The Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott asks us to imagine a time when we meet ourselves, with elation, at the door, and invite ourselves in to become reacquainted with this “stranger who has loved you / all your life.”
It’s a beautiful image, and one that has strong resonances for those who practice meditation. We are often strangers to ourselves.
Consider this: How often do we, in our lack of integration, tell ourselves that we’re going to do one thing and yet, a day, or perhaps mere seconds later, we find ourselves doing another? The self who made the first decision is in some way a different self from the one who actually caused the action — whether it be to eat that cookie after saying “enough” or to skip the gym session we committed ourselves to — and the two selves are strangers to one another.
Consider this: Scientists have shown that unconscious electrical processes in the brain precede our conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts. In other words a “stranger within” makes our decisions some seconds before we become consciously aware of the intent to act, while the conscious mind merely claims in retrospect to have initiated volitional acts.
But there are deeper resonances than these. Some Buddhist teachings draw a distinction between mind and consciousness, the former being comprised of the more or less deluded stream of thoughts, feelings, and other mental constructions, while the latter consists of innate, pure awareness. Consciousness is said to be like a mirror, while mind is like the images reflected in the mirror. The mirror, being inherently pure, is never touched by the images it reflects, no matter how impure they may be. The images, although we may take them to be real, are merely illusions.
We all have the tendency to identify with mind — with the illusory and transitory images — rather than with the mirror, despite the fact that the images are fleeting and insubstantial, while the mirror itself is primordially present and enduring. And so we are caught up in our own experience, believing that the judgments and evaluations we impose on our experience represent how things really are, thinking that our thoughts and emotions define us, and thinking in fact that they are us.
But some day, if we practice looking in the mirror and see through the images, looking deeply into their transitory and illusory nature nature, we may catch a glimpse — perhaps more than a glimpse — of the mirror itself. And to see that mirror will be to see the stranger who is our own deeper nature, our own uncontrived purity, and the stranger that is ourselves will be a stranger no more.