The World's Mirror

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There’s a Zen story that goes like this: A donkey wanders over to a well in a courtyard and looks into it. What he sees is a donkey down there looking up at him. At the same time, so feather mirrorthe story goes, the water in the well looks up at the donkey and sees itself reflected in the donkey’s eyes — it sees water. What is seeing what?

Of course, it’s a silly story — we know the donkey is the donkey and the water is the water, and yet what’s pointed to in the story is a crack in that arrangement where something else can be glimpsed. Something else?

If you were to imagine for a moment that the world you’re experiencing is a mirror — like the water in the well — it’s possible that you’ll get a hit of a sensation that feels something like transparency. First you imagine that the world “out there” is your reflection — that what you are seeing and feeling in the moment is actually reflecting what you are. And then curiously enough, you may be visited with a sense that you are neither this nor that — that you are transparent.

Try it for a moment: look away from this page and imagine that what you are seeing and feeling is your reflection looking at you. Include not only the visual field you’re perceiving but your whole emotive and ever-changing experience that comes with this moment. No need to think about it, just let what you see and feel in the moment represent a vivid reflection of what “you look like.” Do that several times. Now close your eyes and imagine that the sensations you’re aware of — your breathing, your body sensations, the sounds you hear, the thoughts that come by, and “your whole emotive and ever-changing experience that comes with this moment” — imagine that all this is your reflection looking back at you.

If you can manage this, you may receive a sense that the “you” you consider yourself to be, loses its privileged position. You may feel yourself both as the immediate world of your experience, and simultaneously not that. You may have the equally curious sensation that the properties of the world you are perceiving — for a moment at least — lose their “thatness.” You sense they’re not other than you… and since you are transparent, they are too.

Rumi’s poetry is filled with reports of this same experience — here are a few examples:

We are wisdom and healing,
roasted meat and the star Canopus.
We are ground and the spilled wine sinking in…

We look like this, but this is a tree,
and we are morning wind in the leaves
that makes the branches move.

Silence turning now into this, now that.


You’re sitting here with us, but you’re also out walking
in a field at dawn. You are yourself
the animal we hunt when you come with us on the hunt.
You’re in your body like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet you’re wind.


The raucous parrots laugh,
and we laugh inside their laughter,
the two of us on a bench in Konya,
yet amazingly in Khorasan and Iraq as well.
Friends abiding this form,
yet also in another, outside of time, you and I.


The whole of existence is a mirror whose essence you are.

We know that the essence of a mirror is transparent. It doesn’t show up as anything in itself yet in it everything shows up. In the same way, we are the world’s mirror, and as we have just glimpsed, the world is our mirror. When we look into the world’s mirror even for a moment, we see that the world is us and we are the world. This glimpse reveals how everything is intimate and happening together, and how you and I and the whole world, all its beauty and all its ugliness, are one body. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his beautiful poem:

Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone…

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda…

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up and the door of my heart could be left open, the door of compassion.

Looking in the world’s mirror can open our heart’s door. Dare we leave it open? We might think we would be overwhelmed by such vulnerability, but to the extent we experience ourselves as transparent, there’s nothing in the way that can be overwhelmed. We can simply be present and responsive in whatever way is appropriate. We can be, as Rumi says, “the jar that pours.”

We are the mirror as well as the face in it.
We are tasting the taste this minute
of eternity. We are pain
and what cures pain, both. We are
the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.