Throughout the last few months of my work with my teacher, Gaya, we’ve been talking a lot about the people in my life, and how I’m relating to them. Gaya keeps repeating to me that there’s no one “out there;” everyone is really just a mirror reflecting back at me.
At first this was difficult to grasp. Surely, the people in my life are real humans – I can touch them, see them, hear them (even smell them, sometimes). I accepted that what she was telling me might be right, but I didn’t understand what to do with it.
What she was really getting at has a great depth of meaning. Despite it’s seeming simplicity, it is a very profound teaching, and it can be implemented in ever-deepening ways. I began to explore and think about how to understand and apply what she was saying to me.
The most superficial understanding is that the sentient beings we see around us, who they are to us, how we see them, how they make us feel, is nothing more than a reflection of our own unconscious beliefs. Conceptually, what our mind automatically sees in others, the way we see them, and the judgments we make about them, are nothing more than judgments we hold within ourselves, and how we think we ought to be or not be. In psychological terms, this is a form of projection. In other spiritual traditions, this is called shadow work.
The way this plays out is very interesting. I’ll give you an example.
There is a person in my life who is very dear to me, let’s call her Q. I care about her very much. And yet, when we are together, I often feel a distance between us; it’s full of agitation, and anger, and resentment. It’s as though something always seems to stand in the way of actually feeling that love, and acting in a loving way towards her. On the face of it, I recognize that it’s my own judgments and emotional baggage, but I couldn’t really untangle it further on my own. So Gaya and I got into the weeds…
The best and most expedient way into the structure of beliefs that govern my relationship with Q was to list all of the judgments I have about her – all of the things that seem to bother me about her, without holding back, without censoring how I really feel. I sat down with a piece of paper and really let Q have it. I wrote a long list of horrible things.
When I reviewed the list, a big glaring theme in all of my judgments about Q is that she is weak, needy, indecisive, irresponsible and helplessly dependent. When Gaya asked me if I’m any of those things, I vehemently shook my head, NO. I pride myself on being strong, independent, decisive, and in control. If I can do something myself, I will. And if I can’t, I’ll go to impossible lengths to figure out how to do it myself. The idea of needing someone, depending on someone, or being helpless in some way, actually makes me cringe.
I relayed all of this to Gaya, and then she said something that nearly knocked me off my chair.
She said “Think of all the things you do in your life to avoid being weak, needy, and dependent. Look at how hard you work, how you punish yourself, how you deny yourself compassion and tenderness, how you push yourself way past your limits, how you never slow down, how you never let yourself rest, how you won’t ask for or accept help that is offered to you – all in an effort to never allow yourself to be those things.”
It’s true. I’ve spent my entire life striving to never be those things. And I created all of these habits and patterns, all in order to compensate for not being allowed to be that way. The belief I have is that those things (which are just synonyms of vulnerability) are bad bad bad, and to be avoided at all costs.
I went all the way back as far as I could into childhood looking for how these beliefs and patterns were created. Obviously, as with all unbalanced traits, they were formed out of traumatic conditioning experiences. So I spent some time bringing those things into awareness and processing through some of the pain that created them. After I did that, my visceral feelings about vulnerability started to change.
Wisdom teaches us that vulnerability, weakness, neediness, and dependency are not bad things. They are human things. Sometimes they can become extreme and polarized, which is not balanced or healthy, but in moderation they are part of every human experience. Of course, it’s ok to be vulnerable. In fact, it’s a really good thing to have the courage to honestly express our fears and our needs, and it takes quite a bit of courage to allow others to meet them. Learning how to lean on others at times, and to trust them, and to be dependent when necessary is also very important.
Back to Q – it is precisely because I held these false beliefs about vulnerability, that I judged Q so harshly, and got angry at her when she displayed these qualities. (There is also an element of care-taking here; but that’s a separate boundary issue that isn’t really relevant at the moment. I just mention it because it’s a complex set of issues, not just one thing.)
So, if instead of sitting in self-righteous judgment about Q’s “undesirable” qualities, I can question my judgments and beliefs, and I can do my own work to resolve my negative feelings and mis-alignments, then I can stop being angry at Q when she displays those qualities. And more importantly, I can stop punishing myself, and ease up on all the ways I’ve been pushing myself in order to avoid being those things. I can even give myself a break. I can allow myself to be weak, needy, and vulnerable at times, and the more I do, the less emotionally agitated I become about Q.
Over time, as I work on myself, this brings me closer to Q. It extinguishes my critical sense of arrogant superiority, and it allows me to feel love more often and accept her as she is. Moreover, to the extent that her previously undesirable qualities lead me deeper into myself, triggering me and forcing me to find and repair what is unbalanced within me, I am grateful to her for being as she is. (And, if I had tried to make efforts to change her, back when I found her qualities maddening, I would have missed this golden opportunity to grow and learn).
A strange and unusual thing that happens during this kind of work is that as soon as I make peace with these things I see and dislike in Q, suddenly, somehow, she changes! Like she actually changes, and she stops being those things. It’s really quite miraculous.
And so, in this view, Q isn’t necessarily statically any of the things I see in her. What I see in her (what bothers me about her) is my own projection. My mind generates the image I have of her, which is my own reflection of what is out of proper alignment within me. The qualities I think I see are just what stands out to me in high contrast. Meanwhile, without awareness, my mind fools me into thinking and believing those projections are true, that that’s how she really is, and then I feel justified in hating and blaming her for being that way.
Spiritually, it’s as though those qualities are being magnified for me to see, and my emotions are responding powerfully to my views of her, all so that I can see my own imbalances and correct them. As I do my own inner work and make authentic changes in my consciousness, my reflection in others changes as well.
It turns out that human personalities aren’t any one consistent thing; they are ambiguous and rather fluid, with infinite universal potential.
And so, Gaya’s words about them all being mirrors is a handy way to understand and think about it.