Waking Up to Meta-Identity
Infinite Freedom of the Infinite (Meta-)Play
Join me, if you will, in entertaining a little story about reality.
It goes like this:
We are all characters in a play.
The play is infinitely vast and exquisitely complex, ornate and beautiful — but it is still a play. It isn’t real. And yet, it appears for all to see – so it’s not nothing, either.
We can’t really say anything conclusive about its metaphysical existence. All that is clear that we at least appear to be here, and the play appears to be relentlessly unfolding.
What’s more, we have en masse become so “stuck in” to our character roles that we have forgotten our true identities. Instead, we take the identities of our fictional play-characters to be our true identities. This belief about who and what we are makes for incredible, passionate drama, but also immense suffering.
How to see through these false beliefs and find our true identity? Contemplating this question has taken me to weirder and more wonderful places than I ever expected.
There is a DC comics character called Paul Sloan who is such a committed method-actor that he becomes unstuck from his real-identity. He has played so many roles so intimately and deeply that he can no longer discern which thoughts, feelings and impulses are “his” and which are his “characters’ ”. Ultimately he becomes unstable, eventually manifesting as the villainous Two-Face — all because he can no longer believe that his old identity (as the actor Paul Sloan) is not a false and imaginary character from his career.
It’s a disturbing story, no doubt. And it’s disturbing because it resonates with our deep uncertainty about who we really are, beneath the facade of the character we present to the world — and to ourselves, internally.
We are method actors par excellence. But this excellence comes at a cost: the forgetting of our true identities. We are so convinced of the reality of the characters in the play, and all of its infinite variety of events, that the tragedies of the play cause us huge amounts of sorrow, despair and confusion. Much of this suffering is unnecessary: if we knew it was a play, we wouldn’t be so bewildered and attached to particular outcomes — we’d just let the show unfold.
I was tempted, during writing this, to say that the belief that we really are our play-characters is the root of all suffering. But my hand wavered here. Because even if events are fictional, they can move us to tears. We suffer, struggle, lament and rejoice with the life events of completely fabricated characters. That’s the power and potency of great art, literature and theatre, after all: it’s uncanny ability to draw us in… we become invested, attached and identified with characters and events, even when we hold the belief that “it’s not real”… and I think that the greatest art makes us forget that belief all together. The boundary between fact and fiction blurs, and the imaginal tapestry of the artwork begins to interact with the imaginal tapestry of the “real world”. This blurring of art and life is the doorway to magical realism. It’s the way out we are all looking for.
Recognising that great art can bring great beauty, feeling, and richness of experience is important because it stops us chucking out the play altogether. It affirms life as a sacred and sublime artwork that we are dearly, madly in love with. So madly, in fact (or is it fiction?), that we are willing to suffer untold torments in order to participate in it.
But the totally weird thing about this play we are so passionately engrossed in, is that our metaphysical beliefs about play (and its characters) have got flipped around: instead of believing that play isn’t real, we believe that it is real. And then it’s not a play anymore. It’s deadly serious. Everything is real. We are real. Money is real. Israel is real. And if it isn’t real, it’s worthless. It’s a dream, a fantasy, “make believe”. Forget about it.
We defend this imaginary duality between the real and the unreal very fiercely. Two-Face is a pretty great embodiment of this duality: half of him approaches everything realistically, seriously and respectfully, with his suit and tie and status. And the other half is downright nihilistic and violent, as if nothing matters — or exists — at all.
Two-Face never had the luck to contemplate ideas such as these. I’m not quite sure how he would behave if he did. But when we (less villainous) characters investigate and inquire, we find that it’s not really possible to ever conclusively say that something is real or unreal. At this point we catch the scent of a very different kind of freedom…
Recognising that the reality-unreality duality is imaginary, we recognise that it too is a movement in the play. This movement is building to a crescendo: an evolutionary shift in which we begin to see through the limitations of our most basic metaphysical concepts (like reality and unreality). Relaxing our grip, we put them down — and boldly step into the open expanse of boundless creative imagination. To see how that adventure might unfold, let’s trace the story of a character who did exactly that.
At some point during the play, a certain character realises that he is just that: a character in a play. In this moment he realises his true identity. This realisation brings immense freedom. It is the freedom from the imprisonment of believing the play to be real. In seeing through this belief, he also sees the non-reality of the life-story of his character, with all its many struggles, challenges and achievements.
Seeing through the reality of the whole play, he awoke to its constructed and fabricated nature. But instead of leaving the play, he then chose to play the character who goes about waking all the other characters up to the fact they too are characters. And he did this with the boundless patience of one who knows that none of this is truly real. Yet, interestingly, he didn’t become a nihilist either: he didn’t conclude that “it’s all worthless and meaningless, because nothing really exists”. This is because he also saw that none of this is truly unreal. So what did he conclude? He didn’t conclude anything! He just noticed that play-characters convinced of their reality and independent existence suffered greatly because of this belief, just as play-characters convinced of their unreality. And so he shared a whole lot of very practical ways to see through those beliefs.
