In Zen Buddhism there is a concept about an empty mirror. We all reflect the world around us. We’re reflecting each other’s emotions, the atmosphere of where we live, and the objects that surround us. If you spend all of your time around people who complain, chances are that you also complain. Similarly if all of your friends smoke, it’s likely that you also smoke. If you live in a city, you probably take on a few of the stereotypes applied to city folk. So without the world to influence you, what are you? This is the concept of the empty mirror.
When you realize that you’re a mirror, reflecting the world, you can begin to contemplate emptiness. You are not anything that you reflect, you are just a mirror. If you look deep into a mirror that is reflecting a pond, you may think “oh that is a pond!” but no, it is just a reflection. Similarly you are not your environment, you may look at yourself and think “oh I am adventurous or a hiker”. No, you identify with those traits but you are not them.
Perhaps now you are thinking “but I am adventurous! I know myself”. No, you are empty of everything. You are not the city that you live in or the people you hang around. You are not the emotions that you feel or what anyone calls you. What you are is reflection of everyone and everything. In reality, you are empty of all of it.
When you run on a hot day, you think “I am thirsty”. That is not you, that is a reflection of the body. By being part of the swim team, you are not a swimmer. That is what you do but it is not who you are. You are nothing. There is no you.
When you go through your day, you think “maybe I should go shopping”, “today it’s hot outside”, these thoughts are reflections. Without the external world, you couldn’t think these things. Therefore they are not part of you, they are not internal. They could not exist without the world.
When you feel angry, sad, happy or any other emotion. These feelings are a reflection of your environment or your body. They are not you, they come from the world. Maybe you need to eat more food because your body is hungry or you’re sad because you missed the train. Either way, it’s not from you.
Sometimes I identify with these environments and think “I’m a photographer or artist or writer”. What happens if you take away the camera or computer, am I still any of these? No, I’m just me. I’m a mirror reflecting the world.
Why is it important to understand this? Because when we identify with the world, that is, to take on an identity relating to what we are reflecting, we simplify or limit ourselves. When you say that you’re a swimmer to me, in your head a swimmer could be someone who swims recreationally, while I think it is a person who swims professionally or as part of a team. Immediately we have miscommunication. When you say you’re a swimmer, we have two different ideas about who you are.
Now when I say that I’m a photographer, I take on all the traits I think fit the term “photographer”. To me, that means I believe I’m a photographer because I take pictures of people and I get paid to do it. I think of photography as a lifestyle. Now problems start arising. I haven’t taken any pictures in 6 months, am I still a photographer? I no longer get paid to create images, who am I?
Internally we’re always talking to ourselves to make decisions. “Well, I’m an artist so I should _______” or “what would an artist do?”. I act as if I am what I’m reflecting. No, I am not a photographer, photography is something that I do. It is not my identity. Remember, I am just a mirror temporarily reflecting whatever is in front of me. Currently I don’t take pictures. I used to but now I don’t.
The reason we identify with these labels is because we want organization and simplification. When you ask me, “what do you do for a living?”, it’s easier to reply with “I am a carpenter”. There is no problem with this simplification – we generally understand each other. However, the problems arise when you answer these questions to yourself, when you start to think that you are a carpenter.
See, the mirror concept is a little bit troubling: it’s difficult to think “oh I am nothing”. We want an identity or something to label ourselves. We want to compare ourselves to others. “Well John’s a baker, at least I’m a traveler”. We don’t need to tell other people we’re better but we think it internally.
To fix this, stop identifying with what you do and the place where you are. You are not Buddhist because you meditate or a Christian because you go to church. You are not a tired person; that is a reflection. Stop trying to identify yourself, you are only perpetuating a condition. You will act like a tired person if you label yourself as one. Instead, just be or do. If you enjoy taking pictures, take pictures. If you live in Minnesota, don’t identify and think “oh I have to be this way because I’m a Minnesotan”. Just be as you are.