From Chapter 3. Working with Masks
Without some training, simply placing a mask over your face and looking in a mirror may paralyze rather than liberate your imagination. Occasionally, the experience of “disappearing” proves unsettling to some. One night, a seasoned Zen student, was visiting and insisted on trying on a mask. Despite having done no warm-ups or preparations, I was curious to see what might occur and agreed.
When he encountered his masked reflection, he became emotionally frozen. He could describe what he felt arising from the mirror, but some emotional detachment prevented him from expressing his feelings as behavior. He could not integrate new impulses into his body or psyche in any way, nor could he express any intention. The “self” is a strict master and has to be either exhausted or seduced to let go.
Old psychic wounds and impressions, once too important to forget, are deeply buried in our muscles and ligaments. Like landmines abandoned after a war, they remain hidden, their potential for damage undiminished by time. A psychiatrist once told me, “In the unconscious, it’s always this morning,” meaning that the unconscious has no sense of time. All its memories are pungent and immediate. However, even in the extreme case of my Zen friend, wearing a mask highlighted a path by identifying a problem he could not deny. Suffice it to say, since then, I have never short-changed warm-up games and exercises. Consequently, I urge students (and readers) to be patient during descriptions of exercises that appear at first blush to have little or nothing to do with egoless states.
Pointless or silly as they may appear, these games are not addressed to the intellect, but to the body and Big Mind, the surrounding vastness in which all ideas about oneself float. Enlightenment is not something we think about, but express in each moment. Each exercise is designed to alter some sense of the body’s feelings about “normal” by coaxing you to imagine, move, stand, behave, and project yourself in ways which appear to you as counter-intuitive and definitely not-you. These simple games expose the borders and “soften” the sense of self by encouraging you to explore attitudes, feelings, physical postures, intentions, and behavior beyond the safety of your known persona. If, for instance, you begin to move in a way that does not feel like you, it’s possible to become fully aware of that resistance, identify it, and study it clearly rather than dismiss it or flee its influence. Why is it not you? What’s wrong with it, other than your discomfort?
Richard Baker-Roshi, the Abbot at San Francisco Zen Center when I began my practice there, once asked me to attend a function with him. I knew I would encounter people there I did not like and so I demurred, saying that I would be “uncomfortable” in that situation. His immediate response was, “What’s wrong with being uncomfortable?” His answer indicated a door for me to consider. “Who” had made that decision, and why had my discomfort been suddenly elevated to the highest priority?
If your normal posture and social strategy represents a desire “not to be noticed,” being compelled to behave boldly or aggressively will awaken a host of resistances, worries, and previously rejected feelings. If you fear that spontaneous responses might expose you as foolish, reveal unconscious baggage, or that being out-of-control frightens you, these exercises will have revelatory value for you. They may initially feel off-task or trivial, but they’re extremely practical for highlighting aspects of the self we normally consign to invisibility.
The more familiar you are with your habits and partialities, the more easily you can alter them. These exercises address the unconscious directly, feeding it new information and strange associations which nudge it off balance and onto high alert. It is that high-alert state seeking normalcy, which, when presented with the unknown mask, scrambles to assemble a new coherent personality that matches associations with the face in the mirror.
In each class, after a morning’s exercises and games, the masks are introduced. The masks are neutral masks which do not express any particular emotion. However, there is a definite quality to their neutrality, a tabula rasa which allows maximal space for the wearer (and audience) to “read-in” qualities. This blankness makes them mutable, so that each person’s body and head-shape alters the mask’s emotional tone. A mask which appears docile and defeated on one person, appears edgy and sullen on another, seductive or provocative on a third. It is their “emptiness” of qualities which facilitates these transformations. Some masks “work” and others do not and it’s hard to determine which will work at first look. One of my favorite masks is a stamped, nearly featureless plastic face that cost a dollar. It has enormous eye holes, but somehow always transforms the wearer by bringing forth a very clear personality.
