Meditation: Unmasking, by Catherine Rathbun (Lama Jetsun Yeshe)
The wearing of masks goes back a long way throughout human history. The word ‘mask’ denotes protection and disguise. In the use of ritual mask wearing, the wearer takes on the personality of the mask and as the creation of such a mask is considered, in some cultures, to be a sacred task, the wearing of the mask is a sacred duty to present, through dance and sound, an aspect of human nature that is significant. Masks are also thought to carry the power of the unseen world to us and a wearer may enter a trance-like state when wearing such a mask, for s/he may be transmitting energy from ‘beyond’.
The process of the spiritual journey is to uncover all the masks that we hide behind and to slowly dismantle them until we stand ‘naked before the sun’, fully authentic and fully realized. The journey to that state can be arduous, especially if we have been hiding our true selves for a very long time. It is perilous to the ego to make such a journey, for the ego loves the games that masks can play. When we learn to present ourselves to different people in deeply accommodating ways, so that we can get what we want from them, we become mask makers. A kind of shape shifting goes on that can be mistaken for adaptive behaviour that facilitates the journey of life. There is a difference here.
If, underneath, we feel that we are nothing, for we bear the scars of a downtrodden or abused personality, then eventually our shape shifting will seem hollow and useless, either to ourselves or to others. If we are lucky, a spiritual friend will come along who can point this out to us. To recognize this as truth takes humility and strength. Humility, to see how fragile our efforts are to hide and strength, to develop the determination to live differently, authentically.
Psychologists say that from the age of three to the age of seven, we develop our persona, our way of interacting with the world. This is likely to be the time when we begin significant development of our masks and so, it is to this period of time that we must return to “unmask” ourselves. Reflecting on the ways in which we learned to present ourselves at this age can help us to begin this very important process.
After identifying the origins of our presentation patterns, we can ask ourselves, “Does this pattern cause harm to myself or others?” “What am I hiding from?” “Why am I hiding any more?” Then, “How can I undo this pattern?”
If we can follow these threads through, with determination and perhaps the assistance of a teacher, mentor or others of like mind, then what emerges is a feeling of deep calm and a new assuredness. It does not offer us a permanent sense of self, any more than the varying masks did, but it does help us to live more honestly and with a sense of personal truthfulness that may have been lacking throughout life. When we learn to live this way, we can accept our mistakes, value our strengths and, after a period, open much more to others. We begin to see their masks, not just as obstacles but as painful attempts to cover up their brokenness. Compassion is born, for ourselves and for others. This is the true gift of the unmasking.
Catherine Rathbun has studied meditation with His Holiness XVI Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and with pre-eminent individuals like Ven. Kalu Rinpoche, Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche, Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche and John Coleman. She received her traditional teaching name, Lama Jetsun Yeshe, from Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche, a lineage master of the Sakya and Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, in 2002. Catherine taught meditation studies at York University for seven years (1989 to 1997). With a background in dance — she was a member of the National Ballet Company of Canada from 1962 to 1963 — and a modern dance career in England (1967-69), she frequently incorporates creative movement exercises into meditation studies as a way to bypass the tight hold that the Western intellect has on one’s development.
She is the author of Developing the World Mind and Clear Heart, Open Mind, and is currently working on a new book called Waiting for Truffles: Meditations for Daily Living. Her books are available from her directly or from Friends of the Heart or Snow Lion Meditation Shop, both in Toronto.