A few years ago, I left Texas, an existence I had known my entire life. I was 39-years old at the time. My father died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and two-years later my husband and I ended our 18-year marriage. I was in the midst of a major life change. After several turn-of-events, I found myself living and working as a volunteer at a retreat center on the Island of Hawaii. Coming from Texas, I found my fellow retreat center volunteers were a different breed, unique and interesting. Yes, very different than Texans, but who isn’t different than Texans? We are a breed of our own, yet I was also a member of this new different tribe. My new co-workers and friends were not following the normal societal rules or routines, many were in transition, like myself, post divorce, death of a loved one, snowbirds, the newly retired, vagabonds, back packers, rich, poor, some young, some old… so many people from around the world looking to live life a different way. We lived, worked and adventured with each other; approximately 100 volunteers living together and working 1-month, 3-months or longer stints.
Shortly after arriving, and in the first week wearing almost everything I owned, it was time for the exciting task of heading to the laundry shed to wash my clothes for the first time. Around 8PM, I headed off to the “laundry shed” as it was referred to, also the home of the Housekeeping Department. As expected, it was a room full of numerous washers and dryers, laundry detergent, bleach, fabric softener, baskets and tables for folding. I washed my clothes and later when back to put them in the dryer. When I left the shed the second time around 9PM, it started to rain… then pour… then it rained and poured harder than I had ever experienced in my life! East Hawaii’s Winter rains are nothing to be taken lightly, think rain this side of a typhoon or like standing under a waterfall. The heavens open up and everything is impressively saturated. At 10PM, the rains were not stopping. Ten o’clock is the cut off for volunteer laundry and it was still a gusher outside. With the downpour, I made an executive decision to leave my laundry in the dryer and retrieve it early the next morning. Certainly it would be okay, right?
I got up early the next morning and went straight to the laundry shed. It was buzzing with activity, machines running and housekeepers preparing for the day. To my surprise my laundry had vanished! I searched and asked everyone that was working if they had seen it and where it might have gone. I was shocked. My vulnerability came rushing to the surface. Here I was, post divorce, uprooted from my home, far from old life, starting over at this remote, quirky retreat center in Hawaii and now most of my belongings had disappeared into thin air! I asked the person in charge, the Shift Leader, what might have happened. She replied, “The laundry shed is supposed to be locked after 10PM? Where might my laundry have gone?” Her response seemed cold and stern, with an implied sense of consequence, although she admitted nothing, “That’s what happens when you leave your laundry overnight.” There was no explanation or compassion, let alone helpfulness as I expected, in her interaction with me. I felt as if she wanted to ‘teach me a lesson’ about the rules and thusly, exact punishment. I left assuming someone had stolen my all my clothes! I was understandably upset. I felt alone and betrayed by my new community.
In the days to come, I started to see my clothes appear on my fellow volunteers. In my vulnerable state, I found myself approaching each person, unknowingly wearing my garments, and one-by-one asking for them back. I felt embarrassed and humiliated to have to do such a thing. Later, I found out the whole policy: If you leave your laundry past 10PM, it will be put in the Lost and Found. If no one claims it, it will be put in the Free Box. The “free box” is a place where unwanted items go to be recycled in the Community, like our own version of Salvation Army. This was the journey of my belongings… from the dryer, to Lost and Found, to the Free Box, to my fellow volunteer’s bodies, and then ultimately back to me. Later, I learned from another volunteer who worked in Housekeeping that she witnessed the same Shift Leader that I spoken with the morning of my laundry disappearance, put my items in the Lost and Found! I was angry to know the truth. Apparently, this Shift Leader was strict about this policy.
A few days later, a new friend asked me about my disappearing clothes, “Did you get your clothes back?” Disappointed and humiliated I replied, “Yes, I got most of them back, but not everything.” I was upset and told her my whole story of victimhood and betrayal at the hands of the ‘evil’ Shift Leader I was so angry at her and really caught in my own mix of emotions. After pouring out my heart, my friend simply replied, “Well, we are all just mirrors of each other!” Her tone dismissive, I sat in silence, not knowing what to make of this comment, dumbfounded and confused. I was immediately became defensive, as if the offending behavior was my fault? or somehow I created it??? I was the innocent victim here, right??!?! I did not respond. I didn’t understand what she meant and it just left me feeling more frustrated. The mirror comment… Ugh!
This was my introduction to the concept of The Mirror and it took years for me to really get it and make it a useful tool. I believe this was, in part, because many people use this concept in the wrong way. ‘The mirror” comment was frequently used at the retreat center. It was said with a tone of arrogance, as if to turn the blame on the other. If the spotlight is turned on you, it’s not turned on me. That way, I can avoid looking at myself and taking responsibility. There was a sense of spiritual one-upsmanship, a need to be superior, or an “I am more enlightened that you” contest. It was often used as a form of control or to keep each other in check to avoid accountability. This spiritual arrogance or ‘holier-than-thou’ way of using ‘the mirror’ felt disingenuous, egoic, distasteful, and even manipulative. I was repelled.
I thought, “How are they a mirror of me? We are different people, with different problems, different stories, different opinions, different viewpoints. Their bad behavior is THEIRS… that’s not my fault!” I was reactive, even opposed to the idea of myself or anyone as a “Mirror.” My own resistance and ‘need to be right’ wasn’t helping me understand it either. I did not completely reject the concept of another person as ‘a mirror’ but for a long time, I did not find use in it. I didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, and decided to keep working with it. There must be something to this…Interactions. Encounters. Bumping into one another.
A mirror… humans as a mirror. hmm.
As time passed I learned, there can confusion in spiritual communities and retreat center environments. Places such as this attract people that are trying to improve themselves, seekers, spiritual people with different beliefs and practices. There are others looking for rest, healing who want to restore or find a new way and just start over. I was a mix of many of these categories and definitely in a life transition. All these varying states, new age beliefs or “new thought” philosophies have a root in helpfulness, yet I see a large degree of pseudo psychology and pseudo spiritualism mixed up together. That means sound concepts from psychology and spiritual tradition sort of get thrown in a blender, all mixed up and often are misunderstood or miscommunicated amongst well meaning individuals. What I noticed was ‘The Mirror’ comment was sometimes used as a form of Bypassing. The term bypassing was also new to me. By my Texas definition, I intuited it as ‘passing the buck’ or not taking personal responsibility. That’s when I realized that the mirror was really about taking personal responsibility…
The Mirror: It’s really NOT about the other person… It’s a way of looking at yourself and taking personal responsibility for your own awareness and growth.
My personal responsibility with my ‘laundry disappearance’ was to follow the rules and the simple fact is… I didn’t. Being new, I only knew my laundry was not to be left after 10PM. I assumed, due to the rain, I could go get it the next morning… but no excuses. I screwed up. I decided the rules didn’t apply to me. So, for a while, I felt self-righteous and victimized by the ‘evil’ Shift Leader. I held a grudge. “I did not like her. Grrr!” I judged her for not behaving in a way that I thought she should behave. I had lots of justifications to be angry. These were my way of thinking and feeling. My choices… my choices and my reasons or justifications for my behavior. In other words, “Why I was right and she was wrong.” She followed the rules and I didn’t.
If I am really honest with myself… I must ask if I have a habit of pushing the limits? Where might I may have acted like this in the past? Have I been severe about the rules with others? Have I been harsh in enforcement of policy anytime in the past? When have I have been fed up with others not following policy and exacted punishment? Could I see myself in her? Could I see my own vindication in why she might do such a thing?How have I been stern or cold to others in past situations? Where have I acted without compassion?
With great humility, I found the answer to be “Yes” to all of these questions that I asked myself. With the Shift Leader as my mirror I looked a little deeper. Who was I really mad at anyway? The Shift Leader or myself? Didn’t I co-create the situation in the first place, the upset, my hunt for my clothes, and my own humiliation and victim identity?Didn’t I put myself in that position? Could I have found a plastic trash bag and covered my laundry to make sure it didn’t get wet in the rain? Was just being lazy or entitled? Was I bypassing or ‘passing the buck’ for my own bad decisions? I had to admit, “Yes, I was angry at myself.”
So, in that revelation, I decided to let go of being mad at the Shift Leader and let go of being a victim, along with my need for justification or to be right. I forgave the Shift Leader and forgave myself. I learned from the situation, and honored the rules to the best of my ability in the future. I experienced my own personal growth. A few months later, I transferred to volunteer in Housekeeping myself. When presented with the same situation, I noticed many people abused the policy and left their laundry overnight. I saw the problem this caused the Shift Leaders in starting their day. I decided to operate from a place of compassion with this laundry policy, especially with incoming volunteers.
So, this is how an unpleasant situation with a another person, the mirror, worked toward my growth. I gained a better understanding of myself and my relationship with personal responsibility itself. How to examine my thoughts, words, motivations, actions, feelings and deeds. This didn’t happen over night. It actually took me quite some time to tease it out and I am only giving you this one simplified example. I use this tool in every day life now whether with long term relationships or interactions with strangers. It’s an interesting approach to how we help each other grow. The Shift Leader was the catalyst for a true “Shift” in my relationship with myself. She provided a reflection of me, some neglected and unconscious areas I could not see. This helped me clean my mirror. For more on how to use this tool, please click here and read on…
By Melinda D. Alexander