Do you ever dare to spend time, paint or ink on a self-portrait?
What about a few moments glancing in a mirror?
Or some time watching your reflection ripple across water?
Or seeing physical sensations in your body – tension, tingling, buzzing or warmth?
Or hearing your own thoughts aloud?
Were you taught to look away from your own image and feelings, warned against being “selfish” or “self absorbed”?
I wonder: who else can see and hear you as truly as you can, every moment?
Why can it be so hard to include ourselves in our gaze at life? Fear? Modesty?
What if we see something we don’t like? Is there a demand to fix it?
I marvel at the painters who put themselves on canvas. Some might call it arrogance or self-centred. But through what other eyes, ears and body could they express things to which so many others can relate?
I’d be amazed if you’ve never felt anything like the expression you see on the face of Henri’s self portrait (taped on my journal page below, left).
If we don’t hear or see ourselves, then I reckon we can suffer unnecessarily because we depend – desperately at times – on others to value and understand us. I find that stressful. Others aren’t always available. Or willing to listen. Or open to accept us as we are.
Perhaps it’s the surface we choose for our self reflection. Canvas can be unforgiving and so fixed. Paper can be so flat. A mirror might be something we might associate with a critical eye (‘do I look okay to be seen in public?’).
So why the goose on the other side of the page? What’s that got to do with self portrait? Why didn’t I draw myself? Let’s call it creative choice. And general freedom in life!
This morning, watching a family of geese on the river, I noticed how the reflection that water offers is so fluid. I also appreciated an aspect of myself which I saw in the goose.
I saw in that goose some universal experience of life – and parenting in particular. By parenting, I mean the way in which we teach and nurture ourselves as adults well as raising any children we might have of our own.
I saw that water’s reflection places us in the context of all life – surrounded by sky and clouds and trees.
Yes, gazing into water, we are the centre of that reflection. We can’t move ourselves off to the side. It’s not an artificial frame. It’s simply a fact – we stand at the centre of what we see and hear. And, in seeing that, we are reminded that is also true of all beings.
My sister and I were feeding geese and ducks on the bank with my brother-in-law. A few minutes earlier, we had just been sharing a few worries we had about our kids. I was savouring shared reality. We were simply trading experiences, enjoying some understanding without being diagnosed or given advice. Not all parents can do that for us, especially when we’re going through our own pain and worry. So it was a sweet moment.
Now, as we watched a mother goose lead her young family through the water, one of us said: who says birds don’t worry?
The water’s reflection places us in the context of all life – surrounded by sky and clouds and trees. Yes, we are the centre of that reflection. We can’t move ourselves off to the side. It’s not an artificial frame. It’s simply the fact – we stand at the centre of what we see and hear. And, in seeing that, we are reminded that is also true of all beings.
Indeed, who tells this Mother Goose to stop overthinking? Try telling her not to care so much about her young. Try tossing her the dry crust of a homilie like: “everything works out” or “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill”.
I recommend walking with worries when they arise. Although perhaps don’t stare into a mirror or lock your current state of mind onto a page. Then again, that might be a wonderful release. But if it’s all too much to try to get out in words or images, try taking your sadness or fear to a water’s edge – gazing into a pond or river or puddle.
There can be a fear of “going under” if I begin to look. I know I’m not the only one who can Cling to the belief that “you shouldn’t feel this way” or that “you must stay positive”. In that clinging, I add to my suffering. We feel what we feel. And when we resist it, it can cry out more insistently to be seen and heard.
Maybe we think, “what’s the point of feeling this, it doesn’t change anything”. Then again, why not keep gentle company with our mourning or despair? Why waste energy trying to push it away?
There can be a fear of “slipping” so far below that surface that I lose connection with friends, reality, life. Okay, I can see and hear that fear when it arises. As it is. And I can be gentle. No need to dive in. No need to force my gaze. Just dip a toe. Take a short and gentle glance, then try again later.
This is a state of choice – seeing our reflection in any given moment. It’s different to how we may have experienced fear or sadness as a child. I think our mind and body is wise to resist pain. It wants to keep us safe from tossing ourselves “in the deep end” of being with overwhelming feelings. That might be how we were treated as children – pushed headlong into fearful or embarassing situations with no choice or control. And now, you’re in charge of how deep and how long and how kindly you look … if at all. You can see whatever is … and look away if you need a break.
But try it. Please. On the ever-moving surface of water’s reflection, you just might find a surprising abundance of companionship, acknowledgement and perspective.
Yes, the sensations in our body are real.
Yes, the thoughts might be racing.
Yes, there are reasons for our concerns that others might find hard to understand.
We might have such regret, despair or worry.
But we are free to see it as it is, as gently as we can. We can be curious about our body’s sensations and passing thoughts, just as they are in this moment. We can see all our thoughts and sensations ripple in facial expressions across the surface. We can acknowledge them as being as present as the sky and trees or buildings that might surround your reflection on the water.
And if there’s a craving to be somewhere else, to be something else, to be free of a feeling this strong … we can see that longing in our own eyes, quivering or churning in the water. We can have compassion for its intensity, its agony.
Maybe you’re facing a situation that can’t be changed. Maybe you’re experiencing circumstances that are as far beyond your control as the tide that made this river or the downpour that filled this gutter. Maybe you’re feeling guilt or shame. Maybe pausing for a self-portrait is the last thing that feels helpful or kind right now.
We can see all our thoughts and sensations ripple in facial expressions across the surface. We can acknowledge them as being as present as the sky and trees or buildings that might surround your reflection on the water.
No matter what, you’re worth seeing and hearing … just as you are. You’re worth whatever solace you can find in water and air and being out in nature, or in pausing to drink and look into a long glass of water.
In doing so, I believe you open up a greater capacity within yourself to give and receive care in your relationships with others too.
If paint and paper are too solid for this painful moment, would you like to find water somewhere?
May you find a gentle surface to see and hold tenderly whatever is present for you right now.
Maybe, like ducks and geese and birds, our life from moment-to-moment includes churning and guarding as well as flowing and gliding.
Visual meditation in response to Henri Fantin-Latour’s ‘self-portrait’, image of his artwork is courtesy National Gallery of Art Washington.