The Masks We Wear

All are us have a variety of masks that each of us wears daily. These may be the identities that have been given to us, or ones that we have assumed over time.

As long as we recognize that what we wear is a mask we all are right. But when the mask becomes the seeming reality for us, then our troubles begin. We confuse the mask with the person, and if we are consummate enough actors, so do those around us. Gradually the mask becomes a trap, and we become the mask (as the performers did in the ancient Greek plays who would utter their lines while holding a mask in front of their faces).

Not every use of a mask is negative, however. Masks can help us build our own defenses for the time we need them. They can give us power, or at least the illusion of power, in a time when we may feel powerless. As long as the masks remain flexible and breakable, we can alter them at will, still realizing that we are not what we wear on our face as the mask we present to others.

Let us take one example of mask-wearing in Native American spirituality. Historically for the Hopi the masked Kachina dancers represented great importance and power. The kachinas are not gods, as such, but rather the spirits of plants, animals, minerals, weather (and of anything else that exists). According to Frank Waters in his book, BOOK OF THE HOPI, a person who obeys the laws of the Creator and conforms to the patterns laid down by the Creator during his/her life becomes a Kachina when he or she dies. The Kachina can then come back periodically with other kachinas to help the people still on the earth. [This, of course, bears a very strong resemblance to the concept of guardian angels and spirit helpers from western religions]. There are over five hundred different kachinas that have been identified so far.

In his book THE WAY OF THE SHAMAN, Michael Harner notes that the dancers wearing the masks of the Kachina gods are not just impersonating those gods. In the dancing, drumming, and other activities, an altered state of consciousness is achieved in which the dancer becomes the Kachina god, at least for a short time. Likewise, in our own lives, we become our masks. The main difference is that the person wearing the Kachina mask knows that he or she is wearing the mask. When we wear our own masks, we often don't realize that we are wearing a mask at all.

What do I mean by wearing such a mask? Let's say you have a job in which you don't care for your boss at all, but you still need the job and want to keep it. Whenever the boss comes around you will be polite, probably smile, and say the proper things that you know your boss wants to hear. You are wearing a mask: the mask of the compliant worker.

In my job as a teacher, I had to wear masks. Sometimes I had to be very stern with the students when I didn't necessarily want to be that way: thus I wore the mask of the disciplinarian task-master. Yet I also had to wear the compliant worker mask for the school administrators. When meeting the parents, at times I had to wear a very subservient mask, and tell parents positive things about their children, even if there really weren't many positive things to say about them at all.

I also had to wear the mask of knowledge. This mask changed from year to year as the subjects I was assigned changed. Thus I had to prepare for and wear masks of knowledge for: anatomy & physiology; astronomy; biology; computer literacy, earth science, environmental science; health, introduction to high school science; introduction to physical science, zoology and various other subject masks.

We may also wear masks for our spouses; children; relatives. We may wear numerous masks within the course of a single day. And yet where is the real us? It is very easy to get lost amid a closet-full of masks.

So the following is a small ceremony you can do to recognize the masks you wear, and to give you power over them.


You will need a hand mirror, and the kind of theatrical paint that can be easily removed from your skin.

1. Get into your work area, and smudge the area and yourself. Calm your thoughts and focus your attention.

2.Pick up the mirror and look into it. What do you see? Who do you see? Is your face frowning? Happy? Without expression? Does your physical face show lines of worry and care? Aging? Contentment? Look carefully at your physical face, and see the physical you.

3.Lean the mirror against something so you can work with both your hands. Take a moment to choose one of the masks that you wear during a typical day: compliant worker, happy spouse, whatever. Now take the theatrical paint and paint your face with whatever design you are moved to use to represent that mask. Use as many or few lines as you wish. Use circles, boxes, triangles, any designs at all, as long as they represent to you what that mask looks like. In this case, you will see your mask on both the physical and the spiritual levels.

4. Acknowledge that you are wearing a mask when you have finished.Think for a bit about why you choose to wear that mask, and what effects wearing that mask have on you. What effects does wearing that mask have on other people that you meet while wearing it?

5. Now take water or whatever is needed and wash off the mask. Get off all the lines, designs, and symbols. Dry your face. What do you now see? You see your physical face. You have removed your mask! You have the power to remove that mask any time that you wish. It may not be as easy removing the spiritual mask as it was to remove the painted mask, but it can be done if you desire to do it.

6. If you feel you need to, paint your face to represent some of the other masks that you wear during the day. With each one, study the mask, and determine what effects wearing that particular mask have on you and on others. Then wash the mask off, and wipe it away. Realize that these, too, are masks that you determine you will wear (for how long, and that you will control whether or not you wear the mask at all).

7. When concluded, spend some time absorbing all that you have thought and done during this exercise, then go do something that you really like to do to give the entire experience a very positive ending.

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