I wear a mask. You can not see it on my face, but it is there all the same. Well concealed are the parts of me that I would rather you not see. The parts that hurt. The shame gremlins. The sorrow. I learned to wear this mask when I was so young. A self preservation method that worked, on some level to create a perception of safety. A wall around my heart. How can we live in world that feels so cruel when the heart is so soft and tender How can we grow up whole when culture teaches us to tear each other apart? We learn to see the hurt, the otherness, the awkwardness in others as a sign of their weakness and lack of validity. We learn this early. Our parents do not have to teach it. We have another mother who happily teaches us the ins and outs of judgement and the social power structure, mother culture.
Most of us have mastered the tool of masking before we are 8 years old. The skill grows quickly and insidiously from that first age of self consciousness. In many cultures and faith traditions, a child until seven years of age is considered blameless, or “sinless.” If we look at the etymology of the word sin, meaning “to miss the mark” then we see that children in the younger years are truly sinless. They have no mark to miss. No plotting or planning, and no masking. Pure expression and experience. Pure love and emotion. Of course the age at which we learn to begin hiding varies greatly. Some children probably learn much earlier, as circumstance requires of them.
I consider a mask to be a form of separation we create to hide from others, or even to hide from ourselves. This is so subtle that we may not even be aware that we are masking. We hide so that we don’t feel wounded. Or we hide because we have been wounded. The trouble with the hiding is that it also keeps us from expressing the truth of our being. The truth is the reason we are here on earth. To express our truth and the wisdom of our souls is why we accepted the assignment of life school in the first place!
Many of the things we learn in childhood serve us at the time we learn them. We use them and we need them then. As we grow older the behavior that was so useful when we were young may no longer serve us. Alas, we may also no longer know that it exists in us, until we begin some real inner excavation. Masking is one of those tools. I use the word tool here not to say it is necessarily a healthy life skill…but in more rudimentary sense. A tool = an implement that get a job done.
The bitter truth is that we live in a culture that is built on people being willing to wear a mask. We admire humans who seem to have it all together. The friend we all have who works endless hours, trains for a marathon and is always put together and smiling. Families that are intact and happy, with clean young children and perfect Christmas cards sent out each year on time. Women who hold high power jobs, parent perfectly and go to spin class faithfully. Celebrities and television characters that make life look like a perfect picture of ease, fun and excitement. All of these projected images of success have one core thing in common, they make us feel like we could be more. We could be better. We could be thinner and more dedicated to our work. We could make more money and travel more. We could have invested years ago and have it now be paying off. Our teeth could be whiter and we could have more friends and more fun! This feeling of longing, of wanting to be more…it makes us feel like we are less.
Here is the trick, here is mother culture speaking untruths in our ears. Here is the trap that keeps us tied up, wanting, waiting, wishing, comparing and masking. Because you know what? It fucking hurts to want what you don’t have. And it takes raw vulnerability to say ” yeah I want a lot that I don’t have and it hurts me, I feel less than, I feel left out.” So we don’t say it. We throw on a custom made mask and we head out the door with fake ass smile plastered all over our poorly concealed sorrow.
The trap has been set. We grow up with images of life that are unreal and unattainable for most. Even the wealthy among us find out that our needs are not met through the accrual of things or power. We think we want a life that look a certain way, that meets these standards of success that we were taught would make us happy. Everything in our culture sings this same song, produce more, buy more, you will be happy….or at least you will look happy. Most of us do not even know how to find out what happiness mean to us. We give up our sovereign right to know our own minds and we settle for the daily grind and an ever changing mask. Can we be brave enough to look outside? Can we peel the corner of that mask off and allow ourselves to be seen? In all our longing, confusion and fear? If this speaks not to your souls experience dear friend, do not feel compelled to read any further. But if you feel the call of longing to set down the mask and find out who you truly are, stay with me in this inquiry.
As I began this writing I spoke of childhood wounding and of sorrow. I would propose now that all of our searching outside ourselves, all our longing and all our masking are tied to this same root. The need to love and be loved. In fact, our entire consumerist culture is built on this. The desire for love. We humans are truly so simple. Food, water, warmth, shelter, love and sex are really all we need. Love topping the list. I remember reading of the Harlow study done using baby Rhesus monkeys. A cruel horrible study indeed. In which the infants separated from their mothers were given the choice of a wire fake monkey mother with a bottle of milk attached that the young one could drink. Or a soft plush fake mother that had no bottle that the young one could feed from. Each time the baby chose the soft, more life like fake mother monkey. Coming only to the wire one to feed when very hungry and then scrambling back to the security of a soft body to cling to. Even though it was a doll and lifeless, the security of something soft to cling to, the only mother these poor creatures were allowed to know.
