kitten reflection

Rumination 14: Reaching Into Your Reflection

“The way we experience the world around us is a direct reflection of the world within us.”
– Gabrielle Bernstein
“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”
– Margaret J. Wheatley

The world is a looking glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.
– William Makepeace Thackeray

Picture someone looking into a mirror. If that person’s reflection showed that his or her collar was turned up or hair was mussed, you wouldn’t expect that person to reach into the reflection to adjust the image. Only a severely mentally handicapped person, a small child, or possibly someone who had never seen a mirror before would even try. Yet that’s exactly what we are trained to do. Rather than reaching away from the mirror to adjust ourselves, using what we see as a guide, we are taught to reach out into the world, away from ourselves, to try to adjust what we see.

Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t work very well. Yet we feel stress when we have difficulty making that happen, which can add to stress we’re already feeling.

This may seem like a silly thought experiment but I have found that it is often true that “the fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”. Certainly we would benefit from considering the possibility that we need to adjust ourselves. I think it should be standard in our cultural bag of tricks. It should always be a consideration.

I have found that when something repeats again and again, especially in different circumstances or times, it is an indication that I should look to myself for the cause instead of into the world. When I am stressed in a certain way over and over, it is a hint that I am the one creating it. I am the only constant factor, after all. The people change I have even found the same personalities in different situations with different people but the same pressures show up again and again. What is the more likely explanation when that happens different people in different situations all leading to the same patterns, or the one common factor?

I have found that when I feel the same stress over and over, rather than trying to adjust each situation, I need only adjust myself. This may seem like a sign of weakness but consider that only a strong person has the ability to change. A weak person can’t shift because s/he is too fragile, too brittle, or simply not able to change. It takes strength to heal, courage to honestly and simply face up to and own your shortcomings. Ironically, by facing and owning your shortcomings, you have gone at least three quarters of the way to overcoming them and eliminating them from your life completely. And once you have truly healed yourself, amazingly, the personalities associated with your former stress stop showing up.

In a different vein, sometimes adjusting your own attitude is the only option left open. Sadly, this is increasingly the case in modern society when machines are programmed to value profit over people and basic humanity is ignored – when the situation has been tailored to channel behavior and responsible parties absent themselves. Beyond the stress that you might feel because your actions are being controlled, the impersonal nature of the situation itself can cause added stress.

Usually such things occur because once they’ve set them up, people have left things to run on automatic. Stress can result when you feel that your humanity is not considered important and you are being treated like a machine component. However there is often little that you can do (especially alone) to change the situation. You can nevertheless reduce the stress you feel by changing your attitude by, for example, understanding what is wanted by those who determined the system’s behavior and making allowances for that.

For instance, many people have adopted a cynical, defeatist attitude about phone support. They can tell that the other person is following a script and unable to respond directly. Sometimes it’s clear to me that I know more than the “expert” on the support line. When I have had complex problems that have required me to call tech support multiple times, I have sometimes had to repeat the whole history of support to get to the next step.

By letting go of personal frustration, I have been able to go through such histories with speed, grace, and finesse. I’ve been able to work with the support person instead of butting heads with him or her. Thus, I’ve been able to get what I want more quickly and in good humor. I’ve even gone on to develop a rapport with the support person.

Another common example is taxes. Often people stress over taxes because they define the taxing body’s actions as appropriating funds that rightfully belong to them. Leaving aside the fact that those taxes are used to provide services like smooth, fast transportation, communication, and information retrieval that those same people rely on, mental judo can be performed by, for example, changing the question from what is right (and what ought to be) to simply what is.

To wit, if your tax bracket is 30%, that means that out of $10 of total income, $3 goes to tax and $7 is your personal income. That means that if your personal income doesn’t match the lifestyle you need/want, you have the option of increasing your personal income or changing your goals. If you choose to increase your personal income, you need to increase your total income.

This is one way to look at things one possibility. Please note the different language and how your feeling has changed. Nothing about the situation is outwardly different but it has a wholly different character. You have the ability to change how you frame things completely.


Remembrance of Times Past

“People are weird,” Doggie Chi thought to himself, not for the first time.

He laid on his cushion in the sun and watched the youngster, Charlie Girl, sniff around the fence for the hundredth time today. Sometimes she would pounce on a ball and chase after it – that he could understand – but sniffing the fence around their enclosure was beyond him.

