A View from the Cosmic Mirror
Reflections of the Self in Everyday Life
The Nature of the Cosmic Mirror
“A man sees in the world
what he carries in his heart.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There is a Japanese folktale that portrays the power of the cosmic mirror. The folktale takes place in a small village in a place known only as the “House of 1000 Mirrors” ...
Long ago in a small, far away village, there was a place known as the House of 1000 Mirrors. A small, happy little dog learned of this place and decided to visit. When he arrived, he bounced happily up the stairs to the doorway of the house. He looked through the doorway with his ears lifted high and his tail wagging as fast as it could. To his great surprise, he found himself staring at one thousand other happy little dogs with their tails wagging just as fast as his. He smiled a great smile, and was answered with one thousand great smiles just as warm and friendly as his. As he left the house, he thought to himself, “This is a wonderful place. I will come back and visit it often.”
In this same village, another little dog, who was not quite as happy as the first one, decided to visit the house. He slowly climbed the stairs and hung his head low as he looked into the door. When he saw one thousand unfriendly looking dogs staring back at him, he growled at them and was horrified to see one thousand little dogs growling back at him. As he left, he thought to himself, “That is a horrible place, and I will never go back there again.”
The happy dog sees the reflection of his warm and friendly attributes in the one thousand mirrors. The second dog sees the reflection of his mean and unfriendly attributes. The wisdom embedded in such allegories and Zen-like stories is profound. Yet, it is not easy to grasp how to make use of it in our daily lives. It is one thing to recognize the wisdom and quite another to constructively apply it to ourselves.
The idea of a cosmic mirror that reflects our unseen image has been around for centuries. The most literal interpretation of the word mirror is that it is a surface capable of reflecting an image of something that is placed in front of it. But when we look at ourselves in the mirror, how do we know that what we are seeing is a clear reflection of our complete self? Throughout the ages, learned scholars, philosophers, and sages have advised us to search for our innermost self in the reflections of those we encounter in our daily life. For example, the Siddha yoga guru Muktananda declares, “There is a great mirror in the Guru’s eyes, in which everything is reflected.” But in and of themselves, memorable remarks like this one do not provide the guidance needed to apply their insights to our everyday lives.
The people, objects, and symbols in our daily face-to-face world comprise what we have chosen to call the cosmic mirror. And we can learn how to use it on a daily basis to find our reflection in it. As noted psychiatrist Carl Jung has said, "One is always in the dark about one’s own personality. One needs another to get to know oneself." When we feel strongly about someone (either positively or negatively) it can tell us a great deal about ourselves. It can provide us a clear mirror into our unacknowledged self and our heartfelt inner struggles. People, objects, and symbols that elicit intense attraction, admiration, repulsion, or fear usually indicate that we perceive something about them that we may be having trouble acknowledging in ourselves.
Mirroring is not simply a metaphor for a mental process. It is a physical process as well. Scientists who study nerve cells in the brain have uncovered the physical basis of mirroring. They call these specialized cells mirror neurons. And they have found these unique neurons in monkeys, birds, humans, and other species. These nerve cells fire when we watch other people performing an action and when we imitate the same action. These neurons are located in the part of the brain that controls thinking and action. Studies of human infants suggest that the system of mirror neurons develops in the first year of life. And it leads infants to imitate and understand the actions of others.
For example, a one-day-old infant will stick out his tongue in response to a parent sticking out their tongue! Another everyday example of mirroring takes place when someone yawns; inevitably, their yawn is contagious, and like a mirror image, we yawn back. Scientists also believe that mirror neurons are the physical source of empathy. It seems we do not simply learn to be empathetic. We are hard-wired to be emotionally reflective of others’ feelings. In fact, neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni argues that the concept of “self “and the concept of “other” are meaningful only as they interrelate. Without a concept of the other, there would be no concept of self and vice-versa. He theorizes that mirror neurons in infants are formed by the interaction of self and others. As he puts it, “In other people, we see ourselves with mirror neurons.”
The core idea of the cosmic mirror is that we unknowingly populate the world around us with our denied inner attributes and struggles. For a variety reasons, we have a great deal of difficulty seeing these attributes and struggles as our own. We also form a view of ourselves by unknowingly filling our inner world with the attributes, thoughts, and feelings from outside of us—we unknowingly develop opinions about ourselves by taking in what opinions others try to place in us.
We are using the term cosmic to convey a sense that such mirroring is universal—it is all around us in our daily experiences. It is vast and extends across people and cultures. It is also part of an orderly system of processes within ourselves. Mirroring is cosmic in the sense that it follows a predictable pattern of development and fits into a larger system of thought and action. But most of us know very little about mirroring processes. Mirroring is cosmic in the sense that to see in others our own hidden reflections requires an ability to temporarily step outside our self and reflect on our own experience. It requires seeing more clearly what has not been seen or only dimly seen. To do this involves exploring our hidden and unknown self.
