Friday, September 19, 2008
the mirror of the self
Perhaps the most insidious assumption we make in our ordinary life, in our ordinary state of mind, is that we "see" other people-- that we see the world as it is. And this is, perhaps, what "sleep" is all about: living comfortably within an automated group of assumptions, taking it for granted that what we think we "know" is correct, living off it, and acting on it. We perceive ourselves, we perceive the external, and we perceive a separation between the two.
It's us versus them. Sound familiar?
What if nothing could be further from the truth? What if everything we encounter in life is, in fact, a reflection of ourselves, of what we are?
The attributes we assign to others are actually projections of our own mind, our own ideas, attitudes, assumptions and beliefs. So when we see someone else and react to someone else, what we are seeing and reacting to is a actually nothing more than a reflection of what we are. The entire world consists of a mirror, reflecting us to ourselves.
Inevitably, this idea presents itself as a philosophical concept, not a practical tool for dealing with real life. But it is not just philosophy. To a certain extent, it is reality. Nothing within the range of our own perceptions could exist without us. If we cease to exist, the perceptions cease to exist with us. It is a difficult argument as to whether our perceptions could ever have any reality whatsoever, outside the context of our receiving of the impression.
We are what we see, how and as we see it.
In this way, the question of receiving impressions would give rise to the question of responsibility; we would become fully responsible for the way in which we receive every impression. This, of course, is a tremendous burden, and the inclination of every human being is to find every means possible by which to avoid responsibility. Life becomes an endless stream of outsourcing our reaction to impressions, blaming the external for both what we receive, and how we receive it.
In this manner we subjectify what is otherwise an absolutely objective process: things become personalized not through union, which is the original state, but through separation, which is an artifact. The chemical process of receiving impressions goes awry; impressions fall in the wrong places, giving rise to the wrong chemicals, and before you know it, we completely forget our responsibility.
When our chemistry allows us to become more receptive, we immediately begin to accept our conditions more readily. By acceptance, I mean that we begin to understand our relationship to our life more deeply. We see that this is our life; these impressions, these human beings, these conditions are all what our life is. We may even begin to see that our desperate struggle to remain independent of all the things we don't like -- and there are lots of them -- is impossible.
Oddly, it seems to be when the biggest, most life-changing events arise that their impact helps us to see how impossible it is to remain separated, to be independent of life as it arrives. When things are small, when life is ordinary, we continually indulge in the delusion that it can be managed. We feel that we can separate ourselves from life, that it's not a mirror of our own self and our own attitude, and that in maintaining separation we can attain a greater degree of control.
In Chogyam Trungpa's "Meditation in Action" he discusses the need to inhabit life by living directly within the moment. In this particular early work, that is more or less what his definition of compassion is. It isn't about finding a way to be nicer to people who are in need. It is about being immediately within this present life, inhabiting the current set of perceptions, and taking responsibility for them so that we can discover the appropriate set of responses. This doesn't necessarily mean an artificial removal, a mellowness, or a practiced set of personality-based responses that project an air of competence. It means responsibility and participation.
There is an old story about a Zen Master who, on attaining enlightenment, saw every single human being around him was wearing the exact same face as his. If we begin to see that life is a mirror reflecting ourselves to us, then perhaps we can discover an interest in becoming more responsible to it. It's an idea worth carrying into situations, even if only for use as an investigative tool. As situations arise, we might say to ourselves, "This is how I am." As we see others manifesting, we might say to ourselves "this is how I am."
If the question of work in life is a real question, it has to relate to this question of responsibility and participation. Are we responsible to ourselves, and for ourselves? Are we participating in our life? Both of these things are so rare, even for those of us who appear to be relatively competent. Any of us who flatter ourselves by believing that we understand these questions thoroughly is already off the mark.
It is only by asking the question constantly within the context of the moment that we can keep on our toes.
May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.