Maybe it was because he was so much older – he was almost five and she was only two. Maybe his advanced age accounted for his different attitude. After all, he wasn’t a puppy anymore, but he had never sniffed around a fence, either, even when he was a puppy. They were both in the same pack but their differences sometimes seemed to outweigh their similarities.

For one thing, Charlie Girl was much bigger than Doggie Chi. He didn’t weigh more than ten pounds. She had to be about thirty-five pounds or more. He was a pure bred Yorkie from a breeder. She was a mutt from the animal shelter, probably a Whippet-Pit Bull mix – what one of their humans sometimes called a “Bull Whippet.”

She was definitely pretty, with the sleek lines, long legs, and deep chest of the Whippet line and the bigger head, broader face, and soulful eyes of her Pit Bull heritage. She was fast, too. She’d only met one other dog who could even keep up with her and that had been a full blood Grey Hound.

Her favorite game seemed to be to goad other dogs into chasing her around the dog run and then to take off, easily out distancing them with her speed. She really loved running. She bounced along with a goofy smile on her face and wind of her own making blowing through her ears and short fur. Sometimes she ran when no one else was around, just for the joy of running.

Doggie Chi laid his head between his fore paws and watched Charley Girl root around the fence. Suddenly she froze. She stood very still for a moment, then sprang into a loop around the enclosure. Doggie Chi thought as Charley Girl ran that “Puppy Wonder” captured her essence. She wasn’t a puppy anymore but her enthusiasm was very puppy-like. It was undiminished, but she never seemed happier than when she was running. It didn’t matter whether she was free at the park or doing circuits around the house.

You could lose yourself just by watching her run. You would forget where you were and even body aches would vanish. She was like that.

Doggie Chi snapped back to the present moment. Charlie Girl was on the other side of the enclosure, creeping up on a ball as if it was some unsuspecting prey. She pounced on it, trapping it between her fore paws, butt in the air, tail wagging. Doggie Chi watched the tail. He was leery of it even from here. It literally whipped through the air. It was a dangerous weapon (although Charlie Girl didn’t see it as such) and Doggie Chi had learned to avoid it the hard way.

Doggie Chi lounged in the hot sun, ears erect. He turned them forward and back to follow different sounds. The rest of his body was completely still. Except for his ears, he seemed to be asleep. He thought again about the name he’d given Charlie Girl – “The Puppy Wonder.” It seemed to fit. She was definitely a puppy. At least she was compared to him. He looked at her again. She was contentedly chewing on the ball. He remembered her energy and liveliness. She took joy in the smallest things. Everything was a wonder for her. A thought came to him – was that the source of her power? Was she powerful because of her exuberance?

He thought about it. It seemed natural and right somehow. Her joy was irrepressible and it made folks smile. Was she a joy because everything she experienced was a joy? Everything was a wonder? Did pure joy lead to power?

Doggie Chi’s nose twitched. The softness of the pillow cushioning his body and the spectacle of Charlie Girl completely forgotten as he followed the spoor of his thought.

Joy wants to be shared. It’s paradoxically made bigger when it’s given away. The Puppy Wonder makes people happy and that inspires them to help her. Helping her makes them happier.

He mulled it over. He thought about true joy. He felt into the quiet unfolding of self and how it is supported and enlivened by joy. He noticed how it acts and what it touches and changes and how it is changed itself in turn. He remembered the power of joy. He had seen it change lives. It had affected his own life and he was richer for it.

When he first met Charley Girl he had been miserable and depressed most of the time. He had been brought all the way across the country to a strange house full of strange smells and a puppy with a whip for a tail. He laid about back then, almost never ate, and projected an air of general sadness. He managed to be miserable on the trip cross country and felt isolated in this strange, new house. But all the new things made it hard to be depressed and the puppy was irrepressible.

She was easily three times his size and could squash him if he wasn’t careful. He soon learned that she certainly wasn’t careful so he had to be. She sat anywhere. And that tail! The ghost of a smile flitted across his face and then it was gone.

The Puppy Wonder felt genuine joy in everything. She was happy upon making a new friend as well as the erratic flight of a butterfly. She didn’t judge anyone. She felt joy in them. And she shared that joy. It wasn’t just that she was happy. Her happiness was infectious. And as it spread, it increased.