In this life where so many of us feel isolated and alone. We substitute the needs for love and connection with the pursuit of things, status, wealth and power. It is a cultural madness that leaves us always and forever wanting more. Of course we want more! Our basic needs are unmet so we try again and again to meet those needs, attempting to fill up a hunger that cannot be filled by anything you can consume. Not food or drink. Not drugs or sex. Not new clothes or cars. Not the latest iPhone or gadget. None of it will even touch the longing, only numb you for a moment so that you can’t feel the pain.
This drive for love is under and around everything we do. Beginning in childhood with our family and then as we grow older at some point the focus shifts and we desire to have this love from our friends and peers. Many families cannot give the love we seek, many homes are full of sorrow or fear. Peer groups are fickle and ever changing. We can grow up seeking that which we want more than anything else in any place we can find it. This shows up in addictions, in compulsive behaviors and unhealthy relationships. We desire so much to be loved that we try to find the parts of ourselves that we deem unlovable and hide them. The masking has begun.
To begin the process of taking of our masks we must become willing to be seen. First seen by ourselves. Willing to look into the dark corners of our lives and see what we have been hiding from. This takes great courage. Until we can see our own truth, we cannot start to really learn how to be honest . In learning to be honest, first with ourselves, we can the learn what it is that we really want.
My mask comes mostly in the form of “I am fine and everything is ok.” I wear it so well and so often that for many long years I did honestly not know that it was there. I wore it into the desperation of addiction which eventually brought me to the place of needing to look under the mask to see what hurt so badly that I was unconsciously trying to destroy myself. Hidden under my mask, is a deeply sad and confused little girl. With a huge tender heart who doesn’t understand why the world feels so cruel and why she is so alone. In seeing this clearly, as painful and hard to admit as it may be, I open the door to see what it is I am longing for. Love, security, and belonging. I know I am not alone.
I know I am not alone because this is what all humans want. A place to feel safe. To be loved and to love. To be accepted as we are and able to shine! How sad that we don’t learn to give this to each other. How sad that instead we feel we have to hide out behind a mask that presents us as something we deem to be more loveable than our true selves. When nothing could be farther from the truth! Our true selves are what is loveable about us!
I am ready to learn a new way. I am ready to put down the mask, to stop saying “I’m fine” when all I want to do is lie down on the ground and weep. I am ready to allow the pain and the beauty of life to break me in half. to crack my mask, once and for all. I will leave that mask on the floor and step over its broken pieces on my way to the freedom of living as me. Like it or no. I am who I am .
As the wise teacher, Krishnamurti once said “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” It is no strange thing that so many of us are sick, in this profoundly sick society. How can we change the way we live as a people to start meeting the true needs of each individual and of the whole? How can we create a new world where we honor the life of ALL beings as holy? How can we make our children feel safe enough that they never have to learn to wear a mask? I don’t know if I have answers…but I do have some ideas, and I am sure you do to.
We can learn to listen to the call of our heart to meet the heart of another. We can slow down in our lives enough to be with the people we love and meet new people to love! We can hug more and make eye contact with strangers. We can commit to leaving every person we meet better than we found them. We can speak up against injustice and tyranny. We can bravely be willing to say what we need and what we feel. We can make our homes safe for our children to do the same. We can get to know our neighbors and offer our hands in service and love. We can grow our own food, cook and eat it in our homes with our families. We can learn to hear the parasitic voice of mother culture as she tries to tell us we are not enough and call her, then and there on her bullshit. We can be examples in our own lives of fearless, simple and heart centered living. We can be thankful for all that is given and all that is taken away. This is my prayer. This is my commitment.
I’ll leave you now with a simple poem by the great Hafiz. A call to being brave enough to let your heart be seen. Know that you, wherever you are and whoever you are, have a place here. You are whole. You are needed. You are welcomed. You are loved. Leave your mask at the door tonight. Let’s meet each other in the plain beauty of our own sweet faces.