This is the point at which the whole play “goes meta”. It becomes aware of itself as a play (as a fabrication, unbound by concepts such as real or unreal). In this moment, the characters become aware of themselves as characters, thereby realising their identity as meta-characters.
This character is the Buddha, as you may have guessed. A pretty audacious and supremely imaginative character, if you ask me! He found a profound and limitless freedom by walking the ‘middle way’ between the concepts of “reality” and “unreality”, and he invited all those around him to do the same.
After some time sharing his teachings, he gains some followers and supporters. This small crowd evolves into a whole movement of characters devoted to sharing the news that it’s all a play, and also pointing out how to assess the evidence for oneself. Not bound by their old character roles, which they had previously taken to be the only option open to them (in terms of how to speak, behave, dress, relate, move and think), thousands of actors opened their imaginations to the limitless possibilities for creative expression, communication, and experimentation.
As more and more characters realise their imagined, constructed and utterly open-ended nature, their intentions returned to the task of creating beautiful and incredible theatre, really wonderful art. Sublime. Divine, even.
When you realise that reality is a play, you can play with reality, without limit or obstruction.
This “opening of the imagination” is by no means finished, nor will it ever be. Like an eternally opening flower, every human life — and culture — is an essential chapter in the great unfolding. And every human who encounters the great freedom teachings becomes endowed with knowledge of their limitless character-freedom. This feels like an important point: if it really works, meditation doesn’t make you passive observer — it helps you to see that you are free to:
a) respond to any situation in an increasingly vast array of creative ways (you participate, the entire play depends on you, and you on it) and
b) free to create new situations through the powers of intention, manifestation, imaginative perception. You are free to discover, re-create and re-imagine your character (your fabricated persona or imaginal identity) without limit.
By this point, one is becoming aware of the infinitely malleable nature of one’s character – a malleability which is inseparable from the infinite possibilities for perception. This takes us to meta-identity.
The discovery of one’s nature as a character in a play is the discovery of the meta-character, or meta-identity.
The meta-character is the one who is free to assume any character role, simply by virtue of knowing that they are a character in a play.
By knowing that they are a character in a play, they also know that they are not a character in a play. This is because the identity of a ‘character’ is by definition fictional, or not real. However: this non-reality implies the existence of a ‘real identity’ who lives “outside” the play, such as the identity of the actor or “real person” who is not a play-character, and has a life outside of the play. But the meta-character knows that this “real person” is also just another play-character, isn’t real at all, and therefore cannot be their true identity. This is where the meta-character transcends the conceptual limitations of “real and unreal” and sees that they are neither real nor unreal.
Another way to put it is that we don’t discover the meta-character, rather the meta-character discovers that they can play as us, the character role currently unfolding in — and as — the meta-play.
So perhaps the disturbing nature of our uncertainty about our identity stems from a hidden or forgotten certainty. This is the certainty of the meta-character who has no doubt whatsoever about who they are, because they never, ever take themselves to be anything or anyone. And this allows them the imaginative freedom to take themselves as anything or anyone! They put on an infinite array of costumes, personalities and characters, but they never stray conclusively self-identifying with any of them. They play their role with the deepest and most heartfelt sincerity (knowing that they are undeniably appearing as this self/person/character), and yet they are able to maintain the ironic detachment of self-irony (knowing that they are not truly this self/person/character). This is ‘ironic-sincerity’ is the hallmark of the metamodern attitude, oscillating as it does between modernist sincerity and postmodern detachment and critique.
Because of all this, the characters who realise their nature as meta-characters are the fullest, most engaged and committed characters in the whole play. They are totally fearless, because everything that threatens their play-character does not threaten them in any way (there is no one to threaten)! In comparison, “being a character” an immensely terrifying and painful experience — because one believes that one is defined and limited by just this one role, rather than enjoying the freedom of infinite possible roles.
If we use the broadest possible application of the play-analogy (that all of infinite reality is a play), then all fixed or definable identities are simply characters in a play.
There isn’t any reality outside the play that is more real than the play. That’s just another play. So there is just an infinite expanse of possible different plays (different life-experiences, worldviews, and so on). We can call this expanse the meta-play or meta-universe.
The meta-play is the “space of all possible plays”. It is the limitless expanse of imagination in which all possible plays — experiences, perceptions, realities, and dimensions — are enacted.
