My children and I spend far too much time holding our cats up to a mirror trying to get a spark of ‘Look! There I am!’ from them. We’d even settle for ‘Look! Another cat like me!’ but so far nada.
The famous mirror tests are telling us that we would need to hold up an elephant, dolphin, chimpanzee, magpie and now even a species of fish, the cleaner wasse, to get that recognition. All these species, when viewing in a mirror a red dot that has been placed on their body, will turn from the mirror and look for the dot on their body.
The conclusion of this is that the animals are recognising their own reflections and therefore have a degree of self awareness. Other species may also have this capacity but, because they rely on other senses rather than vision, as in bats for example, different tests will need to be invented to prove it.
It’s very hard to know (impossible, even, we might say because it can only be interpreted through the human mind) what is going on in an animal’s cognition.
But we can know what is going on for humans. At least we can know our experience of it.
What do we see when we look in the mirror?
What do we think when we think of ourself?
What do we feel about other people, events and circumstances in relation to that self?
This human self identity is quite something. It is the (self aware, red-dotted) elephant in the room. Because while being the cause of all our suffering, it also does not exist. As Wei Wu Wei said, “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself—and there isn’t one.”
Along with elephants, chimpanzees, dolphins, magpies and cleaner wassers we can recognise a self in the mirror but the human mind with all its creative, imaginative and conceptual super power takes this recognition to mean whatever the mind is creating, imagining and conceptualising. It takes the experience of a body and the sensations that go with that and applies it to whatever is believed or thought about the self.
It began from the moment an idea of ourselves as a separate individual arose, around the age of two ‘MINE MINE MINE’. It is an idea which has been developing and creating the way the world is seen ever since.
And when the idea of what we are develops in a context of insecurity, vulnerability, instability it makes absolute sense that the self idea will reflect that environment. It is a learned entity after all.
And instead of it being understood simply as a learned idea of self. It is believed to be what we are. The identification with it is total and absolute. And threat to the identity is seen as a threat to life itself because it is what we believe ourselves to be.
From this place of insecurity we go into the world and form relationships with people and things because it looks like this is the way to find our wholeness. It looks like this is how we will return to the peace and potential of life living itself that was experienced before the idea of separation arose.
But it is the opposite way around. The way everything appears in the outside world is a creation of the same conceptual mind that has created this self idea. All we are seeing ‘out there’ is the inner conditioning made manifest. The mirror is just reflecting whatever is believed. And reality is only a mirror.
So ‘we’ are not making our way in the world. The world is showing what ‘we’ are believed to be. Over and over again it shows us. Every relationship. Every job. Every confrontation or row. Every response from them and every response from us to their response. It is showing the play out of what has been learned.
And this is the greatest gift. The world, as it appears, can be the undoing of the conditioned idea of lack. Moment by moment it reveals everything that is believed to be separate from the pure life intelligence of being who we really are.
It is an outside-in life.
The outside reveals the inside.
The mirror shows the beliefs not the reality.
Maybe the cats are onto something…