The Actor and the Mask

By Clifton Meek
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,
His acts being seven ages.— Shakespeare, As You Like It

We daily experience a phenomenon of nature so common that we barely give it thought. As one awakens from forgetfulness, renewed in mind and body by the miracle of sleep, the consciousness we identify as the self returns to the world of mortals and, like the actor that it is, playing its assigned part in the great drama we call life, once again assumes the familiar mask of clay. It returns from the peaceful realms of spirit to a world of din and confusion, where hosts of similar beings are working out a common destiny.

The present cycle of history is made turbulent by millions frantically beating their plowshares into swords as a court of final appeal to settle their difficulties. It is a strange stage and a strange act, yet ever since we have had any history of human doings, we have been alternately beating plowshares into swords and swords into plowshares, seemingly unable to decide which implement best serves our purpose.

This is the kind of a world to which we return periodically after the temporary release of so-called death, when our consciousness for the time is withdrawn into its parent source, our real self that endures from life to life — a mysterious yet wonderful process that continues until every needed experience in this particular mansion of life is fully understood, the last lesson learned, and every debt paid in full.

We know very little about this real self, this leading actor in our lives. Most of the time we identify it with the personality, the mask it wears. The illusion is so perfect, the deception so complete, that apparently only a few have been able to penetrate the mystery and achieve conscious at-onement with their real selves — which is, after all, the purpose of evolution and the destiny of all. The fact that there have been these spiritual teachers, who appear from time to time throughout the history of our struggle for enlightenment, should give us tremendous hope. It is their example which forms the essence of religion — the goal of religion is action, not a formal belief or creed.

Thus each day, or each lifetime, we return to the scene of our unfinished drama for a new experience, a new avenue of growth; yet so absorbed do we become in our respective parts, and in the stage scenery and properties which must be shifted for each act and scene, that often the true identity of the actor or self is forgotten. Moreover, no actor continually plays the same part from day to day, or from life to life; a fact, which if we understood it well, would do much to promote human kindness and consideration for our fellows. Those who today wear the royal purple, strutting across the stage of life to a fanfare of trumpets, may be kings for a day, elevated to the leading role but for one scene. It is a vain and even dangerous thing to attach too great importance to the momentary power one may have over others, for scenes change swiftly on the screen of time. The hand of destiny, remembering some ancient debt, some disservice to mankind and the higher law, may reach across from lives long past and, stripping the robes from the actor, expose fraud and hypocrisy in all their ugliness. Another actor, playing a minor part, may suddenly be elevated to stardom, seemingly without reason, but thus balancing the scales by some former merit. If it is true that every grain of sand in all the oceans at one time or another is washed high on the crest of the wave, to reflect momentarily the glory of the sun, so may it be with the billions of human beings comprising mankind.

Perhaps the greatest frontier of all, and the last that will be conquered by man, is self — and therein lies the crux of all our problems. Fortunately the finest scientific minds, as well as the most liberal theologians, have begun to free themselves from static thinking inherited from the past. It is up to each of us too to see that we do not bury ourselves in the outdated molds of former prejudices, but seek, whatever our particular role in life, to grasp the essential plot of our lives. The problem of spiritual regeneration is an individual one, and will never be solved by mass production methods, the regimentation of human souls or intelligences, or the punching of credal time clocks.

No one is so busy or so small that he cannot feel himself part of the great forward-moving drama of earthly existence. Nature, with infinite patience, is striving to produce human beings in the image and likeness of a divine ideal: men and women with the creative fire of intelligence, capable of assuming spiritual responsibility, willing to explore new fields of thought and endeavor. We have our exits and our entrances; but whether minor or major, each is a significant part of the whole.

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)


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To speak of the love for humanity is meaningless. There is no such thing as humanity. What we call humanity has a name, was born, lives on a street, gets hungry, needs all the particular things we need. As an abstract, it has no reality whatsoever. — Howard Thurman