Home : Literature : Essays by Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
by Rev. Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
June 8, 2004

"Mirror, Mirror, on the wall. Who is The Fairest of us all?" asked the criminally vain monarch. And for as long as the Queen's omniscient beauty consultant replied that she, indeed, held that title, Snow White was safe.

But once the honest mirror awarded the top slot to Snow White, life got tough for the raven-haired girl.

Judging from her response, the Queen did not take the news of her esthetic demotion at all well. She paid a hunter to take her rival into the woods and kill her - and to bring back proof.

But the hunter took pity on Snow White and killed a bear, instead. The Queen, not knowing a bear liver from a human one, and convinced, therefore, that her organ-meat dinner was Prime Snow White, saw no need to verify her beauty rank.

Snow White, meanwhile, found refuge in the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs - where she would happily have pursued a career in housekeeping were it not for the Mirror's inability to conceal anything. For when the Queen finally queried the glass, it not only blabbed that Snow White was still the fairest, but it told the Queen where her rival was living. A poisoned apple followed.

It is not surprising. Mirrors have always possessed powers that challenge our expectations. Often their actions are quite beneficial.

Mirrors routinely assist mankind by refusing to reflect the images of vampires.

Narcissus's fatal attraction to his own reflection produced remarkably lovely spring flowers.

A Looking Glass allowed Alice to walk through its surface and to enter another dimension.

And so, of course, do meditation mirrors when they are properly used. Which is what this paper is all about.

Gazing into reflections - an ancient and universal practice, can be classified according to purpose: divination; trataka visual training; meditation, and the generation of a spiritual being: Tantra's Vajra Sattva savior figure, or Daoist Alchemy's Immortal Foetus, or European Alchemy's Solar hero or its Child Mercurius.

Divination, the means of seeing the future, is technically called catroptomancy or crystallomancy ; and those who practice this art are called the Speculatorii.

We know that normally the future does not deign to reveal itself in mirrors; but what it does do is provide a means by which a sensitive and receptive person can enter the meditative state and attain the necessary 'absence of ego' that facilitates the subliminal reception of stimuli.

The Speculatorii could accomplish what martial artists, similarly trained and talented, can do: detect and react instantaneously both to subtle "tells" (as they are called in gambling) by which an opponent inadvertently signals his intentions, and to actual movements the moment they are initiated.

In any fortune telling event - or, for that matter any martial arts' contest, the client or opponent reveals much about himself to a trained observer. And when that observer consults a crystal ball, 'magic' mirror, or otherwise enters a trance state, the information already gleaned, coupled with the additional "uncanny" information gained in the trance state, makes the resultant performance understandably marvelous.

Mirrors used in various eye-training exercises called trataka, help to steady the gaze - an accomplishment that can lead directly into the meditative state or can be the preparation for more difficult "third-eye" or "nose-tip" gazing techniques or the interior meditations of moving an energy point along the meridians and gates; or nadis and chakras.

Before discussing the differences in methodology, we have a caveat. Anytime you gaze into a mirror and enter a trance state you have, by definition, transcended your ego. "You" are not there to govern your actions. But since it is the Enemy Shadow's function to protect the ego, you will have this fierce "guardian angel" watching over you.

Anytime a person is in the true meditative state and another person disrupts the state, causing it to be aborted, the meditator will respond with an expression of ferocity that can damage friendships and, in one case I know, destroy a marriage. Again, do not practice this surprisingly effective meditative form unless you have taken precautions to be completely undisturbed. Further, many people who enter this state have a lingering mood of animosity afterwards. This rather nasty state of mind usually dissipates within a day or so; so if you do notice that you feel particularly grumpy afterwards, schedule your mirror meditation for a time when you do not have to be socially active.

There are many methods and goals, but all of the goals have a precondition: entrance into the meditative state. This altered state of consciousness is such that before you begin any mirror exercise is it important to tell yourself that when you emerge from the experience, whether by accident or by design, you will be alert and refreshed.

And, needless to say, do not discuss your spiritual practice with anyone. If you experience difficulty, you should consult your teacher; but other than that, you will destroy your practice the moment you casually discuss it with others.


Posture. You can sit erect - but not rigid - in full or half-lotus; or you can stand, taking a martial arts' "on guard" posture called Ma Bo, the Horse Stance: In this latter posture, your feet are spread apart, flat on the floor, your knees slightly bent, your trunk and head in a strait vertical line, and your hands held about ten inches in front of your chest, with the left hand resting on top of the right fist. The Horse Stance should be perfectly balanced around your center of gravity, the hara - a point deep in the abdomen at which the aorta bifurcates, becoming the femoral arteries.

In either case, the mirror should be placed at eye level so that it can be viewed with an untilted head.

Depending on the method, mirror distance can be as close as two to three feet from the face or as far as ten to fifteen feet away.

In the "close" variant, you should gaze into your image, focusing upon a point between your reflected eyes, trying not to blink. It is important: do not permit yourself to indulge in any discursive thoughts, whatsoever. If you do slip into a thinking mode, reject it calmly and return to the task of maintaining your focus upon the image.

Do not strain your eyes, but hold your gaze as steady as possible; and if your eyes tear, ignore the tears and gently persist in gazing into the mirror.

When your eyes are too tired, they will close; and at that moment you should try to recollect the image of the focal point. When you first begin this practice, the image will wander around your darkened visual field. With practice you can make the image stay still. When your eyes are rested, return to the active mirror gazing.

