a person’s being. What did you come into this life with and what parts did you create as you lived and grew into the person you are now?
Perhaps some definitions are in order before we get started because the word “ego” is used to mean a lot of different things. For instance, we could be talking about the Freudian definition of ego in all it’s myriad of forms and functions but that can get cumbersome. I mean, supposedly modern psychology has disproven Freud’s theories a thousand times over but they still love to bounce ideas off his tombstone.
Or we could be talking about Jung’s persona. I like this one a lot better since its close to the concepts I like to discuss. Pesona is the social construct a person presents to the world. But this theory can get mired in psychobabble as fast as anything Freud ever came up with so we’ll make our own definition so we can play with the idea and see where it takes us.
So the ego or the persona is the mask we wear, the construct we present to the world for a variety of reasons sometimes voluntary, other times not. We do not come into this life with it on. We build as we grow and have experiences until there is no discernible difference between who we are and the mask we wear.
Now, some would argue that that’s life. Tabula Rasa and all that. We come in and have to create who we are from the experiences we have. But my own experience runs counter to this. Through a variety of means and methods, I’ve caught glimpses of the “authentic self” in myself and others. We came in with something and then we build masks.
And what’s wrong with that? Maybe that’s what we come here to do. Make new masks, make new selves, explore different ways of being. But my problem is the automatic duality of the situation. If I know it’s a mask, how can I be sure that my reaction to any given situation is authentic? What if a mask I wear was not one of my choosing but created as a means of survival during a horrible experience? Wouldn’t my actions become a reflection, not of my true self, but of the face I had to create to survive? I can’t see those actions as authentic. I want to be in a space where I act at my own volition, not react based on a social construct I’ve designed to hide from the world.
So, I want to act authentically and to do that I have to see behind the masks.
So who are you?
Most would answer, “My name is so-and-so. I live in some-place.” So let’s start chipping away at the limitations of language when searching for the self by saying you are not allowed to use your name.
So now who are you?
See the difference? Feel the catch in your throat when your identity is suddenly questioned? Our own name is one of the first masks we wear. It’s the way we identify ourselves in the world. Take the name away and we have to suddenly think on an existential level. Who am I?
Some find that it’s a very uncomfortable situation to be in.
Language is one of the most interesting barriers to authenticity. If you think about, how much of your reality is not really your reality but merely the description of your reality that you keep running through your head? You sit in a “chair”. Your feet are on the “floor”. Your “hand” holds a “drink” or the “mouse”.
An interesting experiment is to go outside and contemplate a tree but forbid yourself from using the word “tree” to describe it. In theory you could contemplate anything for the sake of this experiment but a tree is big and alive and it can fill your field vision. You almost have to acknowledge it’s existence. So study it, stare at it, absorb the details but banish the word “tree” from your inner dialogue. Can you do it? Can you hold the entity before you in your attention without assigning it a label?
Because that’s it really. We assign labels to mitigate reality and we depend on those labels for communication and organization. But in assigning these labels, we are also assigning limitations.
So who are you? Are you the label?
A label is a limitation.
So at this point we can actually separate out some of the masks we wear as nothing more than labels we use to identify our place in reality. Some we may have had assigned to us by loved or loathed ones as we grew and developed. Some we may need to destroy or at the very least need to set aside. Others we may want to keep as a legitimate construct of this life.
For instance, it took me years to become comfortable with calling myself an artist. It’s something that most artists go through and it has to do with perceived ability and self esteem and even, to a certain degree, the definition of “an artist” by a given culture. I created the mask called “artist” and it took me years to get used to wearing it. The interesting thing is that the minute I was comfortable wearing the mask, I suddenly realized I didn’t need it. I could put the mask aside and just do art and that art, I hope, is a direct expression of my authentic self. That’s an effect of this process of ego dissolution. I may not even call myself an artist anymore and just do art. Which is ironic. I spent so many years creating that mask, that label. But to set it aside and let the actions speak louder than the label seems very authentic to me. I’m not going to throw away the mask. Sometimes society needs to see the mask they expect to see. But I don’t have to wear it. Art is what I do. It’s an expression of who I am.
So some masks, some labels are good. And some are bad. Some we need to keep and some we need to throw away. I think each person should choose their own tactics as they see fit since many wouldn’t know how to act without the limitations that labels bring. Boundaries make some feel safe and that’s fine. Others may need to take inventory of the self and decide if it’s time to throw out the masks that make life harder, especially if those masks were created by someone else. Living with your own limitations is one thing. Living with the limitations assigned to you by someone else is unnecessary.
So who are you? Could you sit in meditation and wander the halls of your ego and gaze upon the gallery of masks that this life has created and maybe clear a few out? Could you address the ones that make you comfortable and be honest as to why they make you comfortable? Could you destroy the ones that aren’t yours?
And could you find that final mask? Can you see what’s behind it?
That’s what I’m looking for. That final mask.
Behind it lies the authentic self and that’s what I need to see.