The Mirror

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


 For mind is like a mirror; it gathers dust while it reflects. It needs the gentle breezes of Soul-wisdom to brush away the dust of our illusions. Seek, O Beginner, to blend thy Mind and Soul.

The Voice of the Silence

 "Last night I had a very strange dream, perhaps a dream within a dream. I found myself, I know not how, gliding down a long hallway. Mirrors lined its walls - or were they windows? - I am not sure, but it scarcely seemed to matter, for the effect was one of myriad moonlit corridors ramifying out, each as inviting yet baffling as the next. As I turned towards any one of them, I confronted a surprising variation of my own reflected image, as though each stood at the entrance of a gallery belonging to a different life. And yet I easily recognized them as myself and was strangely moved to see them facing me, reflecting forgotten masks or even visages yet to be. One after another of these I passed, silently moving along the hallway towards a door at its end that stood partially open. Or was it a reflection of a door, for surely there was a figure approaching me from its moonlit portal and surely that figure resembled me. Was it a reflection of the door through which I had entered the hall? Or was the door through which I had entered merely a reflection of the one ahead? Even as this possibility crossed my dreaming mind I shuddered, for the more urgent question of whether I myself had entered the hallway in a reflected form presented itself. Or was the form in which I found myself indeed the original, whose reflection now approached so precisely in step and rhythm with the movement I was making towards it? Was the I that observed all these forms, these corridors of mirrored vistas, aloof from all this coming and going, or was it too a reflection of something else?"

 Seeming to have come to the end of his narrative, the speaker turned to examine its effect upon the face of his listener. While describing the dream, he had been gazing off intently in an abstracted way, almost oblivious to the presence of his comrade, but now he saw that the latter had listened well and followed him in his imagination along the haunting corridor of mirrors. The listener might have initially dismissed the dream, treating it like a sort of poetic funhouse excursion, where one is confronted with a series of distorted self-images and rooms with mirrored walls leading nowhere, but the serious manner in which his friend had conveyed its details to him caused him to pause. Still, he tried to tease him into a lighter mood, reminding him of the mirrored stagecraft practised by trick artists and carnival hucksters with their ghostly apparitions and magic cabinets. He spoke of the time they saw the half-woman, whose normal upper body ended abruptly at a waist resting upon a table, under whose thin unembellished top one could plainly see only four simple table legs, the carpet and the drape at the back of the stage. It had taken them a considerable length of time to figure out how the trick had been done entirely with mirrors. But the light-hearted reminiscence did not succeed in diverting the dreamer, and so his friend launched into an earnest discussion about the use of glaces à répétitions in architecture, hoping thereby to engage his intellectual curiosity. Perhaps an academic consideration of the wonderful mirrored halls at Versailles or the Amalienburg Pavilion in Munich would coax his mind away from the somehow disturbing images of his strange dream.

 Launching into an enthusiastic description of mirrors opposite mirrors, creating oblique views of windows and doors leading the eye out along foliaged parkways or into rooms with other mirrors, the listener sought to capture the imagination of the dreamer. He tried to drag him out of the shadow realm into what he fancied to be waking reality, like a director leading the audience out of a play which takes place within a play. But he made the mistake of speaking of architectural decoys and disguises and of rounding off his point with an allusion to ghosts that haunt the hallways of mirrors, while far in the distance a true reflection looms of something real which is very close at hand. As soon as the words escaped his lips, he saw the shadow of abstraction eclipse the dreamer's face and was forced to admit defeat. Narcissus-like, his friend had become once again absorbed in the mirror of his dream. Something fundamental concerning the problem of individual identity and levels of reality had been touched in him, and the listener perceived at last that either he would have to withdraw altogether or join his friend in a meandering and probing reflection upon the subject of mirrors.

The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight to its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates transcending these,
For other worlds and other seas,
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Andrew Marvell

 The mirror is the symbol par excellence of consciousness, of thought as an instrument of self-contemplation. In the mirror is reflected the formal reality of the visible world from which the imagination soars to mirror yet loftier possibilities in itself. In the mirror appearances find their champion, reflections of discontinuities, changes and substitutions, everything that is ephemeral and of the world. It is a reminder that all images and forms are mere reflections, contrivances of thought, effects of karma. Nature herself is an apparition, deceiving and charming and filling one with dreams of longing for the things of the senses. The deceptions can be very subtle and need not be limited to such things as the magic box trick or the wiles of Nature. Plato pointed out how the Sophists, with their use of reason, created 'semblances', like images in mirrors which duped people into deceptively false lines of reflected thought. For the mirror of the mind can be likened to the capacity to think, making it all important that one use noetic discrimination in selecting the ideas to be reflected upon. The mind reflects the ideas and images which are before it and which originate at many different levels within and without the individual, each level itself a reflection of something else. The dust gathered on the mirror of the mind dims the ability to discriminate and refracts further reflections that join the semblances and fragmented images gathered from outside, combining to create a collage of misleading impressions.

