The Mirror Experiment I’m So Glad I Tried

Photo: Sai Mokhtari
Participants prepare for Mirror Meditation: Brainwave Experiences at the Rubin Museum
This story was originally published on May 19, 2016. I am six years old, in the first grade girls’ bathroom with my friend. We are washing our hands. We turn off the faucets when we’re done and look up at the mirror above the sinks before drying off. We see each other in the reflection, and we smile. This memory has stayed with me for 19 years, and I don’t quite know why. What I do know is that really seeing oneself, and really seeing other people, are probably the hardest things any of us will ever do. And I also know that mirrors make us feel things — at any age. There are those fascinating moments when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the subway window and become intoxicated by our own images. Sometimes, we may look in the mirror and become buoyed by the confident thought that we look sexy. Sometimes, we receive simple reassurance from looking in the mirror — that our makeup application looks okay, that our teeth-brushing after eating kale salad was thorough. These are the good feelings: the positive and, okay, maybe somewhat narcissistic ones that I think we all have from time to time. But sometimes — too often — mirrors can become excruciating, inhospitable places. At least, that’s how I’ve felt for most of my adult life. When I first developed an eating disorder at the age of 14, the mirror became a painful object for me, one that began to take on an array of symbolic meanings that stay with me. At times, the mirror is a reminder that my thighs will always be the thing that makes me most insecure; at other times, the mirror is a sick source of validation that I’ve starved myself sufficiently — that my protruding clavicle is a sign of “success.”

But sometimes — too often — mirrors can become excruciating, inhospitable places.

And all throughout these years, the mirror has consistently functioned as a perverse source of fuel for my ongoing issues with food, whatever my weight. Today, I notice that the mirror tends mostly to serve as a disappointing reality check that I’ve gained enough weight to actually look healthy. In many ways, I don’t want to admit that mirrors give me anxiety. I am an ardent feminist, and I want to believe that I can shrug off all of the destructive conditioning I’ve received about what I “should” look like as a woman. I am also a writer committed to talking about mental health and physical wellness in a more nuanced and multifaceted way. I have a daily meditation practice that I’ve developed as a healing tool, and I’ve taught workshops for women on topics like sexual empowerment and self-love. And yet, I am often bogged down by self-loathing when it comes to my appearance. Am I a fraud? I wonder this often. The question of self-reflection — and what self-acceptance might really look like — is one that transfixes me in many facets of my life. So I was very intrigued when I read about “Mirror Meditation: Brainwave Experiences,” an event led by psychologist Dr. Tara Well at New York City's Rubin Museum on April 4. Dr. Well and her colleagues have developed and researched a mirror-gazing meditation technique that has been proven (in small studies) to reduce stress and anxiety and increase self-compassion, if practiced for just 10 minutes every day. The technique is what it sounds like: The practitioner silently observes herself in the mirror with the intention to give her image full attention during the session. Rather than using the breath or a mantra as the anchoring device as is the case in other traditional methods of meditation, mirror meditation involves the act of returning to our own reflection again and again. According to Dr. Well’s research, this technique of literal self-reflection is a quick and accessible practice for us to cultivate self-love and change our self-perception.
Photo: Sai Mokhtari
Psychologist Dr. Tara Well, creator of Mirror Meditation
When I read the event description, I felt both captivated and uneasy. As a meditator, I wasn’t expecting mirror meditation to be easy or fun; I’m well aware that sitting with yourself, regardless of the technique, isn’t ever really a recipe for chilling out. For me, meditation can often be a painful but very productive exercise in gaining clarity about how my mind really operates — how many assumptions, judgments, and stories about my life I tend to accept as truth when I don’t take the space to separate myself from them. And staring in a mirror for an entire hour, or slightly more, sounded even more masochistic, given my history. But despite my misgivings, I had to see for myself what mirror meditation was all about. Before our group of 70 participants made our way to the mirrors themselves, we were instructed to write an intention for the session. I knew immediately what I wanted to write: “I want to reclaim, in some way, what mirrors mean to me.” From there, we were ready to go. Each person sat in front of an individual, 8 ½ x 11-ish mirror, which were arranged in rows at a long, rectangular table. When the session began, Dr. Well walked us through a brief guided meditation, instructing us to try looking at ourselves with a sense of openness, kindness, and compassion. She reminded us that we’re often inclined to objectify ourselves — to imagine how we are being seen by others — rather than looking from a place of acceptance. “If you notice that you’re criticizing yourself, look into your eyes,” Dr. Well explained. “Try and see yourself as the person being criticized, and see what that does.”

I spent the first half of our session dissecting particular aspects of my appearance.

