The Mastery of Self: A Toltec Guide to Personal Freedom (2016)
HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED that as you engage the Dream of the Planet and the beautiful beings who share your Dream, you often project an image, or an identity, of how you want other people to see you in the world? This is a normal part of our existence, and playing a role in this way can actually be a helpful tool as you navigate the world, because doing so makes it easier for you to relate to others and vice versa. It's also probable that each of these identities or roles that you project is altered slightly to fit a specific situation or person. For instance, the image you project while you are visiting your grandparents is likely very different than the one you have when you're out with your closest friends.
In our Toltec tradition, we say that in all of these interactions it's as if we've borrowed a mask for a moment, or a temporary identity, so that we can engage with each other in a particular way. Wearing a mask is how people define and identify with others based on shared knowledge, roles, or experience. While the mask is a symbol that allows us to understand one another, it is ultimately just a symbol whose definition is subject to our agreement.
For instance, the masks I wear include husband, father, writer, teacher, shaman, runner, and soccer fan. Other examples of masks include how we relate to one another on specific topics of interest. If we talk about art, or yoga, or history, or any other subject we have in common, we begin to understand each other and see each other through the lens of our shared interest, as fostering relationships with others who share our passions allows us to shape our words and their meaning. When we engage each other, we stimulate each other's intellectual and emotional understanding, and interactions such as these allow us to co-create the Dream of the Planet.
As a Master of Self, I love to engage the Dream of the Planet and can use multiple masks to help relate to others and co-create more effectively, but deep down I know that none of these masks are the real me. A mask is just knowledge formed by the agreements we use to interact with life, with people. A mask is an identity. I choose to wear a mask for the benefit of navigating the Dream, but none can ever encompass my life force, my Authentic Self. When we are domesticated, the mask hides who we are and we believe that who we are is the mask; but when you have let go of your domestication, a mask doesn't hide, nor do we hide, who we are. It is just the agreements that our bond has created, and that has shaped the way we see each other.
This distinction, that you are not any of the masks that you wear, is vital, because when you believe that any role, identity, career, social status, or interest is who you really are, you have fallen into another trap, and suffering is right around the corner. That's because these roles and identities only exist in the Dream of the Planet, and like everything else in the Dream, they are subject to decay and death. Because of this, a Master of Self wears any mask with the full awareness that it's only a mask, a temporary identity to serve a function, and readily discards the mask when it is no longer needed.
For example, my wife may need me to be a supportive husband when she has a rough day, and I willingly offer her affection and security. At different times my children may need me to be a teacher, a friend, a playmate, and, yes, sometimes even a disciplinarian. I am aware that these are masks that I chose to take on, and because of this I can shed them the moment they are no longer needed. They do not become a permanent identity, and I do not try to fit into my loved ones' ideas of who I should be. I simply understand what they need from me at the moment and choose to act in a way that I feel helps them the most.
When you create an image of yourself as a worker, student, husband, musician, spiritual seeker, or any other role, and use that mask to relate to others, the moment you forget it's a mask your self-acceptance becomes tied to others' acceptance and applause as to how well you perform this role. If you don't meet the standards others have set for these roles, or the ones you have set for yourself, you reject yourself. This is another example of domestication and self-domestication in action, and it happens the moment you confuse any mask you are wearing with who you really are. Clinging too tightly to any mask only leads to suffering.
Another problem that occurs when you identify with a mask is that you will often try to keep that mask alive long after the need for it is gone. We see this in many manifestations in the Dream of the Planet, such as when parents attempt to manage the lives of their children long after they have grown up, or when someone continues to base his or her self-importance on who they were in the past, the proverbial “glory days.” Both are common examples of what happens when someone attempts to hold on to a particular role when it's plain that the time for that role is over. Those who continue to prop up an illusion in this way are often unaware that they are doing so, but anytime you believe in something that is no longer true the result is always the same: you are lost in the fog once again.
This brings us to an important point: part of the Mastery of Self is being able to detach from any identity you have acquired in the Dream of the Planet. You, and everyone you know, have been domesticated into the idea that your name is so-and-so, that you are from this place or that, that you were born here and grew up over there, and that you like these things and that you don't like those things. These are what I call the first masks, and while they certainly represent truth at one level and serve a helpful function in the Dream of the Planet, all of these descriptive attributes are simply masks; they cannot encompass the aware energy, the Authentic Self, that you are.
I refer to them as the first masks because you acquired them in childhood, and they were projected onto you through domestication. This is a normal part of growing up in the Dream of the Planet, and it is something that has been happening for a long, long time. These first masks started before you were born, as soon as your parents learned of your impending arrival. While these masks were then handed to you in childhood, you soon took them and made them your own, without realizing what you were doing. You did so because you noticed that everyone else was wearing one, and it was normal to do so in your society and culture. Some of you may have worn a mask you knew was false, forcing it on, in order to be accepted in your family. As time went on, you lost touch with your Authentic Self, which means that you forgot that the masks you wore were just masks, and you began to believe they were the truth.
