In a previous article, I suggested how certain acting practices might enhance your quality of life. The main idea was that if actors can feel like becoming the character they are playing, the same method could help you to become who you feel you really are but struggle to be.
It ended with the Shakespeare quote that ‘all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players”. In this piece I’d like to zoom in on it.
While there is no doubt that some roles will feel natural or close to heart and others very odd, it seems that Shakespeare either was of the opinion that all men play inauthentic roles or that any behavior is merely an act. I tend to believe he means the latter. If so, what would that mean?
The healthy ego
In general use, the word ‘ego’ is associated with selfishness. Yet, when Freud popularized the word, he wrote: “Normally, there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, or our own ego. This ego appears to us as something autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from anything else. ... Such an appearance is deceptive”. He’d go on to say about the ego that it was “first and foremost a bodily ego” – something the brain produces.
What Freud meant, was that the body has a tendency to create a mental sense of self, but which isn’t truly autonomous. He regarded it as something some people hold throughout their lives while others don’t.
One of his friends, the writer Romain Rolland, who possessed vast knowledge of Eastern philosophy, pointed out that there were people who seemed to have resolved the tension. He wrote that many people, including himself, went through life experiencing “a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded – as it were, oceanic”.
Freud recognized this feeling as the boundless feeling a baby experiences before it develops an ego, but it was something he had lost and couldn’t regain. His friend and many others did regain that feeling, but what does it mean and how does it relate to the Shakespeare quote?
It means that when you experientially see through the illusion of the brain-produced ego (or self-image), you become aware of who you also are.
That is probably even more confusion and I apologize! But let me clear this mess up. What do I mean with also? Well, when you were born in Amsterdam in the year 1600, you were travelling through France and someone would ask you where you are from, you would say Amsterdam. Nowadays, you would say the Netherlands. In a few years or decades time, you might say Europe. And, who knows, in half a century from now, you might say Planet Earth.
In all cases, you’d still be from Amsterdam – you’d also be from Amsterdam, as well as from the Netherlands, Europe and Planet Earth. The one doesn’t exclude the other, because they are all true on a different level of magnification.
Who all we are (yes, the title is correct)
Similarly to being from Amsterdam as well as the Netherlands, Europe and Planet Earth, you might also really be born to play the role of Hamlet as a profession and to be the famous actor who is known for his Hamlet performances. But what I argue both Freud and Shakespeare also tried to convey, is that each of us are also someone on another level of magnification. Because who would we be if our sense of self is something the brain produces?
The answer is something that only makes sense if you experience it. Some say it is the main secret of secret societies. The simplest description I know of it, is that it comes down to perceiving things (temporarily) without a conceptual layer in between.
To the conceptual mind, which had been active continuously within me for about 35 years, it makes as much sense as when trying to explain a deep sea fish what water is. Yet, I have to say that shifting into a non-conceptual mode of perception for the first time made me understand instantly who I also am – who I ultimately am – besides being Richard and his authentic activities, such as writing.
It made me understand that I am playing the character we call Richard and that I can play it in an authentic way or in a distorted way and that the authentic way is sometimes a bit uncomfortable but way more satisfying. It can add depth to roles and create lightness to challenging experiences for you can then see it is all just a game.
Even being born and dying lose their original meaning when you realize that the actor doesn’t die when the character is no longer in the script. Not by some mental trickery, but rather by giving up some of that.
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts …”
Ways to get behind the stage
Basically, all wisdom traditions are protocols for obtaining the perspective experientially that our personality is merely a mask on top of the real you – that it is god performing a stage act for its own entertainment with billions of masks.
Some traditions revolve around meditation practices, while others focus on surrendering to god, which is you. Some find it in silence, while others manage to go beyond their mind by using the mind. For some it takes years, while others have their initial moment within a few days.
Each upbringing and natural inclination require a slightly different approach. It is a process of undoing conditioning and each of us has been conditioned uniquely. The more you follow your own intuition – the degree you’re playing your natural role – the more likely it becomes that you suddenly get it. You can then decide what you do with it.
You can forget about it and submerge in the role again. Or, you might enjoy cultivating the ability to both experience the play as if it is real while also being able to shift to the perspective of seeing it for what it also (ultimately) is. That is what the final piece of this series is about.