There’s an expression that has rolled around my head for a few years now. It says that ‘I’m just a monkey man, wearing a monkey mask, doing monkey things’. When I heard it, it sank into me. The expression called out my tendency to confuse the masks I wore or the actions I did as representative of some inner self.
When we wear masks, it’s easy to get lost in who we think we are. Several year ago, one of my subordinates got into a mess with another office where he was clearly in the wrong. Still, my boss wanted me to argue with the other office about how we were actually in the right. I had to call the other office on the phone and argue with them.
During the call, I told the other office that what happened actually wasn’t our problem. It was their process and vague rules. I had to wear a mask because it was required by my employer. The person that I was speaking to also had to argue with me – it was part of their job.
The topic was something ridiculous. For example, imagine that you have a coupon that expired at midnight yesterday. Essentially, I had to tell this other person that even though the coupon expired yesterday, they still had to honor the deal. It was something ridiculous like that.
Nonetheless, the other office obliged and allowed an exception. After that, they changed their rules to clearly prohibit what we talked about.
Reflecting on that moment, there was a peculiar quality to our phone call. The mask that I was wearing during our conversation clearly didn’t fit. There was no confusion in my head. I knew that my subordinate had done something the rules were clear about. Yet, I performed what was required of my role.
In the zen koan collection, the Mumonkan, there’s a story of a master Ruiyan. Each day, this master supposedly called to himself. He would say, “Ruiyan?”. Then answer himself, “Yes?”. Replying back, he’d say, “Pay attention, be alert!”. Then he would say, “Yes, yes”. To which he would continue, “Do not be deceived by other’s deceptions”. Finally, he’d answer to himself, “No, no!”
This story reminds me of the monkey mask. It seems to point to the identities that we wear. Ruiyan would call to himself. But who is doing the calling and who is answering? Who is reminding who?
To investigate this, I look at my own monkey face. What are the masks and roles that I fulfill? What roles do I identify with and mistake as myself? Now, it would be a mistake to think that there’s a continuous identity under the mask. When we peel off the mask, we find yet another underneath it.
We must carry on, looking through the roles and digging under them. We must do this without the expectation of finding a continuous self underneath. While understanding the lack of a continuous self, we must still investigate and see where these masks come from?
What are the masks that I wear? I have a self-image of who I am as a worker and my work ethic. I have a mask of my own values and what I think is right in the world. There’s a mask for how I think the world should be. Even at a superficial level, there are masks for preferences in my daily life.
To look at this, we must peel it all back. Who is that thinks they are a good worker? Why do I identify with that? Given difference circumstances or another perspective, I may not appear to fit that role. It is only my self-perception playing with itself that has read to that conclusion.
Much suffering and confusion happen when we mistake the masks for our true self. When suddenly a mask no longer fits, it can be bewildering. For example, if a mask we wore said that we were a great athlete, then we experienced a traumatic injury, the mask may no longer fit.
A fool would continue to wear the mask and pretend that it fits. But to those around, it can sometimes be easy to identify ill-fitting masks. Yet, we hold these constructs close. Our identity functions like a cocoon. The masks serve as a way for us to have a continuous identity. They give us a sense of purpose and continuity. But what happens when we begin peeling layers off.
For me, this means peeling off identities involving my physical health. I’m going through medical problems that limit my ability to walk. I’ve always considered myself a very active person. This was a core part of myself. Yet, with deteriorating health, I’m seeing that identity as merely a mask. Health or no health, I’m still me. But that me isn’t tied to health at all.
Still yet, there are endless masks. Another for me is that I’m a good worker. I find myself struggling at my job. I put in effort but it seems to go nowhere. I’m not progressing towards my goals. In the past, I would have doubled-down on the effort but now I see the edges of a mask. Who am I when I am not wearing this mask?
Don’t get me wrong, masks are important. I still work hard, I try my best to be active. But I recognize the limitations of the masks. They can fulfill a function but there is no universal mask. More importantly, none of these masks are me; only something that I wear.
At the end of the day, I’m just a monkey man, doing monkey things, wearing monkey masks.