I was walking down the street yesterday. I wasn’t applying any specific mindfulness technique, I was simply walking. I had long periods where I simply let my mind wander – into reviewing past events, planning future ones, judging certain conditions and situations, and I noticed the low-level “icky” feeling, that had been there previously, escalate to a definitely unpleasant “ick.” Flavors present were anxiety and sadness, especially.
As soon as the unpleasant feeling reached a “critical mass”, I turned my attention to it – relaxing around it, allowing it to flow. When it didn’t immediately start flowing, I began to note the expansive & contractive forces within it – which is always a sure-fire way to make any unpleasant sensation an opportunity (although that strategy is much easier when sitting still in silent meditation.) And then the physical/emotional event began to rise and fall – in big waves – the peak of the waves had some intensity, but the movement was one I was familiar with and trusted. I allowed my awareness to partially monitor it all while also attending to the walking down the street.
Some of the thoughts I had been mulling over re-emerged and I could instantly detect the trigger-effect relationship of the thought to the emotional sensations in the body. And I continued walking down the street, noticing the sensations of walking, the world around me, and this relationship between the thinking process and emotional sensations in my body.
Shortly, when passing a large window, I caught a reflection of a woman and her face struck me. She had this expression – it was a kind of beaming of a warm deep smile – one that emanated from the inside (vs. triggered by external events.) As I had been monitoring emotional sensations in my body, I couldn’t help but notice how her expression affected me. It was as if a warm wave swept over me – or rather buoyed me up from beneath. Accompanying dialogue would have been something like “Everything is ok” “You are beautiful” “This is what presence feels like” – or something like that – all very reassuring, comforting, uplifting and inspiring.
I was so grateful to that woman for being so present and centered – and happy – and sharing that with the rest of us. What warm strength! In that moment, my unpleasant sensations and triggering thoughts all dissolved and I was just basking in this joyful experience of being alive.
Now this instant of seeing her – with the inner response I’ve written -all happened in less than 2 seconds – but you know how time slows down when our senses are taking in more information (like before an accident or any time of heightened awareness.)
And here is what happened in the 3rd second: I realized she was me – I mean that the reflection was of me. And this realization happened after the preceding response and I was surprised – almost startled – because I had been working with feelings of anxiety and sadness – yes, skillfully, but I could not in that moment understand how her expression could possibly have been on my face during all that. I knew what was going on within me and it sure wasn’t what it looked like she had going on. Did she know something I didn’t?
For the next block, still somewhat astonished, I pondered all of this. I was aware of all the challenging issues and unpleasant emotional responses having almost disappeared. I was aware that it felt like my “view” had just “opened” – like a horse having blinders removed. I could see in all directions again, and I felt good, and even sighed at being “back home” – but I still could not quite get over how that expression could possibly have been on my face as I was working through some difficult stuff.
Had it become a habit? It didn’t look like a habit. If I had seen someone with a habitual smile, I don’t think it would have affected me like that.
And I started to laugh that simply seeing my face from the outside affected my inside so thoroughly. I’m aware of how we (especially women, especially aging women, and most especially aging white women in Hollywood) can look in a mirror and have the opposite experience – in terms of connotation – i.e. Judgment is so key to suffering, and nothing like a woman judging her body to prick the center of it. (Although I will say there is now a beautiful movement on-line and in the media of women speaking out to reverse that. [insert cheer here]) But nothing in this event had to do with that kind of judgment, and key to this was the fact that I responded to the reflection the way a baby does to a face – directly, honestly, without caring so much who it belongs to – and definitely without identifying with it. I still see that reflection in my mind and it was “that woman with the radiant smile.”
Now, my surprise here is not a report of the first occurrence of this kind of thing,and when I do public speaking on stress reduction, I always include smiling and laughter along with any mindfulness as valuable tools in increasing ease and well-being in our lives. And I have told the story of seeing myself in the mirror and feeling better because of the expression I saw, but this story, the walking down the street one, was different because for those first few moments, I did not honestly realize it was me, and the effect of it all was so dramatic.
I felt gratitude – and humor – I mean it is kind of funny – but mostly the image of that moment – the reflection in the glass of a face that I did not identify with – was/is such a gift. I still see the image of that moment – her face – and it “rings” a bell of soothing, inspiring warmth every time I do – much like when I get when I look at a lovely quan yin statue I have.
Yet another lesson on how we already have all we need and it’s just about seeing it – finding ways (or a way) to open past our habits and self-referential restrictions – to a bigger awareness whose fabric is love.