As Dr. Well spoke, I listened carefully and tried my best to follow her cues. Intellectually, I believed in everything she said and was convinced that the mirror meditation technique was powerful and healing, uncomfortable as I was. Yet practically, I can’t say that I felt terribly open, kind, or compassionate towards myself. I spent the first half of our session (30 minutes) dissecting particular aspects of my appearance. I began, for example, by fixating on the faint acne scars on my cheeks and thinking about how much better I would look had I listened to my doctor’s advice and not picked my skin. That rumination took up probably about 10 minutes. Then, I moved up my face and spent some time lamenting the unevenness of my eyebrows. 20 minutes gone. Then there was the fact that my face had gained weight, that I have wrinkles developing on my forehead, that my nose was bigger than I thought it was. The list goes on. Amidst these horrible criticisms, I tried my best to remember what I was there for. I would hear Dr. Well’s advice in my head each time a new criticism emerged: “Look into your eyes. Try and see yourself as the person being criticized.” Indeed, I felt the emotions of a person being criticized. I felt insecure and pathetic from the criticisms themselves — but also inadequate and frustrated that I was seemingly unable to practice self-compassion. Just look into your eyes and open your heart; it can’t be that hard, I’d tell myself. And while I did keep looking into my eyes and trying to open my heart, the criticisms kept coming. For the subsequent 30 minutes, my inner dialogue felt less dominated by the criticisms themselves — and more like a real conversation between my inner critic and the self-respecting part of me that wanted to get the benefits of mirror meditation. To be totally honest, I spent pretty much the entire session in pain, waiting for it to be over. After about an hour, Dr. Well told us to take our attention away from the mirror and to look at the person across the table from us. She then guided us through a meditation to help us really see the person across from us, and to let them really see us. I was struck by the fact that the exercise made me feel incredibly awkward and embarrassed, but was also relieved that my judgments were no longer present. I wasn’t really worried that my partner was judging me, either: I was just jittery from the intimacy of the encounter. This part felt more like the traditional Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation method that I usually practice. When I felt the itch to look away out of distraction, I would shepherd my attention back to the woman across from me. I felt a greater sense of accountability during this exercise, as well as a much stronger desire to give her my full presence than I did for myself. As meditation helps us to do, I observed these sensations — and tried my best to save analysis for later.
Photo: Sai Mokhtari
After looking at the woman across from me for about a half hour, I fell in love with her a little. As she blinked, or as her nose scrunched up involuntarily at certain moments, I watched her. I noticed her yawn from fatigue, and smile at me when I’d get distracted. There was such a profound feeling of openness, vulnerability, and tenderness in this part of the exercise that I felt like I knew the woman deeply by the end — simply through seeing her, and through allowing her to see me. The session concluded with another, shorter mirror-gazing session. This time felt very different than the first round. No, my judgments about my appearance didn’t disappear, nor did my instinct to then judge my judgments. But I felt a much greater sense of spaciousness and choice with regard to these thoughts. I found myself less consumed by the criticisms themselves, and more fascinated with the mere fact that these thoughts exist so strongly and prominently for me on a regular basis. Having this revelation — and developing a sense of curiosity around my own judgments — made me feel a great sense of freedom. We’re living in an age in which cultural obsession with narcissism is at an all-time high; social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram enable us to curate our self-image at all times, and yet looking in the mirror can still feel so fraught. Or at least that’s how I have felt as of late, as a frequent selfie-poster who also has mirror-phobia. Mirror meditation didn’t instantaneously fill me with warmth and self-love (and granted, I only did it once; its benefits are said to accrue with regular, prolonged practice). But it was a profound exercise in cultivating insight: I saw inside of myself in a way that I am not used to, and really felt the movement of my criticisms as they arose. The sharp awareness I developed was painful, but paradoxically liberating, and is what allowed me to answer the question, “Am I a fraud?” Long story short: I’m still a feminist who strongly believes that I’m a badass and should eat what I want and feel beautiful inside and out. And sometimes, I fully identify with this and feel a great sense of confidence and empowerment. Other times, this feels much more like an intellectual experiment, and the pain of self-criticism takes ahold of me. I am not immune to feeling shitty, as committed as I am to personal growth. No one is. Yet we can learn to be aware of the ways we are making ourselves feel shitty, and at the very least, see that they’re just thoughts. Before that night, I’m sure I would’ve dismissed the idea of "trying to perceive myself the way a stranger might" as a New Age-y platitude that was meaningless at worst, unrealistic at best. And maybe it is unrealistic. But if you can experiment with the idea of looking at yourself the way a stranger might look at you, you’ll at least find that those thoughts aren’t even there. You may even fall a little bit in love.

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