Monday, June 21, 2010

Mirror as Portal

We’ve all had our own secret relationships with mirrors at some point or another through our lives: the reflection through which we obsess with our own self image. Sometimes a mirror is the first thing we get to when we wake up in the morning; other times, we avoid looking into one. Full-length mirrors are strategically placed in our homes, a portal into exploration of self; the tiny ones we carry become our reality check. If we find ourselves alone with one in a public restroom, we are sometimes struck with what we see there – the changes we hadn’t noticed before; a curve or a bulge we stop to admire; the stranger we fear or had not anticipated.

Mirrors provide all kinds of useful functions, many of which fascinate us, or at the very least, play with our perception in some way. We use large, unframed mirrors to create an illusion of space, or to make a room appear larger. We put mirrors on the ceiling over our beds for a source of erotic stimulation. Amusement parks build Halls of Mirrors, deliberately distorted for our own entertainment. Rotating disco balls at clubs covered in small mirrors cast moving spots of light across a dance floor. In the ancient Chinese system of Feng Shui, practitioners believe that a mirror will help to energize a room. And the metaphor “smoke and mirrors” – used frequently in pop culture references to indicate deception or pretense – came from the magician’s illusion: making objects appear or disappear by extending or retracting mirrors amid a confusing burst of smoke.

Jimi Hendrix wrote a song called a Room Full of Mirrors, and in a biography of the same name, Charles Cross describes a man who “had an extraordinary sense of self-awareness, and an uncanny ability to use music to express emotional truths.” He talks about a two-by-four-foot mirror that Jimi had created. “Inside the frame sat fifty-odd pieces of a shattered mirror, set in clay in the exact position they would have held upon the breaking of the mirror. The shards all point toward the center, where an unbroken plate-size circle rests.” It was, according to Jimi’s father, his Room Full of Mirrors. The song, Cross says, “tells the story of a man trapped in a world of self-reflection so powerful, it haunts him even in his dreams.”

By far the most fascinating use of a mirror I ever heard was from a teacher I once worked with, who said that if you ever find yourself in a lucid dream (awake in a dream and able to direct it), you can look for your reflection in a mirror to “lock” you in.

Recently, I had the good fortune to interview one of the most interesting people I have ever met. A scholar, architectural historian, and a specialist in Western esoteric traditions, he struck me as a sort of a mystic Sherlock Holmes. Frank Albo penned the Hermetic Code, a book about his groundbreaking discoveries of Freemasonic symbolism in the Manitoba Legislative Building. He spoke to me about the cornerstone of Hermetic philosophy, the concept “as above, so below; so below, as above” -- that the entire universe, and all things in it, is a sea of mirrors.

In other words, he said, everything is inter-connected.

Ah – yes, everything is inter-connected. Well I’ve lived by that philosophy for most of my life. But hearing it described in this way – namely, a sea of mirrors – inspired me to think more deeply into it. For as long as I can remember, even in the throes of dire escapist behavior, I’ve wanted in. I’ve wanted to know that stranger in the mirror. I’ve wanted to have the courage of heart to embrace what I see there; to perceive the “as above” reflected in her face. I don’t want to wake up at 62, or 75, to discover I am still removed from what I know.

For that is surely what the second half of life is about – learning to relax into what we know, and to meet the stranger in the mirror at last.


The time will come
when with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own front door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letter from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

I invite my readers to share their thoughts on the word “mirror”: stories or myths they’ve heard, favorite metaphors, intriguing associations. It is my intent to write a follow-up post on this subject, depending on the response.

Frank Albo will be teaching a course called Forbidden Knowledge, which will put into proper context the shadowy world of occult philosophy and embark on a fascinating journey through five centuries of mystical traditions, from Renaissance sorcery to modern ceremonial magic. It will explore religious mythology, occult history and code-breaking symbolism. For more information visit

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Choreography of the Soul

It’s always been curious to me why it is the events in our lives unfold the way that they do. Not in an analytical sort of way, but in a way that beholds the Great Mystery of a larger design; that sense of meaning found in trusting a higher purpose. That random things do happen, but most of the hand we are dealt is not random. That stuff goes down, and people come into our lives for a reason.

