The meaning of the dream symbol: Mirror

What you see in the mirror will probably be yourself, but as seen by your unconscious. For that reason it may startle you; but take it seriously if you want self-knowledge.
It may represent the way you see yourself; or the way you want others to see you; or the role-playing you do in life. Sooner or later, even in a business context, you may want to base your life - attitudes, beliefs, values, relationships and behaviour - on something more substantial, on the real centre of your being, which means finding your true self and fulfilling your ‘destiny’. Perhaps that is what you are doing in the mirror in the dream - looking for yourself.

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The mirror pertains to the image of oneself and how that image may compare to the inner perception of oneself. The truth is, we live in a society which places all too much emphasis on superficial images. Hence, we sometimes project the realities of our recent behavior upon our own physical appearance.

We note the ‘anti-hero’ in modem movies who continuously observes his face in the mirror as he falls deeper and deeper into the horrific territory of his ultimate demise. In this same mythical sense, when we commit atrocities, or, if our life begins spiralling into a veritable nightmare, we may find ourselves searching in the mirror for the familiarity of who we are. We are searching for who we once were. More importantly, remembering that person, we explore how (and why) our current (and presumably difficult) reality could have happened to us in the first place? We seem to ask, is this face guilty, or innocent?

The image in the glass offers a silent answer which is gravely understood. In a variation of this mirror reality, we examine the tenets of beauty. Can inner beauty be witnessed in the external reflection of the glass? In other words, can we reveal our true psychological and emotional make-up in the symmetrical expressions of our face and soulful gaze. The answer, as any psychotherapist concerned with the psychology of Self knows, is absolutely and positively, NO! Therefore, beauty (as well as bitter ugliness) is anything but skin deep.

What is reflected in the mirror if not truth, sincerity and what the heart and conscience hold? Mirrors are used in this role in Western folk stories of initiation and in the rituals of Chinese secret societies.

Although its deepest meaning may be different, in Japanese tradition mirrors are related to the revelation of the truth as well as to purity. The same line of thought is behind the use of a ‘mirror of the karma’ by Yama, the Indo-Buddhist Lord of the Kingdom of the Dead, when he sits in judgement. Magic mirrors, instruments to reveal the word of God, may be debased by use in divination, but in different forms of shamanism - rock-CRYSTAL being the material - and among African Pygmies, they may be employed to astonishing effect. The ‘truth’ revealed by the mirror may obviously be of a higher order and this conjures up the magic mirror of the Ch’in, which Nichiren compares with the Buddhist ‘Mirror of the Dharma’, which shows the causes of past actions. The mirror may be the instrument of enlightenment. In fact the mirror is the symbol of wisdom and knowledge, a dusty mirror being the symbol of the spirit darkened by ignorance. The Tibetan Buddhists’ ‘Wisdom of the Great Mirror’ teaches the ultimate secret, namely that the world of shapes reflected in it is only an aspect of shunyata, the void.

These reflections of the celestial Intellect or Word of Heaven have made the mirror seem as if it were the symbol of the manifestation of the creative mind. It is also the symbol of the divine intellect reflecting manifestation and creating it as such in its own image. This revelation of identity and difference was the cause of the fall of Lucifer. In less specialized terms it is the outcome of the most intense spiritual experience, as St Paul (2 Corinthians 3: 18) and many Christian and Muslim spiritual writers bear witness. ‘The human heart [is] the mirror which reflects God’ is, for example, how Angelus Silesius expresses it, while for Buddhists the mirror of the heart reflects the Buddha’s nature and for Taoists Heaven and Earth.

Although the reflection of light or reality does not change its nature, it nevertheless carries with it some illusory aspect (‘catching the Moon in the water’) or falsity with respect to the First Cause. Hindu writers speak of ‘identity in difference’. ‘As the light is reflected in the water but does not penetrate it, so is Shiva.’ Thus ‘speculation’ is indirect, ‘lunar’ knowledge. In any case the mirror presents a negative image of reality. ‘What is above is as what is below’, says the alchemical Emerald Table, but with an opposite meaning. Manifestation is a negative image of the First Cause, displayed in the two inverted triangles of the star-shaped hexagon. The symbol of the ray of light reflected upon the surface of the waters is the cosmogonic sign of manifestation, it is active purusha on passive prakrti, vertical Heaven on horizontal Earth. Nevertheless, passivity, which reflects things while remaining unaffected by them, is in China the symbol of the non-activity of the wise man.

The use which the Taoists made of the magic mirror was somewhat specialized. By revealing the nature of evil influences, it drove them away and afforded protection against them. Hence the survival of the custom of setting an octagonal mirror inscribed with the eight trigrams above the entry to a house. Octagonal mirrors - undoubtedly signs of harmony and perfection in the case of Amaterasu - in China are intermediaries between the round mirror (Heaven) and the square mirror (Earth). Humans do not see their reflections only in polished bronze or still waters, as this passage from the T’ang Chronicles, quoted by Segalen, shows: ‘Men use bronze as a mirror. Men use the past as a mirror. Men use their fellow-men as mirrors.’ In Japan the mirror, or kagami, is a symbol of the perfect purity of the soul, of an unsullied spirit and of a reflection of self upon consciousness. It is also a symbol of the Sun-goddess (Amaterasu-Omi-Kami). Sacred mirrors are to be found in many Shinto shrines, like crucifixes in Catholic churches. A mirror is also one of the principal imperial attributes and the Sacred Mirror is housed in a special building in the Imperial Palace.

By virtue of the analogies between mirrors and water, fragments of mirror are often used, as for example by the Bambara, in rain-making ceremonies.

Both mirrors and water surfaces are used to interrogate the spirits in divination and their replies to the questions asked are written by reflection upon them. Congolese fortune-tellers employ this process, sprinkling a mirror - or the surface of a bowl of water - with chalk dust. The white powder is an emanation of the spirits and the pattern in which it falls reveals their answer. In central Asia, shamans practised divination by mirrors, by pointing them at the Sun or Moon, the latter being also regarded as mirrors on which is reflected all that occurs on Earth. Furthermore, shamanistic robes were often decorated with mirrors which ‘reflect the activities of men or else protect the shaman [during his spirit flight] against the arrows of evil spirits. After such shamanistic experiences the sorcerer sometimes has to make the same number of scratches on these shields as arrows which have hit them’.

Both Plato and Plotinus sketch the notion of the soul regarded as a mirror and this theme was developed by St Athanasius and St Gregory of Nyssa, in particular. According to Plotinus the image of a being is ready to receive the influence of its model as in a mirror. According to his line of reasoning, the individual, like a mirror, reflects beauty or ugliness.

In its very different aspects, the mirror has become an especial theme for Muslim philosophers and mystics inspired by Neoplatonism. The mirror is even called the symbol of symbolism itself.

The numinous aspect of the mirror, that is, the terror which self-knowledge inspires, is characterized by the Sufi legend of the peacock. The mirror is Psyche’s and analysts have stressed the dark side of the soul.

Al-Ghazall exerted a deep influence on Sufism by using the Neoplatonist notion of the two sides of the soul, ‘its lower side directed at the body, its upper at the mind’.

Attar said that ‘in its dullness the body is like the back of a mirror; the soul is its polished face’. When discussing the two sides of the mirror, RumI explained that God created this world which is dull and dark so that his light might be made manifest.

By virtue of the theory of the microcosm as an image of the macrocosm, the individual and the universe play their respective parts as two mirrors. Similarly, individual essences are reflected in the Divine Being, according to Ibn ‘ArabI, and the Divine Being is reflected in individual essences.

If the heart is symbolized by a mirror - which used to be made of metal - then rust symbolizes sin, and polishing the mirror purification.

In Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, they still use the Mirror of Our Lady Mary (Ayin-i BTbi Maryam) when betrothed couples first meet. It is hung on the far wall of the room in which the meeting takes place, the couple entering from opposite doors and being expected to look at their mirror images, instead of straight at one another. In so doing they will meet as if they were in Paradise, seeing their faces corrected and not inverted as in this world. The mirror’s image-correcting facility becomes a symbol in this context of things seen in their essential reality.

Sufis regard the whole universe as comprising a group of mirrors in which the Infinite Being gazes at itself in its manifold shapes or else which reflect in different degrees the radiation of the One Being. The primary significance of the mirrors is that they symbolize the self-determining potentiality of the Being. They also convey the cosmological meaning of material receptacles in respect of pure action.

Lastly, a different meaning makes the mirror a symbol of reciprocal awareness. A famous hadith declares that ‘the faithful is the mirror of the faithful.’ The more the face of the mirror of the soul is polished by self-denial, the better it is able to reflect faithfully its surroundings and even the thoughts of others. Sufi literature contains a wealth of instances of men made pure who were capable of this sort of ‘reflection’.