As you stare at the point between your reflected eyes, the point will tend to become dark and tunnel-like. You may also see the point glow with a kind of iridescence and then it may become a strange, opaque white. Do not think about these changes. Do not think about anything, but keep your attention focused on the point and exclude all analytical and discursive thoughts.

The "macro-micro" exercise is a popular variant. In this exercise, you focus on your imaged nose and then force the nose to expand. Let the image grow until, as scripture says, it "grows as huge as Mount Sumeru." Bring it back to size and then shrink it until it is as "small as a sesame seed."

When the mirror is placed at a distance, the focal point is observed as an archer observes the bulls-eye of a target. When your eyes tire, let them close and then shift your attention to the body's interior. Visualize the focal point as a surging point of Qi which you then circulate through the meridians and gates. Or, if your regimen is more chakra-oriented, visualize the focal point as entering the Heart Chakra and glowing there.

In another powerful variant, the mirror is mentally brought forward until it nearly touches the face and then it is mentally pushed back until it seems to recede to a vanishing point in the horizon.

To interject a personal experience, years ago I had been told about a peculiar variation of this meditation. It required that the practitioner view the sun as it rose over the ocean at dawn. When the sun rose to the point that there was blue sky all around it, the mind, in a great force of will, had to get the sun into perspective. Normally we tend to think of the sun as a small ball that rolls around the periphery of the earth. The aim of this exercise was to see the sun as an immense ball, 93,000,000 miles away, that had merely appeared small because of its distance - in other words, to push back the sun and see it as a huge orb in outer space. I was at the Jersey coast and decided to try this exercise as the sun rose over the Atlantic at dawn.

I understood that the sun should not be viewed when it had risen much above the horizon - so before dawn I went onto a second storey porch and waited, leaning against the waist-high railing.

When blue sky completely surrounded the sun, I concentrated fiercely and mentally pushed the sun back to where it belonged. The effect was so intense that my legs turned to jelly and I literally collapsed, my hands grabbing the railing as the rest of me flopped around like a fish on a deck. What a sensation this exercise can give.

Another goal of the Mirror meditation is found in the Solar Path's attempt to create a Nietzschean hero, a kind of Apollonian Divine Child within the meditator's body.

Ercole Quadrelli, of the famous UR Group, a society of 20th century Italian intellectuals, prefaces his instructions with the warning that no one should attempt the meditation until he is possessed of a certain calm assurance that his ethical and spiritual life are in good order. Since this spiritual maturity is essential, the exercise is obviously not recommended for beginners. Quadrelli suggests that the meditator obtain a concave or parabolic mirror, one that draws light into a focal point. The mirror can be made of glass, crystal, steel, copper, or bronze.

His instructions then are to find a clean room in a quiet environment in which you are not likely to be disturbed. You should wear loose clothing, and if the climate permits, you should open a window and light incense. Be sure that you have not eaten within the past hour.

Position a lamp behind and to the side of you so that the fixture will not be reflected in the mirror. Use a soft, low wattage bulb and direct the light towards the mirror.

Sitting about two to three feet away from the mirror, perform a deep, controlled breathing exercise, then mentally get yourself into a "power" mode by evoking an interior, apollonian presence that is both imperturbable and commanding. (In previous alchemical disciplines the meditator has gained practice in evoking the awareness of this "fluidic" presence. These disciplines are remarkably Buddhist in character. For example, as in the non-ego disciplines: "I am not the food I taste. I am not the emotions I feel. [These sensations] are not mine. They are not me.") In Alchemy, the "Mirror technique" fatigues the optic nerve in order to facilitate a transfer of its power to the Interior One "who dwells in the Heart.")

Without blinking, stare at the focal point of light in the concave mirror and gradually notice the formation of a black center-point. Soon the black point will turn bluish and have an aura around it. Continue staring as the focal point turns milky white and then expands into a bright light. (In Alchemy, this is the Astral Light.)

Continue to stare, but now without effort, passively, as if you were about to fall asleep. Regard affectionately any interior activity that is not a resurgence of ego. Encourage the emergence of a bold, benign, and independent spiritual identity, one that can be activated at will during these meditation sessions.

Relax for as long as you want and then notice your state of mind after the session. If you find yourself emotionally disturbed, wait until you have gained more control over your emotions and have sufficiently detached yourself from the people, places and things of the world before you resume the mirror meditation.

The evocation of Vajra Sattva, the heroic savior of the Tantric path, is given by W. Y. Evans-Wentz in his Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines: (The Yoga of the Illusory Body.)

A picture of Vajra-Sattva (one of the two Bodhisattva forms of the Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya) or of any other tutelary deity, is positioned so that its face is reflected in a mirror. You should be positioned so that your own reflection does not appear in the mirror but that you can clearly see the Bodhisattva's reflected image.

According to the text, "By looking at that mirrored form with fixity of gaze and mind, and meditating upon it, the figure will come to appear as if animated.

"Visualize it thus as being between the mirror and thyself.

"Next visualize thine own body as being like that reflected body of the deity; and should the visualization become substantial enough to touch, proceed to visualize any other body thou happenest to see, as also being the deity's body; and should this visualization similarly become life-like, then visualize all visible forms as being the body of the tutelary deity.

"By so doing, all phenomenally-appearing things will dawn upon thee as being the sport [i.e., the manifold manifestations] of the deity."

Included among the manifestations is, of course, the one that occurs within the meditator, himself.

These are but of few of the strange powers that the dedicated gazer can encounter and acquire from a mirror's surface and from its mysterious depths.
The discipline is difficult, but the rewards are astonishing. But be careful.

Meditation or no meditation, breaking a mirror is still a guarantee of seven years' bad luck.  

Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts