Reverse the Mirror: See Yourself Through Your Eyes Instead of Through Someone Else’s
Every once in a while you stumble upon a book that is more than a gem of a read. It’s a compass for life, a roadmap to happiness. A book that decreases anxiety and silences other inner demons. A book you wish everyone would read. Perhaps that’s why Tim Ferriss has recommended the book so many times on his podcast. Past summer I finally read it and there’s so much wisdom in it I might as well have copied the entire book here, but you should read it and experience it for yourself instead.
The book I’m talking about is ‘Awareness’ by Anthony de Mello. De Mello was an Indian priest and psychotherapist. He was a spiritual teacher and public speaker who drew wisdom from both East and West traditions.
On every page, there is a piece of wisdom to be found fitting whatever predicament you’re in. It’s that powerful. If you only read one more book this year, let it be this one. A spiritual guide that will help you put life and yourself in perspective, guide you in any decision you face, and helps to understand the world around you. Let this article convince you to wake up and become aware of yourself and your place in the world.
The following lessons will help you to wake up to reality, see the world again with wonder, crawl into the logic of being an animal, help reprogram your mind, and understand what happiness truly is.
“When we talk about self-worth, are we not talking, really, about how we are reflected in the mirrors of other people’s minds? But do we need to depend on that?” — Anthony de Mello
#1: Wake up and become aware
“Be aware of what you’re saying, be aware of what you’re doing, be aware of what you’re thinking, be aware of how you’re acting. We aware of where you’re coming from, what you’re motives are. The unaware life is not worth living. The unaware life is a mechanical life. It’s not human, it’s programmed, conditioned.” — Anthony de Mello
De Mello argues in the book that we have to truly understand everything that’s happening within us and outside of who we are. Bluntly, this means not merely living and acting as chickens running around without their heads. Think before you act. Reflect before you react. See everything as if it’s happening to someone else, without judgment or a desire to act, just to understand first.
Becoming aware is tied to achieving some sort of success in life. When you wake up and live life accordingly, you’ll worry less. According to De Mello, this happens when: “you don’t have to apologize to anyone, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone, you don’t give a damn what anybody thinks about you or what anybody says about you.”
I understand this is easier said than done. But this form of success always starts with awareness. The first step is, to be honest with yourself and admit that something is off. When we carry on with life on autopilot, we will not become aware. You can only change by first becoming aware and second to understand what is going wrong.
We often suffer before we wake up. For instance when we grief over losing a loved one when we’re fired from our job when we get very ill. A dramatic shift that forces us to focus on the underlying truth that we are out of touch with reality.
Please don’t wait for such moments. Act now. Throughout this article, you will be equipped with a toolkit to become aware and get back in touch with yourself and the world around you.
Throughout the book, Anthony de Mello describes multiple ways to wake up, some include:
- Admit to yourself that change is necessary
- Be open to discover something new
- Drop the barriers you have erected through your concepts and conditioning
- Do not see people as you are yourself, but as who they are
- Identify your negative feelings, understand that they stem from you and are not put upon you by anyone else
- Learn that things come and go
- Say no to people if it clashes with the life you want
#2: Become like a child
“How sad if we pass through life and never see it with the eyes of a child.” — Anthony de Mello
I probably don’t have to explain to you that when you were a child you were more curious about the world that you are as an adult. You were full of wonder and watched the world and reality unfold step by step. Figuring it out, examining it, laughing about it.
You weren’t thinking about what the future held, how you would attain that goal, or how you would be able to pay your bills. You weren’t dwelling on the past regrets, sorrows, or triumphs either. You were simply present.
According to De Mello, all of reality is constantly moving. As a child, you watch and observe more what’s going on around you and within you. You notice the ladybug flying from the wall towards the window. You make mistakes, you fall, and all will happen in the moment, without fear. You react as it happens. You don’t expect anything yet.
When we grow up we are being conditioned by our parents, direct family, friends, school, and society. Through our experiences and conditioning, we start living in the past and future. Go back to that careless and curious feeling of being a child. Become like a child. Return to wonder.
This attitude made me think of the two-year-old daughter of a friend of mine. We were walking in the park and it was raining. We were cold and annoyed. She was jumping in the puddles, shrieking with laughter. Pointing at the birds, not in the sky, but to their reflection in the puddle, laughing at herself. She was oblivious of our mood, she found beauty in the gloom and was truly content in that precise moment while we couldn’t wait to get back inside.
#3: Be like an animal
Addiction, neglecting the needs of our bodies, being (too) busy, distraction, feeling guilty. A dog doesn’t feel that.
Anthony de Mello: “If you really enjoy life and the simple pleasures of the senses, you’d be amazed. You’d develop that extraordinary discipline of the animal. An animal will never overeat. Left in its natural habitat, it will never be overweight. It will never drink or eat anything that is not good for its health. You never find an animal smoking. It always exercises and relaxes as much it needs. […] We’ve lost that. We’re lost in our minds, in our ideas and ideals, and so on, and it’s always go, go, go. And we’ve got an inner self-conflict which animals don’t have. And we’re always condemning ourselves and making ourselves feel guilty.”
A friend of mine has this amazing Australian Shepherd. He’s probably the happiest dog in the world, he’s literally smiling all day. When I come to visit and the door opens he jumps at me howling, his tail flipping happily. I pat him and he smiles. Then he sleeps. He eats. And when we go for a walk he runs as if his life depends on it. When my friend and I watch a movie he sits at our feet snoring.
I never looked at it this way and I find it eye-opening. I’ve been struggling with being overweight almost my entire life and my weight fluctuates a lot. I’m practically always in go, go, go mode, and running too hard to keep up with my ideas and ideals that I burn out.
I had a burnout two years ago and the past summer (since lockdown was lifted in the Netherlands) I’ve hardly had time to relax or even reflect. The only reflection that occurred was feeling guilty of doing too much, of eating too much, of drinking too much on the weekends.
We don’t need to be like a dog or a cat, but we can learn from their behavior. We are blessed (and perhaps cursed) with a brain that needs distractions and we live in a time that we don’t have to hunt for food but can buy as much as we want. It’s up to us to find balance.
#4: Learn to die in order to live
“I’ve often said to people that the way to really live is to die. The passport to living is to imagine yourself in your grave.” — Anthony de Mello.
I’m a big fan of Stoic philosophy. The Stoics use the term ‘Memento Mori’ to remind themselves of the inevitability of death. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Roman emperor said: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” That’s also what De Mello is saying.
If you’re interested in learning more about Stoic philosophy, I highly recommend Ryan Holiday’s new book: ‘Lives of the Stoics’.
When you remind yourself of the finality of your life and when you accept it, it will propel you to live your life differently. If you’d know that you’d die in one month, you will probably do everything in your power to make the most of it. Why not now?
If I’m lucky enough to die when I’m 90, why wouldn’t I make the most of the next 60 years?
At their deathbeds, people are often reflecting on their lives and how they lived it. A common thread among these musings is that many people have regrets. They regretted not having lived life fully, that they worked too much, that they wondered what could have been had they chased their dreams, that they should’ve spent more time with their loved ones. If you would leave life right now, are you content? The answer to this question might be the compass for the rest of your life.
I would try to let go of my fears and live life by what I value and believe in even more than I do now. I would start learning not to demand too much of myself. I would watch more what I feed myself with: from food to entertainment. I would implement more of my resources to being of service. What would you do?
In the timeline of the universe, our lives are not even worth a second. So why waste this flash in time with being worried, afraid, or running after the wrong goals and ideals we believe are true. Are they really? Who is saying so?
Anthony de Mello: “The root of evil is within you. As you begin to understand this, you stop making demands on yourself, you stop having expectations of yourself, you stop pushing yourself and you understand. Nourish yourself on wholesome food, good wholesome food.” With the latter he means to spend time in nature, read a good book, see a good movie, to have enjoyable and meaningful work and good company around you.
