The Mind is Like a Clear Mirror

Learn to use the senses with precision and clarity, like a mirror, in its richness, its rainbow of colors, its subtle nuances, with no distortions, life exactly as it is.

spiritual perception

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one was there to sense it, did it really happen?

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In Eyes Wide Open (Inner Traditions, 2016), Will Johnson discusses how you right behind your eyes, you are there. You can feel yourself there, looking. So intimate is your connection with your looking that when you say, “I’m looking,” you’re implying that how you look and what you see are a direct reflection of who you are in this moment. Your attitudes and beliefs reflect what you see, and the way you live in your body can color your perceptions as well.

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Ordinarily we take the visual appearance of the world we look out on so completely for granted that we lose sight of any participatory role we might play in its creation. We believe that visual appearance is an intrinsic property of physical objects, that the visual field looks the way it looks whether we’re looking at it or not, that it exists completely independent of any act of vision on our part. But...

If a random event occurs and no one’s there to see it (the age-old tree crashing down in the philosophical forest), has anything that we conventionally refer to as visual occurred?

You may have been a sophomore in high school when a teacher first asked you about the sound falling trees made in a distant forest with no one around to hear it. Grudgingly and probably after much harrumphing (I mean what a ridiculous question, really!), you were forced to admit that, okay, while something can be said to have occurred, it couldn’t properly be labeled as sound. For sound to occur, three conditions have to be present: a source of friction that generates soundwaves; the presence of a functioning ear in the near vicinity (and not just a human ear; animals, birds, and insects are all equally capable of hearing sound); and finally, the wide-awake consciousness, directed toward listening, of the sentient being to whom that ear belongs. If any one of these three conditions is absent, sound doesn’t occur.

That much most of us can understand. It becomes far more uncomfortable, however, if we apply this same line of reasoning not to sound, but to vision. If no one was nearby in that forest when the tree fell over, did its dropping to the ground exist as a visual event? And just as you concluded that no sound could have occurred if no one was there to hear it, and for the exact same reasons, it couldn’t have occurred as a visualevent either if no one was there to see it.

For better or worse, we’d like to believe that the world we live in is like an eternal, preexistent stage set on which we play out our lives. But while most of us would agree that the objects of the world clearly exist on some sort of physical level, whether or not anyone’s looking at them, they must exist in a form somewhat equivalent to soundwaves that, on their own, don’t constitute sound. Light waves bombard and crash through the universe constantly and incessantly, but only as energetic waves, invisible until or unless someone looks at them and then — and only then — do they burst forth into visual appearance, and then only for as long as that someone keeps looking at them. When it comes to our participatory cocreation of the visual field, the New Age trope we create our own reality couldn’t be more accurate. The world you look out on only looks the way it looks because you’re looking at it, cocreating its visual appearance as you do.

What a magic show, this dazzling display of appearances! “Now you see me,” says the visual field, “now you don’t. But you can never know that you don’t, for as soon as you turn your eyes to what, a moment ago, had no visual appearance, now it does!”

The first two components of the act of seeing are almost always universally present. First, there are the visible waves of light that physical objects emit. Second, there are your eyes and the complex physiological miracles and mechanisms that allow you to receive and recognize these waves. The wild card is the third component, the consciousness that is both awake and focused on the action of seeing. And here’s where how you look not only colors what you see but affects who you are in this moment of looking.

Most of the time, we have our eyes open but don’t really see what’s here to be seen. We find ourselves pulled away from vision into thought. We become distracted and don’t really look where we’re going (most of the time we get away with it, sometimes we stumble). And rarely will we go anywhere near accepting responsibility for being cocreator of the visual field. After all — or so we want to believe — the visual field is eternally out there, just as it appears whether I’m looking at it or not, so why all this fuss about exerting myself to see it with precision and clarity, like a mirror, in its richness, its rainbow of colors, its subtle nuances, no distortions, exactly as it is?

Through equating the essence of mind with a clear mirror, Shenxiu provides the answer: reinvigorate your looking so that what you see is actually what’s here to be seen, without distorting filters or concealing curtains, just as a mirror reflects whatever is placed in front of it, and then you can more easily settle into the quality of mind about which his teacher had challenged the monks of the monastery to write the poem of succession.

Lost in thought, we don’t just lose touch with body. We don’t see clearly either. Unbidden thought, self-image, and the physical tension that accompanies them not only stifle and blanket over the feeling presence of the body. They also create a metaphorical layer of dust over our lens of vision that both obscures the mirror like essence of mind at the core of our being and distorts the appearance of the visual field out on which we look.

Most of the time, the conventional mind functions as interpreter or projector. Relying constantly on language to formulate its intentions, mind tends to demand that we identify ourselves with the speaker of all its thoughts, whom we all refer to as I. That, says conventional mind, is who you are. Mostly what I does is to look protectively after what it believes to be itself. It wholly and completely identifies that self with the object of its physical body (even though it goes nowhere near actually experiencing what that body feels like) and looks out on the world outside the body in terms of potential benefits and threats.

Its first function is as interpreter. How do I make sense of what’s happening in my immediate vicinity? Is there threat from a bear nearby? Is there presence of an attractive mate? How can I then manipulate this situation to my advantage? How can I both benefit and protect myself (meaning, again, the physical body that is dimly perceived as object but not directly experienced as field of sensations)? Our interpretations are highly subjective and depend entirely on the lens of beliefs that we superimpose on the act of seeing.

Then, after a while, mind might start turning into a projector, quite like the projector in the cinema that is able to create a fantasy scene right before your eyes. Projection too is largely a function of the lens that has been placed over your eyes through which you view the world, and this lens is both created and reinforced through the unique holding patterns of tension in your body. Angry people look out on a world of anger. Sad people see misery everywhere. Arrogant people see opportunity and potential to manipulate. Predators see prey. An old Indian saying tells us that when a robber meets a saint, all he sees are his pockets.

The mind as projector sees what it most wants to see, and the price it pays for this manipulation is that it often gets disappointed, or in trouble, when reality-as-it-is turns out to be different from what mind had so unwittingly projected. Mind, of course, does many things, but mostly these are its two primary modes — as interpreter and projector — and you can hear the internal commentary in one or the other of these modes going on constantly in your head in the form of the silent monologue that no one but you can hear.

But a mirror? A mirror is the exact antithesis of both interpreter and projector. A mirror reflects whatever is in front of it. With no prejudices. No judgments. No interpretations. And absolutely no projections. In other words, with no thought forms or story lines with which to interpret or project and create a layer of distorting dust over the clear essence of the mind.


Will Johnson is the author of Rumi's Four Essential Practices, The Sailfish and the Sacred Mountain, Yoga of the Mahamudra, and the award-winning The Spiritual Practices of Rumi.  He is also coauthor, with translator Nevit Ergin, of The Forbidden Rumi and The Rubais of Rumi.  He lives in British Columbia.

Eyes Wide Open by Will Johnson © 2016 Inner Traditions. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International.