Every one of us entering this world does so without knowing our identity. When we’re born, we’re ignorant of our name, nationality, or social class, for example. Yet we’re fully alive. We come into the world in our most vulnerable, pure, and natural state—but it doesn’t last long, because entering life is like being invited to a masquerade, and to join in, we must get a mask to wear. But, being babies, we can’t make our own mask, so those close to us—usually our parents or other relatives—start crafting it, and then they put it on us. The initial components of this mask include a name, gender, nationality, and in many cases, a religion. As we grow older and continue to dance along, new elements are added, slowly building up our identity. But we ourselves don’t realize that we’re wearing a mask or that it’s being made. From the outset, we’re told that our name and so on are who we are, as if these elements constituted an absolute, solid, separate, and permanent essence with which we’d come into this world. We don’t recognize them as products of our environment, which could have been very different in different circumstances.
Think for a moment about who you would be if your parents had different beliefs, education, and resources—if you had grown up with different siblings or were born in a place where another language was spoken. What we call “I” has never been and can never be a separate and independent entity; it’s deeply and inevitably intertwined with its surroundings, without exception.
As the dance continues, our mask continues to evolve, becoming more complex and refined. It begins to include new elements, such as specific roles: we become daughters, brothers, friends, boyfriends, or girlfriends. To these roles we add careers: we call ourselves engineers, artists, or spiritual teachers. Other subtler elements include our habits, opinions, reactions, fears, hopes, and preferences. But all the things we unknowingly overidentify with when we say “This is who I am,” are not really ourselves. The person we believe ourselves to be is not who we really are but a “persona” we’ve built—a role we’ve developed and learned to play with others.
The word “person” comes from the Latin term persona, which means mask.
The problem with masks is that none of them are perfect. Their crafting process inevitably creates cracks, scratches, and flaws—those aspects of ourselves that we’re told as we’re growing up are “bad” or “wrong.” Eventually, we become ashamed of these parts of ourselves, doing all we can to prevent others, and even ourselves, from seeing them. Further, since we’re convinced that this mask, or persona, is our true identity, we cling to it with all our might, trying to make it presentable and permanent. This is reflected in countless ways, such as in our need to meet social standards, in the expectations we impose on ourselves or that others impose on us, and in the constructs we weave with our minds. But maintaining our persona leaves us exhausted, because no matter what we do or accomplish, it’s never enough. Who we are, it seems, is never enough.
So we might approach this situation from a different perspective: instead of trying to polish our mask until it becomes perfect, we can start looking for the one who’s wearing it. This looking brings us to the realm of contemplative practice, where we dedicate our efforts to observing the self as it is, free from prejudices and preconceived ideas, with what Zen calls “beginner’s mind.”
As we look closer, it becomes increasingly clear that all the elements that make up our mask are in constant flux. Even those as fundamental as our name, gender, nationality, and religion can change—not to mention our roles, professions, opinions, habits, and preferences. Without exception, all these elements are arising and disappearing in a constant flow. Noticing this, something within us begins to see that clinging to our persona, which is impermanent, is actually the root of our suffering.
When we don’t see reality clearly, when we believe ourselves to be something we’re not, this distortion leads us to act in ways that harm us and others. When someone does or says something that threatens our persona—if they say: “You’re such a ____________,” for example—we feel attacked. We take it personally and maybe try to retaliate. But as we begin to see more clearly, we might sense that there must be something beyond our persona, something that was there before the mask was crafted: an original nature, a true self that we are now being pulled to discover.
There’s a Zen koan that asks “What is your original face, the one you had before your parents were born?” The problem is that we can’t find this original nature by thinking about it. Since it’s prior to thought, it’s unknowable by it. Therefore, we can only surrender to the unknown and observe. Some practices do this receptively, by encouraging us to simply watch how everything arises and passes. An example of this is what some forms of Zen call shikantaza, which is sitting without a goal, or “just sitting.” Others do it more actively, like some Zen koans that encourage us to find the true nature of the self.
But what if there’s no one behind the mask? As we continue on this path, we might feel fear—which, for some of us, may be mild, and, for others, intense. All our lives we’ve tried to be someone, to be something. What if, in essence, who we are is impossible to pin down? What if behind the mask, there’s only a timeless, genderless, colorless, shapeless emptiness?
At that moment, we have no choice but to let the mask dissolve into this emptiness and discover that this is what we truly are.
The fear of being nothing is a gateway to our true identity.
Realizing ourselves as this emptiness is discovering that which permeates and saturates everything. It’s awakening to the very nature of the mind, which is always present, whether we realize it or not. We believed we were the mask, but the moment we see through it, we recognize that we are what’s behind it: awakened consciousness without form, without boundaries, and without time. And although this may seem like the end of the journey, in many ways, it’s only the beginning. Our task now is to live from the realization of this fundamental identity within the masquerade. We understand that our “mask,” or persona, is not our true self but a relative identity, one that was initially put on us by others, but as we grew up became a co-creation. Recognizing this interdependence of the persona allows us to fully be part of a bright, mysterious, and wonderful dance—the dance of life.
Seeing the mask—our persona—as an expression of a deeper truth, we no longer believe in its solidity or permanence. Instead, it becomes a fluid and adaptable identity that arises according to the moment. And those cracks and flaws we once felt ashamed of are now precious opportunities for transformation and growth, allowing us to dance wholeheartedly with others in a deeper expression of wisdom and compassion.
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