‘Okay,’ I thought as I began writing this talk, ‘This will be the big one. This will be the dharma talk where I teach myself to make friends with the mirror, to make friends with the wrinkles that arise and don’t fall away.’
The First Noble Truth identifies that there is suffering in life and the Second Noble Truth identifies the cause of suffering. The original Pali term was tanhā or craving. It was translated to a word in Sanskrit that means thirst. In Tibetan the word that is used is dzinpa which means grasping or fixation. The causes were further clarified as the ‘three poisons’ of greed, aversion and delusion.
You can see that these words together begin to paint a picture of how we create dukkha, the unsatisfactory feeling that underlies so much of our existence.
So, the mirror: What a clever dukkha delivery system this is! Who thought up the idea of hanging this so prominently over my bathroom sink?
Noticing? I’m noticing aversion! I’m noticing fixation on patches of wrinkles. They are larger than life, just as the pimples of my youth were. If I read this ten years from now, assuming I’m still incarnate, I will laugh and say, Honey, you don’t know from wrinkles! But I also know that my older self will have compassion for my concerns, as I have compassion for my younger self, troubled over other mirror revelations.
It really doesn’t matter what we see in the mirror. Even if we saw the most gorgeous creature on the planet, it would still be simply our perception. It would still be relative reality and not some fundamental truth. It would still be a snapshot of a moment in time from one point of view -- a lesson in the nature of impermanence.
Okay, okay, fine, I say. But how do I make friends with my wrinkles? I admit it does help to remind myself how much I love the wrinkles on other women’s faces -- how the Mexican grandmothers in my adopted second home town of San Miguel de Allende, with deep crevices crinkling the landscape of their faces, are as beautiful to me as the grandchildren so often sitting on their laps.
It does help that when I look at my dry wrinkly hands with the pronounced blue veins I am reminded of my paternal grandmother’s hands. How I loved to push those veins around and watch them return to place, slowly. It is no small thing to be able to provide a grandchild with such ongoing amusement. And my hands remind me too of how much I loved the feel of my mother’s dry strong hand, holding my small one as we scurried around town, keeping me safe. There is absolutely nothing I did not love about these two women’s hands.
When I look upon these women’s faces or remember my mother’s and grandmother’s hands, it’s not just that I see beyond the ‘ugliness’ of the wrinkles to a greater beauty underneath. No, I love the wrinkles themselves, the veins and the dryness, all of it is not just acceptable to me. It is the beauty I behold.
So what is it that’s going on here? Why is another woman’s wrinkled face or hand lovely to behold and mine so abhorrent? Simply this: I am not afraid when I look at their faces and hands. But when I look at the mirror my perception is clouded with fear.
What do I fear? I fear change and all that I have to lose through these changes. I see my wrinkles as time taking its toll. Tick tock, tick tock.
So is this just a fear of death, or a fear of pains associated with aging? Well, it’s certainly that, no denying. But there’s more there. What is it? What is it really? Hmmm. When I look in the mirror, I am afraid of losing love. I am afraid of losing respect, becoming the butt of old people jokes that I have heard all my life. I am afraid of losing the power to attract my mate. I am afraid of being alone.
Is this a rational fear? It doesn’t matter! It is a fear I feel and that is enough to work with. Here is a pivotal moment in the practice. If I were to simply talk myself out of it at this point, pooh-poohing it, nothing would be accomplished. I could comfort myself with how much my husband seems to love me, and as grateful as I am for that, it really doesn’t change a thing.
When I see that word ‘change’ in the last sentence, I recognize it as a clue. I begin to see the fallacy of my attempt to make friends with my wrinkles. I have a goal and an agenda. I plan to change the way I think, come out with a brighter perspective, a new way of seeing, and a new reality. I want to smile at myself in the mirror. I want to be compassionate. I want to be wise. I want to not care. I want this sense of dissatisfaction to go away. I want to accept myself fully just as I am. I want, I want, I want. This is dukkha! I am struggling! I am battling my own thoughts, trying to prove them wrong. I am trying to talk myself out of something, because I believe that looking in the mirror without full acceptance is wrong. Apparently I believe that until I am fine with what I see, I am a flawed being, drowning in the error of my ways.
You see how this dukkha thing works? You see the tar-baby effect going on here? As many reasons as I can think up to debate with my feelings, beliefs and opinions, they just gets me more stuck in suffering.
How did this happen? I approached the challenge with all the best intentions, didn’t I? Maybe. Maybe not. Is trying to bypass suffering the way to end it? Isn’t it just a tradition of making nice-nice with whatever arises, hushing bad thoughts, begging everything and everyone to just get along so I don’t have to deal with difficulty?
This is not the way to end suffering. It is just the way to suppress it. The way to end suffering is to be with it, to notice it as it arises and falls away.
During the time I have been writing this, my feelings towards my wrinkles have fluctuated a great deal, from ‘Woe is me!’ to ‘Who cares?’ These feelings will undoubtedly continue to fluctuate for years to come. Sometimes I will look in the mirror and see ugliness and sometimes I will see a kind of beauty. Many times my thoughts will be elsewhere and I won’t even notice.
My attitude toward writing about wrinkles has fluctuated a great deal as well. Part of the time I think, why am I bothering to write about wrinkles? How ridiculous! How petty! At other times I recognize that any belief, no matter how we judge that belief, is as good as any other to work with and to illustrate the practice. It’s all suffering in one form or another. It’s all useful. Perhaps the fact that I have such judgments about it makes it even more valid a focus. And then there’s the fact of it being ‘in my face’ every day.
The way to end suffering is not to duel with judgment, opinion and beliefs, as if there was a potential victor. It is simply to notice them. This noticing on its own helps to lighten the weight of them. When I accept that I have opinions, when I see them arise in my thoughts, when I feel the associative emotions and the physical sensations, then there is more clarity, more spaciousness making more room for more revelations. What seemed so solid thins into a veil blowing in the wind -- transient, impermanent, impersonal.