That we have an active role to play in living out our destiny.

Maybe there are folks out there for whom life works out pretty much according to plan. But for most of us, I think, life is what happens to you when you are busy making those plans – as the dictum goes. For most of us, things don’t work out at all the way we had expected. You think you got it all sorted out: where you’re going, what success looks like, the kind of person you will end up with, the kind of relationship you see yourself thriving in. And then someone or something happens along the way that turns everything on its head.

As Thomas Moore says, we may discover we are most ourselves when we are furthest from the self we think we ought to be.

I suspect most people reading this blog will know what I’m talking about. People who get married young, endeavor to live the American dream and follow all the rules – they’re another breed. I’m speaking to those who find themselves, at mid-life or older, without a partner, or questioning some major aspect of their life, or embarking on a journey that on some level they know risks shaking up their worldview. Because they’re the ones who are called upon to go deeper, to re-visit old assumptions or belief systems, to question what they held dear or what they were taught. They’re the ones to realize that happiness may come in a form unlike anything they had ever anticipated.

This is why, I think, it is so important to allow relationships to develop organically – to not impose our agenda on them, as much as we can. Especially romantic liaisons. To pursue someone for the sole purpose of steering it toward an end result is as much of a loss to our spiritual selves as it is to have sex with the sole purpose of getting off. The journey, or the lovemaking, is what really matters. As you get older you start to see this more and more. You start to define things differently. You see that a relationship that doesn’t last isn’t necessarily a failure. That we come into each other’s lives for a reason, at intervals that are often impeccably timed.

And if you’re lucky, you become an initiate, entering a world in which autonomy and intimacy can co-exist if you really work at it. Sources of unease become your teacher. You lose interest in molding other people into whatever it is you thought they ought to be. A lifelong courtship with the freedom of discovery begins.

You abandon the quest for life according to plan, and return instead to the call of the wild.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Hub of Aging with Grace: Travel

It’s a well-known fact that one of the perks to getting older is that you learn to stop wasting time on the things that don’t matter. In relationships – with friends and lovers alike – you start getting really clear on what it is you value, which is often not at all what you once thought. And then there are the “dealbreakers” – the indelicate term that speaks for itself – that tend to come with experience, and sometimes offer the most surprise of all.

I have two such “dealbreakers” that I’ve long operated by but only recently become aware of: a lack of curiosity in a person’s nature, and a lack of interest in travel.

Now, when I say travel, I mean it in more ways than one: travel to, or curiosity about, other countries and cultures; travel through different perspectives or ways of looking at life. We “travel” when we read a good book or immerse ourselves in a challenge that stretches us to see beyond our usual framework. And we “travel” when we smoke some really good, organic weed (forget about the stereotypical “stoner high” – I’m talking about weed the way it is meant to be used at its best, as a sacrament).

Whatever your fancy, it occurs to me that a commitment to travel, in some form, may just be the ticket we all need to aging with grace. Many of us know what it means to become “set in our ways”, and travel seems to offer a good antidote to that. But what I’m probing at here goes even deeper. If we accept how easy it can be to become embedded in our later years, we only have to ask ourselves how this might impede the growth and fruition of our character. Is this where we begin to shrivel? If we are dis-inclined to move, to “travel”, physically or otherwise, how does this ripple out into our experience of getting older?

Because it seems to me that as the years wear on, we have a depth of perception available to us that we never had before – entire new worlds open up, that when we’re young, we miss, because we’re too busy being a tourist.

Every time I look at myself in the mirror lately, I am aware of two opposing forces at work: a drive to fight the inevitable process I am bearing witness to, and a drive to connect; to dive headfirst into the life that beckons: a presence no longer concerned with mis-placed idealism. A place where the heart reigns, the soul compels and a hunger for substance prevails.

The way I see it, a commitment to travel, in the true sense of the word, means a commitment to exploring other ways of life unfamiliar to us; to be willing to abandon everything we know, and look at ourselves from an entirely different light.