In the age of selfies and shameless Instagram posing, most of us associate looking at our own reflections in the mirror with narcissism, vanity, or feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy, however, the truth is mirror gazing can teach us to see parts of ourselves that we usually keep hidden away.
Mirror meditation is much more than just the latest meditation fad, it’s a practice designed to change your perspective and increase self-compassion, self-awareness, and the ability to listen to and understand others.
I had read all about mirror work as a means of increasing self-love in the past, but it wasn’t until I watched a Ted Talk by Tara Well Ph.D., professor of psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University, that I began to integrate mirror meditation into my life.
Tara Well, says that as children, we learn to understand ourselves by observing those around us, she explains that psychologists have actually discovered that face to face contact is a key component of our social development and the development of our emotions as human beings.
If the idea of gazing at your own face in the mirror with a neutral expression for several minutes sounds terrifying, you are not alone. For most of us, looking in the mirror is about putting on make-up, brushing our hair, and checking our appearance for the day, either criticizing it or praising it, but rarely do we actually stare deeply into our own eyes and feel the emotions that come up.
Tara talks about how as young children, looking at ourselves in the mirror is usually a fun mimicry exercise or a silly game of making facial expressions, but as we grow older, we start to scrutinize our reflections, becoming deeply critical and feeling negative emotions when we meet our own gaze.
Statistical analyses show we spend more time these days looking at our screens on laptops or devices than we do looking back at another human face. The cultural obsession with selfies stems from the need for people to be seen and validated by each other. Tara Well’s work shows us that mirror meditation is the anthesis of that, instead of looking of for likes on social media, you are looking at yourself in such a way that you’re able to give that attention to yourself. When you can meet your own reflection with self-compassion, you are able to then offer the same kindness, patience, and understanding in your relationships with others.
Looking in the mirror actually allows us to become aware of our own face as a reflection of our deeper and more complicated emotions. The first time you do a mirror meditation, you will undoubtedly feel self-conscious, strange, and uncomfortable.
Tara’s advice is to look at yourself in front of a mirror not to scrutinize your reflection but with the perspective that you are the recipient of your own harsh judgments and self-criticism. When you do this, changing the way you see yourself, you come to face-to-face with your suffering in your emotional expressions for it is literally visible in your face.
Tara has worked with many different students and has seen the benefits that mirror meditation can bring. Those with selfie addictions, body dysmorphic disorders, and other psychological issues have been able to gain a profound understanding of themselves, leading to deeper emotional resilience, self-compassion, self-awareness, well-being, and better relationships.
When you are able to see yourself in a kinder way, you free up your energy to focus more positively on the rest of your life. The desire for external validation and attention lessens, and you feel a sense of loving-kindness towards yourself and others
It’s amazing how a simple looking glass mirror meditation can be such a catalyst for some true life-changing realizations.
Practicing a mirror meditation could not be more simple, and it doesn’t take long to feel the results. In my own experience, I realized how much value there is in experiencing face to face connections much more than I had previously in just a short time.
I’ll be honest, it was definitely uncomfortable the first time I studied my facial expressions. I felt self-conscious and emotional. But after a few minutes of staring into my own eyes, something happened and I started to lose that feeling of self-consciousness and instead began to connect with a deeper sense of myself. My visual perception of myself has changed dramatically since I began this practice. At the end of the session, I usually feel happier, mentally focused, and with an overall sense of compassion for myself and others.
I recommend trying this meditation practice yourself. It can evoke some very strong feelings and is an incredibly powerful tool to help with self-esteem and changing your perspective in life.
How to Practice the Mirror Meditation
1. Set up space and clarify your intention
Choose a quiet, well-lit space where you can sit comfortably and without distractions. Position a mirror in front of you so that you can look into your own eyes without straining or moving out of your seat. Have your feet uncrossed and on the ground.
Set a timer for 10 minutes (if it feels too long, start with 3 or 5 minutes).
Your intention should purely be to sit and observe yourself. There is no agenda, other than to be kind to yourself.
2. Connect to the breath
Close your eyes and tune in to the rhythm of your breathing. Notice if you are breathing particularly fast, or slow, or holding your breaths.
Take some deep inhalations and let them out audibly through your mouth. Observe where you feel any areas of tension or tightness, particularly in your face. Imagine sending your breathing to those areas of tension and letting your breath heal and soothe them.
3. Gaze into your eyes.
Now you are going to meet the reflection of your face in the mirror. Stare into your own eyes. Become aware of any changes in your breathing when you first catch your reflection.
Try to notice what your gaze is like. Do you feel as though you are glaring at yourself? Are you picking out flaws in your appearance? Or do you feel like who is this strange-face-in the mirror staring back at you?
Just breathe steadily and calmly. Try to soften your gaze as much as possible.
4. Become aware of your critic
It’s common to look at yourself at first with a critical eye. Just be aware that if this happens, simply bring your intention back and remember to look at yourself with kindness. It can help to pretend that your reflection is an unknown person, and you are scrutinizing them now to see who they are. How do you feel to be on the receiving end of all this scrutiny and criticism?
5. Observe where your attention goes.
As you look at your reflection in the mirror, remain open to whatever emotions arise. Allow them to come and go without getting caught up in them or judging them. Just continue to breathe, relax, and keep gazing into your eyes, with no other agenda other than to be here now, present, focused, and aware of yourself.
Hold a kind intention throughout this practice. Whatever self-criticism or self-consciousness comes up, let those feelings go. Remember to relax, breathe, and continue to observe yourself with compassion.
You can recognize where you have negative emotions and simply let them be as you continue to breathe and connect with your own face in the looking glass. The mirror itself acts as a focal point to keep returning to, whenever your mind wanders or your feelings become too intense.
You might well be surprised at the end of the session at how intensely your view of yourself can shift during these first ten minutes.
Try practicing mirror gazing for ten minutes every single day. Always come to the practice with that kind intention towards yourself and an open mind. Remember too that the mirror is not the one judging you, it is merely a reflection of your own negative thoughts. It can make you incredibly aware of your emotions and teach you to take responsibility for them.
You can go about your life with an increased understanding of how you are feeling and why. You’ll probably spend less time on social media looking for validation through selfies and likes, and learn to build relationships with people who actually see you for who you really are.
I hope that you find this daily practice to be as transformative as I have. You can discover things about yourself, increase your self-esteem, self-love, and learn to connect with others in much deeper ways.
I recommend this to anyone looking for a change in their meditation or mindfulness exercises and to whoever wants to get to know themselves on a more profound level.
The next time you are feeling down on yourself, head to your quiet space, get your mirror, and take a few minutes to gaze at your reflection. I think you will like the results.