Stripping Away Masks

By Rob Nairn
If in daily life we embark upon an enterprise, we usually prepare for it. Death is no different. The reason should be apparent by now: the mind that experiences dying is a continuation of the mind that is reading these words. Unless we have the aid of an accomplished lama, no external force is going to manifest magically and whisk us away into a heaven world when we die.

Although it is the same mind, and therefore the same me, it is not the superficial daily me. It is the total me and includes the hidden, subjective, repressed and unfaced aspects of my stream of consciousness. All these will manifest and predominate in the death experience. The superficial, socialised, intellectual and conceptual aspects will shatter, disintegrate and dissolve.

Put bluntly, all the mirrors and smoke, lies, pretences, ideas and images we have woven into our personality will fall away to reveal the deeper truth of what we really are. That is what we will experience. It is a theme used by some novelists who like to put their characters into traumatic situations where their normal controls and supports are removed. This strips away a person's masks and reveals the first underlying layer of 'truth', which is usually different from the one presented to the world. It is an appealing theme, because at heart most of us want to be real, get in touch with our inner reality, and equally be in touch with others in a way that is more genuine, true and meaningful. But we usually don't want to face all that this involves, such as accepting and coming to terms with our shadows.

So much alienation in our so-called civilised societies is caused by the psychological isolation of individuals. People create and crouch behind their images of themselves, thinking that this will lead to happiness. It doesn't. It leads instead to loneliness, isolation, alienation and misery. People get out of touch with themselves and cannot get in touch with others. So relationships at all levels become shallow, meaningless, unfulfilling. Life becomes the same.

Death changes this. What disintegrates along with the death of the body is this superficial world mind. When we are dying we experience what we are, completely and directly. Dream gives us hints of how this will be, because in dream the underlying energies seep through into the dream state, usually making enigmatic but true statements about the deeper state of the mind.

So how does one prepare if so much of the mind is beyond the reach of our daily, conscious experience? There are ways, which I propose to explain. But first the overriding principle needs to be understood.


Our personalities are expressions of deep, underlying tendencies. Some are hidden, usually because we prefer not to acknowledge or know about them. Others peep through and surprise us in undefended moments, and others may be reasonably familiar to us on a day-to-day basis.

For example, we may be profoundly insecure, needy, grasping and greedy. This is a common complex that rules the lives of most people who are driven to acquisitiveness. They won't acknowledge these aspects and seek to conceal them from themselves and from others. The superficial personality might be quite jolly and seem happy, an appearance that can be maintained while external conditions remain favourable. But if things go badly wrong - for example, if the persons wealth, possessions or relationships are threatened - a complete change of personality could well manifest. This could take the form of uncharacteristically violent, ruthless or destructive behaviour that might even surprise the person concerned.

What is the source of this Jekyll and Hyde change? Simply the underlying and hidden state of the person's mind. All that varies from person to person is the degree of denial and repression, or the amount of understanding and insight present in the mind.

These underlying tendencies, like the skeleton of the psychological entity, are not all negative: some are positive and others neutral. They give it shape and form and thus largely determine the way it is. If we continue the analogy, the mind that presents itself to the world is very close to being cosmetic. It concerns itself with image, overt behaviour and survival within its environment. The average person thinks this mind is important, is 'me', and identifies with it. But the deeper layers of the mind are more powerful and real, real in the sense of being truer expressions of the person's energy system rather than pretences.

While we are alive we cling to this shallow mind and generally ignore, repress or try to escape from the deeper layers, particularly the negative aspects. This is why so few people grow or mature psychologically or spiritually. The power and strength needed for growth lies within these depths. By blocking access because we fear the negative component, or our deeper divine component (as discussed in Jung's understanding of 'shadow' in Chapter 9), we block the totality and become superficial, shallow people, cut off from our deeper potential.

When we die, the truth will out because the shallow mind disintegrates. The deeper tendencies are then experienced directly and determine the quality of our experiences in the death bardos. This is a crucial factor to understand because it contains the key to all death training.

However we train, the focus must be on getting into touch with and changing the underlying tendencies. In particular we need to face, come to terms with and integrate negative predispositions. In addition, we need to bring positive tendencies into focus, strengthen them and finally take the mind beyond opposites altogether, through purification and awakening of the enlightened potential.


Why is training so important? Because all forms of training are designed to affect more than just the superficial mind of this life; that is the rational, cognitive, intellectual mind to which we humans attach so much importance. Some people feel that spiritual training, in order to be worthwhile, should be something exotic, secret, or special. If you are one of those you will be disappointed because training is to do with your immediate day-to-day life situation; the way you live each day as an ordinary person.


This mind can easily be changed, and in fact is changing all the time: just think of the typical fluctuations of thought, feeling, opinions and ideas we go through in the course of a day.
We can decide with this mind that we want to be one way or another. Many people make New Year's resolutions: 'I will give up smoking, drinking ... I will be less angry and impatient ... I will be kinder and more polite to strangers ../ Almost invariably these resolutions are broken before the first day of the New Year is out. Why? Simply because there is a deeper level of the mind that is stronger and more set in its direction than the superficial mind, and this deeper level has not participated in the resolution.

