“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth [of what he thinks],” says Oscar Wilde in his Epigrams: Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young. This is not strictly true. What Wilde really speaks of is not the mask (which has been a part of ritual and theater since ancient time) but, rather, anonymity.
Today we see the most obvious example of this online, with those individuals who, using fake names and cartoon avatars, post the kind of derogatory and inflammatory comments on social media and blogs that they would never say in person.
Yet, anonymity and society are partly the same thing. Those who are attacked are usually those who do not conform in dress, taste in music, beliefs, or opinions.
People often appear to be swept up in whatever is the latest “thing,” buying and wearing the latest fashion as it reaches a certain level of popularity, and ditching as it begins to lose popularity. The same applies, of course, to other aspects of society: cars, technology, cuisine, and even politics and social opinions. To be as fashionable as possible (whether in style or opinions) is contradictory: it is, in a sense, to make a display of conforming. It is, like fame itself, a kind of public anonymity in terms of the real self.
But, in contrast, the mask — when consciously worn — has been a tool for self-awareness, or self-transcendence — a peak into the minds of the gods, rather than into that of the “mass market.” Hence, we find the actor or the ritual participant — especially in tribal and classical civilizations — being “possessed” by the spirit of the god whose mask they were wearing or the hero they were acting.
Later, the Samurai wore visors carved to resemble ferocious and snarling, demon-like, faces, while the Norse Berserker warriors wore the skins of bears or wolves, as part of an occult process that would give them superhuman strength.
We might say, then, that the difference between the anonymity of modernity and the ancient mask is that the former is decided for us — by society, peer pressure, parents (when we are children), and so on. We usually wear it unconsciously. It asks of us no test of skill. And, unlike the masks worn by the ancient warrior or priest, it wants no elevation of our consciousness or heightening of our self-awareness. Indeed, the mass mask, as we might call it, is anti-initiatic, and forces us not to break out, and not to test ourselves or to discover our deep, original, and even primordial Self.
In the Gurdjieffian movie My Dinner With Andre there is an interesting monolog about the mask, or acting:
That was one of the reasons that Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well that performance in the theater was sort of superfluous. And, in a way, obscene… I mean, isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? When you see a terrorist on television, he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, or single people, or artists are all trying to live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father, or a single person, or an artist should look and behave. They all act as if they know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment and they all seem totally self-confident. Of course, privately people are very mixed up about themselves…
The character Andre goes on to remark that,
[T]he actor should constantly ask himself as a character: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from… and where am I going? But instead of applying them to a role, you apply them to yourself [as if you are acting the role of yourself].
To be self-conscious — such as the character Andre recommends — is, as we know, difficult. But it is also one of the practices of some forms of spirituality, e.g., Buddhism, where the practitioner may focus on his breathing, observing when he inhales and when he exhales, over and over again. Or where the Buddhist focuses on his body, visualizing each part, and, then, imagining it decomposing after death.
Other practices include eating food slowly and focusing on the act of chewing and the taste of each mouthful, or walking and being conscious of the surrounding rather than of one’s own thoughts or internal chatter.
As already said, most of the time, most people seem to act automatically, without any sort of self-awareness. I remember, years ago, hearing, on the radio, the lawyer for Army Reserve soldier Lynndie England, who, notoriously, appeared in the highly disturbing photographs of naked, and tortured, Iraqi prisoners at the US prison of Abu Ghraib. England — and who was later convicted — appeared smiling and giving the “thumbs up” gesture in every photograph. The lawyer argued that the repetition of the same gesture was, in effect, a kind of defense mechanism that she used to portray herself as being okay with the torture even if her conscience told her that it was not okay. The gesture, in effect, wasn’t hers, but what she imagined society (i.e., fellow prison guards) wanted. In a sense, he was saying, that the attempt to display her conformity — and, as such, anonymity — was evidence of her being a victim of the situation.
