If you’ve ever tried meditation, you’ve probably encountered the “monkey mind.” It’s that part of your mind that refuses to shut up, can’t just relax and let go, and is always looking for problems, even where there are none. Trying to exert control over the monkey mind usually emboldens it to run further amok. In fact, research on cognitive control finds that trying to suppress the monkey mind often triggers rebound or ironic thought processes—as in when someone tells you not to think about something like a white bear, you find that you can’t get the image of a white bear out of your mind. Trying to suppress thoughts makes them pop back up even stronger.
A common remedy is to give the monkey something else to do as a distraction, like repeating a mantra or affirmation or doing some elaborate visualization to keep the monkey occupied. But the monkey is still very active, it’s just playing with a specific toy.
Another method that might seem counterintuitive at first is to watch your monkey mind in the mirror. Although the mirror won’t reveal your actual thoughts, the mirror will show you how your thoughts are affecting you—with exquisite accuracy. The mirror reflects just how unruly our minds are—and that our default is to look for flaws and problems. In fact, the mirror may even magnify this process—but mirrors can also be used to raise our awareness and slow the thought process down so we can see it more clearly.
At first, the mirror turns the monkey mind onto your physical image as its subject and will shine a spotlight on your self-criticisms, flaws, and foibles. Remember this is a natural process that happens to most everyone. But, if you hold an intention to increase self-awareness, you’ll discover that you can, in fact, free yourself from the monkey’s criticism. Not by avoiding looking at yourself—or pretending it’s not there, but by intending to see clearly and change your perspective. When you are aware of how easily your self-criticisms can be evoked to an outside stimulus like a mirror, you begin to have more awareness over the emotions that come from your self-critical thoughts.
You’ll also get a new perspective on where you’ll let your mind roam. The mirror presents a golden opportunity to take control of your attention. You might be astonished to realize how much of your time and attention goes into focusing what you look like. Using the mirror with a clear intention is the key to seeing beyond your surface appearance and shining light on your inner critic(s). Looking at yourself in the mirror as meditation will help you become more aware of how you disregard yourself through self-criticism and self-objectification. As you look at yourself for an extended period of time, you create a container—an exploratory space to become more aware of how you see (and don’t see) yourself. It allows you to slow the monkey mind down and identify the triggers of distraction, problem-seeking, and self-criticism. You’ll gain insights into how your thoughts affect you.
This mirror meditation practice is based on the three key intentions of mindfulness meditation: attention to the present moment, open awareness, and kind intention toward yourself.
Being in the present moment means intending to keep your attention in the here and now. If you find yourself drifting off into thinking about what has already happened or imaging the future, you gently return to yourself and your reflection in the here and now. It’s a way of practicing mindful self-awareness. Our minds naturally drift from thing to thing. What differentiates an experienced meditator from a novice isn’t how often the mind drifts, but how quickly and easily the meditator can come back to the present moment. So, you’ll practice simply bringing your attention back to yourself in the present moment, letting go of any self-judgments, and knowing that however you’re doing it is quite all right.
Open awareness is about being receptive to whatever may arise in the moment. As you look at yourself, you may expect to feel critical but actually, feel some delight instead—or vice versa. Or you may see something in yourself that you hadn’t seen before. Be open to experiencing anything and everything that’s possible as you do the meditation. Let go of preconceived ideas about what should happen or even what you’d like to have happened during the meditation. You may be surprised by what comes into your awareness by simply being open to receiving without judgment.
A kind intention allows you to approach looking at yourself with an attitude of caring and respect—compassionate awareness. I believe this is the most important element. Sociopaths usually have their attention focused on the present moment with open awareness for anything that might happen, though they definitely lack kind intention! Simply practice seeing yourself in a kind way. Judgments about your appearance may come into your awareness. Looking at your image may evoke stories from your past. Strong emotions may arise. Whatever you’re experiencing remember to hold yourself with care, as you would a dear friend. And yes, I know it takes practice! When we practice holding these intentions as we look at ourselves, the mirror becomes a tool to transform self-criticism and self-objectification into self-compassion and self-acceptance.
A Five-Step Mirror Meditation
1. Set the space. Choose a well-lit space where you can position a mirror so that it’s freestanding and you can see into your eyes without straining or leaning forward. Sit on a meditation cushion or on a chair with both feet on the ground. Set a timer for 5 minutes to begin (you will work up to 10 minutes). Have no goals other than to sit with yourself for the allotted time.
2. Notice your breathing. Begin with your eyes closed. Tune in to your breath. Are you holding your breath or breathing rapidly? Take a few slow, deep belly breaths. Then breathe regularly and naturally, just observing your breath move your belly, ribcage, and collarbones as you inhale and then gently contracting your collarbones, ribcage and belly as you exhale. Notice any areas of tension in your body, especially your face and shoulders, then imagine sending your breath to relax those areas and letting the tension melt away.
3. Begin to look into your eyes. Notice if your breathing changes when your first look at yourself. Come back to full steady breathing. Notice the quality of your gaze: Is it harsh or soft? Try to soften your gaze as much as you can. If you notice yourself hardening by focusing on a detail or a flaw in your appearance—breathe until you feel yourself softening again.
4. Flip your critic. If your initial reaction to looking at yourself is critical, notice your eyes as you look at yourself in this exacting, maybe even harsh or cold way—see if you can flip your attention from the person (or image in the mirror) that you are scrutinizing to seeing the person who is underneath receiving that scrutiny—that’s who you really are. How does that part of you feel be receiving those critiques?
5. Track your attention, expand your awareness—kindly. Gaze at your reflection, staying open to whatever arises. Notice any sensations or emotions that come up and allow them to simply be there without judgment or interpretation. Let your feelings and thoughts simply pass by as you breathe, relax your body, and gaze at yourself with no goal other than to be present with yourself. Notice if you are dissecting aspects of yourself—like focusing on specific body parts. Notice if your attention becomes very narrow and exacting, and if so, see if you can expand it back to seeing your whole body, your whole self, and notice any emotions on your face. Observe this expansion and contraction of your attention and the thoughts and images that come to mind. Just noticing where your attention goes and any feelings that are associated with it without judgment. Hold a kind intention toward yourself as you do the practice. You may be surprised how much your view of yourself can change over the course of 5 or 10 minutes.
Copyright 2019, Tara Well, PhD. First published in Psychology Today.