“Who are you?” It’s another of those questions addressed, with varying degrees of urgency, by spiritual practice and psychotherapy.
It’s a question that deserves attention before its answer becomes a weak inscription, fading on a stone worn down by decades or centuries of weather, above the debris that was once your physical body on this earth.
Because that inscription is the last mask you wear, the last ego self-image made to cover who you really are, as if disguise is necessary for survival. Most of us go through our lives collecting and carrying and switching between all these coverings, until we completely lose touch with what we are hiding. Krishnamurti discusses this strange phenomenon in this brief video from the 1970’s:
The majority of my personal work, and the work I’ve done with clients, has involved exposing and discarding these masks, these false, derived images of self. What used to be captured under the umbrella term neurosis — depression, anxiety disorders, certain variants of the psychoses, personality disorders, and even some phobias and panic issues — may be traced to or associated with these brutish masks of forced and false identity.
The ancient Chinese oracle I Ching discusses this issue throughout its text, via a diverse range of metaphors. So we know this problem has been around, basically as long as humans have formed themselves into social groups. A good example of this can be found in the book’s 33rd Hexagram, whose title is generally translated as “Retreat”, though it also can be parsed as “The Hidden” or “Hiding.”
What’s hidden is who you really are. The masks overtake us, confuse us, until we can’t decide which of them is real. It was Alan Watts who pointed out that our word “person” derives from a Latin word for the mask worn by actors in ancient drama. Thus at the beginning of a printed Shakespeare play, you see the list of characters as the “Dramatis Personae“:
c. 1200, persoun, “an individual, a human being,” from Old French persone “human being, anyone, person” (12c., Modern French personne) and directly from Latin persona “human being, person, personage; a part in a drama, assumed character,” originally “a mask, a false face,” such as those of wood or clay, covering the whole head, worn by the actors in later Roman theater.– Etymology Online
More than masks, we also adopt entire costumes. Such garb can be put on and taken off as needed; stored away in a wardrobe; and changed as needed for special occasions. I’m still talking psychologically here, though once we switch to a discussion of costumes, the familiar images of the businessman’s suit, the imposing gowns worn by priests in churches and courtrooms, and clothing worn for various occasions from weddings to funerals, come to mind.
Now while it’s true that there are notable costumes or self-images that we’d instantly recognize as evil or wrong or malevolent — these are actually rare compared to the positive self-images that we dress ourselves in and slowly, unconsciously, destroy ourselves with.
These are the ones we’re trained to wear as children, long before we’ve developed the neurocognitive skills supportive of critical thinking. They are among the first “habits” that are formed within our personalities; and we are reminded again of an etymological connection here: a habit was originally a word for a kind of costume — clothing worn by people of a specific religious order:
early 13c., “characteristic attire of a religious or clerical order,” from Old French habit, abit “clothing, (ecclesiastical) habit; conduct” (12c.), from Latin habitus “condition, demeanor, appearance, dress,” originally past participle of habere “to have, hold, possess; wear; find oneself, be situated; consider, think, reason, have in mind; manage, keep,” from PIE root *ghabh- “to give or receive.”— Etymology Online
Very frequently, we’re trained in a kind of radical behaviorism to expect dire consequences for any failure to keep our self-images in good order. Guilt is the preferred emotional measure in this Damoclean-Sword enforcement system. Guilt has certain remarkable advantages to the ego of power:
- Guilt is a stain that is almost impossible to erase, except via a long and agonizing process of expiation that usually involves a sacrifice of the individual’s dignity. In our legal system, guilt sticks with you forever, especially if you are poor, have colored skin, or are branded an outsider.
- Guilt has an extraordinary plasticity. It has a way of morphing — receding, lurking, and recurring within the individual. It is common in therapy to uncover guilt that has existed in the psyche for decades, barely if ever detected before.
- Guilt has broad institutional approval and authorization, from our legal system and even into our health care system. I can tell you from direct experience that student psychotherapists, when faced with guilt from a patient, are instructed to ask “is the guilt genuine and deserved?” The assumption is that guilt, with all its other aspects of inextinguishable darkness and pain, is considered somehow real in terms of medical pathology. Amazing.
So let’s get back to Hexagram 33 of the I Ching. Line 2 from this hexagram speaks of one bound with yellow oxhide, from which “no one can tear him loose.” Now this is a rather ambivalent metaphor, as yellow was, to the ancient Chinese, a color of clarity, natural force (as in the light of the sun), and good intent.
Then again, no one wants to be tied up. So we have a familiar “double bind” here. It might even be a triple bind, or something bigger and nastier. We’re being told that whatever or whoever we truly are, within this body and in this moment in time, is not enough by itself for whatever in-group happens to be making implicit or explicit demands of us: that we need to be somehow different for our family, company, community, nation, religious group, race, gender, political body, or whatever it is that claims our affiliation.
In brief, we are usually being told to sacrifice something of ourselves or our needs on behalf of something greater or more important than us. The guilt imposed from any effort to break the bind can, as shown above, be severe and lifelong. In their commentary to Hexagram 33, Carol Anthony and Hanna Moog refer to this aspect of the damaging or limiting self-images that arise within one bound by the “yellow oxhide”:
I am here to tell you that these are the people — more than the criminals or the sociopaths or the ne’er-do-wells or the miscreants of our world — who wind up on the psychotherapist’s couch asking, in the utmost agony: “who the fuck am I?”
Well, as Jung used to say, thank God they became neurotic. He meant, of course, that the question itself, and the hidden awareness behind it, is the first mark of wisdom, self-insight. So, getting back to the theme of Hexagram 33, we now have something “hidden” that we can work with, develop from, stand upon.
Everyone involved in treating the pathologies caused by self-images agrees on one thing: the masks and costumes that have suffocated the real self for so long have to go. How, and how fast, is a matter of approach, on which there is variance.
My late friend and teacher, Carol Anthony, used to talk in terms of the metaphor of peeling an onion. You strip away layer after layer, gradually and perseveringly, until your natural self is free to breath and move in health and in harmony with the Tao. She proposed this as an alternative to “chopping the onion,” which would be a too-precipitous approach that would release a sudden spray of irritants, causing confusion, anxiety, and even panic.
Then there is good old catharsis. Now I love this language, so let’s go back one more time to the etymology dictionary:
1770, “a bodily purging” (especially of the bowels), from Latinized form of Greek katharsis “purging, cleansing,” from stem of kathairein “to purify, purge,” from katharos “pure, clear of dirt, clean, spotless; open, free; clear of shame or guilt; purified”
The value of the cathartic approach would seem to be that it is, as the etymology indicates, a complete purgation or cleansing. It might even be a relatively brief experience, though in both psychotherapy and spiritual pursuits, there may be months or years of work leading up to that moment of freedom.
Perhaps the most famous instance of the cathartic approach is that of Janov’s primal scream therapy, which appeared to benefit John Lennon, among others. I’ve never tried or practiced it, and probably wouldn’t recommend it. Nevertheless, I have encountered several instances of people responding with what Janov would call a “primal” emotional outburst upon the recalling or recognition of a trauma or memory from the past (usually childhood).
So catharsis has its place, but not as a planned or programmed part of a treatment or spiritual path. Catharsis usually finds you, rather than the other way around. You can create a safe space in which it might happen, but you can’t arrange it. If the environment and attitude you have tend to attract catharsis, it may occur — but it will still be surprising, even shocking. That is, after all, its nature.
This leads to another approach to self-images — one favored by Hanna Moog in particular. Burning them. In one seminar I had with her, she spoke of a meditation she had in which she saw an entire wardrobe of self-images — these costumes of a lifetime of ego-dress — being burned in a cosmic flame of clarification and cleansing. It’s an approach that, combined with other practices she recommends such as the “Inner No” technique she developed along with Carol, gives catharsis a kind of intriguing structure and process.
The point here is not to recommend a “right” way to go about this — gradual, cathartic, or otherwise — for the only right way is the one that works for the unique individual who is seeking help in becoming free of the self-images.
There are as many schools and varieties of psychotherapy as there are spiritual, religious, and meditative practices — the things seem to multiply like rabbits. And there may be a direction for us in all that confusion. I believe it was Emerson who said that the only true church has a congregation of one. Perhaps the only true school of psychology has the same size student body. For the client in psychotherapy, this must become our guiding assumption.