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Center for Action and Contemplation

The Mirroring Gaze

Tuesday, May 1, 2018


The Mirroring Gaze
Tuesday, May 1, 2018

As I shared early last month, infants see themselves mirrored in their caregiver’s eyes. [1] This gaze begins to form mirror neurons that are thought to be the physiological basis for empathy. Babies and children who receive loving mirroring and modeling can grow into adults capable of I-Thou relationships, tenderness, and closeness—with other beings and with God.

James Finley, one of CAC’s core faculty members, sees the brain activity shown by parts of the brain “lighting up” during moments when a baby and parent are mirroring each other as similar to what happens in the exchange of divine and human gazes:

When God gazes at us and we gaze at God we light up. . . . And God lights up with joy of being recognized by the one that God created in God’s own image and likeness for the very sake of this recognition. It’s a state of visceral, emotional, intimate communion; a tender recognition of oneness that we might rest in it, resting in us . . . resting in this communion in each other, as each other, through each other, beyond each other in this endless interconnectedness of life itself, of love. [2]

Healthy relationships and spirituality lead us beyond the human level of feeling special and loved to allow this same divine mirroring with every living thing. It’s not just people who love you that you can return the gaze to, but it is the way you see everything: the grasshopper in the grass, the flower on the bush, the blue sky, even the would-be enemy.

The mirror, according to Zen masters, is without ego and without mind. Everything is revealed as it really is. There is no dis­criminating mind or self-consciousness on the part of the mirror. If something comes, the mirror reflects it; if the object moves on, the mirror lets it move on. The mirror is always empty of itself and therefore able to receive the other. The mirror has no pre­conditions for entry or acceptance. It receives and reflects back what is there, nothing more and nothing less. The mirror is the perfect lover and the perfect contemplative.

If we are to be a continuation of God’s way of seeing, we must, first of all, be mirrors. We must be no-thing so that we can receive some-thing. To love demands a transformation of consciousness, a transformation that has been the goal of all saints, mystics, and gurus. And the transformation of consciousness is this: we must be liberated from ourselves, which is done by somehow becoming the other. Think of Paul’s famous “I live no longer, not I, but with the life of Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is not fantastic religious poetry, it is the heart of the experience of human and divine love. What we allow ourselves to see is what we eventually become.

The Jewish scholar, Martin Buber (1878-1965), said that the modern world has mostly entered into an I-it relationship with reality, when we were in fact created for a constant I-Thou relationship. The I-Thou relationship is an attitude of reverence and mutuality in which we encounter people, things, and events as subject to subject, knowing and being known, giving and receiving, tak­ing insofar as we can also surrender. In this fully mature state, those in I-Thou relationships refuse to objectify anything or anyone, but always allow things and people to be a fellow subject—even those they might dislike.

[1] See Richard Rohr’s meditation, “Bodily Knowing,” April 4, 2018,

[2] James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 7 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download.

Richard Rohr, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download;
Richard Rohr, Essential Teachings on Love (Orbis Books: 2018), 134-135.

Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Love is the most powerful force or energy in the universe. That power is multiplied in relationships. Love’s potency is released most powerfully among people who have formed a relationship. —Louis Savary and Patricia Berne
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