Regardless of what we think of Lynndie England (and in no way am I trying to excuse the appalling treatment at the prison in Baghdad), it is true that in moments of stress, we all tend to make the same gesture or find some part of our body reacting without our conscious control. We might twitch, murmur, or shuffle our feet, or say something stupid that we know doesn’t represent who we are, etc.
Today, most people feel stressed all the time — even if they don’t realize it. This is especially the case with those living in cities and trying to climb the corporate ladder.
It is incredible how much tension builds up in us, including in our face. But the tense face is only one expression of anonymity. Another is its opposite: it is the habit of smiling (which we have mentioned in regard to Lynndie England). We are talking about the habit of smiling insincerely, to diffuse a situation before it begins, or to show subservience to a person who might be a threat.
But the tension and the habitual smiling isn’t us. And the face full of tension and worry or plastered with a smile that we don’t feel inside isn’t our true expression. Yet, the thoughts we think come to reside in our face — in the tensing of particular muscles in the chin, forehead, eyes, lips, etc. — physically shaping it into the expression we use to both engage and hide from the world. Our face becomes a mask in the negative sense — not a tool or magic object to help us push beyond our limitations, but an expression, gestures, and so on, that we use to conform.
Have you noticed that people with essentially the same genes, bone structure, and so on, look different depending on which country they are from? What makes them look different is the way they stress the facial muscles. A Japanese friend of mine told me once that White people who grow up in Japan look more Japanese. I knew what she meant. I myself have been able to pick out British (both Black and White) and French people in the USA, due only to their facial expressions and posture.
The term persona originally meant “mask,” we might note, and referred specifically to wooden or clay masks worn by ancient Roman actors. If we want to put on the mask of the warrior or the priest, or that of the artist, the writer, father, mother, lover, or anything we might feel to be of value, we have to let go of the anti-initiatic, mass-mask of society that we put on long ago and wear without thinking, and perhaps have come to love and falsely identify with.
When asleep or dead, the body and face appear at peace. Lines soften or disappear. The person looks younger, and more “themselves.” Even the addict, tortured by thoughts, pain, and craving in daily life, looks peaceful and who they really are deep down.
Relaxing The Face — an Exercise:
Because I want to earn the face of the warrior, priest, artist, writer, spiritual practitioner, thinker, and so on, I have made relaxing my face — releasing the negative mask — a part of my daily practice. It is not difficult. I simply become aware of my face, sense the tension, and relax that part of the face where I find it. Then I discover that it is connected, and perhaps caused by tension elsewhere in the face, and so on, and so on. After some weeks or months you will discover other, subtler, more ingrained areas of tension, which you will then be able to relax.
You can do this exercise sitting, before meditation, lying down, or standing — perhaps doing it for a few seconds each time you go to the bathroom and look in the mirror throughout the day, becoming aware of the tension, relaxing your face, and letting the tension slip away.
If you discover one area is particularly tense, you can use some visualization to help relax it. I, for example, I tend to tense my jaw. So I visualize my jaw as heavy and hanging, and imagine that only my lips, touching very lightly, are keeping it in place.
If you do this, you should feel less tense, and you may notice that you look a little younger (since you won’t be screwing up your face and accentuating or creating lines), but the point is not to carrying yesterday’s stress over to today, or today’s stress over to tonight or tomorrow, or the stress of a moment ago into the present.
We don’t want to be what makes us tense. We want to cut off negative thoughts at the roots instead of planting them in our facial muscles, so that we have a kind of permanent mask of “muscle memory,” made up of stresses, and negative thoughts and feelings. We want to be adaptable, ready for new situations, living in the present, our Self.
In a sense, becoming aware of, and relaxing, the face — the conformist mask we present to society and to our own psyches — is a technique for contemplating (in the words of My Dinner With Andre), “Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from… and where am I going?” We want to have the face we would have if we were, right now, to become a Buddha, or, perhaps in Nietzschean terms, a god.
We want to have the facial muscle memory, or mask, of ourselves as an Enlightened One — to go back to our authentic, Original Self so that we can begin to develop the consciousness of that Higher Self — the Bodhisattva, the conquering deity — that interacts with the world.