Each of these words describes an identity tied to an element of truth about me — Mexican-American for my ethnic heritage; American for my citizenship; Mestizo for the name of my race; and Toltec, a Naguatl term that means “artist,” as the name of the oral tradition of which my great-great grandfather don Exiquio Macias says I am a descendent. All of these elements express a mask based in truth about my physical body and its ancestry.
In my family tradition, based on our Toltec Philosophy, an identity is a mask that helps us understand who we are by providing a grounding sense of self as we navigate life. The mask of identity is a symbol that provides meaning, and we often attach ourselves to it by believing it is the truth of who we are. But like any symbol, the meaning is subjugated to an agreement.
As we become attached to our mask of identity, it becomes a model for acceptance and rejection of ourselves and the people around us. We lose awareness that our identity only means something because we agreed to it, by believing it to be the truth. We can often lose sight of our true self behind our many masks, allowing them to control our actions and thoughts. This creates disharmony in life.
As I grew up, I often felt I needed to be more Mexican or more American in order to fit in. Accepting my family’s Toltec tradition carried with it a new set of self-judgments. When each of my masks of identity surfaced, I expressed myself differently based on who I thought I needed to be at the moment. These identities sometimes overlapped, while at other times, they were at odds. It wasn’t until I let go of my masks of identity that I discovered I didn’t need to be more or less of any of these. I could just be me.
Letting go requires a moment where the truth allows us to see that our life is worth something more than the mask we used to describe it. Clarity follows, allowing us to see the humanity in the people around us. Then a moment of skepticism allows us to recognize the possibility of seeing the world in a different way, of seeing ourselves in a different way. Once we open up the possibility of letting go of all the conditions of self-acceptance by simply no longer believing in them, we find freedom.
The mask of my identity is after all just a symbol. Who I am is an empty definition subject to my own agreement, defined by my knowledge. All of these masks describe a portion of who I am, yet I am more than all of them. Life will take me in many directions and my experiences will color who I am, way beyond the limiting mask of my identity.
With awareness of myself, I am free to say yes or no to the agreements that allow me to create my own life. I am free, and my identity is a simple reflection of the living being that I am today. I don’t need to put a mask on in order to know who I am; the fact that I know that I am alive gives me the grounding sense of self that I need. I am worthy of my own love, simply because I am alive.
Miguel Ruiz, Jr.’s first book, “The Five Levels of Attachment: Toltec Wisdom for the Modern World” hit shelves in March 2013.