 The physical mirror into which mankind routinely gazes is usually a shiny surface of flat glass with a metallic backing. The bright silvery backing is really the essence of the mirror, and the main function of the glass is simply to protect and stabilize it. Early mirrors did not possess this glass cover but were made of the highly polished metal itself, competing successfully in clarity of reflection with water mirrors. Beautiful hand-mirrors fashioned by the Etruscans were carved with the motifs of gods and goddesses and given as highly valued gifts at times marking major rites of passage. Metallic mirrors of ancient China were likewise coveted, their presumed ability to reflect the image of deities of all sorts causing them to be used in many magical practices as well as for toiletry. With the invention of Venetian glass, European mirrors became increasingly large. The simple mixture of sand, soda and lime was refined in a highly guarded secret process, enabling craftsmen to press large flat sheets upon mercury and silver backings. The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was designed to accommodate three hundred such mirrors, setting a fashion which promoted the manufacturing of plate glass in 1687.

 The stunning amplification of light and the opening up of reflected vistas by the use of mirrors led to remarkable architectural innovations which must have had a profound psychological effect upon people enjoying such surroundings. A whole language of mirrors came into being when individuals spoke to each other's image in mirrors and watched each other's as well as their own behaviour in reflecting panes, providing many simultaneous dimensions to every movement or gesture. The illusion of individuals meeting themselves walking into rooms, the déjà vu effect of things recapitulating themselves over and over again, of people coming when they are going, of walls seeming to be windows and doors - all this became part of a reflected reality accepted as normal and, somehow, real. Perhaps because Voltaire sensed the importance of this in terms of its effect upon the collective human experience, he considered the mirror (together with printing, the telescope, gunpowder and the compass) to be one of the truly great discoveries of mankind.

 A regular or specific reflection such as one sees in a mirror requires a very smooth surface on which all irregularities have been rendered smaller than a wavelength of reflected light. The surface must be very bright in order to absorb as little and reflect as much light as possible. According to the laws of reflection, the incident ray from an object strikes the mirror and bounces off its surface at an equal angle in the opposite direction. Owing to the highly reflective nature of the surface, the reflected light-energy bouncing off it can be said to contain the same message as the incident ray. Nothing has been absorbed so as to 'restructure' the energy flow, and the observer sees the image of the original in precise detail, right down to the necessary 'reversal' that has taken place. The image of an object seen in a plane mirror is as far 'behind' the mirror as the object is in front of it. This behind-the-mirror image or virtual image is actually at a vanishing point, existing only as a theoretical vertex of the reflection angle. Whilst the plane mirror gives an image that is the reversal of an object, two plane mirrors at right angles can eliminate this reversal. With two such mirrors set at a ninety-degree angle to one another, three images are seen; set at a sixty-degree angle, five images present themselves. One can see that, whether in terms of conjuring tricks, architectural illusions or semblances of the mind, the ramifying possibilities represented by the physical and symbolic mirror are infinite.

Yet within that plane, the illusion of infinity can be contained.

Pamela Heyne

 What might be called mirroring power is in essence the ability to make things appear similar on or within something which is quite dissimilar. Thus the mirror is an excellent symbol for analogies and the evocative poetry of correspondences. In the face of a great astronomical mirror one sees the heavenly bodies captured, as it were, their enormous light-energy reflected upon a few inches of glass. Thus observatory telescopes, like that containing the seventeen-foot concave disc at Mount Palomar, are not lenses but reflecting paraboloids which can bring the far-travelled light-rays of outer space into a single focus. Despite this awesome capability, however, the mirror, with its silvery backing, is symbolically associated with the moon, which receives light and passively reflects it. Having no image of its own, its ability to reflect depends upon the presence of an object to be reflected. There is no selective process involved nor does it seem to possess a power in and of itself. And yet the moon does exert an independent influence upon the earth, which is far from passive, and one may wonder if this capability might also in some mysterious way be true of the mirror. One may question whether its proverbial reputation for revealing truth or exposing evil is based only upon some material sense of reflected revelation, the observed glint in the eye or shadow across the face.