This is how you became intoxicated at the party, lost in the smoke and fog. When you make the mistake of seeing yourself as this mask, then who you think you are, and what you think you are, becomes confused with the definition of a mask rather than the experience of the Authentic Self. To be in awareness of the Authentic Self is to experience oneself as the energy that gives life to your mind and body, the power that allowed you to create the mask in the first place. Now, as a Master of Self, you are awake, and sober to the truth of who you really are. You don't internalize the identity, or the story, that the mask symbolizes, and as a result you can pick them up and put them down as needed.
In the Dream of the Planet, most people you encounter are intoxicated to some degree, and as a result they can't see through the smoke and fog. Consequently, they project onto you the image or identity they want to see rather than what is actually there. The identity they assign you is based on their own domestication, attachments, and agreements. As a Master of Self you recognize this, and it allows you to respect the projection of others, especially when doing so is helpful. This is shape-shifting.
Knowing that others project a mask onto you, even when you have decided to remove your masks, allows you to shape-shift with awareness and compassion to suit each situation. Seven billion people will see you in seven billion ways, and every one of those masks is a single person's understanding of who you are. Your awareness allows you to not believe any one of their projections, because you don't need a mask in order to experience who you are. But you still respect their perception of you. You choose to see each mask as a mirror that will reflect different aspects of you, which you can either learn from or not. A shape-shifter is formless because life is formless. Mind you, knowledge creates and gives us form; thus, a mask gives us form in the perception of another.
For instance, let's return to the example of the grandmother and the boy from earlier chapters. Imagine that the boy has grown up and realizes that his grandmother domesticated him into always finishing his meal even when he was no longer hungry. Now that he is awake, he knows that it's better for him and his body to stop eating when he is full, and he discards the notion of “it's a sin to not finish your food” as a tool of domestication.
That's all well and good—until he goes to his grandmother's house for Thanksgiving. As you can imagine, she still projects onto him the identity of her little boy along with the domestication that he needs to finish his food. Because he respects her, he likely won't choose to tell his grandmother, “I reject your domestication and I will not eat any more food than I want.” Instead, he sees the love in her intention, and with awareness he can choose to wear a mask at Thanksgiving for her benefit and finish all the food on the plate she provides him. However, he may also choose to feed his remaining food to the dog under the table, or discard it when she isn't looking, or say to her gently, “No thank you, Grandma. The meal was delicious and I am quite full at the moment.”
With all these responses he is choosing not to disturb her Personal Dream because he sees the relative insignificance of finishing his food versus not finishing his food, and he plays along for her benefit. Because he is at peace with his past, there is no need for rebellion, nor a need to domesticate her to see he is right; his self-respect is expressed through his actions. Even though he can't keep her from projecting a mask onto him, he is aware that it is his choice to put it on or not. As a result, he is now acting with awareness of his past domestication and the many possibilities that are available in the present moment without losing sight of his Authentic Self.
Of course, there are other, more serious, situations where you may choose to reject a mask that someone is trying to make you wear. For instance, I have a friend whose husband, soon after they married, made it clear he had a very specific set of ideas of what it meant for her to be a “good wife.” In short, he wanted her to dress a certain way, to not associate with her old friends, and to defer to his judgment when they faced important decisions as a couple—all things that she rejected. To give in to those demands would not be shape-shifting, but rather rejecting her Authentic Self entirely to please someone else. In this case, my friend refused to wear the mask her husband was trying to force on her. She would not shape-shift for his benefit, because doing so would violate her personal truth. She could see that he was trying to domesticate her, and that his beliefs were based on the system of domestication he grew up in. She ultimately chose to speak her truth from the heart, and fortunately he listened and changed his pattern.
Seeing others through the eyes of unconditional love allows you to make the best decision in the moment as to whether or not to wear a mask, or to shape-shift in their perception. The most important thing is that you be aware when someone is projecting a mask onto you, because then you can make a conscious choice as to what action you will take in each situation.
Projecting a Mask onto Others
While being aware of the masks others project onto you is critical, it's equally important to be conscious of when you are projecting masks onto others. When you project identities or roles onto others, you create a set of expectations for their behavior, and now the fog of conditional love has crept back in to cloud your vision. Through the projection of this mask you create an identity for this person in your mind, and then you judge him or her for not playing the part the way you want. If you are unaware, you can do this with your parents, children, friends, coworkers, or anyone, really.
Sometimes the projection can be subtle. This often happens when you assume that because someone feels or behaves in a particular way in one area of life, you think you know how they will feel or behave in another, often entirely unrelated, situation. Spotting and releasing instances like these are what makes you a Master of Self.
