Two years ago, on a camping trip in Hawaii, my god-daughter Inanna obliged me each evening to entertain our little circle with a few pages from my book (still awaiting publication under its new title, Dying Naked). Inanna was about to begin her 3rd undergrad year at Harvard. That is significant.
Dying Naked is my deeply personal story, interspersed with things I have said to people in my workshops these past years that have a connection with the book’s narrative. Being at the time a brilliant twenty year-old who grew up with more than enough New Age healers and teachers around her, Inanna was not so interested in my workshop wisdom. She just wanted my story. But one of those snippets really grabbed her:
When we grow up with the fear that we’re not good enough, we learn to put on a show. Teenagers give each other great performance stories, especially around sex, because they’ve got to be as good as their friends are pretending to be. The show only stops when being yourself starts to matter more than cultivating this fabulous image of who you think you should be in the eyes of others. Then you can relax with your truth and allow yourself realisations like, “Oh my God, I’m much more vulnerable than my performance allows me to be.”
Before I could get back to the story, Inanna chimed in: “There are so many people of my age who need to hear that.”
I recalled her comment the other day as I was reflecting on how infinitely more accessible sex has become over the past fifty years and with what laissez-faire it now cruises around our social highways and byways. Inanna was referring of course to the image-driven performing and pretending that is standard behaviour among American college students, though it is no less prevalent in Europe. I remember a TV documentary that featured English teenagers clubbing in Ibiza and trying to outdo each other’s on-camera sexual brashness. Their unconscious peer-group protocol required them to trash anything beautiful, sensual or heartful.
Sex itself may be out in the open, yet in vast swathes of what is regarded as normal society something is no different than when sex was the forbidden fruit. Something is not allowed. That teenagers and young adults have to preen their sexual images and fake sexual prowess simply reflects what has been fed to them, and of course these young people are on their way to one day serving up the same diet to their kids.
It doesn’t matter whether the sexual climate is repressive or permissive. Either way, there is a show that must go on. It isn’t limited to any particular segment of society. The show runs concurrently in mainstream theatres, in alternative scenes, in pubs and clubs, on TV, YouTube, Facebook and countless other social media outlets, in political, religious and New Age arenas, and yes, in the Tantric world of ‘enlightened’ sexuality too. There is no upper age limit for performers other than our normal human expiry date, and untold millions have indeed kept the show running until their dying breath.
The show is what we do for the audience that sits inside our head. It is made up of all the people who, as we grew up, tried to impress on us who we should be rather than simply encouraging us to be ourselves: usually parents and other family members, and the teachers, boys and girls around us during our school years. Implanting themselves in our minds during those impressionable years, they maintain a round-the-clock vigil – in our dreams too – to keep us in line, push us to do well and harass us whenever we are in their eyes not good enough or are doing something wrong. They are heavily invested in keeping us safe from the fear that they passed on to us, and they judge us as they have themselves been judged. Until as adults we find a way to get free of it, the show we put on for the people around us continues to be directed by this phantom audience.
So when it comes to sex, however chic or shabby the show may be, what keeps it running is nothing to do with sex itself. Our performance is directed by deeply ingrained beliefs that “I am not as wonderful / beautiful / talented / experienced / sexy / Tantric / conscious / free / loving … and so on, as I should be.” The faking, performing, and trashing are all for the sake of the audience, who, out of politeness, collusion, unawareness or even friendship can rarely ask the question that really matters: “Who are you when you’re not busy performing?”
If it is asked as an invitation and not as a judgment, this is the most important question we can ever be asked, because it creates the opportunity for us to embark on a life-transforming adventure. When we dare to give up the show, without putting another in its place, we find ourselves in an inner void that brings us, if we dare its darkness, into the most enthralling experience imaginable: the discovery of who we really are. I’m not using the word dare casually. The reason so many people never discover their real being is because of what happens to us when we authentically drop the show. What we are bound to encounter then is our fear. Imagine, for example, a man known by everyone as “the life and soul of the party”. What is he going to experience if out of the blue he suddenly drops his act? Particularly, how will he feel in the first seconds and minutes of not playing to any audience and instead simply allows himself to be in touch with everything happening in him? Will he feel helpless? Embarrassed? Powerless? Ashamed? Not liked? Stupid? There are numerous other possible inner states, and none of them pleasant, because they all come down to the same fact – that without his show he believes he is not good enough. If he stops performing, he is going to feel immediately afraid, because he suddenly has nowhere to hide from all he has been brought up to fear in himself. His ordinary everyday world is populated with people who are constantly busy covering their real feelings with all kinds of charades. He may not understand but he gets the message all the same: it’s not OK to be yourself.