 The Japanese kagami (mirror of accusation) is said to reveal both truth and evil, but the fact that it is also believed capable of being entered into by a deity would suggest that what was revealed was something more than just a physical phenomenon reflected in a glass. More fundamental to the question of whether the mirror is in itself powerful is the assumption made by magicians and conjurors of widely diverse cultures that the mirror serves to invoke apparitions, reflecting images which it has received in the past. The Etruscans considered that once a mirror had held an individual's double, it would be imprudent to leave it lying around after his death, and so it was entombed in the sarcophagus with the remains.

 The implications of such an idea are vast and potentially alarming. If one believed that every act that one had engaged in before a mirror, even unwittingly, was permanently contained in it and capable of being invoked by some conjuror, no doubt one would become extremely self-conscious of everything one did and very careful to act in a manner creditable to oneself. Though few individuals are haunted with this concern in the modern world, it was not long ago that most people turned mirrors to the wall or covered them up when someone had died so that the soul of the deceased would not be drawn to and linger within the mirror. They were concerned to assist in a clean separation between the immortal being and the vestures left behind, and they also feared that their own well-being could be affected by a failure in this process. One may not care to believe that the mirror into which one gazes becomes permanently stamped with one's image or some aspect of one's inner being, but for the apprentice in spiritual alchemy the similarity between this and the great astral tablet of Nature is most striking. It might strike a thoughtful individual that the mirror, like the astral light, is not reflecting upon an image in an active or contemplative sense, but simply receiving it, containing it and reflecting it back. Thus mirrors 'entered' by gods are reflecting surfaces off which a reflected aspect of that being can reveal itself, the projector of the image remaining invisible. But mirrors from which 'stored' images are conjured 'contain' the subtle impresses of innumerable 'photo negatives' which are invisible to the physical eye but capable of being 'developed' with the assistance of the magician.

 Oh Kitty, how nice it would be if we could only get through into the Looking Glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let's pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so we can get through.

Lewis Carroll

 Some have seen the mirror as a symbol of a door through which the soul may free itself by 'passing' to the other side, whilst others have seen it as the gateway to the realm of inversion. The anticipated inversion can be accounted for much like the interpreters of dreams do when they say that left means right and black means white. The dream, like the mirror, is still important as a reflection of something which eludes the sense-oriented waking eye. Again, the mirror presents two aspects of itself: one leading through to another world, the other capturing and reflecting back. The ritual of interring mirrors with the dead as practised by the ancient Egyptians and Etruscans combines both of these ideas in a meaningful way, for they believed that the mirror could contain the soul and carry it to a new birth. Thus they thought that the mirror, during the life of an individual, could reflect the condition of the soul (exposing both truth and evil), and at death it could act as a sort of doorway through which the soul was liberated, while at the same time storing the impress of its residual elements. This idea easily lent itself to grosser interpretations and practices, but one can see in it a dim reflection of subtler metaphysical teachings regarding states of after-life and skandaic residues impressed on the timeless astral light,

 Amidst quickly flashing mirrors and reflections, past, present and future collide and interpose themselves on one another. It is often said that time is the mirror of passing events, but it is also the progeny of the mirror of Nature itself. Thus Merlin, gazing into his mirror which reflected the whole world, could see into the past and future alike. A clairvoyant gazing into a mirror sees a smaller world, perhaps, but one which is still less grounded in sequential physical events and therefore capable of reflecting things that have happened in the past or are yet to be. Perhaps this is what the dreamer glimpsed when he saw visages of himself in different lives gazing at him along the mirrored hallway of his dream. He saw them out of the corner of his eye, as it were, which is how signs and visions in the astral light might present themselves. His dream had that oblique or indirect quality as though afforded by the angled mirrors of the mind that permit, for a flashing instant, a penetrating glimpse of a reflected truth. He was left with an afterglow, a haunting and dreamlike sense of having come into incontrovertible confrontation with some great, potentially all-embracing, revelation about himself and the selves of others.

 God is the mirror in which thou seest thyself as thou art his mirror.

Ibn Al-'Arabi

 The universe is the mirror of God. . . . Man is the mirror of the universe.

