When the timer went off this morning I prolonged the meditation, partly because I was surprised it was over (that in itself is very telling) and partly because I was disappointed that I hadn’t set any intention for my writing, a practice that has proven productive over the past few weeks. I also noticed that I felt a relaxed willingness to continue (again very telling). So I decided to stay put a little longer.
Within a few minutes I heard the word reflection and I knew that was the word I would write about today. As I sat quietly allowing the word to roll around in my head, it came to me that I had assumed I would write about the benefits of reflecting on the past and pondering how I arrived at this moment on my journey. But then the idea that reflection can also mean the reflection we see in the mirror popped in.
That thought, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so provocative if I hadn’t heard so many times over the years that we need to be aware of what motivates us when we are critical of others. Several of my teachers have told me that the work we need to do on ourselves will often be that which we observe, and are critical or judgmental of, in others. It’s like their actions are a mirror image of what we need to see and work on in ourselves.
Hindsight is “20/20”
If I had to choose between the two types of reflection, I prefer reflection on the past because one of my favorite phrases about the work I am doing at this juncture in my life is “hindsight is 20/20.” So many times in my life I have looked back at the course I took to get to where I landed and I have realized that it is so easy to see after the fact what I could have avoided. I could have trusted my gut and gotten to a decision or an outcome much sooner, but time after time I over-processed or stumbled over the same hurdle until one day I arrived at a solution. Or I realized that what I had been struggling with wasn’t important enough to occupy so much of my time.
I’m sure I am not alone when I say that I believe that I couldn’t feel confident in most of my major decisions over the course of my life if I hadn’t processed all the alternatives before arriving at the conclusion. However, upon reflection, I wouldn’t have minded foregoing some of the anguish and suffering I endured as a result of my choices and actions.
Perhaps both of the variations on reflection are appropriate in this writing. Perhaps, we see in others what bothers us about ourselves so we get riled up enough to do the work we need to do. Perhaps reflecting enables us to see from where we have come and consequently to let go of that which no longer serves us. Perhaps reflecting on the past helps us to recognize that we are the common denominator in our life experiences and others show up to prod us into taking stock of how our thoughts can derail us from doing that which is in our best interest.
For me, the issue of being judgmental was one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome. When I was first introduced to the concept that what I criticize in others is what I need to work on in myself, I was appalled. How could I be so critical of something I was doing myself? But, time after time, I learned some hard lessons by looking at myself and seeing that this observation was true.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I climbed up on my soapbox and announced to the world that I was broken and needed to fix myself. Instead, I usually opted for the go-within-self-loathing approach while I pretended that no one else noticed that I was exhibiting a mirror image, of what I observed in others, every time I opened my mouth. No, I preferred to beat the crap out of myself until I could honestly say that I had conquered the hurdle. “Hindsight sharing” is another of my favorites.
Do I still judge others? Yes. But I have learned to catch myself and then remind myself that I am seeing my reflection. And then I remind myself that I do not know their story any more than they know mine. I do not know their motivation for their actions. I realize now that I cannot change that person by what I observe. I can only change myself.
When I go through this process, an interesting thing always happens. I find empathy for the other person as I tell myself that I cannot judge without having walked in their shoes. And, in that process, I also look at myself and say I am doing the best I can in this moment. I find that I am less hard on myself when I pull back because I recognize that I am a better person for having done so. Most of the time, somewhere in that process, I find my way to caring about the other person and in turn caring enough about myself to be willing to do my own work.
Perhaps we are not meant to clear the hurdles to achieve smooth sailing. Rather, we are meant to see that we are all alike in our need to accept that we are doing the best that we can at whatever stage we are at on our journey. I see myself in my judgments and criticisms of others. But I also see how far I have come. My “doing the best I can” is much more palpable now than it was in earlier stages of my life experience. For these gifts of reflection, I am grateful.
Note: After many failed attempts at meditation, I decided to take the advice of music mogul, Russell Simmons, who wrote Success Through Stillness. He suggests setting a timer for twenty minutes and sitting still regardless of distracting thoughts. I wrote after each session to create this thirty-day blog series.