The Art of Performance; Confusing Feelings with Sentiments

(The Secret of the Plumed Serpent)

Once we went to help put on a play of pre-Hispanic origin that was being staged in a neighbouring town. After the show, don Melchor said:

“We know about the art of stalking Carlitos speaks about; well, among us it is called acting, or the art of performance.

There are good actors and bad actors. The good ones give themselves completely to their art and make you dream along with them. The bad ones, like those we saw today, give you the impression that they are just acting.”

Curious, I asked how this acting thing worked. He replied:

“You’re acting right now.”

He gazed directly into my eyes. I felt uncomfortable, and said I did not understand what he meant. He explained:

“Like it or not, we all wear masks. The sorcerers’ reasoning is, ‘well, if I have to wear a mask, I’ll choose one that suits me.’ Being sorcerers, however, we have many masks; one for every occasion.”

Having said that, he laughed.

“What masks are you talking about, don Melchor?”

“Personality masks. We present ourselves to others in one way or another, as it suits us. Aware of this, warriors choose to be impeccable.

A practitioner is expected to be an actor. Sorcerers-healers give the highest importance to this issue, and yet I cannot help you with it. You must figure out the secret for yourself.”

The task of working out the question of stalking by myself made me suspicious and put me in a bad mood although I was not aware of it. Without realizing it, I developed the intent of monitoring others. This made me keep to myself and judge everyone around me.

On one occasion I told the healers that I wanted to go to Mexico City to fetch my clothes and belongings. They endorsed the idea, but when I returned I was told to burn everything I had brought. They even ordered me to get rid of my portable stereo. After I complied with their order without question, they gave me new clothes. What surprised me most was that they fit me perfectly.

As I plunged into my work, the healers gave me the task of erasing myself. I found it very difficult to follow their request. They helped me heal not only my physical wounds, but also some very old psychological ones I had been carrying within me. They taught me that only by facing the unresolved situations of my life would I rid myself completely of my personal history.

It was easy enough for me to create a fog around me and leave everyone who knew me, but understanding and forgiving those who had hurt me in the past was another matter. The resentment I suffered prevented me from making progress in my work. I had to get rid of those old grudges before completing my task, so I made long journeys to each place where I had been hurt, to the exact spot. By doing this, I recovered every scrap of energy I had left behind.

***

One day, without notice, don Melchor asked me to come with him. I thought we would head for the hills, but instead we caught a bus to a town I had never visited before. There he took me to a house surrounded by high walls. One could barely see the house for the great number of trees growing around it.

He told me to go to the front door which was a good distance from the gate, and instructed me to knock loudly. Worried that there might be fierce dogs around, I walked cautiously down the pathway. I knocked as hard as I could and ran back to don Melchor.

After a considerable wait, the owner came out of the house and very politely greeted don Melchor as someone whom he held in high esteem. Don Melchor introduced him to me, saying his friend was called Bernardo and was a theatre producer.

“Berna for my friends,” don Melchor’s friend put in with a smile.

Don Berna had a slightly swollen or deformed upper lip that looked as if he had just shaved off a moustache. He appeared to be about the same age as don Melchor, but his hair was not gray. He seemed jovial and kind.

After a brief chat, don Melchor excused himself, saying he had things to do. He would leave me with don Berna and come back for me later.

Don Berna was a model host showing trademark kindness and attention. I asked him if he was producing any work at that time. He replied:

“No, but I am about to start a new production. Would you like to take part in it?”

His unanticipated question caught me by surprise. I said I was busy with my duties, and that we should better leave it for some other time.

Looking like someone in possession of a secret, he told me he was charged with teaching me to be an actor. Smiling, he added, “The Castanedistas call it the art of stalking. What have you done in that field?”

Don Berna was a truly unique individual. During the months that followed he taught me his art. At first I honestly thought he was merely teaching me the art of drama, but after a while I could see that there was much more behind it.

***

Among the many tasks I received from don Berna, there was a whole list of actions to be taken at once. Some were nothing more that simple analysis and acceptance of facts, while other items on the list were practical activities requiring strategy and deliberate action.

Don Berna once told me, “Control your feelings and emotions and you’ll take control of your life. Only then will you be free.”

“Free from what?” I retorted belligerently, feeling threatened by the simple idea of suppressing my feelings, and I even snapped at him that I wasn’t interested in repressing what I felt. Don Berna just laughed, and said nothing. I spent a lot of time pondering the matter.

The next time I saw him, I reopened the debate on mental freedom. He accused me of having a closed mind, and said I was extremely inflexible with my cherished concepts.

Naturally, I started defending myself. I told him I considered myself a reasonable person, open-minded and willing to receive and learn new ideas.

“See?” he said reproachfully. “You always twist everything. Freedom of mind is much more than willingness to learn new things. To achieve freedom of mind you need to be the master of your emotions and of your thoughts. Look at the mind as if it were a wild horse that has bolted. You can only say you’ve achieved freedom of mind when you’ve put reins on that horse and are controlling it as you please. If not, you’ll always be slave to your sentimentalism.”

I told him, without much conviction, that I believed I was master of my feelings. He laughed heartily and said:

“It is common for people to confuse the concept of feeling with their sentiments.”

I looked at him, bewildered, and said that for me those two words meant the same thing.

Don Berna explained:

“It is very important not to confuse the two concepts, because if you do you’ll fall into every trap laid by your mind, and your energy will drain away as if from a punctured hose. Feeling is inherent to being alive. All living things feel. You can verify that in animals and even insects. If threatened, they are afraid. If treated well they feel affection, or even love.”

“Then what are sentiments?” I asked, now really confused.

“Sentiments, on the other hand, are the result of the mental process in which we use our memory to evoke certain moods.”

He regarded me as if waiting for a comment. As I had none, he went on:

“So you can see that our sentiments are neither more nor less than mental masturbation.

We wallow like pigs in our own excrement and call that sensitivity. I say it is not sensitive at all, but a shameful way to indulge in our vices.”

I was speechless because of the implications of what he said. I felt that he was referring directly to my weaknesses. I saw myself cornered and threatened by something that I could not clearly define.

“There is nothing wrong with feeling,” don Berna went on. “On the contrary, you’d have to be dead not to feel anything. But when you use your memory to recall what you should feel, then you are not feeling at all. What you perceive in that case is a second-hand feeling that has been sullied by passing through the sieve of the mind.

“But how can I control my emotions?” I asked, knowing we all suffered emotional assaults from time to time.

He replied, “By being deliberate, and not giving in to your vices. It is also most important to have a definite purpose in everything you do. Only idiots go through life reacting to their environment without the slightest control over themselves. They are like marionettes that let themselves be manipulated by every ‘hook’ they encounter.

I asked what he meant by hooks.

“By hooks I mean the lures of modern life. In the consumer society in which we live, it is hard to go anywhere without someone trying to sell you something, or trying to take advantage of you, or grab something from you. In the city it is hard to look anywhere without seeing an advertisement. All this is designed to get people to react to the environment. That is the way the powers-that-be hold people by the balls.

To achieve emotional freedom one must be crystal-clear. When you feel a rush of emotion overtaking you, you must pull at the reins of that wild horse. By doing so you can save huge amounts of energy.”

I understood don Berna’s lesson. He was right. Most of the time, when talking to myself, I would evoke the feelings that corresponded to the course of my thoughts. I realized that the amount of energy I spent in doing that was indeed exorbitant.

***

Once I went to see don Berna, but did not find him at home. I went to the market where he had a stall for selling sundries and found him there busy selling a Xoloitzcuintli puppy. That breed of dog is native to Mexico and their main characteristic is lack of hair. At first they seem ugly, but after getting to know them you realize that they are the best friends you can have.

In a little while, having completed the sale, don Berna came to me and invited me for a walk around the square. Our conversation turned to how one needed to work for a living.

“Achieving financial freedom is of utmost importance,” he said. “A sorcerer who cannot make his own living does not deserve to be called a sorcerer. There are many people who are dependent on others, and thus live under constant pressure due to their lack of vision and initiative.

I’m not saying you have to make a fortune, no! What I mean is that you have to earn at least enough not to be dependent on anyone. And you must plot your strategy so that you have enough time for your training practices. As you can see, it’s more complicated than it seems.”

I felt terrible after hearing those words. I thought he had said that because I lived with the grandparents and, even though I helped with the daily chores, had no other source of income. I discussed it with doña Silvia who assured me that there was no need for me to worry, and that they did not need me to pay them anything to live there.

My anguish was not so easily calmed, and, in another encounter with don Berna, I asked him what I could do to resolve my problem. He smiled with pleasure at my question, and said:

“I’d like you to make a list of lucrative activities with which you can identify, and present it to me the next time you come to see me. For now, I’ll teach you the preliminaries of marketing.

Taking into consideration that everything is bought and sold, all of us, whether we like it or not, are buyers and sellers.”

“I am sorry to disagree with you, but I can give you an employee as an example. An employee is obviously not a seller,” I said with conviction.

“Of course he is,” don Berna replied. “An employee sells to his employer what to him is the most precious thing in the world: he sells the time of his life. The employee provides a skill in his field of activity, and the employer pays him a salary which the employee uses to buy what he needs to go on living, to keep working, and thereby continues the cycle of buying and selling.”

I stood in silence for a moment, considering what he had said, and then I asked, “What can I do if I have nothing to sell?”

Jokingly, he said that those who had nothing to sell ended up selling their buttocks. He laughed at his own joke, and then added in a more serious tone:

“If you cannot resolve the mundane problem of money, how can you expect to resolve the problem of freedom?” This he said with reproach in his voice.

I was shocked by the direction our conversation had taken. The implications of his words were monumental. He went on:

“People are conditioned to buy whatever there is. In fact, people go shopping without even knowing what they want, and depend on the salesperson to convince them that their product, whatever that might be, is extremely necessary. If the seller acts convincingly, he gets a sale; if not, he gets a ‘No!’ But a ‘no’ never discourages a good salesman, because he knows that after the last ‘no’ always comes a ‘yes’. So he persists.”

I thought long and hard about how to fulfil that task, but I really had nothing to sell. Then I remembered reading a real life story about a character who sold birds, so I started out with the strategy of catching birds to sell them.

After a while I managed to put together enough money to buy part of the harvest from the farmers in the area, which I then sold. I made enough money to invest in other items, and one thing led to another until, following don Berna’s instructions, in a short period of time I managed to acquire a sizeable capital. I handed all of the money over to the healers so that they could buy whatever they needed.

***

As I progressed in the art of acting, I was amazed by the variety of matters relating to that subject that I never previously considered, indeed, that I never knew existed. At one point I thought that the entire universe fell within the parameters of that art.

Viewed from the perspective of a warrior, the art of stalking is a tool for increasing one’s energy level. As one stalks oneself, one notices one’s repetitions, defence of the ego, the useless erosion of energy. Having become aware of them, a warrior takes action to plug up his drainage points.

The story of a fellow assistant and his struggle to plug up his drainage points provides a concrete example. When he first got among us he was a real savage, strong like a bull, with an attitude of “get out of my way or I’ll squash you.” When confronted with the healers’ exercises, he realized what amount of energy he was using to maintain that image of himself and designed a strategy for himself: he would focus all his fury on completing his warrior’s tasks. Following this strategy, he exponentially increased his energy.

In addition, don Berna also taught me the art of survival in the mountains. On one occasion he drew parallels between survival in nature and survival in the concrete jungle of society. He said that one was not so different from the other, and the techniques of hiding, being alert and using disguises or camouflages that I learned in either world, were applicable to both.

***

Don Berna explained that my apprenticeship with him would follow a predetermined route. According to his training program, we began by roughly analysing the details of human character. When don Berna judged me to be ready, we passed on to the finer aspects of human behaviour. He then made me practise being each of the personality types we had studied. He kept taking me to the market and to crowded places to interact with people in the everyday world.

“Until it becomes natural to you,” he would always say.

I spent years in training before I got to the heart of the matter. Eventually, however, I became able to enact a change of mood without any difficulty. I could go from sadness to joy or from a smile to tears in seconds.

Don Berna taught me to create different selves which I would have to put on as if they were characters in a play. He personally guided me in creating what he called his masterpiece, entitled ‘The Role of the Impeccable Warrior.’ He helped me give body and form to that character. We supplied him with a name, a personality and even a personal history. On one occasion, to everyone’s delight, we had a christening party for the character we had created.

I took what we did half in jest, as entertainment or a game, until one day I surprised myself by behaving like that character who was obviously so much more resourceful than my old familiar self.

In don Melchor’s words, I had “changed horses” at a certain moment. I had stopped acting like the weakling I believed my authentic self to be, and had begun acting as my new self, created intentionally like a character in a play, and in whose skin I felt much more comfortable.

***