Ibn Al-Nasafi

 Like Plato and the great poet-mystics of the Islamic tradition, many have seen the world in terms of a series of reflections of the ideal. In our time Vladimir Nabokov has characterized this in terms of a sort of 'thievery', wherein everything in the world had 'captured' its nature by mirroring something which existed on a less phenomenal plane. One of his characters speaks of himself as "the shadow of the waxwing slain by the false azure of the window pane". He is like the persona regarding the reflection of the persona in the mirror and somewhere suspecting that the persona itself is but a reflection of something else. If God is a mirror, as the Islamic poet says, then who is man, the thinker, to say that he is more than a reflection? And yet man can reflect upon God as a mirror and thus see himself as the mirror of God. If the whole of manifest existence is a hierarchy of reflections which man is capable of reflecting upon, then he is like the dreamer who enters a vast hall of mirrors and gazes along them, trying to see what is at the end of the hall. It is this Platonic notion of hierarchical reflections which lays the basis for all sympathetic magic and lends such a penetrating force to thought based upon analogy and correspondence and the consideration of symbols. In these terms the whole cosmos could be considered as a composite Narcissus in the act of contemplating its own reflection, and man, the microcosm, as truly capable of reflecting deeply upon the cosmic re-enactment.

 The dreamer reflects upon a dream wherein a reflection of reflected aspects of reality is mirrored. The wholeness of his multi-level existence is broken into refracted images and yet wholeness is somehow suggested, insofar as a sequence of superimposed pictures can reflect a whole which has no limit or beginning or end. The reflector reflecting upon the reflection of himself does so in coadunition with matter suitable to such a detached and liberated state. Thus such insights are experienced in dreams or in visions wherein the mind is freed from identification with the body and its senses. Even so, the reflector must beware of the flattering or distorting mirrors of many such states. For in trances and psychic dreams reflections may be magnified, reduced or fragmented by dust gathered on the mind's mirror, which itself may be tarnished, clouded or cracked. Perseus may have been protected from the curse of Medusa by gazing at her only in a mirror, but mirrors can be very tricky, and instead of removing the danger by one notch, they may actually deceive the observer and lead him into endless corridors of delusion. One has to be calmly assured that the mind is continually cleansed with "the gentle breezes of Soul-wisdom" so that one will know if the reflection one sees reflects a deeper truth or merely deceives. As in the case of the physical mirror, one must take care that all irregularities are removed and a very fine and smooth surface maintained in order to produce a clear, specific reflection.

There is within
A glass, they say, that has strange qualities in it;
That shall resolve me.
I will into see,
Whether or no I man or monster be.

Thomas Randolph

 One may come to learn to what extent the outer body may reflect the soul within. An animal which sees its image in a mirror thinks that it is looking at another animal. Man, looking at his own image, knows that it is a reflection of himself but cannot necessarily tell if his reflection faithfully mirrors his inner condition. The experiments of John Dee showed that any evil intent would reveal itself in mirrors. Many human beings brush shoulders with evil daily and even look into its face but do not always sense that there is something amiss. It is not surprising then that many look into the mirror and fail to perceive the true inward condition of their incarnated soul. Socrates taught that it was an excellent practice to regard oneself regularly in a looking-glass in order to gain self-knowledge. Parents can often be startled by penetrating glimpses of their own inner nature when looking at the mirror of self represented by their children. Sometimes these revelations may happen in the most unexpected and fleeting ways. One may be walking down a busy street and suddenly catch one's own image amidst the crowd as it is reflected in a shop mirror. This can be a strangely moving experience, jolting one into seeing one's own form as merely typical of the human condition: one small human being cast by karma into the vast sea of humanity at a particular time and place. One thus experiences afresh a vividly distinctive glimpse of the collective psychological effect wrought by mirrors.

I'll read enough,
When I do see the very book indeed
Where all my sins are writ, and that's myself.
Give me the glass, and therein will I read.

William Shakespeare

 Unlike Richard II, who was dismayed to find that he could not discover a congruence between his inner and outer condition, one can gradually learn to identify clues revealed by one's eyes reflected back in a mirror. Eyes which are said to be the windows of the soul are also its mirrors. Just as people contemplate themselves reflected in the mirror of another's eyes, so the individual seeks to find what lies behind the reflected light by considering the mirror image of these mirrors. If this is done each day, one may come to notice subtle changes in the quality of light emitted by the eyes as well as in the colour and clarity of focus. Checking this with one's state of thoughts, emotional and physical condition and the quality of meditative efforts will slowly reveal a portrait of an inner condition. Just as another's folly can act as a mirroring of one's own, so too one's own reflected stance, one's image caught unawares or the eyes studied over a period of time can teach volumes about one's condition and what one should do to modify it.