Our personality trips are so socially accepted – and even admired – that we are hardly aware of the engine running them. The engine is a deeply ingrained fear that permeates our entire culture and drives us all into hiding in our personality trips. If the very idea is laughable, be aware that laughing it off is just the show going on. Like Hans Christian Anderson’s emperor in his new clothes, our civilisation does not want to be found out! Believing that our personality is who we really are, we don’t want to know otherwise until life somehow or another persuades us to notice the sham that is being endlessly acted out all around us and to which, of course, we obediently contribute our own well-rehearsed role. If we could then simply drop the show and celebrate the wonder of being real, this planet would be a very different place. Instead of being blinded by their beliefs, people would see each other. ALL the strife that human beings perpetrate against each other – from domestic to international – comes from arguing and fighting against each other’s masquerades! And the only people who dislike us when we are being ourselves are those who still live in the delusion that they are the costumes they are wearing.
The fear that fixes us inside our fabricated costumes was instilled in us when we were too young to realise what was going on. We simply grew up trusting that the show we learned to put on was for our own good. By the time we reach adulthood we have long since forgotten – if we ever knew – that our show keeps us alienated from our dearest treasure, the wild and magical mystery of a being who is not subject to anyone’s control and celebrates life for the sheer wonder of being, and not to impress any audience.
So why did our parents not guard the treasure on our behalf? Why did they not help us grow into our real being? Through no fault of their own! Everyone in the family has been brought up from generation to generation learning to keep the shows running. And how different is it to be yourself rather than your performance? Imagine being born blind and deaf and suddenly being able to see and hear; or finding yourself awake in all your senses and feelings, fully connected with your heart and soul, aware of all that is happening here and now and buzzing with creativity, intuitively understanding the eternal mysteries, so that all you can do is wonder where on earth you have been all your life.
Our ongoing human tragi-comedy is that it is only through dropping the show that we become the full celebration of ourselves: but only when we make friends with the fear. That but is what keeps so many in the tragedy. In the moment that our “life and soul of the party” friend brings the curtain down on his show, the abyss into which he peers is enough to drive him immediately onstage again. It doesn’t have to be a re-run of his old show. Like many people, he may look for a more appealing costume, though any show will do as long as it shields him from his fear. If on the other hand he is ready to meet it, he needs good allies who can help him ride into the abyss and learn how to befriend all he finds there. Daring to embrace his helplessness, loneliness, sorrow, pain, heartbreak and soul-lost despair, he is actually entering into a love-relationship with all that kept him from himself. He is coming home into his being. True, at first he has to dare the darkness. In letting himself go through it, he comes to an undreamed-of dawning, into BEING.
None of this is to detract from the wonders of performance and the virtuosity of great artists. What makes the difference is whether we are celebrating the gifts of our being, or hiding from ourselves. Some of the most famous people in the world are doing both. In any case, the shows we put on in order to impress or deceive others demonstrate that we don’t like ourselves, don’t trust ourselves, and/or haven’t yet discovered ourselves. It is the inner states that we cannot meet and befriend in ourselves that drive us into our unreality shows. Trash-sex saves us from feelings like tenderness, vulnerability and even love that we have learned to mistrust; playing the wise authority, we can keep any number of human frailties under wraps – like the fear of losing control, being helpless or lonely or powerless, lacking self-esteem and so needing it from others. But beneath both and all the other survival games we play, there is one fundamental common factor: fear and mistrust of who we are without them.
Yes, Inanna, this is the adventure that fills the awful gap in the education of college students, clubbers, office workers, doctors, lawyers and professionals in every walk of life, corporate ladder-climbers, sales people, sex workers, far too many therapists and healers and Tantric practitioners, gurus, performing artists, movie stars, sports celebrities, politicians, members of the aristocracy and other unskilled dropouts, and on and on! When in our families, schools and communities we learn to honour every child’s sacred right to discover who they really are, then all the performances will be celebrations of being.