Have you ever felt like the protagonist of an elaborate theatrical production that encompasses your whole life?
You’re certainly far from alone if so. Shakespeare seemed attuned to this signature human experience when he penned the famous line in “As You Like It.” More recently, Jim Carrey portrayed the titular character in “The Truman Show,” a study of one man trapped in the ultimate reality TV program — not to mention the myriad more subtle breaches of “the fourth wall” and self-referentiality throughout literature and film.
Most of us in modern Western culture have grown up with movies on the brain, so perhaps the allure of cinema has widely flavored this perception with buttered popcorn and projected it onto a screen. But there is something about the immersive, four-dimensional quality of live theater performance that fits the metaphor too perfectly. We might prefer to watch the world on a screen, but in as much as we are characters in our own story, we are clearly acting on a stage.
Now, embrace that experience…You are the main character in a story that is your life, acted out on a stage between four walls — three of which are physical, while the fourth is imaginary but very real to you. Because of this fourth wall, you see no director and no audience, but you feel a vague sensation of being watched by someone beyond the stage. Things might be OK at the moment, life may seem to be going your way, and you might even be happy. But you know it cannot last. Each story had a beginning, and it will also have an end, and so sadness and loss pervade every act while the final curtain lurks ever closer. You watch one character after another who you care about leave the stage and never return, and you know that one day your time will come too.
Except you won’t leave the stage. The curtain will fall, the lights will go out, and you will lay yourself down upon the floor. Those four walls will close in around you, until the space you have left is no more than the inside of a coffin, and then…darkness. Time continues to pass, you are aware of it elapsing, but nothing else happens. Your senses are nullified. Without eyes, there is nothing to see; without ears, there is nothing to hear. You have no nervous system with which to feel pleasure or pain, and no musculoskeletal system to enable movement. You can’t even scream for lack of a voice. There is nothing you can do to change this indefinite state of isolation and nothing enters your space to save you from it. Just unending self-aware oblivion, trapped in a location with no sense of place, and you are never coming back.
That last paragraph was, perhaps, my own dark fantasy, and not something as ubiquitous to the human condition as the simple fear of death. It is hard enough that we all confront the appearance of self-annihilation, a mentally taxing conundrum on its own that needs no complication.
I’ve never known if it was common for others to perceive a continuity of consciousness and nothing of which to be conscious. For me, starting as early as I can remember in childhood and persisting into my 20s, it was a waking nightmare that haunted me with great regularity, any time I allowed my mind to ponder the reality of impending death. Anticipating the corporal punishment of hell would have been a lesser torment, if only I could have believed in it. But I had no comforting tradition or hopeful theology with which to answer the onslaught of emptiness, nor did I sense there was anyone to ask. I just shook off the perception and went on with my performance, but it returned time and time again. A smothering tension and avoidance of all risk was the consequence. I was afraid to die, but even more afraid to live.
Looking back, I know that the answers were nowhere to be found out there because they were inside me all along. The vision, like many attempts to discern what’s beyond the event horizon of death, was caused by a conflation of two perceptions, one true and one false, into a single pervasive half-truth, the hardest kind of misperception to shake.
Continuity of consciousness is a verifiable fact. Other people whose mental space has overlapped with mine will continue to live and have self-aware experiences after I have died. Though my performance ends, in other words, the show goes on— perhaps on other stages in other theaters, but I can know for certain that conscious life itself does not end when mine does.
But what to make of the self-aware aspect of our consciousness? Whither goes that “I am” feeling that identifies itself as one character, concurrent with the sensations of one mortal body, and always at the center of one stage, thinking unique thoughts and telling the story of a single life in a way that no one else could?
This must be where the distortion comes in. There is no reason to believe that consciousness, deprived of the tools of gathering and processing sensory input, would continue to be defined by the range of those tools. There is also no reason to assume the “I am” stays attached to a body that we know will decompose and disperse into its environment. Perhaps this is the unintended consequence of the “I am” identifying with the character, which it must do in order to act out its starring part in the play: while “in character,” the character only knows itself as a temporary role in a limited-run production. Yet it also knows that something, which it also truly is, continues after this play ends. I witness some characters arising and others vanishing from the stage— which, to me as a character, is not merely a stage but “all the world.” I can’t sense where they came from or where they go, but it is reasonable to assume that their fate is also mine. Baffling as it may be to the intellect that seems inexorably rooted to the nervous system of one mortal body, there is an exit from this stage.
My waking nightmare of attachment to this one character, beyond its demise but stuck within these four walls, now seems like a trick of the egocentric mind. My “I am” sensation will not stay fixed to a dead identity. It is either annihilated by death, or it leaves the stage in some manner.
