You go to a theater and there’s a play being performed. You’re engaged by the performance of the actors, who insist that they actually are the characters they’re playing, that everything on stage is “real.” These are the conditions in the theater, and you are expected to accept them.
What is not presented to you is the actor getting up in the morning, shrugging off a hangover, washing himself, going downtown to the chiropractor, calling his mother up, his mother complaining, telling him he owes her money and asking when is he going to pay her. He goes through these mundane aspects of his life until he comes to the theater and takes the stage. His portrayal is meant to convince you that everything that led up to his performance doesn’t exist. There’s only what you see on the stage.
Now imagine if someone were to stand up in the middle of the play and say to the actor, “Hold it! I spoke to your mother yesterday. She says you owe her $500. When’re you going to pay her?” People would look around, they’d be shocked—disturbed. Someone get the usher, get this guy outta here! The interloper has no reality, because the play is the reality everyone’s involved in.
Isn’t our life exactly like that?
We’re forever performing, though we hardly know it. All that went into our performance is hidden from us. The real facts of our life—the ones we may only have a momentary suspicion of—lie buried somewhere between the lines of the script we’ve been given and have taken to heart.
It’s not simply the “act” of putting on a brave face or intentionally projecting a certain image. Intentionality isn’t possible under the circumstances of the play we’re in. The performing we do we can’t help but do. It goes on constantly.
Now, suppose that when the actor gets up and starts to play, he forgets his life. He doesn’t remember that his name is Joe Schmoe, he thinks he’s Othello the Moor. He forgets he has a girlfriend named Ginger and he believes he’s enamored of Desdemona, and he feels like Othello must have felt when Iago produced the handkerchief that “proved” she was fooling around. He’s totally immersed in believing this performance. He pretends to such an extent that he forgets his own life.
I suggest we are, all of us, in an identical pickle: All our lives we’ve been playing a character, following a script, oblivious to our origins, and we haven’t stopped to question it. We don’t know where we came from, who we are. Someone may stand up and say, “You don’t remember who you are! Nor the purpose for which you were born!” And most of us, if we are honest, would have to admit that it’s true. We don’t know who we are, where we’ve come from, or what we are supposed to be doing.
We may have lots of information about where we come from, how we’ve been shaped. We live in a vast web of suggestions as to the meaning of our lives. But how can we distill the meaningful from the useless if we start from the assumption that we already know who we are? And if all the information we have about our makeup, our personalities, our cultural proclivities was worth what we sometimes claim for it, Al Gore would be president and the pope would have long ago canonized the people behind Google. Likewise, we may have access to countless influences—college, books, religion, therapy—but where has any of these influences usually gotten us but dazed, confused, guilty, or broke?
This lack of under-standing—of self-under-standing—and our willing-ness to be content with this state of affairs is at the root of the problem. How can it be that we know so much about everything but we don’t know who we are? How is it that we don’t know the purpose of our entrance onto the stage? Just like the actor who believes he’s Othello, we’ve forgotten ourselves. Acknowledging this forgetfulness isn’t enough. We must discover how we’ve forgotten.
When something comes to your attention, it strikes you and holds you until something else comes in and displaces it. You’re talking about something important, a beautiful woman passes in front of your eyes, and bingo, you’re gone. “Where was I?” That image was enough to derail you, to put you off track. This happens all day long. And then one day, you snap awake and find you’ve sold your belongings, divorced your wife, and are on a flight to California. And you don’t know how it happened.
Here’s another theatrical example: Let’s say the play is “Death of a Salesman,” and Willie Loman is about to give his big schpiel. A bit actor standing off at the edge of the stage lights up a cigarette. No matter who’s playing Willie, how great a performance he’s giving, every eye will turn to that bit actor. It’s an old theatrical trick and it works every time. It works because we’re so easily distracted—it’s something like the instant ability to be hypnotized.
So what are the mechanics involved here? It’s a propensity we’re talking about. Ever been gripped by an emotion? Disgust. Despair. You forget yourself and sink into a deep vat of despair. Ever get caught by a thought? Something innocuous, like, what time is it? Anything, inner or outer, has the possibility of derailing us. This propensity to lose what you’ve focused on and have something else displace it could be called “identification.” We identify or become one with whatever we see—who we are gets absorbed into whatever we’re looking at and we become absorbed. Lost. If this goes on all the time, stumbling from distraction to distraction, hypnotized by each new phenomenon, after a while, we won’t remember anything—we won’t even remember ourselves. We will, in fact, forget who we are.
If that describes what’s happening to you and me, it describes what’s happening to everyone else everywhere—everyone in Washington, in the Middle East, at the North Pole. This is what’s happening in everyone’s life and no one’s saying anything about it. You see how easy it is to have a war?
The only way to combat this perpetual distractibility is to begin sensing your body and staying aware of it. This acts as a reminder. It says, Here you are!
Here’s what you’re doing! Stop dreaming!
The way to self-knowledge—to answer the legendary question, Who are you?—is to begin to live moment by moment in a different way, so that you start to live remembering your existence, rather than forgetting it. This isn’t something you can come to by philosophical speculation, because the answer has to be found in the experience of your existence. So by remembering your body and recognizing those moments when you’ve been derailed, you can get on a new track that can, if you practice, lead you to the ultimate answers to the big questions: Who am I? Where am I? What am I supposed to be doing?