For Buddhists, it is the “emptiness” (formlessness) at the root of all things which accounts for the worlds’ infinite variety of forms. If emptiness had any fixed qualities there would be things it could not express. In mask-work, that emptiness is the vacuum the mind abhors and rushes to fill in with data.
Class always opens with some minutes of meditation. After that, the best part of the morning session is dedicated to exercises and games. When it feels right, we meet the masks. Students are called up in groups of three to five. They are instructed to turn their backs to the class, and I stand before them holding an 18-inch square mirror close to their faces. As they slip on a mask and arrange their hair over its edges I encourage them to alter the angle of their head--tilting one way or another, looking up from under their brows or down their nose, widening or narrowing their eyes, regarding the mirror obliquely--until something “clicks.” When that occurs, they nod to indicate that they’ve “got it.” I remind them that if they begin to lose the new identity, simply call out “Mirror” and I’ll return so they can reconnect to it.
When you see a mask as your reflection, several things occur simultaneously. A face which is not your own offers feedback to the mind. Seeking order and coherence, the mind mines its resources, scavenging clues, previously stored images from fantasy and dreams to re-establish a new equilibrium. From that plunge into interior space, awareness rag-picks among random memories, feelings, observations, and emotions to assemble a holographic new personality. The new identity is as multi-dimensional as the old and will include knowledge of the masked persona’s personal history, relatives, posture, attitudes toward the world, and pungent biographical details. It is as if everything you know about yourself can be transformed into a door through which to discover someone else.
While your familiar identity remains in suspension, it will not trip you up with judgments, criticism, self-consciousness, and embarrassment. All its constituent parts that normally cause you difficulty are subdued. This occurs in the blink of an eye, and to anyone who has ever experienced the shock of recognition of a new character arising in their interior, it feels miraculous, as if that person had always been resident in your interior shadows like an understudy waiting their opportunity to claim the stage.
Masks obliterate the gap between the self and the self-that-watches-the-self by temporarily repressing the ego. What’s key is that our attachment to our own identity is sufficiently softened, so that the mask is able to redirect previously dedicated energy into a new identity.
Because of the playful context, and because the self has been “messed with” in a convivial, risk-free environment, masks displace normal fears of “surrender” that might accompany “losing our grip” in front of strangers. This softened attachment allows us to slip the ego’s dominance temporarily and our escape also releases us from our personality’s historical problems. The startling and novel feedback of an unrecognizable face in the mirror offers consciousness new data points on which to fix its predictive functions. This “new face” provokes new associations which are absorbed into the trance-state induced by the mask.
The mask’s persona perceives differently than “you” do and seizes possibilities that our ordinary self has excluded from its options. The masked persona responds to challenges or surprises with aplomb, rises to unexpected questions without hesitation or embarrassment, and usually with glee and pronounced “attitude.” The responses are ego-free or more accurate, represent the ego of the mask, not your own. Furthermore, no matter how diffidently or unsure a student may have been at the beginning of class, once masked, they stand before their peers as radically different people. Some will be insanely aggressive, others smoldering and cocksure, others barking mad, or perfectly normal but someone other than who they were when they entered class that day.
Masks are doorways into altered states, and in those states the rigid boundaries of our old identity become permeable. In order to give ourselves permission to enter such states we may need to face fears that “losing control” might expose us in some embarrassing manner or stain our reputations. Avoiding such thought-traps is exactly why we wear masks! We may often censor behavior, but we needn’t censor our imaginations, and in a mask, the imagination is given free rein.
With the new identity secured, players turn around to face the class. I conduct short interviews with each as an introduction to the class. Invariably, these new personalities appear fully formed, completely conversant with facts about their family history, siblings, biographies of parents, and reasons for being there, which, moments earlier, did not exist. Their attitudes are markedly different and their sense of improvisation markedly more committed and skillful. The delineations of character are very clear, and mask-wearers are often surprised to find themselves funnier, sharper, more intelligent, or responsive than they were before putting on the mask