#5: Reprogram your mind
“That’s what learning is all about where spirituality is concerned: unlearning, unlearning almost everything you’ve been taught. A willingness to unlearn, to listen.” — Anthony de Mello
To become aware, you have to be willing to unlearn everything you know or belief is true in order to grow. When we grow up we are conditioned by our environment. Our parents, family, friends, teachers, governments, religion, everyone dictates us how we are supposed to live our life. Your challenge is to evaluate what matters to you. To wake up and review everything you’ve been taught.
“To wake up, the one thing you need the most is not energy, or strength, or youthfulness, or even great intelligence. The one thing you need most of all is the readiness to learn something new. [..] What you really fear is the loss of the known.” — Anthony de Mello
This is very difficult. When I come across insights like these I feel inspired. I feel that I found a piece of the puzzle of meaning. It is, however, a process. It’s not like we can press a button and reboot. We have to spot what’s going on, why we have learned certain things in particular ways. De Mello: “You frequently interpret everything that’s being said in terms of your hypnotic state or your conditioning or your programming.”
So wonder: is this thing I learned really true? Does it really connect with my inner values? If not, unlearn it and learn how you can take control and learn to become better.
I’m 31 and single. I’ve been dating someone for a while and even though we connected on so many levels, I realized we weren’t a match for a long-term relationship. All of my best friends are in a relationship and live together with their partner. Am I lacking behind? Is something wrong with me? Am I too focused on myself? I have that feeling that I ought to be in a great relationship already. That inner voice that whispers: It’s what everyone does. It’s what’s expected of you. Is it though? Is it true because our friends, family, and society say it’s how we should walk the ladder of life?
Of course, I’d love to be in a happy relationship, but I’ve decided that I will commit only to someone if we match on the most crucial parts of a fruitful relationship in line with my values. I will not settle for bronze or silver. 1 + 1 should equal two. So far, my relationships or attempts have never reflected that.
“I need to break out of this prison of mine, this programming, this conditioning, these false beliefs, these fantasies; I need to break out into reality. [..] Eternal life is now.” — Anthony de Mello
#6: Stop identifying with the ego
“It’s not reality that matters, but what you’re saying to yourself about it.” — Anthony de Mello
I wrote WOW next to this line in the book. Our minds are wonderful storytellers. The brain is an expert illusionist, constantly speaking, constantly fantasizing (at least mine, who’s with me?). These fictions we create will become our truths if we’re not careful.
This is what Anthony de Mello has to say about this: “Am I my thoughts? No. Thoughts come and go. I am not my thoughts. Am I my body? They tell us that millions of cells in our body are changed or are renewed every minute so that by the end of seven years we don’t have a single living cell in our body that was there seven years before. Cells come and go. Cells arise and die. But ‘I’ seems to persist. So am I my body? Evidently not.”
I love how clearly he explains the issue with our ego in a few sentences. Thoughts come and go, cells too. We are an amalgamation of our past, what we have learned, and how we are conditioned. Is that who you truly are? How can it be? You will learn new things. You will change your view on life and your values. You will have new experiences. You’re in a constant flux of life.
Four years ago I didn’t write even though I wanted to do that all my life, I had a company selling products I wasn’t too excited about, I was in a relationship that was draining me. At that moment I could have thought: this is what it is. But clearly, it wasn’t.
Through new experiences, teachers, and above all, becoming aware, I became a different person. Sometimes fundamental shifts take years, sometimes it happens in mere seconds. The thing is, change is constant and we are not.
“Are you your clothes? Are you your name? Are you your profession? Stop identifying with them. They come and go.” — Anthony de Mello
As hard as it is, don’t identify too much with who you are at any moment. It can change tomorrow. It’s not easy, but when you become aware of this, you change. You become less resentful or hateful, you’re worried less and less, it’s easier to receive critique or admit you’re wrong, you’ll be more open to others and most of all, you’re more open to life.