Whether or not the meta-play itself a play or a reality, we simply cannot say – for this would be a denial of its limitless and undefinable nature. No concept is going to grasp it; all concepts are fabrications (plays of the imagination) that appear within it.
None of these possible plays within the infinite meta-play are ultimately true or real — and none of them are false or unreal, either. They’re indefinable, and we gain a new level of freedom when we stop trying to label them with limited concepts such as “real” and “unreal” and relax into the infinite creative freedom of infinite openness, or emptiness. We are free to apply concepts as we please, but we never take these statements to be final definitions of anything.
The idea of reality as a play — or a meta-play — is simply an alternative concept that manifests different experiences and bring greater levels of freedom and beauty. In just the same way, seeing ourselves as meta-characters isn’t a truth claim, but is simply an invitation to see ourselves in a new way that can bring incredible freedom. It is no more true or false than our old worldviews, but it is a hell of a lot more fun to play with!
Any true identity we ever believe we have arrived at will simply be another identity within the meta-play… another play identity, neither real nor unreal. Not true at all!
So the only possible candidate for one’s real/true identity is the meta-identity of the meta-character: the character who takes the meta-perspective of the meta-play as their basic way of seeing, knowing and relating (to themselves, to others, to reality, and to other realities). They never take any identity to be real, unreal, nor both, nor neither. They resist all attempts at self-definition (because self-definition is self-limitation, and knowing themselves inseparable from the limitless expanse of the undefinable meta-play, definition is essentially impossible). Woohoo!
At the precise moment when a play-character recognises their meta-identity, that play “goes meta” (it becomes self-aware of its fictional nature as a play) and is thereby imbued with infinite creative power to reimagine and rewrite itself.
This re-imagination proceeds in and through the imaginative capacities of the meta-character, who sees the play they are currently inhabiting as just one of the infinite possible manifestations of the meta-play.
This is why things are slowly but surely “getting better” as more and more people learn to meditate and awaken (to their fabricated nature, or meta-identity). Increasing numbers of people are connecting with their imaginative ability to manifest a better reality —to re-imagine and re-write the play. As a result we are gradually (over many lifetimes) moving towards a world of more love, freedom, beauty and flourishing. A Global Awakening.
What makes the meta-character so free? Well, the meta-character is neither a character nor not-a-character. They are basically undefinable. They cannot be understood on the terms of the play, hence the prefix meta- meaning “beyond”.
The meta-character’s true identity is a lack of any true identity. This doesn’t equate to a lack of any identity but to an unlimited freedom to explore any and every possible identity — and without rush, because there is a limitless eternity and infinity of universes (or plays) to do so!
So the meta-character is free to conceive of themselves as a fictional character, as a real person inhabiting a real reality, as completely nonexistent, and as none of the above (i.e. indefinable). They are not identified with or attached to any of these identities. They are free to relate to events and experiences as being real, fictional, both or neither.
So when I say “we’ve forgotten our true identities”, I simply mean that we have taken our play-identities to be our true identities, and forgotten that we have no true, ultimate or fixed identity. Remembering this is the key to the infinite freedom of the meta-identity, and our apparently limitless capacity to create and discover new identities.
Clearly, we humans — or the meta-character(s) playing as humans — are currently utterly enthralled by the task and challenge of developing and refining human personalities — all in search of the richest, most sublime and heart-opening experiences possible. This refinement occurs across many lifetimes, perhaps involving interaction with other universes, realms or dimensions. It culminates — as some rare few have experienced — in the birth of the diamond soul: the integration of all former lives into one consciousness. One way to think of this is as the full realisation — in embodied human form — of the infinite creative freedom of the meta-identity. This will be a profound step in the development of this current cosmic play towards becoming “fully meta” (meaning that all play-characters have realised themselves as meta-characters).
What is clear from our current perspective is that the meta-character is hard — actually impossible — to pin down. They are not “completely outside” the play, like an audience member walking home, or an actor doing something other than acting. Yet neither are they “completely inside” the play, like an actor so immersed in their role that they have forgotten their character’s fictional nature. They are neither real nor unreal, and this indefinability affords them a) the total freedom of full participation in any and every conceivable play, and b) total liberation from any notion that any aspect of any character or event in any play is real.
It’s precisely like M.C. Escher’s 1948 “Drawing Hands”.
The hands are both “in-the-drawing” and “out-the-drawing”. From another view, they are completely in the drawing — because the drawing is also a drawing! This could lead us to conclude that the drawing-in-the-drawing is a) not existing at all or b) is a meta-drawing that is indistinguishable from the “actual drawing” and therefore cannot be said to exist or not exist (nor both, nor neither). Again, none of these views is true (so don’t worry too much). The key point is that it all depends on the perspective we take.
Who am I?
