Get Yourself Free
On evading the hall monitors in the world and in your head
For much of May and June I've been in rehearsals at the Guthrie Theater, covering two different tracks for actors who were out with Covid, first one, then another. For the first ten days of rehearsal, I played one role. Two days later I was back, playing another.
What a thing: to occupy a single story from two points of view, knowing you’ll soon be handing both over to their rightful owners. An act of creation with a dose of self-restraint. Like using your body as a model for a dress you’re sewing for someone else. Or being a surrogate mother: lovingly building something that won’t ultimately be yours.
Good practice, though, this donning and doffing of personalities, cultivating the agility to see and speak and move as wholly different humans. In acting classes, young performers are taught something called Neutral Mask — how to make themselves a blank slate, free of any distinctive gait or physical characteristics.
Once you’ve mastered that, you can start to play with what it is to build a character — how that person walks, moves, and gestures. Their energy, their shape, their center of gravity, their tempo. You learn how to change these elements around at will. You learn how to slip in and out of ways of being.
This has always struck me as a skill worth having — the ability to shape-shift, the knowledge that, really, it’s something you can do at any time.
Come to think of it, there are few things I love more than leaving a self I used to occupy behind.
I’m thinking about the stories we each live inside — stories about the world, ourselves, and other people. How much they dictate our perceptions and experiences. How unshakeable they can be.
What does it take to change the story you live within? First I suppose you need to see it for what it is — be able to discern it as a story in the first place, and not just the fabric of reality.
Neuroscience, quantum physics, and medicine are converging on a truth that ancient eastern traditions and philosophies have been espousing for millennia — that reality and “the self” are constructed in the mind. The predictions, experiences, and meanings our minds generate can dictate everything from our health to our relationships.
“Your brain constantly runs a model of your body as it moves through the world,” writes neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. “The implication is a bit startling: You cannot experience the world, or even your own body, objectively. Your experience is always from a particular perspective, and no perspective is universal.”
When people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (a.k.a. multiple personalities) slip into one of their different “selves,” they may display entirely different physical conditions or characteristics. They may lose function in a limb, switch from being right-handed to left-handed, or regain lost eyesight.
These functions are not under conscious control. But as Joe Dispenza, DC says, “Your personality creates your personal reality.” Your habitual thoughts and emotions are not a mere response to the world. In a very real sense, they create it.
A lot of people chafe at this idea, thinking it suggests that all suffering is the “fault” of the person experiencing it. I see it differently. I find it to be kind of a thrilling invitation, an empowering portal to agency and transformation.
“To influence your internal model, you can effortfully seek out new meanings,” writes Feldman Barrett. “By embracing this responsibility, you grant yourself more agency in how you automatically make meaning — and therefore over your reality and your life.”
Stories I loved as soon as I encountered them: Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Matilda. Stories of solitary souls up against systems of control and their emissaries. The free being, battling authority.
Deference to authority has never been my deal. An eighth grade teacher once said to me in frustration, “You don’t seem to think the rules apply to you.” (I think I had just slipped out to go to the bathroom without asking for a hall pass.)
Well… no. I guess I don’t. I chart my path by instinct and discernment, values and vision, serendipity and will. Who else could do this for me? Who else is equipped? I can respect authority figures’ priorities, but I’m unlikely to prize them above my own if they clash. (My astrologer attributes this to my Aries moon.)
This thing is mine to feel my way through. I’ll always try to do it with goodwill and generosity, but I’ll never be one to stifle my own instincts for want of a hall pass.
I mean, what could be sillier? Kindly step out of my way.
All around us, systems of control are flexing and expanding. Both the left and the right are looking for ways to surveil people and constrain their choices.
A woman’s right to choose. A college student’s right to decide how many doses of vaccine to receive. A family’s ability to navigate care for a gender dysphoric child. A person’s right to question official government narratives or receive nuanced medical advice from their doctor. All under threat.
Where is a person who values bodily autonomy and freedom of speech and inquiry to turn? People will argue that one side is worse than the other, or that their team is only responding to the excesses of the other. These arguments leave me cold.
I have a principle, and I want to vote for people who honor it. Where are they?
The freest I ever felt: A tie, really.
First: 20 years old, studying abroad, listening to Joni Mitchell's Hejira on repeat on a train across the outback of Australia. Suffering my way through Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, until a twinkly Brit plucked it from my hands in the dining car and replaced it with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, said, "Trust me, you'll like this more."