#7: Happiness is about being content
“You’re never so full of yourself as when you’re in pain. You’re never so centered on yourself as when you’re depressed. You’re never so ready to forget yourself as when you’re happy. Happiness releases you from self. It is suffering and pain and misery and depression that tie you to the self.” — Anthony de Mello
Happiness is about being content, not seeking one thrill after the other. We have a tendency to tie our happiness with achieving the next something. A raise, a book deal, a relationship, getting a new car, traveling the world. Sure, attaining your goals and dreams bring happiness, but being content with the journey of getting there is far more rewarding.
Happiness is already within us. It is through striving for the next thing or avoiding to deal with matters you run away from that bring up suffering. Connected to the previous lesson, it helps to try not to identify with that suffering. De Mello says: “Unhappy people are miserable people. They don’t enjoy life. They are constantly tense and anxious. Do you call that human? And do you know why that happens? Only one reason: They identified with some label. They identified with the ‘I’ with their money or their job or their profession. That was their error.”
When we focus on what we don’t have, you stop living in the present. This way, we can’t be content and feel the natural happiness that lies within. Through hoping for something else, you forget what you already have. Try to express gratitude for what you have at this very moment. It’s ok to hope for something, desire fuels our energy. The challenge lies in not letting that desire prevent you from feeling happy now. It’s like De Mello says in the book: “Happiness is our natural state.”
#8: Detach to feel free
“An attachment is a belief that without something you are not going to be happy.” — Anthony de Mello
When you’re open to learning new things, stop identifying with your ego, and focus on being content with what you have you’re a long way into becoming aware and at ease with yourself and the world around you. But there’s a stone in our shoe still that we have to get rid of. An attachment to something that prevents you from feeling centered. Or perhaps more than one attachment. This can be an attachment to people or things. It can be that you’re anxious and believe you’re deserving of it.
“Life is always flowing, life is always changing. […] When you cling, life is destroyed; when you hold on to anything, you cease to live.” — Anthony de Mello
Realizing this is hard. Actually trying to detach from something is even harder. Why didn’t I leave the company I built when I realized it wasn’t my path? When it started to weigh me down? I was afraid of letting my business partner down, my employees, my suppliers, everyone. In the end, I let myself down by holding on to it. Trying to mend what was already too broken, trying to avoid feeling like a failure in the eyes of ‘everyone’. I only failed myself by clinging, I burned out and lost my inner spark.
What I did was distract myself. I didn’t confront myself. I ignored the signs. I ran away, seeking entertainment by immersing myself in the nightlife, mindlessly watching television, basically going from one thing to the next trying not to think about any of it. Numbing myself.
I had to face it. My body told me to stop and reflect. I could barely work for three hours a day. I stopped fighting. I shifted gears and confronted my fears of feeling like a failure and letting people down. Because by avoiding my issues, I let people down even more.
I let go.
The answer lies in the question: what am I unwilling to feel? (Or to see or try). This is a question introduced by writer Tara Brach. Ask yourself. Get to the core and never stop asking why that’s the case until you’ve found it.
Then, by becoming aware, letting go, and changing your predicament you can detach in order to heal. It brought back my spark. It ignited a fire to start creating. It fueled my life even further. Because that’s another thing: there are lessons to learn when you become aware of your mistakes.
De Mello ends the book by describing particular feelings about true happiness which I loved. Effortless contentment, not thrill-seeking happiness, to be in touch with nature, to be immersed in work that you love, or to enjoy being in someone else’s company. He calls these soul feelings. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
“The body has gotten addicted to the drug. Now this is exactly what your society did to you when you were born. You were not allowed to enjoy the solid nutritious food of life — namely, work, play, fun, laughter, the company of people, the pleasures of the senses and the mind. You were given a taste for the drug called approval, appreciation, attention.
In becoming aware, we have to shake the conditioning by others. We have to go to our inner core.
I once wrote a short story about a man who is taken up to the sky by a mysterious boy called the Moon. From the sky the man looks at the tiny speck that is Earth and through his conversations with Moon, he finds his troubles and worries fade. In this almost meditative state he finds that once he detaches from his worries and misery, and truly understands life being that distant from Earth, he becomes aware.
Now it’s your turn.
“You can only change through awareness and understanding.” — Anthony de Mello