From the viewpoint of the meta-character, seeing all things as fictional, fabricated and imagined no does not make them meaningless and worthless (because of the false belief that the imagination — and the imagined — is unreal). Once we realise that reality itself is imagined, then there is no longer much in using the terms “reality” and “unreality”. We enter an expanse of freedom that is unbound by limited and dualistic concepts.
It’s not that reality isn’t real. It’s that reality is an idea that creates an experience of itself that is constricted and limited. This experience is far less open, free, blissful and beautiful than the world that appears when there is no holding to any concrete idea about what reality is (or isn’t). Or when you lightly entertain open-ended ideas such as emptiness, the imaginal, or the meta-play.
Crucial to this freedom of the meta-character is the restoration of the imagination (or imaginal) as a valid way of knowing. This requires that we retrieve the imagination from the graveyard of the Renaissance-era “epistemicide” in which all ways of knowing other than rational, intellectual, logical knowing were denigrated as false, worthless and problematic.
The meta-character’s sphere of action, activity and influence is the entire infinite vastness of the meta-play: the infinite expanse of the creative imagination. It might sound far-out but actually this is a very workable and pragmatic idea. Every play is inseparable and indistinguishable from the meta-play: you don’t have to look anywhere else to find, discover — and evolve — the meta-play (as you would with a real reality that exists outside of the fictional play). Every situation is an opportunity to (re-)discover our total creative freedom to conceive, relate, respond and express ourselves in unprecedented new ways. Or we stick with our familiar habitual ways, no problem.
If you want to know what this feels like, go to a clowning, acting or theatre workshop and experience. The more you inhabit fictional characters, the more you realise that the person you wake up and behave as every day is also a character! This can be destabilising until it clicks that this is the ticket to freedom: reconnection with your creative ability to re-write your character role — and life story — in an increasingly vast range of ways.
If you know that your character is fictional, then you attain agency to rewrite your script — or throw it out entirely and improvise your way through every situation! Whatever happens, you take full responsibility for who you are and how you show up in every single moment.
And because it’s fiction, it’s not fixed in any way, so you don’t have to worry endlessly about whether you are doing the right thing. (The fiction-analogy is strained here: it’s a little bit different to a book in which the words on the page don’t change once it’s printed. We’re imagining a book that can be read and rewritten an infinite number of times. The reading and rewriting are also essential parts of the story — it’s all connected. Call it liquid fiction.)
This is an infinite work-in-progress, simultaneously supercomplete and inexhaustibly open-ended! The only limits on this reworking of one’s character are the limits of one’s imagination — which are themselves imagined!
At the same time, the meta-play is never defined or limited by the appearances and characters of the current play unfolding. The meta-character thus participates with full enthusiasm and engagement — full care all aspects of all characters — and with the totally carefree abandon of one who knows “this is all a beautiful, divine play”.
We re-engage with the play with all the seriousness of great artist, and all the lightness and humour of one who knows that their freedom is boundless.
So, good characters!
Assume thy meta-identities!
Awaken — to the fact that you’re all a-fiction!
Enjoy — the fiction that you are factual!
By all means, act as if your life depends on it — because this life, of this character — surely does. The entire play depends fully and totally on how you act, how you be, how you show up, what you say, how you conceive of the reality or unreality of the play you are immersed in. YOU PARTICIPATE. So: what will you say? How will you listen? How will you respond to the cues, prompts and invitations of other characters? What will you offer, imagine and give to this great and infinite imagining?
So play with reckless abandon, dear ones… act with full knowledge of your imaginal, fictional and constructed nature, and your complete unlimited freedom to develop, evolve and refine your character — or to leave the play and rest at any time, knowing it all a fiction. Step out of the play (by imagining yourself stepping out of the play) and into a boundless garden of beauty, poetry, and heavenly delight. Take your friends with you — simply by suggesting that they too imagine their way to freedom by claiming their identities as meta-characters!
Now is that garden a play, or is it real? Given how free you feel here, does it even matter? Such questions become trifling conceptual dead-ends, compared to the highly pragmatic artisan craft of re-imagining one’s character and one’s role in the infinite meta-play, in search of ever-less suffering, and ever-greater beauty.
Usurp thy habitual roles!
Clown! Improvise! Jam!
Break the chains, tear up the script — and run! Dance! Throw melons to another character, painfully stuck in her robotic character-role — take ’em by surprise!
Blow their brains with the news: you’re an actor sister! It’s a play! You’re free! You’re not the milkmaid! You’re one with the infinite meta-imagination of the infinite meta-play! And I’m not saying “this is who you really are”.. simply extending an invitation to imagine yourself in a new way: to conceive of your character as the meta-character of boundless creative possibility.
Spontaneous cosmic jazz serenade beginning in 3, 2, 1 …