Out: grim neurosis and navel-gazing. In: whimsy, magic, and flight.
I was newly single, and nearly everyone I loved was thousands of miles and oceans away. The Twin Towers had fallen several weeks before. The freedom I felt had an undertow of ache. You could call it loneliness, but it felt somehow more existential, like I was a planet that had come untethered from its sun and was freewheeling through space, unbound. The feeling made me reckless. It made me hungry for evidence of my edges, even if it came through pain.
Soon enough, I flew back home and picked up all my entanglements where they’d left off, once again ensnared in a web that held me in place — made me a known entity, narrowed my possibilities.
Next: Burning Man, 23 years old, 2004. Sitting half-naked in the desert in the middle of the night, all alone, tripping on an ill-advised combination of mushrooms and LSD, huddled by a fire someone else had started and abandoned, watching strange shapes pass by in the shadows. Waiting semi-desperately for sunrise.
A caesura, a break in the verse. No idea who I was meant to be or what story line I was in. Nowhere and no-one to be. An initiation. Sitting in that emptiness, unencumbered, feral, I felt that if I survived the night, when the sun rose it would find me newly unconquerable.
The next day, I packed my flimsy tent into my manual-transmission Honda hatchback. I hugged the guy I’d come with — a fellow tour guide I’d worked with over the summer in California — and left him standing on the side of a makeshift desert road, holding a handmade cardboard sign reading “Santa Rosa.”
I pointed my car east, and hightailed it back to Minnesota to see who I might become, what adulthood would bring.
Freedom is scary. It’s dangerous. Anything could happen! I don’t want to live in that place of terrifying formlessness and unencumbered possibility forever. But I’m grateful for the chances I’ve had to tiptoe out to that windswept ledge. Those experiences broadened my being, and sent me back to solid ground more fearless and flexible than when I left.
Monk, mystic, and poet Thomas Merton once wrote in his journal: “As long as I continue to bother about myself, what happiness is possible in life? For the self that I bother about doesn’t really exist and never will and never did, except in my own imagination.”
A viral video on Twitter this month featured a lady with a mic interviewing people at a Pride event. In one clip, she asks a couple of kids who look to be about 14 or 15 how they identify. "It was around 10 that I started questioning if I was bi,” says one. “Since then it was a slippery slope — am I bi, omni, lesbian? Recently I'm like, am I pan? Now I'm starting to realize I'm queer."
I found this striking. The need this child felt to run through a range of possible labels for “what they are,” looking for one that fit.
A cultural evolution seems to be underway, and accelerating — away from talking about who one is attracted to, toward how one identifies. It’s a subtle shift, but an important one. The focus is less out there, more in here. The curiosity, appetite, and interest have moved from an external focus to an internal one. Now the former is useful mainly to the extent that it illuminates the latter: “Who do I think is hot, and what does that mean about me and my identity? How finely can I slice it? How precisely can I nail it down?”
It seems worth noting that all the major spiritual traditions emphasize transcending a focus on the self or the ego. The Buddhist notion of samsara means, essentially, attachment to the illusion of a separate self, and the suffering it creates. The whole goal is to break free, leave the illusion of a self behind.
Meanwhile, our culture is doubling down, growing increasingly obsessed with figuring out and labeling one’s “identity,” as if it’s a fixed entity, something real, solid, immutable, and true. Mental and emotional health are predictably spiraling in tandem with this trend.
What would I tell this young person if I could?
Honey, what you are is a ball of light, a fluid mood, a nesting doll of stories, a meaning-making machine.
Life will present plenty of boxes into which you’ll be invited to cram yourself. The label-maker will always be perilously close at hand. Resist it as much and as long as you can. You do not need a hall pass.
Go lose yourself in dance. Find ways to be of service. Figure out what you’re here to give. Tap daily into the well of infinite potential shimmering just behind the illusion of solidity. That borderless being you’ll feel yourself becoming — that is what you are.
Love this Mo. Never heard of the 'neutral mask' before. The 'poeticals' often rhyme about joy of losing your hat. To me, it's the 'how' you love loving which gives 'you' a distinctive flavour... one of the infinite flavours of love. Thanks.
Americans have been defining who they are by what they wear (Dior, Levi’s - labels in cloths) consume, and by where they travel for a while. defining oneself by who makes your socks go up and down is another layer of self absorption. But defining oneself by what one thinks and how one acts is harder work.