I cornered my wife the other evening to complain about someone we both know. I dissected the person’s psychology and laid out a compelling case for why he is ignorant, selfish, and manipulative. She listened, and to her credit, did not react. She simply said, “I hear you saying a lot of things about his traits, but I don’t hear you saying anything about your own confused and angry feelings about them.”
In that moment, I saw that I was mentally tearing the person to pieces before I would acknowledge my own reactions. Seeing this, I could admit that I was angry. What a relief! Better still, I could admit that I possess (or am possessed by) those same manipulative qualities I was complaining about a few moments earlier. For that moment, I was a little more free.
Almost every introspective tradition from Vedanta to psychology says the same thing: Other people are a reflection, a mirror for us. From the heights of joy and inspiration to the depths of despair and rage that they evoke, we are given the chance not simply to ride the up and down roller coaster, but to gain self-knowledge by observing and remembering ourselves in the process.
“My life is a reflection of my being” is easy to say and believe, but employing and understanding this, in the moment, is, as the Katha Upanishad reads, “A hard path—the sharp edge of a razor.” Seeing others as our mirror is itself the means of transforming an inner life from a pit of righteousness to a chamber of harmonic resonance.
Today I was talking with a friend who shared some news about success in an artistic endeavor. I found myself inspired by his story, and the sound he made in describing it. I felt the creative impulse he described present in myself also, with a similar yearning for expression. Because I was available to resonate with him, the quality of my state was improved, and I re-membered a part of myself that had been on holiday.
Negative emotions are not all that can be resolved through the praxis of other-as-mirror. When another person gives us joy, that joy is not from them. The matrix of meaning that gives rise to the joy was always in us.
It is easy to forget that reacting to someone is precisely resonating with them. Only it is a resonance that is unpleasant to us, so we attempt to remove its source through various strategies. The Pathwork distills the avoidance of our experience into three modes: aggression, submission, and withdrawal. They are all equally negative because they each prevent us from actually experiencing the psycho-physical reaction to a particular frequency of vibration, also known as the experience.
With a willingness to explore my reaction like some new frontier, to sense the tensions it creates in the body, and observe and inhabit the emotional content, those three modes of avoidance, are instantly turned into means of active engagement. We realize that “the issue” is not the issue, but we are the issue. The problem is not the other person, the problem is inhabiting and maybe even refining or transcending my reactions to them.
What are human beings, really? At an energetic level, we are transformational apparatuses that are always emitting a certain quality of radiation. When we avoid experience we radiate black clouds of noxious fumes like old clunkers burning oil—food for demons, which they quickly sniff out and hover around in droves. When we inhabit and thereby refine our emotions into genuine feeling, we burn clean, and emit something that might even be food for another order of beings—angels. It could even be said that engaging this way is doing God’s work, as we are doing our bit to raise the level of a tiny but in no wise insignificant part of the universe.
As the aphorism from the Study House wall says, “the chief means of happiness in this life is the ability to consider outwardly always, inwardly never.”