I could spend my days looking for a better mirror, a way of seeing this situation, that will give me something more pleasant to live with, but ultimately that’s not much help. I could complain to friends, who will jump in to tell me, “Why you look just fine! I hardly notice any wrinkles! What are you talking about?” for this is the wonderful thing we women do for each other, and don’t for a moment think I don’t appreciate that kind of loving comfort.
But really, what I need from myself is to see the nature of relative reality.
What is that? It’s the reality I’ve constructed over the course of my life based on my experiences of interacting with the world around me. It’s what I hold to be true about myself and the world. It is ‘relative’ because it is only true in a narrow context. For example I am old to a person of 20 and young to a person of 80. I am tall to anyone shorter and short to anyone taller. I am fat to anyone thinner and thin to anyone fatter. My belief about my age and weight changes to a degree as well, depending on who I am with!
My relative reality is not completely my own construct. It includes the relative reality of the culture in which I live. This discussion of wrinkles would be totally out of context if I lived in a culture where visible signs of aging are met with respect. My choice of this focus here is so totally relative a reality that it doesn’t even translate! (If this is being read by someone in such a culture, notice the judgments that have been arising around the neuroticism of ‘Westerners!’)
Culturally shared beliefs are worth noticing and questioning, too. Think of all the beliefs that were accepted as fact in our history, even very recent history, that have been held up to the light by wise people and found to be totally untrue. This is an ongoing valuable questioning we do as a community, holding up beliefs to the light of kindness, compassion, justice and common sense. And it is something each of us does, hopefully, within ourselves.
As meditators, we can use the (relatively!) spacious minds we have developed through meditation to notice whatever thoughts and emotions are arising in our experience. We can notice the associative links of these thoughts to beliefs we hold to be true. We can question the beliefs as they reveal themselves, gaining insight. Is this true? How do I know this is true?
This is part of the practice. It is a very spacious, non-goal-oriented, non-aggressive activity. We are not exterminators routing out infestations. We are simply being present for what arises with an awareness of the nature of relative reality, an acceptance that our beliefs do not define us, and can be brought into question.
The fear that arises is also to be noticed -- not to be banished but to be explored. Fear is what feeds the beliefs we discover. If we notice the fear, a part of the practice is to notice where we feel that fear in our body. We can sit with that sensation, really feeling it, allowing it its full expression. And then we can ask that sensation, ‘What am I afraid of?’
When we ask a question we need to be prepared to notice everything that arises, all the various ways that we give ourselves vital information. Not just in words but images, memories, often in strings that paint a more complete picture of the source of this particular fear-based belief.
These might be alarming images. We might want to shut them down. But if we are practiced meditators, experienced in being present, we can stay with whatever arises, breathing compassion. These images are not offered for us to revise them or make them better. The practice is to notice them, and to recognize that they are in direct response to the question we have asked, even if time has passed since we asked the question so that we have forgotten that we even asked it!
Sometimes we ask a question and the answer appears neither in words or images but in some other way. A book jumps off the library shelf; a friend calls and says something that answers the question; or perhaps that friend represents a quality that is a part of the answer. The answer my come through dreams as well.
Finding a way to be open and receptive to whatever arises without grasping the answers that come, holding them to be truth or proof, is also part of the practice. Is this true? How do I know this is true? The Buddha was very clear that even revealed wisdom needs to be thoroughly examined, bringing all our faculties to bear.
Quantum physics shows that waves of energy, when observed, become particles. Can we feel this in ourselves? Is it possible that our collective consciousness has shifted us into seemingly separate particles, that at the same time we are naturally part of a great infinite pattern of oscillating energy? Then if we relax into our energetic nature, our connection beyond time and space, then why wouldn’t we have access to infinite wisdom, infinite resources from which to draw answers to our questions?
If you say that makes no sense at all, just try it for yourself some time, dropping your shield temporarily. Think how each atom -- that building block of corporal existence -- is mostly space with the tiniest speck of dense matter within it. You can let this factual knowledge help you, if needed, so you can feel safe in exploring this sensory perception of spaciousness, rather than always being totally fixated on the dense little dot with which we construct the separate objects of our lives.
Painters are taught to not just look at the central subject, but to be equally aware of the ‘background,’ the ‘negative space.’ What is this space? Is it nothing? Or is it perhaps everything, the is-ness, the energy that is more ‘us’ than the thin edges of the cells that sketch out what we hold to be solid constructs. Have we all our lives been paying exclusive attention to only the particulate aspect of being? Have we accepted as reality the relative reality, instead of the spacious energy -- this throbbing wholeness, this infinite wave -- that holds all the answers to every question we ever posed, spoken or unspoken?
Now there’s a question!
But back to these darn wrinkles. From a spacious point of view, this transient edge that I hold to be so solid, so real, is less real than I imagined. But it is unlikely I will hold this view for long. I am having a corporal life experience, with all the emotions, thoughts and sensations that go with it. It is a gift and I am truly grateful, even if it doesn’t seem so when I am standing in front of the mirror pulling and pawing to find that younger face, the one that wasn’t satisfactory either! There’s a good chance I may never become close personal friends with the mirror. Perhaps I will even decide to go the route my mother took, removing every damn mirror from the house except a tiny one on the back of the bathroom door to check to make sure there was nothing stuck in her teeth.
It doesn’t matter! Just my noticing this pattern of dissatisfaction, seeing it as a veil of illusion in the great scheme of things, part of what Taoists call the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows of earthly existence, is enough. It is enough for me to wear the veil more lightly, to see through it from time to time, and to stop believing it to be the fabric of my being.