Mirror Mirror

December 8, 2010

Perhaps today is a good day to take seven minutes and forty-four seconds to watch a TED talk on mirror neurons by Vilayanur Ramachandran.

Whether you watch or not, Ramachandran might posit that you already know about it… at least at some unconscious level—because you gave that talk (at least the part of you that is Vilayanur Ramachandran).

While this sort of talk is all too familiar to aging new-agers and adherents of Eastern ideas, the fact that it is making its way into the corridors of Western science, by way of mirror neurons, strikes me as significant: what neuroscientists are discovering in the laboratory, the Buddha discovered under the Bodhi Tree:  there is no independent self, no distinction, ultimately, between your consciousness and my consciousness.

Mirror neurons are a relatively recent discovery, something Ramachandran links with the development of our human culture and the transmission of knowledge (allowing for rapid advance rather than much slower evolution).  Ramachandran calls mirror neurons “Gandhi neurons” because they govern empathy (perhaps they will help free us from the ages old thinking of one against the other that has brought us so much war and oppression).

Mirror neurons are also interesting because if we happen to lack them we may have trouble relating to others and find little interest in the world; and if we lack enough of them we may have autism.  Yet who knows, perhaps those who lack mirror neurons are precisely those who are ahead, and not behind, the rest of us—not bothering to “talk to themselves” when they show little interest in talking to others?

Amongst other things, Ramachandran has studied phantom limb syndrome (where one experiences pain in an arm or leg they no longer possess—unable to get comfortable and having no actual appendage to comfort).  Amazingly, a person with phantom limb pain can watch another person being massaged in the limb the patient lacks and actually feel relief in their own phantom limb.

Again, this points us toward the realization that the mind learns to differentiate itself from others, yet this experience of separateness and individual self may be a sort of human ego-prerogative masking a deeper truth—that of us all participating in a singular consciousness.

Does this not suggest that your well-being is my well-being and your suffering is my suffering and vice versa (at least at some, typically unconscious but potentially transcendent, level)?

So, while I’ve often thought about how we might leave the world better than we found it, I’m increasingly intrigued about realizing that the world is our truest Self—and interested in supporting each other to love our Self/world unconditionally.  Our children are readily available teachers who challenge us to love beyond our ego-selves as part of our individuation process of becoming our “true Selves.”  The twist seems to be that we must realize that our truest Self is not limited to our individual conscious identity (Jung would say that the true Self includes all the archetypes; Buddha, Christ and Ramachandran would say that it also includes all others as well).

I don’t know if that makes it a big world or a small world, but it seems to suggest that we’re already plugged in, already more deeply a part of things than we might have realized.  And it means that our happiness, our parenting, our well-being counts (and doesn’t necessarily need to be universally validated for us to trust that we matter, are included and loved).

On the one hand this sort of group-consciousness is potentially frightening, as the ego seems to want to be in control and in charge; on the other hand we all seem to yearn for a feeling of oneness and belonging—a world in which we have enough, are enough and can relax and enjoy our lives.

Naturally we may fear “big brother” when we imagine any sort of massive group-think (particularly anything smacking of utopianism), yet a radical embrace of the world as it already is marks the opposite of totalitarianism.  The world is varied and diverse, it has almost as many opinions as it has people—but if we love that then we harmonize with each other without becoming each other (i.e. dressing, talking and thinking in lock-step).  We already have the freedom to be exactly who we are and where we are; yet we generally lack the awareness that our fullest Self is already living every diverse variation on life.

Ironically and paradoxically, the more we lovingly allow (and take interest in) what just is, the more we facilitate potential transformation and creativity—in our shared culture and in our shared children.  For example, if your child draws squiggles and you ask about them and it turns out to be a farm (at least in his or her mind) then creativity can continue to unfold (a squiggle pig here, a squiggle cow there); but if you assume that a squiggle is not a cow and ask them to draw a house, city or a kitty, you may have killed a whole farm and never even known it (and you may have blown your chance to see what a cow really looks like before a child steps into our socially constructed view of a cows; maybe they draw the very essence of the cow; maybe in this way our children will help us see with our hearts rather than us teaching them to see with their forks, wallets or dictionary of symbols).  If we open our minds, our children may teach us how to really see our world and thus our true Selves.

Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed a wish for a teacher who would proclaim the world to be a mirror of the soul.  Perhaps we have found such a teacher in Vilayanur Ramachandran—and perhaps we have found such a mirror in the relationship between the mind and the manifest world.

We may, at present, be collectively of divided mind, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous, albeit phantom, fortune.  However, we may also be awakening to the realization that the world we’ve been looking at is a mirror; while we reflect discrete and unique singularity to it, it reflects vast all-encompassing and unified singularity back to us.

So, if for some reason you cannot love thy neighbor as thy self (perhaps because you stumble over loving that sliver of self you see in the mirror each morning), perhaps you can love your neighbor, and our world, as your child—and that may be about as good as love gets—a love that gets us to Rumi’s field where we meet together out beyond right and wrong, beyond me and you, beyond being and non-being, beyond attaching and non-attaching… that potential space where, mirror neurons reflecting like a still Walden pond, we no longer bring the love:  we are the love.

Namaste, Bruce

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

rebecca @ altared spaces December 8, 2010 at 5:50 am

I am searching for that place where I AM the love rather than bringing the love.

Empathy is an evolving issue for me these days. There is the mirroring, which I am pretty good at. Then, there is the standing apart and realizing “It’s not my turn” to feel the pain. It’s my turn to be the strong one who comforts. In this way I turn off my mirror neurons and turn on a different channel for empathy.

I/thou. It’s a big discussion. Where do I begin and end? And you?


privilegeofparenting December 8, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Yes, exactly. Namaste :)


Molly@Postcards from a Peaceful Divorce December 8, 2010 at 8:18 pm

This was a dense and thought-provoking post, as usual. I see the mirror neurons at work every day with my kids and I realize that I set the tone. If I keep my energy light and frisky, they do the same. When I get frustrated and tense, our household takes a downhill turn. So when I see them acting out, I ask myself, what are they mirroring from me?


privilegeofparenting December 8, 2010 at 8:49 pm

Hi Molly, Yes, I find this so interesting—how we influence, contain, give away and ultimately participate in the whole soup that’s truly more us than any individual shard or strand. And so we mirror each other here virtually as well, all waking up together in the chiaroscuro that is our situation… and, hopefully, loving it.


Beth K December 11, 2010 at 10:17 am

Hi Bruce,
At a talk about mental health law yesterday, there was a reference to mirror neurons. The speaker was telling us about Crisis Intervention Team training for police officers. (You may have heard about this. It started in Memphis as a response to a police shooting of a mentally ill man whose mother had called 911 to get him help.)
The speaker said that the 40-hour CIT training for law enforcement officers emphasizes active listening, empathy and compassion, and the valuing of a safe and therapeutic result rather than making an arrest. She mentioned, by way of example, that smiling at a citizen on an angry rant can be very helpful because their tendency will be to smile back and calm down.
On another topic, I noticed a Facebook quiz designed to tell a person (and their 1000 closest friends) what the person’s autism quotient is. Although my initial reaction was negative and I didn’t take the quiz, I now feel that this quiz may be helpful to the extent that it brings the prevalence of autism and the diversity of the human race to people’s attention.


privilegeofparenting December 11, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Hi Beth, Whatever brings compassion and connection rather than judgment, pathologizing and attack seems likely to serve our greater good (and, hopefully, will gain increasing traction in our wider culture). It’s always good to keep an open mind, as we have so much more to learn about ourselves and each other. Namaste


BigLittleWolf December 11, 2010 at 4:15 pm

As usual, there is so much here that sparks thought and imagery. I love your reference to the child’s squiggle, and the awareness we need to allow the child’s vision free reign. The essence of so much lives in their perceptions which they seem to share with us if we can keep our adult selves out of the way.

I also thought a good deal about this: Amazingly, a person with phantom limb pain can watch another person being massaged in the limb the patient lacks and actually feel relief in their own phantom limb.

Oddly, I thought about the moments when I am most desolate. Hardly a unique situation in a paired-up world when one is not paired up, and when challenges-a-plenty present. But the beauty in what you point out is in the way our empathy not only causes us to suffer when those around us suffer (we all suffer), but the way consolation fills us as others are consoled. Specifically, I find that when the phantom limb of insufficient family or love aches most prominently, watching a film in which caring or love of any sort is the governing force, I always feel better. Pain eases.

I thought, too, about givers and takers. Giving seems so much easier and more filling – giving is taking, or maybe it would be better to say giving is receiving.


privilegeofparenting December 11, 2010 at 11:03 pm

I love what you say, Wolf, about the potential healing power in film, and about the enlightened Self-interest inherent in giving (so long as we are able to give freely); taken in tandem it underscores the generosity of the artist, whose only reward (beyond process), very often, is whatever it is one gets out of giving from the soul. Here’s to a mutuality of comfort and compassion.


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