Or maybe its confinement to a single character at the center of one stage was an illusion all along?
This was the possibility that started to lift me above the torment my young agnostic character was feeling. A great deal of the past 28 years since this realization first rose up and made itself known to me has been spent pursuing its logic and the words which would make it communicable. (That, I’m afraid, is an affliction specific to writers that has no known cure.) I explored it in vague terms with the theatrical imagery of my first novel, Birding in the Face of Terror, and then got very deep into examining the four walls (symbolic of egocentric four-dimensional timespace) in The Peasant and the King (due for release in 2021).
But it took a recent Facebook conversation for me to see how these two motifs fit together perfectly. After all, it is the invisible “fourth wall” of the stage in live theater that seals in the story and makes an airtight space where the narrative of the story is the local reality on that stage. It transforms a stage into the prison of Denmark at one time, and the Forest of Arden at another. Similarly, the perception of linear time is a fourth wall that seals you to your precise location as you move through three-dimensional space, creating a sense of subject constancy to which the “I am” sensation is attached.
What if your perception of linear time is just as much of an illusion as the fourth wall of the stage? Would the “I am” sensation disappear, or, no longer being “boxed in” to the telling of one unique story, would it disperse until it covers all possible points in timespace?
“The soul” has always been a wiggly, fuzzy term that isn’t easily pinned down or defined, but to me, it has a very precise definition: it is the actor playing your character. It is the real, natural self as opposed to the illusory image you call yourself within the context of your story. Just as the actor is not separate from the character s/he plays, your soul is not separate from your physical body, but neither is it confined to your body, because nature, we eventually learn, is a transcendent state of connection and interbeing. To know the soul is to know both your body and the embodiment of that first hope-giving glimpse into the reality of life beyond these four walls.
In summary, if your ego is the main character at the center of your unique “I am” story, your soul is what your character experiences as it starts to suspect that it is being played by an actor. This experience makes no sense in the context created within the walls of the stage, but something tells you nonetheless that it’s true, that when the curtain falls on this stage, you, the actor, will persist. Perhaps you will go to “places” to prepare for the next performance, or to another production altogether. All you can tell now as you experience your soul is that there seems to be more to life than what is happening on this stage.
This might be as far as most people are willing to go with their exploration. To get out of character while performing is the thespian’s ultimate taboo, so we adhere to our roles with a force stronger than gravity. But that intuition about life beyond the stage persists, for it serves a purpose even within the four walls. Prince Hamlet, for instance, is a treacherous role, filled with perilous actions that are likely to lead to his early death. It is right and proper that the Hamlet character should fear death so as not to evade his travails and rush headlong into it before the final scene— but not so much that he refuses to play his role. Similarly, breaking character during the drama can lead to a rush of compassion for others who share the stage and suddenly feel much more familiar— but that rush can be a deluge that floods any competitive endeavor or high drama with a sense of dread and futility.
In Bhagavad-Gita, the warrior Arjuna sits exactly on this biaxial precipice at the dawn of the Battle of Kurukshetra in ancient India:
In truth, this battle is a dramatized metaphor of what happens anywhere and anytime a human finds the edge of this existential conflict, where s/he begins to sense that, just as the self is more truly an actor than a character, there is among actors a kind of esprit de corps that is more true than the clash of wills occurring on the stage. There will invariably be a space of high anxiety in which this wisdom is filtering through, but the drama still seems real enough, the absolute ground of a fragile and tenuous existence.
Intuition speaks to us in countless forms, playing a great variety of characters, bringing not just comfort but deeper insight to reality than is available on the surface; faith, in the most potent sense of the word that is synonymous with confidence and trust; most importantly, a firm balance on the precipice so that one can act courageously in the face of uncertainty. For Arjuna, the intuition comes in the form of Lord Krishna, his symbolic charioteer, and develops through the rest of the book as a uniquely Vedic framing of universal, Perennial truth:
By the end of the narrative, having been given the inside scoop on why these statements of Krishna are true and how to discern them directly for himself through the yogas, Arjuna, the transformed character, speaks triumphantly:
Hamlet, with no mystic bent of which to speak, finds no such saving grace. His “to be or not to be” moment yields no answers, and his story ends tragically with much blood and many dead bodies littering the stage.
And yet, nobody dies while performing Hamlet.
We know this as the audience to Hamlet because as the story ends and the curtain falls, the fourth wall is removed, and the next time we see the characters they are living actors, and the stage is no longer medieval Denmark. This is all confirmed by external and verifiable evidence that third party observers throughout the audience also see.
