The image of a mirror can be very helpful in understanding contemplative experience, because it is the nature of our consciousness, of our minds, to reflect. The term ‘reflect’ not only refers to the act of pondering upon something, but refers even more directly to the way the mind works. All the images we see in our minds – whether images of things in the world around us, of memories, fantasies, or inspired visions – are representations of things and not the things themselves. This process is also true for all our other senses, but nothing represents the reflective nature of the mind better than the way a mirror works for the sense of sight. Even when a person attempts to think of his or her own mind, the thought is only an image of the mind, and thus is an action or a part of the mind, but not the mind itself.
It may be that in those last statements you can see how thinking about something can actually interfere with our ability to be as authentically present in the moment as possible, and thus to more completely observe and perceive its greater reality or truth. As an example, consider the well know phenomenon that thinking too much about doing something, like dancing, while actually trying to do it, gets in the way of dancing as well as we might. Another example can be found in the obsessive shutterbug, one who can’t stop taking pictures of something long enough to simply be present in the more direct experience of it. The more we think about something, the less we actually experience it, whether it is something we regard as external to self or something as internal as our most secret thoughts and feelings.
When practicing silent or contemplative prayer, one sits in greater openness to whatever arises in consciousness, whether a sensory perception in response to something external, or thoughts and feelings arising in other ways. This kind of prayer is practiced in faithful acceptance of whatever actually is, filtering and distorting it as little as possible with expectations, rules, analyses, or judgments. It means opening our awareness more completely to the immediate fact of God’s creation and the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit. We therefore see more clearly the truth of things just as they are in the present moment, and less as though in a cloudy mirror. According to 1st Corinthians 13, seeing more clearly like this happens in the context of our maturation in love.
One of the most common experiences in this kind of practice is a greater awareness of the whole of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Furthermore, most of us aren’t pleased to observe how much of a crazy mess is going on within us. We discover that we aren’t nearly as rational, centered, well balanced, practically competent, emotionally secure, intellectually certain, spiritually enlightened, or morally virtuous as we like to pretend to others and ourselves. In fact, anyone who practices like this for very long eventually comes to see in oneself the seeds, if not the seedlings, or even the flowers, of every sin ever committed by anyone.
There are many ways we can react to looking in that mirror. I have no doubt that an intuitive sense of these possibilities, if not some actual experience of them, leads some people to consider contemplative practice too dangerous, and even speak of it as risking demonic possession. Those sorts of fears should be respected for the individuals gripped by them, because too much raw truth can be harmful when we’re unprepared to cope with it. Yet, for others, the initial shock and horror of their existential disillusionment eventually gives way to deeper and more authentic reverence, humility, gratitude, compassion, kindness, and selflessness. We get past being entirely captivated by all the frailty, confusion, fragmentation, dishonesty, and negativity of our own humanity and that of others, and we see that these things come and go within a greater context, the beautiful wholeness of our being and becoming. Our own looking inward upon the mirror of the soul, releasing our illusions and accepting what is, in turn leads us to see others more clearly and to love them more freely. This is how contemplative practice serves the Great Commandments to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.