One day, he noticed that she always got more praise than he did, in spite of the fact that he was smaller and cuter. Passersby would begin by cooing over them both. Sometimes they would make louder noises over him initially. This was especially true of the women and girls for some reason. But Charley Girl got praise, too. As soon as he started barking to draw more attention to himself, he was forced to the ground or his mouth was held shut or both.

Maybe the humans didn’t want it explained to them. Maybe they objected to all the barking. But for whatever reason they reacted badly when he chastised them for praising Charley Girl. Nevertheless he didn’t stop barking. He was compelled to redress the injustice somehow. He couldn’t let it go so he kept barking but his angry protests didn’t seem to matter. They kept praising Charley Girl and forcing his head to the ground.

He would routinely bark at anyone they met on their walks. One person they walked by most mornings wore a uniform and had dog treats in her pocket. Whenever she was there, they would stop on the corner and greet her. Charlie Girl would sit quietly, watch her with those big eyes, tail wagging, and get a treat, which she would crunch and gobble down immediately. He would stand his ground and bark and bark and bark until his human forced his head down and he would never get a treat.

It seemed to go on this way forever. Each day they would stop to say, “Hi.” Charley Girl would sit quietly with her tail wagging and get a treat. He would bark at her, calling attention to himself, and get nothing.

Then, one day, he decided to try something different. He was tired of watching Charley Girl get all the praise and treats. He sat and quietly wagged his stubby tail just like Charley Girl. It worked! He got a treat, too!

That was interesting. It didn’t change his attitude with everyone. He still barked at them, especially when he felt insecure and wanted to assert himself. But this one person with the treats didn’t react well to the barking. Instead, she seemed to respond to a silent greeting.

He decided that this person with the treats was OK but that didn’t change how he treated others. He used his excellent memory to recall that she was special whenever he saw her and treated her differently. He remembered that she was OK, a friend. The others continued to be treated as if they were threatening strangers instead of friends.

He was a little dog and the humans towered over him. He could be forgiven for barking at them, he thought. He was just telling them to back off and respect his space. Did it matter that he was barking out of fear? Did it matter that he barked much more often than “occasionally”?

A bird flew into their yard and landed for a moment on a branch. He was bright and chipper and very formal looking. His little bird head wagged from side to side in rapid movements as he surveyed the yard. Then he flew off again. Doggie Chi didn’t bother moving from his spot. Charlie Girl never even noticed.

One time, they were walking with one of their humans in the park. The trail meandered into the woods and narrowed to a dirt path just wide enough for a single person. No one was around, so the human took them off of their leashes. Charley Girl darted ahead and ran back and forth through the woods, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, but always keeping the human at the center of her circle. Doggie Chi trotted ahead of the human at a more leisurely pace, staying on the trail. The trail crossed a stream and a small wooden bridge forded the stream at that point. There was a dead bird on the little bridge. Charlie Girl sniffed at it and ran off. Doggie Chi took more time with the bird.

It was squashed flat and mostly dry but there was some muddy moisture in it to make smells. Being a rat dog by lineage wasn’t easy. It gave him a natural tendency to fight nasty rats. That tendency didn’t go away just because there were no rats to fight. Anyone or anything strange would do. That’s why he would often bark at people – at least, that was his excuse. That was also why he grew his hair long – imagined teeth and claws would rake only empty fur. It also made him look bigger and fiercer.

The aura of fierceness was reinforced by the way he smelled. Completely separate from the fact that rats, his ancestral enemy, often smelled pretty bad, so the way he smelled could provide camouflage, he liked smelling bad. When he smelled like soap and flowers, he didn’t smell like himself, at least not the self he wanted to be. He didn’t smell fierce. When he did smell bad, he fancied that he smelled fierce.

So he had literally jumped in excitement when he came across the dead bird. He ran up to it and rubbed his face in it, thoroughly mashing the smell into his fur. His human predictably ran up, hands waving in the air, and yelled to get him to move away from the carcass. He ran off before the human could touch him, but not before he had rubbed in a good smell.

He trotted off happily while his human grumbled something about having to wash him.

He laid on his cushion in the sun and remembered that bird carcass with fondness. His person had indeed washed him when they got home but not before Doggie Chi had finished his walk smelling triumphantly bad. He didn’t move from his cushion. The sun shining down was too warm and delicious. He remembered the simple power of taking joy in life and what it had brought him and he smiled.