So why do we not have that “back to reality” experience with reality itself? Why do we only see dead and dying people and not actors? Because we are still in character. Because at any point that we can contemplate this question, we are treading the boards holding the skull of Yorick, suffering the slings and arrows of egocentric ideas and thoughts that pin us to our character’s identity. We have not earned the detachment from the context of our own story that would grant us the insight of the audience. The best we can do is pay attention and trust our intuition in a form that makes sense to us; the worst is to pretend we don’t feel it and slog tragically through life in fear and trepidation.
But some of us develop a fixation with that fourth wall. Perhaps you know the feeling? You momentarily forget your lines or miss your stage directions, and maybe start to drift toward front stage. It might start as a strong pull away from your character’s center of gravity, like Truman Burbank and his obsession with following his soulmate to Fiji. Your fellow cast members will rally to pull you back into the setting, but it’s too late. You’ve caught a whiff of the truth that they are actors too. Your soul is rousing, and it doesn’t go back to sleep once it starts.
Suddenly a crack appears in the fourth wall. Maybe it only exists to you and not anyone else on stage, but it draws all your attention. You investigate, losing all interest in the storyline you were acting out and breaking character. Now, for all intents and purposes, you are the actor. You haven’t left the stage, but you are leaving the context that the stage created in which the actor became a character. You never ceased being an actor, mind you — you were both, inseparably so. You don’t transform into something different when you break character, you simply leave the context of the story the character was telling. The other characters are confused and believe you’ve “lost the script.” But no, you’re still acting. You’re just improvising. Spontaneity is the mark of the embodied soul after shedding the character, and that means all the unforced, transformative feelings associated with spiritual experience, such as repentance, bliss, and love.
Curiosity compels you to pull at the torn edges of the fourth wall and peel it back, and the crack widens. Soon it is wide enough for you to look through, and you see that there’s been an audience watching this play all along. Even more fascinating: the people you see in the audience are the same ones who have shared the stage with you. Your family is sitting front row center; your friends and intimates form a ring around them, and other familiar faces pepper the seats all through the theater.
Mesmerized, you climb down from the stage and walk among them. Time has now stopped, or rather, it doesn’t apply; that was part of the context of the stage. Here among the audience, there is differentiation between people, but no distance. Though they all have different faces, and all respond differently to different parts of the action on the stage, something tells you that they are all you too.
This is the key realization to make at this level. Just as there was no separation between the character and the actor, there is no separation between the audience and the actor — between the knower of the true self and the known.
Now you are not just a single actor. You are something that human language has always struggled to define, but has been almost universally known. Ralph Waldo Emerson coined my favorite term for this: the “Over-soul.” It corresponds with the Platonic idea of Anima mundi, or “world soul.” Other analogs for it include the Atman in Vedanta, Christ or the Logos, Buddha-nature in Mahayana Buddhism and Qi in the Chinese philosophies. (This is also the “I and I” in Birding.) This is the single animating force present in all actors.
Being the Over-soul, you can take the seat of anyone in the audience and see what he or she sees— that is to say, you take the stage again, only it is their stage, and their story being told. The same cast of actors tells this story too, but as a different set of characters. You can see through one set of eyes, leave that person’s stage and enter another’s, without a moment of time passing. In this way you learn that all actors in all performances — not just you and not just others, but all — are manifestations of this one Over-soul, the Self of all selves; and all characters are projections of the actor as s/he moves about the illusory stage, “casting” (pun intended) various combinations of shadow and stage lighting.
The world, as it turns out, is not a stage, but a theater of many overlapping stages. The Over-soul is everyone in the theater.
But there is further still to go…You make your way to a spiral staircase at the back of the theater, and ascend to a balcony way up above the audience, where you take the lone seat at the back. It is a vantage point from which you can see all other seats in the theater, billions and billions of them, and inhabit the stage which each seat becomes by assimilating your “I AM” within its unique perspective. Each of these is marked by its own “stage light” illuminating its own microcosmic world, all laid out before you now. You are the I AM of them all.
The stage from which you departed is now just a part of this vast ocean of light, which twinkles like a star when seen as a whole, with new lights appearing while others disappear. The glow is continuous.
At this point the deepest level of truth becomes clear: You are this light, just as you are now the witness of the light. For at every level which you have experienced, there is no separation between the seer and the seen. Just as you, the I AM, are the light on every stage, you are every shadow cast by each actor, and the mystery within them which s/he seeks to unveil.
As surely as you know this, there is also every reason to believe that you could go higher still, way above this theater, and see that this array of light is also one among many — as below, so above. You are the witness of it all.
You have found your true Self. You are Consciousness itself.
And the amazing thing about being the I AM in human form is that you can experience all of this in your mind, without leaving the stage. You don’t have to abandon the role you are playing. You just have to step out of character and get over it every now and then.