The Mind as Magic Mirror

The human mind is an amazing thing, both wonderful and terrible, and I often find myself trying to help clients understand their minds in new ways. This is difficult work, because most of us grow up believing that we are our minds, that there is no difference between mind and self. This perception is incredibly prevalent, but I believe it is also misleading and potentially harmful.

Metaphors are among my favorite tools for challenging perceptions, and in recent months, one metaphor I’ve found useful is comparing the mind to a magic mirror, in the spirit of Snow White or Harry Potter. We can use this mirror to reflect on the past, imagine possible futures, daydream, fantasize, worry, catastrophize, and plan. The magic mirror of the mind is a powerful tool, and it sets us apart from other species. However, the magic mirror also has the power to fascinate or mesmerize, to consume our attention so completely that we miss out on what is actually happening around us.

It is good to use the mirror to reflect upon and learn from the past. It is also good to use the mirror to ponder and plan for the future. But we must use great caution, lest we become entranced or obsessed with the mirror itself. If we spend too much time and attention on the mirror, we will have much less attention to devote to the present moment, and without sufficient attention, we may condemn ourselves to a distracted and less effective life.

As with most things, there is a balance to be struck. If we use the mirror too little, we may be present in the here and now, but we lose the benefits of reflection and planning, and we risk a thoughtless or reckless existence. If we use the mirror too much, we may not be thoughtless, but we risk missing out on the full bounty of life itself. Some people willingly embrace one extreme or the other, and that is their choice to make, but for most of us, I believe the greatest satisfaction comes from finding a middle ground. I also believe that most of us err on the side of overusing the mirror, often in response to doubts, fears, and insecurities. We do not trust life to bring us beauty, so we try to use our greatest tool to manipulate life. Unfortunately, by using the mirror as a tool for control, we often make a mess of beauty. By not trusting beauty to emerge naturally, we may actually create the realities we fear most.

The magic mirror should certainly be used, but only in moderation and only as a tool for understanding, not as a substitute for trust or a vivid life.