Last night was Halloween. The children I teach had been anticipating for weeks. The street was filled with excited children trick or treating, collecting candy door-to-door. Although the children love the candy they get from trick-or-treating, equally important is the costume they wear. Some go for the scariest they can find and opt for things like ghouls and werewolves. Others really prefer the rush they get from a superhero costume. For many girls, the most beautiful princess is the costume of choice. Still others go for creativity, turning themselves into images of pumpkins, cats, robots, aliens and the like. It is a night of masks, of temporarily trying on new identities. The emphasis given to Halloween masks obscures what we all know but ignore, brush over or deny. We all wear masks, almost all the time.
Our masks are physically less obvious than the traditional Halloween masks, but they are subtler only to the extent that we believe them, believe that what we are seeing accurately reflects the person wearing the mask. At different times, and in different situations, we may wear masks of confidence, diffidence, approval or disapproval, beauty, intelligence, competence, rebelliousness and so on. The masks change with the situations and people (in other masks) that they encounter. At work we may be cheerful, cooperative and deferential to the boss; at home, we may project fatigue, demands and criticism. We may be at once loving to our friend, but rude to the cashier in the store. The soft-spoken teacher can turn into a ball of angrily spoken sailor talk in the car. The ease with which we can change masks is witness to those masks not being real. Nonetheless, most people seem to believe in their mask of the moment.
That does not mean that masks are harmful. They are actually quite useful, which, I think, is one reason they came into being. Masks smooth social interactions and help keep society running smoothly. Called manners and courtesy, they are expected to be exhibited even if one does not feel courteous. Masks help individuals overcome feelings of inadequacy when they engage at work, socially or even in creative endeavors. The mask of confidence can make its wearer for the moment feel confident. Masks are worn to gain acceptance in the group. I wonder how many people who engage in the “politically acceptable” mask truly believe that what is politically acceptable is real. In either case, the mask gets them on the bandwagon. Masks smooth our way as we engage with others in work, recreation and creative endeavor. We would find life difficult if the masks were to suddenly disappear, and the complete transparency people say we should exhibit were to become predominant.
There are caveats, though. The individual wearing the Halloween costume usually knows that he or she is not really a superhero, monster or Disney princess. It is invigorating to wear that identity for a while in a socially accepted setting. Most of the time the negative actions associated with princesses, monsters or superheroes do not manifest; people are not harmed, and property is not damaged. We who wear our daily masks should take a lesson from the Halloween players. Masks are fun and can even be valuable IF we remember they are not real and if we discover, in private or with others, who we really are. Masks and transparency are a balance; each enhances the other, and either one without the other can be deleterious. We are familiar with our masks. We need to place attention on discovering who we are.
The discovery of who we are cannot take place at the same time as wearing a mask in the context of engaging in daily life. Most religions and many non-religious philosophies emphasize the need for a time of withdrawal, for prayer, meditation or reflection. Those are designed to be times in which we do not actually wear a mask, but can observe ourselves wearing our masks and thinking the thoughts that run incessantly through the waking mind. “I can’t meditate,” some people complain. The standard response is to not oppose the thoughts, but to simply observe them as they pass through the mind and change to other thoughts. The point here is not to teach meditation, but to highlight the logic that if we can observe our thoughts and our masks, become consciously aware of them, then it follows that those thoughts and masks are not who we are. They are not our essence. From there, it follows that the one who is doing the watching – the one we cannot physically observe – is closer to the ourselves that we seek. My sense is that the deeper we go into the awareness of ourselves as observer, the fewer and less distinct are the differences between observers. We have been called emanations of timeless energy, creations of the One, and children of God. Perhaps the observer in ourselves is closer to our origins than any mask could ever be. Perhaps it is closer to the ineffable or the divine.
It is a simple concept, but not necessarily a simple practice. We owe it to ourselves, though, to keep in our lives the balance between our innate transparent selves and the masks we wear. Whatever practice we adopt to maintain that equilibrium, may we value it enough to be consistent in its practice. May we each be successful in knowing both ourselves and our masks, and in exercising choice about which stance we take at any given time. Perhaps, after all, the trick-or-treaters in their own small way intuit a truth which we have temporarily forgotten.