Who's the fairest of them all?

Sometimes we see ourselves reflected in something that has no connection to a mirror; a child, a student, a person we share space with who drives us crazy, drives us crazy because they remind us of who we are or were or could become.

When I was practicing Renzi Zen at Dai Bosatsu Zendo I struggled with the rigidity, the rules, the expectations, the demand that all things be done mindfully and right. For example, the whole bowl thing. Meals were an area of high anxiety for me. I was always hungry and yet dreaded the way we ate, unwrapping a series of nested bowls, laying down chopsticks, passing food, no eye contact, silence, try eating oatmeal with chopsticks.

When the meal was complete you either had no food left or you had to dispose of what was left over. Thank Buddha for those robes with their commodious sleeves! Then you had to wash your set of bowls, wash your chopsticks, wrap your bowls, etc. All done before the wood clack. I went to bowl orientation like 6 times. Anyway, after I had been sitting and eating and being all Zen maiden, someone new arrived. He was clumsy, needy, breathed too loudly, walked on his heels, his robe didn't fit. I couldn't stand him and I couldn't stop watching him He was a car crash and I rubber necked. Finally, I made some bitchy comment to my teacher who smiled and said, "He is you." It pierced my denial like a well aimed arrow.

During my years of teaching I was sometimes confronted by students who were hard to control. Somehow they skirted the loose borders I had raised in the classroom, asking perplexing questions and able to see humor or irony before me. They had charisma but there was also a tangible need for attention, a shadow of pain, a lack of discipline. There would be times I wanted these student to adore me and other times I would have happily seen them disappear. I had to be careful not to treat these individuals either as equals or with thinly disguised contempt. A friend described this as an archetypal event. Your archetype was being mirrored and thus the clash. This worked well when the student's archetype was not the Warrior. As long as I remained the sole warrior in the room, it was fine. But if the mirror was held up, I had to be the one to turn away. Sometimes I allowed the battle to rage, however, and my superior position ensured victory. It was a bitter triumph since I knew my behavior was the same as those mentors who allowed their insecurities to determine their response to me. In the past I had told myself I would never be so petty, fearful and small. But we often become what we fear.

My son is a fun house mirror. Sometimes I see bravery, compassion and an amazing creative wit. Other times, doubt, stubborn denial, sadness and fear. My own words are repeated back, my lack of patience with the learning process, my inflated perception of my significance, my judgemental, ego-based attitude about others. It is breath taking, mostly awful but occasionally very moving. I know in my recent clashes with my own mother, my carefully worded pleas that she cease keeping me up at night worrying about her welfare, we have come full circle.

I have found another reflection recently in writing about a woman who died of alcoholism at 46. She was the youngest daughter of a very famous British writer, a casualty of her parents' narcissism, a genetic predisposition, a lack of formal education and complete neglect. I knew her from childhood but encountered her again as a young adult and found her behavior horrifying, terrible and totally familiar. She was dying and I knew that the path she was stumbling along was well marked and if I let go completely instead of remaining thinly tethered to the daylight world I would die in exactly the same way, alone, afraid, forgotten and pitied. I grieve now, so many years later because I hated her then, hated her because she was me and, like Snow White's evil Stepmother, I wanted the reflection to lie.


  1. How true and so well put Molly!


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