Fighting our reflections
Updated: May 20, 2020
It's nesting season in my palapa (thatched palm leaf roof), which always brings lots of bird drama: elaborate mating rituals, frenzied nest building, and the occasional duel-to-the-death between males. A few weeks back I even found a beheaded chick on the patio and evidence of some casual cannibalism. Feathers are literally ruffled most of the time, which makes for fascinating entertainment (especially when territorial rivals suddenly unite in their outrage as a snake slides by).
This year, amid the hubbub, a male house finch began tapping against my windows. First a few taps here and there, then a continuous assault: Tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap.
All. Day. Long.
At first it was cute, that familiar red head bobbing at the glass. But the noise grew tiresome and I kept having to stop what I was doing to go scare him off. He then would fly to the other side of the house and try a different window. Upstairs, downstairs, north-south-east-west. This finch feels about tapping the way my dog feels about tennis balls. Did he desperately want to come inside? Why? I began to think a deceased relative had returned in bird form to haunt me.
I'm embarrassed to report that it took me more than a week to realize a) that he was just fighting his reflection, and b) that the Divine could not have sent a more appropriate metaphor for a particularly American form of collective suffering -- indeed, our collective insanity.
Because aren't we always fighting our reflections around here?
Some of us literally do this daily. When you first see yourself in a mirror each morning, do you regard your physical body as a miraculous instrument of your experience in physical reality, or is it more like, "Ugh, I'm so fat/skinny/pale/dark/whatever. Ugh, is that a wrinkle? Why is my nose so wrong? I need to get 'ripped.' Maybe I should fix this hair, it's horrid..." Sometimes, in books and movies, a character will even get so disgusted with his reflection that he'll punch the mirror, as though that would change anything.
Not only do we fight ourselves by criticizing our literal reflections, we may attack qualities of ourselves that other people model to us. We may even use them to set up fights with ourselves by proxy. If you've ever had the experience of someone loathing you although you'd done them no obvious insult, it was probably because you displayed (or more likely, they imagined you displayed) some quality that they couldn't abide in themselves.
Not only do we fight ourselves by criticizing our literal reflections, we may attack qualities of ourselves that other people model to us. We may even use them to set up fights with ourselves by proxy.
That reaction is called projection, and for most people it's an entirely unconscious process. We fill in each other's "blanks" with aspects of ourselves we assume they share, because we don't know any better. We can't actually see through their eyes or know their minds, so we substitute our own vision and mindset for theirs. And until we begin to seriously pursue our inner work and question our deeply hidden assumptions about reality, the unconscious will continue to set up provocative experiences with those who most remind us of the disowned parts of ourselves.
A beautiful (if wrenching) demonstration of how this works plays out in the movie "American Beauty.” SPOILERS AHEAD. The next-door neighbor of lead character Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a crusty retired army colonel named Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) who spends much of the movie expressing his disgust at homosexuality. Through a series of errors, Fitts becomes convinced that Burnham is gay. In the movie's denouement, Colonel Fitts discovers his own homosexual desires and clumsily makes a pass at Lester, who gently turns him down. Humiliated, Fitts later returns to Lester's home with a gun, and kills him.
Fitts literally destroyed his reflection in Burnham, in part because his ego was unable to tolerate the contradiction between the reality it suddenly had become aware of, and the false self in which it had been so long and so deeply invested -- a self that heavily identified itself with the "rightness" of only heterosexual conduct. In finally expressing the truth of his sexuality to Burnham, he also met with a punishing rejection.
Therein lies the perceived “safety” of projection, too: It allows us to test our inner experience anonymously, without owning it. In expressing the truth of ourselves as though it belonged to another, we’re able to dodge any injury to our egos when we want to find out how society might react if we were honest about ourselves. If I am afraid you might think poorly of me if you knew my secrets, I might criticize them in someone else just to see how you react.
At a deeper level, when we fight with our reflections we are also fighting the ego itself, because something in us -- the true Self that is beyond the ego and simply observes it -- knows that our harsh self-judgment is unnecessary, and wrong. In fact, even the ego "knows" this but can't admit it, because it rightly fears that it doesn't actually exist. Ego is nothing but a ghostly hologram that lives in our heads, an enduring notion that we call up whenever we need consider something as "me." It is a paradigm we constructed out of ideas we were taught by our parents, our media, our friends, and our collective worldly delusions about what constitutes actual reality.
I'm far from the first person to note that America (and much of the world) in the 21st century is ferociously narcissistic, something social media has only intensified. One ironic outcome of this obsession with our reflections is a surfeit of yogis who post nothing but glamourous Instagrams of their faces and bodies, which sort of misses the point of Yoga entirely.
And as if to confront ourselves with the karma of our own insanity, we put someone in the White House whose narcissism is completely off the charts. It's almost as though the Universe said, "OK, America, if you're that obsessed with gazing longingly at yourselves, let me show you what you actually look like."
Accordingly, some Americans were horrified, even traumatized, by a man who perhaps exemplified their most despised and disowned parts. But others were so delighted to see their inner darkness elevated to power, that they began to modify their own moral orientation to accommodate it. A long-awaited validation of their "worthiness" had finally arrived. He may have been sloppy, profane, perpetually aggrieved and disrespectful, but he had the appearance of power and money (and even those may be illusions, depending on who you ask). All of society's worst impulses, distilled.
Both sides then reacted with vicious fury toward the other, for they could not agree on what the presidential mirror was actually showing them. Neither could most people observe that the two "sides" were in fact simply one multidimensional "body" attacking its own reflection by proxy.
It feels trite to observe that this too shall pass, but it will. Trump is just a symptom of a larger dynamic. But the situation will evolve more quickly if we can adjust our perception to lovingly own the parts of us that we would otherwise deny, and to see the aspects of ourselves and our neighbors that are not represented by their words, opinions, or physical bodies. A political figure has no power against a populace that knows itself well enough to not be defined by him. We are one Consciousness sharing many viewpoints. None of them is bad, and none of them is good, they are simply phantoms that our brain considers real. Our Real Self is unassailable, and all we need to see.
The finch attacking the window (I named him "Quark," btw), thinks he is fighting a rival, but he is mistaken. There is no second bird. The reflections we humans see and attack are not the thing we believe them to be, whether that thing is a flaw in a physical body or some egregious quality that we pretend could never apply to us. That is because we are not our bodies, and we are not our egos, but we keep mistaking them for something real -- as something wrong, dangerous or disgusting. (And I hope it's obvious that inflated positive ideas about our reflections are equally delusional.)
For the ego, this is difficult, but for the true Self, it is as simple as recognizing that a mirror is just a mirror, and what we think we see is just an illusion. It is not us. And in the end it will all cease to "matter," anyway. The presidency will change hands, likely sooner than later. Our bodies will age, wither and die. The mirrors will all shatter to shards, and finally be ground into sand. But what is Real in us will endure and continue on, in some other context, in some other form.
We need not struggle against ourselves, but merely choose to recognize that what we think we see reflected is neither flattering nor repulsive, by our standards or anyone else's -- it is simply an accumulation of illusions to which we have assigned meaning. Their meaning is fluid, arbitrary and oh so temporary.
And just as the finch finally understood the uselessness of his efforts and stopped picking fights with the windows, perhaps finally, instead of attacking ourselves, we'll simply smile and realize how silly we were to ever have been so cruel to ourselves. For what is Real in us cannot be reflected by another; it can only be shared. ~Rishika