For example, I know a woman who I'll call Lisa who recently completed chemotherapy for breast cancer. In the eighteen months she dealt with the disease, not only did she fulfill her role as a mother of young children, but she also completed six marathons. She is a mother. She is a marathoner. She is a survivor. As I watch Lis's interactions with other people, I notice that many of them project the mask they want to see on her. They set expectations based on how they think she should behave. Many of them only see her as a survivor and expect her to wear that badge with pride. When she does not live up to their standards of how a breast cancer survivor “should” act, they are offended. Why didn't she wear a pink ribbon during October? Why doesn't she raise funds for a breast cancer charity during all of her races? When those same people find out that Lisa is also a hunter, they often cannot assimilate their projections of the role of mother, marathoner, and breast cancer survivor with that of a hunter. How can someone so compassionate kill and eat animals?
At the same time, some people in the hunting community don't understand why Lisa runs all these marathons, practices meditation, and reads spiritual books. A third group of people, new runners, know nothing of her other masks and simply look to her for inspiration and support as they train for their first marathon. Each group projects a different mask, pigeonholing the entirety of her complex experience into one narrative that they have created. When she acts in a way that doesn't fit an idea they hold dear, it can trigger a strong emotional reaction. This has even led to some people trying to discredit or embarrass Lisa, because they took her actions personally and felt angry or hurt by them. Since their conditions weren't met, they deemed her no longer worthy of their love. To my friend's credit, she does not let any single one of the masks she wears, nor the masks others try to force on her, define her.
Lisa is humbled that people look to her for inspiration as they battle cancer or train for marathons, and she shows compassion when dealing with the people who may not agree with her choices in other areas. She is living her own personal truth in a way that will benefit both her Personal Dream and the Dream of the Planet. People ask how she could keep running while undergoing chemotherapy, and her answer is simple: “I did the best I could in every moment, and I never let cancer define me.”
Because my friend is aware, she can use the masks others project onto her to engage in a meaningful way without detracting from her Authentic Self. She shares her personal experiences with breast cancer not in an attempt to define herself, but because she wants to help others by passing on what she has learned. By temporarily taking on the persona of the mask of a cancer survivor without letting it define her, she can remove the mask when the interaction is over. In this way, she demonstrates that she is in control of her actions, a hallmark of a Master of Self.
In summary, one of the greatest temptations you will face as you navigate the Dream of the Planet is to believe that any mask you wear is real. This is true regardless of whether or not someone else projects the mask onto you, or if you've created the mask for yourself. For instance, if things are going well in your life and you are succeeding at work or accomplishing your goals, your ego may want to create and hold on to the identity of one who has “succeeded” or “accomplished.” We will cover the traps associated with this in more detail in the next chapter. Conversely, when things don't go your way, the parasite may scream so loudly that you are tempted to pick up the mask of one who has failed, or isn't worthy.
It is in all these instances that your practice of awareness can bring you back to the truth: the real you, the Authentic Self, is so much more than any mask can portray. Anytime you forget this truth and think a mask is real, suffering and delusion aren't far away. A Master of Self sees the mask as a tool, and uses the tool effectively when it is helpful to do so. Because she doesn't internalize the identity associated with any mask, she is able to remove it easily and return to her Authentic Self when the time for the mask is over.
Identifying Your Masks
The masks we wear allow us to understand each other intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Of all the masks people wear, the ones we have the most trouble detaching from are those associated with specific roles in the Dream of the Planet. These roles include things like being a parent, a child, a worker, a student, etc. Think of all the roles you play in life, and list them on a sheet of paper. The very act of writing them down can help you see them as roles rather than who you really are. Next, examine the list and answer the following questions: Are there any roles on this list that you would like to discard or change? What steps can you take to do so?
Who Am I?
In almost all spiritual traditions, one of the most important questions to ask yourself is this: who am I? In the Toltec tradition, we often answer with “the Authentic Self” because it is a symbol that comes as close as possible to describing the truth. But even this answer is incomplete, because the ultimate truth of who you are is bigger than can be expressed in words.
Now that you know none of the masks you wear or the roles you play are the real you, take a few minutes and turn your attention inside. Ask yourself, Who am I? and see if you can find the answer within … the one that cannot be expressed in words.
As we conclude our chapter on masks, let us remember a core teaching introduced earlier in the book: the world around us is virtual; it is all a dream. And in my family's Toltec tradition, we absolutely insist on creating enjoyable experiences in the Dream. In other words, we like to have fun! Doing so often involves setting goals to create something beautiful or to accomplish something special, but as you will see in the next chapter on goal setting, it's important that we do so with awareness. Otherwise we can quickly turn our Personal Dream into a nightmare. Setting positive goals for ourselves will help us to engage meaningfully and lovingly with others and the planet, and create the kind of life we want.