A few mornings ago, Google Photos kindly invited me to look at photos taken two years ago to the day, beckoning me towards a plethora of memories that have been largely untouched for a while.
It has always been one of my favourite things to do – revisit the past, browse through old photographs; videos and emails, and note all the ways I’ve changed since then. It feels like a snake shedding its skin and coming back to the same spot next spring to find the remnants still there; the skin is shrivelled, tattered but its identifying marks remain – a ring here, a scale there.
And it so often happens that when we look at our past selves, we cringe. Oh my god, did I really laugh like that? What am I wearing? My hair’s a mess!
Quick to scan, even quicker to fault.
A friend I deeply respect and adore said the other day, “When a person complains about the small issues, it is never about those issues. It is about something much deeper.”
A glaringly simple and mostly overlooked truth. Why? I have learnt that that’s the pull of the insecure ego – the part of us that demands we show arrogance, compels us to preen and draft a life of self-importance. It is also the part of us that pushes us to be hard on ourselves, critically analysing ourselves into a shallow grave.
Did I then really want to delve into this wormhole that Google enticingly positioned as a notification? What to do, what to do?
In a workshop I attended a few years ago, we had been instructed to bring a small hand mirror with us. Towards the end, the facilitator asked us to pull out our mirrors, find a corner and for five minutes, look at ourselves. “Don’t just look,” she said.
We shower upon the ones we love – partner, parent, child, Guru – copious doses of adoring, reverent, warm and affectionate words. Would we, one morning, be able to wake up, gaze at ourselves in the mirror and utter those same words to the face looking back at us?
That evening in the workshop, I took a breath and hesitantly looked in the mirror. Involuntarily, I flinched. But with the quiet that had descended upon the room, I gathered that we were all going through the same thing. And so, I pushed myself to keep looking. And gradually, I began to really look.
The filter of self-derision slowly began to melt, leaving behind a kind of timid softness, a pensiveness I had not seen before. “What are you going to do with me?”, the gaze seemed to ask before stretching into a small smile.
It has been five years since those five minutes. Five long years since I was given the insight that the love I felt for the people in my life was not love at all – it was merely a by-product of a conditioned belief, that we must bestow care upon the people who care for us.
Is this kind of love even authentic?
The gaze in the mirror will tell us.
This seemingly small exercise drove home the importance of self-purification. I could not be truly kind or compassionate or loving until I filled myself up with those qualities. And these qualities would never find a home in my heart as long as I continued to view myself with scorn, ridicule and shame.
If I professed to love the people I love so much, shouldn’t this love have been filling me up, full to bursting? There should have been no room for envy, hatred and anger at all if my love was so immense, so beautiful, so sacrificial. But there was plenty of room and not just ‘a’ room – a three-bedroom apartment was more like it.
And so began the process of emptying. The first lesson I was shown, a very, very hard one, was that as long as I continued to appreciate myself based on others’ validation, love would always remain a guest in my heart.
The lead character in a sitcom I enjoy watching says, “Do you know how sometimes when you look at someone, there’s this one bewitching little detail that makes you fall in love with them? The lilt of her laugh, the crunch of her nose, the book she’s reading which you love?”
The tenderness in this remark always brings a smile to my face. And it served to drive home the above lesson because it raised an important question – did I want someone else pointing out this lilt in my laugh or did I want to discover it for myself? 🙂
The second lesson was, if possible, even more challenging. If the ultimate human state is equanimity, why did I seek love and joy with so much fervour but shy away from anger and jealousy? Do they not deserve the same treatment?
Paraphrasing, in the same sitcom, another lead character is asked, “What do you want to do in life?”
“I want to end poverty,” she says.
“Then it’s simple. From here on out, every action you take must be geared towards that.”
And that was the third lesson. What did I really want out of life? And if I knew, were all my decisions leading to that goal? And if they were, why was nothing happening?
Which lead me straight to my fourth lesson, surrender. I knew what I wanted, my decisions were leading me there, but, as a mentor once shared with me, it was not the wish of the universe for the boat or its rower to move. The only thing left then? To surrender, pray and understand the essence of living the life I had chosen.
Which brought me back to four mornings ago. Did I want to confront the past again so soon? I had just put myself through the wringer a few weeks ago. Shouldn’t I wait a while?
Oh, what the heck. I was just going to do it.
Wormhole, here I come then.
I pressed the notification and plunged headlong into my gallery. I flicked through the photos, swiping left, pausing at videos, scrolling past countless memories.
And things were… different. There was a litheness to my body I hadn’t noticed before, my hair a beautiful mess of curls that took on a life of their own and a small but sure twinkle in my eyes drawing me into the prank I had pulled two years ago, appearing now on the screen in front of me, shattering the time-space continuum.
Watching myself pull my mother into a ballroom dance before falling at her feet and insisting she bless me or else she would not be allowed to cook lunch, I laughed. A phenomenal discovery I made as I began treading this path was the re-emergence of my child-like spirit. The more I surrendered and allowed myself to be cleansed, the more fun I had, the simpler everything seemed.
The lessons have been shown. And until we are finished learning, we are never done. Every day is an opportunity to make a fresh choice and when we make the choice to move towards learning (about ourselves, the world), no matter how painful, we are rewarded.
One of the simpler rewards is being allowed to revisit memories. It is a tangible reminder to be easy on ourselves while showing us how far we have come. The occasional scar will pop up, letting us know that healing is never linear; it is a back-and-forth, up-and-down beautiful dance that moves only to the rhythm of our beats from the past. And when we learn to dance with it, rejoicing in the tattered and gorgeous skin we have shed, life will show us the door to a love and joy we have never known before.
And then, when we gaze in the mirror, we will know.
Our love is authentic.