There is indeed a kind of self-righteousness we each possess as we look and judge the world from outside ourselves. We are each the center of our own universe in which we see and analyze those around us in relation to our own experiences with them. We see some of the people we encounter as “good” and some as “bad.” Some we consider as one of “us.” And others we see as one of “them”—those other people who are bad or malevolent.  There is even a Talmudic saying that demonstrates this point: “We see things as we are. We do not see things as they are.”   Even though it may be unavoidable to see the world from outside our own perspective, it would be an interesting exercise to shift position and see things from another viewpoint whereby the lens is looking inward as opposed to outward. And instead of judging others, we first look inward at ourselves and own our full story with all its goodness and badness. I physically do that in my practice of aerial yoga, where you flip upside down with the help of a hammock and see the room from a different perspective. It took me a long time to learn but when I finally mastered the pose, I wondered what it meant to have this other perspective of myself, how I view my life, and those around me.

Now you may say, “why should I bother to do this? I am happy with the way I am, or I am perfect and content, and don’t have interest in shifting my lens.” If that is what you believe, I would be worried about how you see yourself and what your attitudes are towards others around you. Where there is light, there is a shadow. And we cannot see the full self if we do not acknowledge both the light and the shadow within us. When we are aware of these two dynamics, we can then make a choice of which one to nourish more and which one to accept and control. In my experience, every time I was unaware of my own shadow it would sneak up on me in uncontrollable ways and end up hurting me more than anybody else could hurt me. And every time I acknowledge the shadow within me and understood its source, I take its reign and am able to regulate it and control it.  In that process, there is a deeper understanding of the self in a humbling way that makes me more responsible and in control of my actions. It makes one more humble in walking this life, more empathetic and less judgmental in seeing others around you, and more able to see the self fully in its beauty and its beast.

There is no end result of this journey and there is no way to reach a state of perfection. It is an ongoing process that aims to provide a more realistic way of seeing the self. The more one sees the self in a clear and honest way, the more you know what to take in from other people’s opinion of you, and what not to take. The more you own your own story and experiences by looking inward at your own responsibilities, the more you are able to distinguish what is truly yours versus other’s projecting their story onto you.  There is a calmness that comes with compassion—not only to oneself but also to all others around you, even those who may have hurt you. The more you work on seeing your own shadow, the more you are able to see those around you with a new lens—a cultivated outlook that recognizes the light as well as the dark. And this will help you spot those who put themselves in the middle of the light and deny their own shadow.

Angeles Arrien, a great teacher and mentor, pointed out in her anthropological work of indigenous cultures around the world how “every person is a mirror of some aspect of our own nature” and how “we are all mirrors for each other.” She identified the mirrors as “clear,” “shady,” and the “no mirrors.” Clear mirrors are those who bring the best out of you, lift your spirits, and bring you joy when you are with them. Shady mirrors are those who irritate and annoy you, or those who you are sexually attracted to.  No mirrors are those who you do not notice no matter how many times you encounter them. In Arrien’s retreats, which I had the privilege of attending several times, she has everyone sit in a circle and asks all participants to practice direct conversation with the person who holds any kind of mirror to them. If one is a shady mirror in terms of irritation, she asks us to identify what aspect of ourselves did this other person touched within us. And instead of blaming the other person, one needs to acknowledge that the person who represents a “shady mirror” only triggered this because it exists within you.  All of this had to be done by going to the person and having the courage to communicate this to them honestly, without blame, in front of the whole community of retreat attendees.

You can imagine that this is not an easy conversation. Silence is usually held for a long time and each person has to confront their own discomfort with the idea of having to acknowledge their own story instead of scapegoating the other.  Even those who are sexually attracted to another person are asked to have this honest conversation by acknowledging their attraction to the person, thanking them for triggering this feeling within their heart. And if they are not available, they are released from all desire to respond or act.  Just the confrontation of that in an honest way releases all tension and drama, which are usually triggered when there is sexual attraction and when there is no honest conversation around it.

Arrien proves many points with this exercise. One truth is that there is no obsolete definition for any one person as good or bad.  It is impossible for one person to be loved by all or hated by all. Instead, everyone holds mirrors that trigger different things in each other. So the same person can be loved by some and hated by others.  This can’t be a sole reflection of the person. A large part of that is the mirror this person holds for others around them. This is an exercise of utter self-responsibility, of seeing oneself from another perspective, of having to confront even uncomfortable subjects we often prefer to hide. But it is also an exercise of liberation from self-righteousness. It is a step towards walking the path of humility and compassion towards the self. And in understanding oneself fully, you understand others around you.

Whatever self-perception we have of ourselves does not matter, really.  I could tell myself that I am “this or that” all I want.  And I can see others as “this or that” until the end of my life.  What is important is the walk one takes in life and the actions one does or does not do. The more you are truthful to yourself, the more you can be in touch with your values and the life you want to live. And with that, the more you can give of yourself with compassion and grace for a better world. So ask yourself, have you had that honest and hard conversation within yourself? Can you have that conversation with others—be it in your family, work, or community. If not, the mirrors around us are plentiful. You only need to start seeing things from other perspectives. The route may be hard—and even horrifying to see our own shadows and to have the honest conversations—but I promise there is liberation in owning our full stories and in having truthful conversations within us and with others. And freedom is always worth the journey.