We are not using the term “cosmic” to refer to an other-worldly or even religious experience. We are talking about an experience that simply goes beyond our usual ways of thinking and habits. To look into the cosmic mirror allows us to identify and evolve undeveloped parts of ourselves. To learn how the cosmic mirror operates allows us to grab hold of one of the most powerful personal growth forces in the universe. Philosopher Alan Watts captures well the idea of the cosmic mirror when he states, "Underneath the superficial self, which pays attention to this and that, there is another self more really us than I. And the more you become aware of the unknown self—if you become aware of it—the more you realize that it is inseparably connected with everything else that is."
Underneath the surface and conscious self lie the undiscovered parts within us that are waiting to be given a voice. They are the parts of ourselves that we discount, deny, disown, or place into other people or objects. By doing so, we do not readily acknowledge them and do not recognize their reflections when we might see them in others. It is the set of these unseen reflections that we call the cosmic mirror. From within themselves, our primitive ancestors attributed “evil” spirits and “good” spirits to objects and animals outside of themselves. Today, we, too, cast out into our outer world the “dark” and “illuminating” parts of our innermost self. We see the “evil ones” and the “angelic ones” outside ourselves but often fail to see how they may be a reflection of our own unknown self.
Jack and Jill, a married couple, illustrate how the cosmic mirror works in our daily lives. Jack considered himself a rugged, adventuresome, strong, silent type. Rambo was one of his heroes. Like Rambo, Jack often felt wary of others and preferred to go it alone. But he also feared losing his independence by being engulfed or emotionally devoured by other people. He feared they might get “too close” to him. The friends he made did not seem to last. Jack loved Jill but could tolerate only so much intimacy from her. When Jill wanted emotional closeness Jack became irritated and described her desires as “touchy-feely, mumbo-jumbo psycho-babble.”
Jill loved Jack. She loved his boldness and physical toughness and strength. However, she often saw him as quite aloof, distant, and even cold. She was frightened of the idea of losing Jack’s closeness and of being abandoned. Her cell phone was always with her; she considered it her “life-line.” Being unable to enjoy times of solitude, Jill frequently made phone calls or visited other people to fill the void inside her. It angered Jill that Jack wanted to go out jogging on his own. It threatened Jill when they wouldn’t hug or share their emotions. To distract her from dealing directly with her loneliness, she often pushed herself into compulsive and unhealthy interactions with others.
Looking at their relationship in terms of reflections in the cosmic mirror, Jack was mired down in his excessive need for independence. He used this to minimize and deny his need for intimacy. Avoiding intimacy allowed him to mask his deep fear of engulfment by others. Jill reflected the intimate side of him. She was focused only on her need for intimacy and buried her need for independence. Avoiding independence allowed her to mask her deep fear of abandonment by others. Jack reflected the independent side of her. We are labeling this the “Impaired Self.”
In reality, both Jack and Jill possessed within themselves what seemed to be missing each of them. This unacknowledged part of themselves was placed into and displayed by their partner. The truth of the matter was that Jack did, indeed, have an intimate self as well as an independent self. And Jill did, indeed, have an independent self as well as an intimate self. We call the integration of these parts of one’s self the “Unified Self.” The strong negative charge in their relationship was contained in their cosmic mirrors. What they saw reflected in each other was the disowned and unacknowledged part of themselves. And at an unconscious level, this was what attracted them to each other—each had something to which the other person needed to connect deep within their self.
Like many couples, Jack and Jill were initially but unknowingly attracted to their disowned parts. And this was reflected in their partner’s most apparent characteristic. In most relationships, the most desirable characteristic about the other person frequently mirrors what we cannot see in ourselves. We can only see it in others. In the 1996 comedy-drama Jerry McGuire, Tom Cruise is attracted to Renée Zellweger’s tenderness and sensitivity—a sensitivity that he does not see within himself nor does he share with others. In one of the key scenes of the film, he tells her, “You complete me.” But as most couples can attest, in due time, this honeymoon period ends. Each partner begins to sense the other’s flaws. The idealized partner loses their luster. And as this new phase unfolds, the idealized quality that was believed necessary to complete each partner is often later seen as a failing in them— admired independence often begins to feel like emotional distance; caring sensitivity often begins to feel like insecure dependence.
In a sense, too much of “a good thing” is not always a good thing. Each person begins to sense that they cannot have exactly what they had wished for in their partner. They feel trapped with the awareness that along with the “good” they must unexpectedly live with the “bad.” Such deep and hidden mirroring must be brought into awareness and owned before each partner can see the other in a more whole, complete, and authentic way. Two people, each who see only half of themselves and only half of the other person, do not make one whole person or a whole relationship. The hill that Jack and Jill need to climb is to become more fully aware of the advantages and disadvantages of their own independent and intimate qualities. They also each need to learn to see that they have within themselves what they both desire and dislike in the other person.
Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is another illustration of how the multitude of self-images that comprise our inner world becomes reflected in the cosmic mirror. As the story unfolds, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are each alone and isolated. But they join together to search for their disowned mind, heart, and courage. Eventually, they find the Wizard of Oz who tells them that they already possess the qualities they seek. Nevertheless, they feel that these qualities are outside of themselves and something only he can provide. At first, they simply were unable to authorize themselves to acknowledge it. Believing that only someone else could give them what they needed, the Wizard performs a magical ceremony for each of them. One by one, they find the disowned parts they had formerly obscured from their own view. The Scarecrow finds his brain, the Tin Man finds his heart, and the Cowardly Lion finds his courage. In the end, each recognizes that they had within them what they had been looking for all along.
By the end of the movie, Dorothy realizes that she has been awakened from a dream that she has populated with all the important people in her life—her “good” witches and her “bad” witches. Baum’s theme reveals that all the good and evil that Dorothy sees in her outer world were reflections of parts of her inner self. Her fears, her aspirations, her heroes, her loves, her enemies, and her ambitions were within her all along.
The Cosmic Mirror on the World Stage ...
Our world seems to be headed on two paths. On one of them, we are moving toward an ever-advancing technological future. It’s filled with marvelous devices that create ever-increasing ease in staying connected to others and to what is happening in our outer world. On the other path, we are unintentionally creating a world with ever-widening polarizations of human and social extremes. We are a nation at war with “evil doers” but ourselves divided into “blue states” and “red states.” We seek enlightenment, and yet we segregate ourselves and others into “Rambos” and “Barbies”; “Blacks” and “Whites”; “gays” and “straights”; “young spoiled brats” and “old geezers”; “the greedy rich” and “the lazy poor.” As a society, many of us hold belittling and derogatory views of other societies and other sects within our own society. We try to neatly package others into oversimplified and stereotypic labels. The “fickle moderates” disparage the “bleeding heart liberals” who vilify the “right-wing conservative war mongers” who attack the “deadbeat anti- American tree huggers”who denigrate the “sanctimonious Christian Coalition.” The “Real Americans” battle the “Anti-Americans.”
But what really divide us from one another are neither national nor state borders. Nor can it be solely attributed to religious, ethnic, gender, or age differences. We are losing our focus on our common goals and desires. There is widespread social dissent and discord. Even in the most sacred of all human commitments, almost 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. And yet, we are a culture of people longing for an enlightened view of ourselves and others. How, then, do we end up creating the human divisions that we wish to avoid? Given our desire for greater wholeness, what makes us so divisive? What keeps us from having the peaceful and constructive life we so desperately seek? The cosmic mirror answers these questions this way: we see the conflicts in the world happening “out there”—we do not see them also going on inside of us. We see the dissonance around us as somehow separate and distinct from who we are. We mistakenly believe that if we simply change our external world then our internal world would become peaceful and calm. However, the opposite is actually true—finding peace within affects those around us.
No one can dispute that the world has its enmity and antagonisms—there is hostility and evil action in our world. But A View from the Cosmic Mirror suggests that whether we feel we are directly responsible for it or not, we all make our own contribution to it. Here’s how: 1) what we “see” going on in our outer world is also a reflection of what is happening inside ourselves and 2) what we see in ourselves is distorted by the way we perceive the world. A View from the Cosmic Mirror is a description of a process continuously ongoing in our inner life about which we are only dimly aware. It explains how our inner life inevitably affects the actions we take in our outer world and how our perceptions of others shape who we perceive ourselves to be.
Applying the principles in A View from the Cosmic Mirror can take place in an almost limitless number of ways. They relate to leadership, romance, and psychiatry. They apply to scapegoating, magical thinking, and hero worship. They can be applied to our relationships with parents, children, and spouses, and to many other common problems of everyday living. The cosmic mirror can be seen in literature, films, television, and songs. It reflects both the darkest and the brightest aspects of what we keep hidden within us. Seeing its reflections more clearly and completely allows the masked parts of us to shine through, to be understood, and to be more fully and constructively utilized.
Many of the building blocks needed to understand the cosmic mirror may be familiar to you. Some may not. In either case, it is quite helpful to have a common language and terminology to describe the concepts used to construct them. To this end, we have made an effort to define words that may be unfamiliar or unclear or that may have been used in other writings where other meanings were implied. To avoid any interruption in the rhythm and flow of your reading experience, though, we have placed many of these definitions in a glossary located at the end of the book.
It’s been said, “Nothing is more practical than a good theory.” To explain mysterious and complex events requires integrating what may be old, unfamiliar, and novel ideas in new ways. A long time ago, we believed that the world was flat. But, basic theories from astronomy revealed how this belief was false—a new theory explained that the earth revolved around the sun. It also demonstrated that the earth was round. It is now common knowledge and a very practical thing to know. We no longer need to fear sailing off the edge of the world.
Complex ideas can only be made practical by understanding the simpler ideas that comprise them. This is why we have begun this book with this section entitled, The Foundation of the Cosmic Mirror. We want to provide you with the necessary building blocks to understand and make practical the idea of a cosmic mirror. For many people, theory building is helpful, fun, and answers many questions. But for some of us, theory development can seem boring, tedious, and time-consuming. For those of you who dread reading about theory, we would like to encourage you, nevertheless, to begin by reading this first section. We think it will be well worth your effort.