Mask Work – Swimming in the Subconscious

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I’m standing before Jacob James, actor and director with the Stratford Theatre, who is graciously taking time from his busy schedule to teach a series of acting classes at the Wellington Street Theatre in Kingston.

I’m new to acting, but not to energy work or tapping into the subconscious, so this feels like familiar ground. With a few preliminary instructions on the sacred art of mask work, he has me don a white mask and slip into a scenario that takes me on a journey into my own mind.

Placing the mask over my face, I close my eyes, and lie down on the floor. Breathing into the mask, I awaken and find myself on the shore of a vast ocean. Walking into the water, I find myself going deeper, ever deeper, and yet able to breathe in the water. I’ve been instructed to find a gift and see an animal and then fall back to sleep.

As I descend lower, I can feel my limbs become lighter, bobbing with the current. Soon, I notice a Venus flytrap (no matter that they do not exist at the bottom of the ocean – this is my dream). Prying open one of the pods, I find a pearl. I hold it in my hand and relish its glow as it catches the light from above the waves.

Suddenly, a large snake appears. I stroke its head and body as it coils around my waist, drawing me down to the sandy ocean floor where I fall asleep.

It’s quite astonishing when we completely let go what we experience of our own mind, whether in an acting scenario, meditation, a Holotropic breathwork or other practice designed to open us to our inner terrain. When we really allow, all kinds of interesting imagery will arise. Why a snake, a Venus flytrap, a pearl? That is for me to ponder at my leisure.

Even more interesting to me is how the brain can generate the environment and objects in the scenario with mere prompting and my willingness to access the subconscious without editing its input.

As I continue to read “The Brain that Changes Itself”, I’m astonished at learning how much of our perception is based on the way our brain works – and the choices we make in terms of perception. In his book, Norman Doidge MD writes about an experiment conducted by V.S. Ramachandran, who works to help amputees resolve “phantom pain”, which is pain felt in limbs despite the fact that they are no longer there.

In this experiment, Ramachandran asked volunteers to put their right hand under a table while he simultaneously stroked and tapped the hand and the tabletop. This activity caused their brains to associate the tabletop as part of the body (to learn more about brain maps and how they do this, read the book). Then, he smashed the tabletop with a hammer and watched the stress levels of the volunteers skyrocket (measured by instruments to which they were attached). He discovered that the brain determines whether people register pain, and that altering participants’ sense of reality (by getting them to associate the tabletop with the body) can influence their experience.

I find this particularly interesting given that I used meditation and self-hypnosis during my last two labours to circumvent the pain process. I suspect few doctors have seen women calmly sitting in a lotus position in hard labour indicating, “I’m ready to push now.” The staff were so surprised, they actually placed me on a gurney in that sitting position and wheeled me to the operatory for the birth of my third child. With my ability to bypass the pain process, my husband and I were able to conduct the fourth birth at home by ourselves.

The brain’s capacity to create our experience and our ability to consciously determine that experience continues to amaze me. Though we cannot control the external world, we can determine how we will respond to it, and thus influence whether we benefit or suffer as a result.

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