Mirror Work

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

I had a profoundly liberating experience recently sitting on the toilet at the B & B where my wife and I were staying during our Thanksgiving visit with my family. There is a large floor to ceiling mirror on the door immediately opposite the toilet, not more than 2 feet away from your face as you sit on the throne. In my drowsy, have asleep/half-awake state, I glanced up and saw my face in the mirror.

How I had aged! I looked so old, so tired, so different from the man I had imagined myself to be. It was hard to look and it was hard not to look—I mean really look—at myself. I was shocked. How long had it been since I really looked at this man in the mirror? How seldom I let me truly see me when I look in the mirror. But here I was, gazing at the image in the mirror again, amazed at little things that had changed since the last time I really looked at myself. I wonder if this is true for others as well—the reason I am writing this essay.

I urge you to take a few moments to do some mirror work. Take a few moments to look at yourself, preferably with the openness and curiosity of a child who sees him or herself for the first time. Talk to yourself. A few phrases I might suggest: I love you. Welcome to the world. I appreciate all you do for me. I am sorry I have neglected you. What do you need from me? Say things or ask questions that will touch your neglected self. You will know what needs to be said.

Here is what happened with my experience in the mirror. A compassionate voice from deep inside asked, “Who are you and what do you need from me?” As I continued my intense gaze, the compassionate voice continued, “You look so sad. I am truly sorry you are so sad.” Then it asked, “What is it like for others to look into those eyes? Do they experience your love? Do they see fear? Hope? A desire to play?” I looked again—deeper: I looked tired, yet my eyes were very expressive, full of love. The compassionate voice urged me to play with the image in the mirror. “Make a little face. What does your face look like when you are playing ‘peek-a-boo’ with your grandson, like you did last night?” I made that face. He was very loving, very playful, full of anticipation and glee. “What is the face you use looking into your wife’s eyes when you say/feel ‘I love you?’ Make that face. See your face full of love, lust, delight, play, anger, confusion. See love again. Now see your face simply regarding yourself. Start from a neutral place. Breathe. Look deeply into your eyes. At the mouth, nose, the color shape and texture of your skin, whiskers, teeth. etc.” I saw my exhaustion. How hard I have been on myself. How many obstacles I have placed in front of me. How spent I have become with the exertion and relentless pressure I have placed on myself. I saw how little room I have given myself recently for hope, joy, satisfaction, and contentment. I apologized for being so mean to myself, for being so dismissive of the value of who I am and what I have done. I imagined what I would feel like, what my life could become, if I removed all the obstacles for peace, delight, creativity, and excitement that I have placed in front of me. I actually felt a moment of freedom—as if I had been let out of a cage, released from a prison I have built around myself. For a few seconds I felt completely unencumbered by the pressure and negativity. What an amazing discovery! A door opened. I stepped through into an open field — A path with no obstacles. No fear, no self-doubt. Just open space. What would it be like to live this way? What would I want to do? What would I say?

It seems to me that this is a very direct experience of “self-relations”. Is this what it feels like to banish the hurtful voices of others that we have taken on over our lifetimes? Is this what it feels like to reestablish the flow of the relational self? I urge you to try it. Take some time to really see yourselves and if you would like, write down some of your impressions.

On reflection I see the beginnings of my mirror meditation in the dance of smiles, proto-language, mimicry, and gestures of mutual recognition as I sat down with my grandson on Thanksgiving to play peek-a-boo. How I laughed as he put and pulled Cheerios in and out of my mouth in acts of complete generosity and wonder. I tried very hard not to injure this innocence but recognize that his life, like mine, in many ways must become a process of gradual disillusionment. I want to protect him against this wounding and make a place for his innocence and wonder at the world. These feelings are particularly strong as I remember a psychotherapy session I had recently with a young father. He had spent a weekend with his mother and father who had come over from France to see their new grandson. In the midst of all the hard work of taking care of his son, feeding guests and providing taxi service, he had to deal with profound grief because he knew mother was very ill and would soon die of cancer. There was a post-visit letdown when he realized he would never receive the kind of blessing he wanted from his parents. He recognized that still, after all those years, there was no place for him in his parent’s world and sobbed deeply as he recalled the times his mother said, “If it had been possible I would have aborted you.” “You ruined my life” and other such curses. He had hoped against hope that this time would be different. He had invited his mother and father to participate in healing work with me with the hope that it would lead to healing and greater understanding. Once again, they missed the boat entirely. I have seldom had to deal with such profound sadness. The image he presented was that of a deep well or sink-hole that he was trapped in. I thought of an Oasis—the well of souls, the water of life coming from the depths of the earth and tried to offer this and other comforting words. Words failed me utterly, but I realized I must try to offer him something. I remembered words that were presented to me in a moment of similar grief by the well known psychotherapist, Steve Gilligan, in a residential workshop I had attended. I said, “Welcome to the world. There is a place for you here. I am sorry that you have had to make your way without the blessing you have deserved.” “I make a way for you.” “You belong here. This is your world. Welcome!” These words were strikingly similar to the ones that came to me from that deep presence in the mirror and I wonder if in some way I was unconsciously channeling the words I had received earlier from Steve and passed on to my client. This process was extremely moving for us both when it happened in session. It was equally moving when it happened to me in the mirror. I feel so honored and privileged that the cosmos has offered me this wonderful opportunity to bring the blessing back to myself. I also marveled at the perfect way life conspires to remind me why I do this work.

About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address: Rosselrob@aol.com.

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