This deeper level is the mind of habitual tendencies, which we have cultivated and developed over billions of lifetimes of thinking and reacting egocentrically. So deep and powerful are these tendencies that they have become instinctual. They naturally and automatically come into play and determine how we think, feel and behave. We cannot change this mind simply by taking on new ideas or even beliefs. Something more has to be done, involving several factors:

1) First, we become aware of and acknowledge the existence of the underlying or habitual tendencies. We must accept and come to terms with them. This step is difficult for many people because it challenges or contradicts their self-image. Most self-images contain a good dose of lies we have told ourselves about ourselves. When we start being honest with ourselves we are forced to acknowledge the lies, let go of them and face the unsavoury realities behind them. This means coming to terms with ourselves as we really are, instead of as we have pretended we are. We humans are all a mixture of positive, neutral and negative mind-states. They arise in our minds not only as a consequence of conditioning in this life, but also because of the aeons of conditioning that created our habitual tendencies. There is no point in trying to pretend that negative tendencies are not present.

So the first step is to face and come to terms with ourselves as we are at this moment, and let go of self-blame and perfectionism. Unless we do this, we can do nothing to bring about change in our minds.

2)Next we embark upon some form of training that is going to penetrate and impact upon the habitual tendencies that have the status of instinctual thought/feeling responses. Cognitive, intellectual, rational methods (like brainwashing, analysis, acquiring new beliefs) have little or no effect on this level. We need something deeper.

We need to invoke counter-forces that already exist in the mind and naturally operate at the same or deeper levels as the habitual tendencies.

This process begins with training in mindfulness, which is a faculty that lies more or less dormant in every human mind. Because it has been left dormant, its power and force are not known to us.

As we train in mindfulness, many profound changes begin to take place naturally within the depths of our mind, because this faculty is an expression of our enlightened wisdom nature, which naturally dispels negativity and ignorance when it begins to stir. Just as light dispels darkness.

The development of mindfulness operates as an antidote to the habitual tendencies.

But note what is happening. We are not mindfully formulating conceptual countermeasures to defeat the habitual tendencies. Rather, an unconscious process stirs and comes into being as a consequence of our training in mindfulness. Changes and insights spontaneously arise, sometimes in surprising or unexpected ways or areas of the mind. Mindfulness does not invoke in us a process over which we have rational control. Rather, it awakens deeper wisdom energy beyond our comprehension, and this energy progressively takes over. Increasingly there is a sense of being witness to the unfolding of a deeper, seemingly autonomous process.

This training in mindfulness is the ground that enables all other forms of training to be effective.

3)The third step is to strengthen the liberating forces within the mind while simultaneously weakening the mind's tendency to grasp. Any training that develops compassion and altruism will do this. All the training methods presented here fall into these categories.

Although the training methods are expressed in conceptual forms - for example, I have used words to describe how you do them, and you use words to get them going in your mind - they are not used as means of directly attacking specific mind states. If we did this we would be working at a superficial level. What we are doing instead is using the training methods to awaken and strengthen the manifestation of the enlightened qualities within. As these are strengthened they automatically weaken egocentric grasping and enhance compassion.

These changes have many beneficial effects in life, and constitute the path to enlightenment. More important from the perspective of death training, they enormously enhance the chances of liberation in the death bardos, where the mind we experience is a much more immediate and direct expression of the habitual tendencies. The superficial mind is no more. In a certain sense we are another person in the bardo: the person who arises directly out of and faithfully reflects, the karmic stream or habitual tendencies.

Once we understand this, it becomes easier to undertake and sustain the long and sometimes seemingly unrewarding training. We learn to look beyond the superficial short-term rewards to the deeper purpose of freeing ourselves forever from the wheel of endless births, deaths and sufferings.
The Buddhist principle is to be everybody's friend, not to have any enemy.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Meditation means simple acceptance.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Only the impossible is worth doing.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Whenever we see something which could be done to bring benefit to others, no matter how small, we should do it.
Chamgon Khentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Freedom is not something you look for outside of yourself. Freedom is within you.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Hasten slowly, you will soon arrive.
Jetsun Milarepa
It doesn’t matter whatever comes, stop judging and it won’t bother you.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
Whatever obstacles arise, if you deal with them through kindness without trying to escape then you have real freedom.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
To tame ourselves is the only way we can change and improve the world.
Choje Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche
I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Strive always to be as kind, gentle and caring as possible towards all forms of sentient life.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Every sentient being is equal to the Buddha.
Chamgon Kentin Tai Situ Rinpoche
Wherever and whenever we can, we should develop compassion at once.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Reminding ourselves of how others suffer and mentally putting ourselves in their place, will help awaken our compassion.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche