When a beam of light travelling in one medium encounters a boundary with another medium, what generally happens is that some of the light passes into the second medium and some is reflected back into the first. How much of the light is reflected depends on the frequency spectrum of the light beam, on the angle at which it strikes the boundary, and on the optical properties of the two media in question. In Nature, we are familiar with reflections of the surrounding scenery in the calm surfaces of lakes and ponds and we observe that highly polished surfaces reflect more of the incident light than dull or matt surfaces. By making a suitable choice of materials and putting them together in certain ways, we are able to construct mirrors which reflect virtually all the light which falls on their reflective surfaces.
It is a truism that our eyes cannot see themselves. With the aid of a plane mirror, we can see ourselves (including our eyes) almost as others see us but not quite! When you view your reflection in a mirror, the ring on your left hand appears to be on your right. If the mirror is not plane, your image becomes distorted and the various parts of your body may appear to be out of proportion: witness the grotesque reflections seen in the 'distorting' mirrors sometimes found at fair grounds.
Nevertheless, with the aid of mirrors, we are able to see things about ourselves and our relationship to our environment that we could not otherwise be aware of. By using suitable combinations of mirrors, we may even be able to get some idea of what we look like from behind, a fact which may be of interest when we visit the dressmaker or the barber.
Because mirrors enable us to virtually gaze into our own eyes, the phenomenon of physical reflection affords an analogy which may help us to understand the more mysterious mental processes by which we can 'reflect' not only upon our experience of, and interaction with, the external world, but also upon ourselves as agents and observers. This gift of mental reflection seems to be more highly developed in human beings than in any other earthly creatures, and it is predominantly what sets us apart and enables us in certain circumstances to impose our own conditions and preferences on many other creatures and to modify some natural processes. It therefore behoves us to try to understand what reflection is and how it works. Hence the significance of the reflective floor in the Ardue Temple.
No analogy is perfect, and the physical mirror falls considerably short of the reality of mental reflection. However, we can learn quite a lot by noting aspects in which the analogy does, and does not, hold.
It seems to me that my main reason for reflecting upon my past experience is to gain a better understanding of myself and my relationship to my environment so that I may act more appropriately in the future. To put it another way, I want to learn to live as economically as possible. I find I learn at least as much from what I recognise in retrospect to have been mistakes as I do from actions which brought about the intended results. Learning not to repeat past mistakes requires effort by way of self-adjustment, whereas repeating 'satisfactory' behaviour is 'easy' and readily becomes a habit. For that reason, reflection is essential if I wish to improve not only the efficiency with which I act upon the objects in my environment but also the values which determine my own character so that my future actions may be 'appropriate' and not merely expedient.
Reflection is therefore appropriate when I am unsure how to proceed in any given situation. I feel I must stop whatever I am doing, and think about how (or whether) I should continue this 'primary' activity. Reflection is then a 'secondary' activity that helps me not only to understand the complexities and implications of my primary activity but also to clarify my own feelings and desires with respect to that activity.
When I reflect upon past experience, I am in effect recreating the experience from my recollection of it. Thus, when I am reflecting, what I am doing is becoming more fully conscious of something that I am re-experiencing (i.e. my recollection of some previous experience) and expressing that consciousness in some form which sums up my understanding and may also convey some appreciation of my understanding to other people. My own preferred medium of expression is English prose words, but poetry, drawing, painting, sculpture, music, dance, mathematics, or some other 'art' might be preferred by other people depending on the circumstances and their individual talents.
The first and chief beneficiary of my reflection and its expression is myself. Whether or not my attempt at expression conveys an accurate impression to other people depends not only upon my competence in the use of my chosen medium but also on their familiarity with that medium and, crucially, on their having some personal experience of the activity to which the expression refers. It seems to me impossible to convey any worthwhile impression of an experience connected with, for example, cycling or playing tennis to someone who has no direct experience of either, no matter how many hours they may have watched these activities on television and heard 'informed' comment about them. I feel that no matter how much I may watch other people skiing or sky-diving, I shall never be able to fully 'understand' or 'appreciate' their experience until I have tried them for myself. However, exponents of these activities may be able to convey some 'sense' of their experiences by using as analogies other experiences which are common to both of us.
Perhaps the most significant difference between physical reflection in a mirror and mental reflection is temporal. What we see in the physical mirror reflects only the conditions prevailing in the present instant: the image moves as we move and the image is lost when the mirror is taken away. In the case of mental reflection, the faculty of memory is called into play and the 'image' is re-created in our minds. In this respect, mental reflection is more akin to a photographic process and, indeed, individuals who can perfectly recall scenes or objects seen at some time in the past are said to have a 'photographic' memory. The mental ability to re-create images of past experiences enables us to re-interpret them every time we reflect and, by bringing the 'Light' of subsequent experiences and greater knowledge to bear, enables us to keep improving our understanding of earlier experiences. This, in turn, enables us to become more competent observers and agents when we encounter further experiences containing elements of a similar nature.
As with physical mirrors, what we can 'see' depends on the observed object being adequately lit, on our current point of view, and on the degree of attention or awareness with which we observe it. Similarly, our understanding of our past experience cannot be better than the faithfulness of our power of recall. This, in turn, depends not only on what we usually call our 'memory' but also on the clarity, accuracy and completeness of our original observation. If our recollection of what we have observed in the past is vague and inaccurate, its value as a contribution to knowledge is reduced. It is as if our mirror is dirty or 'misted over' causing the clarity of our reflection to be diminished. For this reason, it is important that we train ourselves to improve our awareness of what is currently going on around us and within us, i.e. of the 'immediate' experience which is the raw material for all our subsequent reflection. If we could live fully in the present rather than allow ourselves to be distracted by daydreaming about past or possible future experiences, our later recollection of our 'immediate' experience would be more accurate and reliable.
In case the last sentence may be misleading, let me point out that when we engage in mental reflection, it is desirable to make that our sole 'activity' and set a time and place aside for it so that we shall not be disturbed by extraneous business. Reflection then becomes our present occupation and we shall be able to concentrate upon it with full awareness of what we are doing. The clearer and more accurate our reconstruction of our past experience, the more likely it is that we shall gain insights which will serve as a sound basis for subsequent action in the everyday world. It may be unfortunate that many people tend to avoid any attempt at reflection preferring to occupy their minds with any sort of diversion rather than confront the truths about themselves and their circumstances which reflection might reveal.
Thought is one of the more important constituent activities in reflection. It is a mental activity which manipulates imaginary substitutes for real things in an attempt to resolve doubts and improve intellectual understanding of the actual activities of immediate life.
We should be aware that thought is an artificial abstraction from direct experience. When we think, we are setting ourselves apart from what we are thinking about. In ordinary, unreflective living, we live as part of the whole. Our immediate sense of time is of one continuous present whereas, when we think, we break our experience into separate moments and compare the experiential 'contents' of one moment with those of another. This destroys the immediacy and continuity of practical experience. Likewise, our immediate sense of space is of an infinite whole which is 'broken up' only by moving the focus of our attention from one object in space to another object in the same space. When we interact with our external environment, whether in work or play, we do so as part of the whole Cosmos without contrasting ourselves with the rest. When we reflect, we make a distinction between ourselves and what is not ourselves, and so have an artificial sense of standing isolated and apart from the rest of the world.
When we reflect, we recreate previous experiences in the form of mental images which act as substitutes for our experiential percepts (i.e. what we perceived during the actual experiences). The images we create may be identical in appearance and properties with the things we originally perceived but, for the sake of economy, we normally tend to omit details which are not relevant to the context of our reflection. Reduction of detail results in abstract generalised images which can for certain purposes serve as substitutes for several things. Ultimately, this process may result in the production of symbols.
For the purpose of this essay, a symbol is something that represents another thing which it may not resemble in any obvious way. If it is to convey the intended image, a symbol must be recognised consciously as a representative of that which it symbolises. We become familiar with many common conventional symbols through ordinary cultural interchange. However, there are many other symbols of a specialised nature whose full significance can be grasped only through deliberate study which defines them against the historical or mythical background from which they arose. This endows them with an aura which, in context, is capable of arousing many of the ideas, feelings and emotions appropriate to the things they represent. Think, for example, of the complex of responses a national flag may evoke.
A most important class of symbols is that represented by language, the primary function of which is communication between persons. Words in all languages are reduced images which have become symbols. In thinking, we tend to use the symbolism of language as an aid to clarifying our own thoughts and ideas. However, there are occasions when it is difficult to express our thoughts in words whose use is necessarily constrained by the conventions which are required if the language is to be a serviceable medium of communication. This consideration is particularly relevant to the expression of mystical thought.
We must distinguish between words (which are 'public' symbols) and ideas (which are 'private' symbols). The mystic may entertain unconventional ideas and use common words in uncommon ways to represent these ideas in mind. In 'publishing' such ideas, it may be necessary to restate them in different and more elaborate ways if the words we used privately to represent our ideas have been 'stretched' to carry meanings or nuances which would not be readily intelligible to members of a general public. For that reason, thought and expression of thought are two different activities.
That is why mystical principles are often expressed in parables stories which are designed to convey a message by suggesting appropriate parallels with everyday life. Parables work by focussing the attention on a particular point much as a parabolic reflector concentrates and focuses a beam of light. We should bear in mind that parables are liable to lose their effect as customs and cultures change over time, and they must continually be reviewed and renewed to make sense in modern times and circumstances. Much that is written in 'holy' books is incomprehensible to people today; tales of shepherds and fishermen have little meaning for the majority of city-dwellers. It therefore behoves us to be tolerant of the 'modernisers' who re-translate ancient texts as long as their efforts are directed to re-expressing eternal principles in modern idioms and not to modifying or abandoning them in the interests of political expediency.
We can imagine or "suppose" anything we like: but to "make sense" or to have "real value", our suppositions should bear some consistent relationship with each other and with our immediate experience. If they are to provide a sound basis for action in the external world, our thought processes must be verified with reference to immediate experience.
Reflective knowledge carries no guarantee of truth or certainty; but if we adopt the scientific method and make a habit of testing our reflective speculations against our experience of our personal interaction with the environment, we gradually develop imaginative symbolic models in whose rationality and relevance we become increasingly confident. Such models then enable us to make judgments of value and act as reliable guides for responsible action.
Our Temple 'model' is offered as a simple systematic approach to the qualitative evaluation of our suppositions by acting upon them, observing whether or not the practical results of our actions turn out to accord with our expectations, and modifying our suppositions as necessary in the Light of reflection upon our 'experimental' findings.
The foregoing section concerns our reflections upon our personal interaction with anything and everything which is external to the physical envelopes we call our bodies. The person is the subject which acts and observes; the external environment is the object which is acted upon and reacts or responds in some way to the person's action.
But we are also able to reflect upon ourselves and our mental processes which, if we are to be responsible agents, ultimately determine how we shall act in and upon the external environment. Looking inside ourselves, we find an interior world in which we build our models of the exterior world and in which we can observe the operation of consciousness as we go about our mental work. When we are observing ourselves, who or what does the observing? There must obviously be some distinction between the observer and the observed, and it may be necessary to draw this distinction if we are to understand ourselves and 'what makes us tick'. The analogy of the mirror may help us reach such an understanding.
When I go for a haircut, the barber's chair almost invariably has a large mirror in front of it in which I can see my own frontal reflection and watch the barber at work. But although I can get some idea of the results of his work on the top and at the sides of my head, I cannot see what I look like from behind. So when the barber is ready, he gets a small mirror and holds it behind me in various positions at such an angle that I can see what my new haircut looks like to an observer who is standing behind or to one side of me. I get this view from the reflection in the large mirror in front of me of the small mirror the barber is holding: what I am actually looking at is the reflection of a reflection. Clearly, this reflection of reflections could be continued for as many generations as the number of available mirrors. But all the time, the observer is my 'inner' self, and what I observe is a variety of images of my 'outer' self and my surroundings as if they were seen from different points of view.
Reverting to mental reflection, I can reflect upon my immediate experience of the external world in much the same way as I can watch the barber at work but with the important difference that, after the event, I must mentally re-create the 'reflection' by re-collecting the relevant data from my immediate experience, re-presenting them as suitable images, and re-forming the original picture to the best of my ability. I can watch the operation of that part of my mind which re-creates the image again in much the same way as I watch the barber at work. I can appraise the results of my re-creation in much the same way as I can appraise the results of the barber's work against my aesthetic idea of the sort of image I wish to present to the world.
From this, I tentatively suggest that the mind behaves in some important ways as if it consists of several mirrors (or levels of awareness) which may be arranged in various ways to enable one and the same 'Observer' to obtain an all-round view of Itself. But who or what is this 'Observer'?
Finding a satisfying answer to this question is left as an exercise for the reader! Who do you think you are?
The analogy of the mind as a complex of mirrors helps me to begin to appreciate the significance of some of the ideas of Hermetic philosophy, notably that the human being reflects the entire Cosmos. If this is true, it implies that by observing myself and my mental operation, I could get an 'inside' view of the operation of the Cosmos in my reflective mirror. This would enable me to acquire mystical knowledge which could widen and enrich the limited understanding of the Cosmos which is all I can acquire scientifically as a detached observer looking only at the external world. The only way to find out is to try it.
Thus, I see no conflict between science and mysticism: they are mutually complementary, and both are necessary if we are to fully explore the significance of our existence. Hence the importance of setting time aside for reflection.
Thinking is only one of the mental processes which may contribute to reflection. Instead of thinking about thinking as such, it may be helpful to analyse reflection into the processes (or techniques) of concentration, contemplation, and meditation.
Concentration is the objective activity of observation, of focussing attention upon the immediate contents of consciousness, and primarily upon sense stimuli received in the form of vibrations from the external environment. It is the activity involved in reading a book, observing a scene, appraising a work of art, listening attentively to music. The better our concentration, the more faithfully shall we later be able to recall what we have observed.
Contemplation is the subjective activity which constitutes what we normally refer to as thinking. The consciousness is focussed on the subsidiary activities of re-collection of data, assembling the data as mental images, reasoning about the ideas thus symbolised in the mind, re-assembling these ideas into alternative arrangements, and evaluating the sensations, feelings and emotions of which we become aware during the process.
Concentration and contemplation are willed activities of mind requiring deliberate effort which is probably why they are sometimes referred to collectively as 'deliberation'. By contrast, meditation is a passive state of mind requiring no effort except that of initially calming and stilling the mind so that it more closely resembles the surface of a pool of water on a calm day. In meditation, we are simply allowing our consciousness to receive vibratory impressions and suggestions without interference from any other mental activity consciously generated by ourselves.
Meditation is commonly thought of as being 'difficult' but only because of the initial difficulty of stilling the mind in which 'stray' thoughts are liable to arise at random beyond our wilful control. Rather than try to control our thoughts, we should allow them to float lightly across the surface of our minds and endeavour instead to control the emotions which any thoughts we allow ourselves to dwell on are liable to arouse within us. It is emotion which disturbs our calm, inhibits our relaxation, and tends to arouse us into some sort of activity whether mental or bodily. Suppressing emotion may be more easily said than done, but there are preparations we can make to lessen the likelihood of emotional disturbance.
Perhaps the most important thing we can do is attend to urgent mundane affairs, particularly any which are of a worrisome nature, before we begin. Then we should ensure as far as possible that we shall not be disturbed by any external distractions such as ringing telephones for however long we hope to meditate which might reasonably be anything from five minutes to half an hour depending on circumstances. Finally, we should settle in a position sufficiently comfortable to reduce the likelihood of being disturbed by feelings of bodily discomfort but not so comfortable as to introduce the likelihood of falling asleep. The object is to enter a state of passive awareness, not dormancy.
Rather than try to 'think of nothing at all', many people find it helpful to focus the mind on one 'seed' thought as a starting point and let the meditation take its course from there. It is hoped that readers will find the 'Food for Thought' calendar a fertile source of seeds for meditation.
And that's essentially all there is to it! When you are relaxed and at ease, just allow your consciousness to be itself. You may or may not receive new and interesting impressions. Often, these will contain answers to questions or solutions to problems which you have been mulling over for some time. When you receive an insight of particular significance, there is no reason why you should not terminate your meditation and make a note of your impression while it is still fresh in your mind. One significant impression should be enough for one meditation. Just be thankful and appreciative of the gift you have received, and include it in your programme for application and verification in your everyday life.
Before bringing this essay to a conclusion, I feel I must remind readers that the phenomenon of reflection is not restricted to the narrow band of wavelengths constituting visible light: it applies to vibrations of all frequencies. Of particular interest to the mystic is its application to sound. Sound reflections are so important that we give them a special name: we call them echoes.
Whereas the interpretation of visual data involves the intellect and pictures must be interpreted before they arouse our emotions, sound seems to appeal directly to the feelings and it adds an extra dimension to our appreciation of beauty. Sounds associated with beautiful experiences echo in our consciousness. In meditation, some people (such as myself) find that they tend to receive impressions as if through a 'still, small voice' rather than in the form of mental 'pictures'.
Music is used in films to increase the emotional impact of particular scenes. Poems, already made memorable by combinations of rhyme and rhythm, may be set to music so that they may be sung to further enhance their appeal. The impact of plain prose is enhanced by being spoken aloud. I feel that beauty in language is an important ingredient in the perennial appeal of the plays of Shakespeare and accounts also for the haunting quality of many passages in the King James Version of the English Bible which was 'authorised to be read [aloud] in churches'.
The relationship between sound and feeling is 'echoed' in the words we use. We refer to ourselves as 'persons', a word which is derived from the Latin per sonare, meaning 'through sound'. We say that something 'rings true' or 'has a false ring to it'. It is easier to convey false impressions though writing than in specch.
We are reminded that language was originally intended to be spoken: its conversion into visual symbols was a much later and derivative development. It behoves those of us who have some pretensions as writers to bear this fact constantly in mind and try to write prose that is easily intelligible when read aloud. I hope readers will test the quality of my literary efforts by reading some paragraphs aloud and let me know if they feel I haven't done my job properly.
Perhaps our earlier question regarding personal identity might profitably be recast: "Who do you FEEL you are?".
The main purpose of the Ardue Temple is to stimulate reflection on our personal experience using all the Lights which are available to us. It also gives contemporary friends an opportunity of shining their own Lights on our day-to-day problems. To that end, readers are invited to contribute their own thoughts on the subject of Reflection for compilation into essays for our mutual enlightenment.