 All too often individuals act from the basis of a grossly limiting idea of Nature and the Self. On such a basis they conclude that they are great, good, bad, happy, miserable, beautiful, etc. The truth is that they are actually none of these but simply involved in combinations of qualities that take on certain appearances. These appearances involve the effects of the three gunas impressed variously upon elementals, which then become living mirrors in which man views and experiences himself on levels below the plane of the fourth principle. Peering into the mirror of the tamasic world, an individual perceives an image of himself which is dark and sluggish. That of the rajasic realm reflects back myriad desires and urges to action which he will assuredly identify as springing from the innermost core of his being. So native to his inner self will these urgent desires seem that he will deem it unnatural and soul-killing to deny their fulfilment. So also, upon gazing into the mirror of sattvic elementals, ordinary men or women will see themselves as happy, content and blissfully wise. They will be filled with a glowing satisfaction with themselves and with things as they are, until the wind shifts and the tamasic or rajasic mirror rises uppermost into view. As has rightly been pointed out, "the ordinary man is so negative and passive in his attitude that the mere vicissitudes of circumstances, or the praise and blame of others, is sufficient to change his polarity in relation to any given state and totally alter his idea of self".

 To overcome this slavish condition, one needs to develop the positive mirroring power which exists within the mind. In the development of an inner dialectic process, one can sift through experiences and thoughts, the thesis reflected in one mirror, re-reflected as antithesis in another, and transcended as synthesis at a higher level of self-reflection. A Master of Wisdom once said that one has to acquire Paramartha - true Self-consciousness -if one is to understand the origin of delusion. Paramartha is Svasatnvedana, "the reflection which analyses itself". In the Stanzas of Dzyan the pre-manifest state when the Alaya of the universe was in Paramartha is spoken of. Paramartha is enigmatically described as Absolute Being and Consciousness, which are Absolute Non-Being and Unconsciousness. But if one examines the etymology of the term (parama meaning 'above everything' and artha meaning 'comprehension'), together with the meaning of its synonym, Svasamvedana, one can begin to perceive the outlines of an archetypal mirroring process. Alaya which was "in Paramartha" is the "Soul of the World". It is identical with Akasha in its mystical sense and with Mulaprakriti in its essence. Eternal and changeless in its pre-manifested essence, Alaya alters during manifestation with respect to the lower planes, where it reflects itself in every object of Nature. Thus it is not Nirvana but the condition nearest to it. It is both the universal Soul and the Self of a progressed Adept. According to the Yogacharya school, Paramartha is reflective and therefore dependent upon that which is noumenal to it. It is not Parinishpanna, which is emptiness, but that which reflects and analyses its own reflection. Parinishpanna without Paramartha is described as extinction for seven eternities, implying that Paramartha is the first expression of the self-conscious potential, the glimmering reflection of the mirror of mind at the dawn of manifestation. Alaya is merely the upadhi of this self-analyzing capability, the lofty universally present Soul which will contain the flashing spark of the reflected light of pure Spirit.

 The journey of one who would reach the threshold of spiritual self-knowledge may begin with a dream of mirrored hallways. In waking life such an aspirant can gradually come to see every experience as a mirror in which something critical about his own inner nature is reflected. Slowly he can establish a distance between himself as a spectator and the reflected aspects of his thinking processes, his personality and other outward expressions. Wisely he comes to understand that the great astral tablet of Nature has surrounded him continually along his journey with its reflections of impressed photo negatives, and he has learnt to discriminate between them and the reflections of the highest truth which analyses only itself. Knowing that the mirror of his mind must be blended with the soul of Truth, he ever keeps before his gaze the loftiest reflected idea of the Master within. Walking down the hallway of mirrors, gathering oblique glimpses of his history as a soul and of his future potential, the aspirant approaches the image walking towards him which is himself. Not by any external characteristic does he know this, nor by likeness to his own form, but by a recognition of the Master who has guided him in secret and who now reaches out to him and merges with his own Higher Self. The concave mirror of his own heart focusses clearly the dazzling light of that solar Serf and he becomes a perfect mediator of Divine Will, his mind and heart reflecting the cosmic harmony of its design.

Amidst flashing glass
The soul is glimpsed,
And mirrors its
Discovered Joy.