Smoke and mirrors

A blue, green, and yellow flame with burned branches around it

Many spaces around me have felt increasingly strung out, dysregulated, unpredictable, tapped out, insecure, frenzied, and irritable. In contrast, in the past two weeks, I’ve been on two different incredibly therapeutic work trips. I was in communities that were more than an aggregation of a bunch of people. We were in dynamic negotiations of needs, attunement, and co-regulation with a shared vision for our community as a whole. We were supportive and compassionate mirrors to each other. We easily asked for support and comfort. We told each other how we were really doing, what the actions of others meant to us, what we wanted for each other, and what gave us a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

There are two ideas I want to share about what I think the difference is in these two kinds of communities. First, I want readers to notice how we currently serve as smoky mirrors to each other in many of our communities, from Don Manuel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. Second, I want to offer a strategy for being a truer mirror to people in your communities, from Ora North’s I Don’t Want to Be an Empath Anymore.

Smoky Mirrors

In The Four Agreements, Don Manuel Ruiz references a smoky mirror that gives us hazy, foggy reflections of our worth. The smoky mirror filters our gaze of ourselves and each other based on our compliance with (white patriarchal capitalist ableist supremacy) social norms that are domesticating, disciplining, constraining, and punishment-based. It calls to my mind the phrase ‘smoke and mirrors,’ projecting an illusion, a false facade, a sleight of hand, breaking the laws of nature, and making the impossible appear real. Examples of our smoky mirrors are our curated Facebook/Instagram perfect lives, published academic papers recounting only the “successes” of our studies, and status symbols of our socio-economic climbing. 

Communities with smoky mirrors might only be aggregations of people, bonded together because of shared history (“this is the way we’ve always done it”) and/or shared capitalist responsibility. With a smoky mirror, we see our worth through the filter of productivity, competition, responsibilities, urgency, scarcity, power in relation to one another, beauty in relation to a collectively agreed upon social construction, and a life purpose in servitude to more powerful others. Notice how a smoky mirror always reflects us in relation to our service and use to another. We take on fear-based survival strategies like dissociation and engage in dopamine-flooding reward behaviors to feel good temporarily. 

Currently, we’re not who we are meant to be.

“Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive – the risk to be alive and express what we really are. Just being ourselves is the biggest fear of humans. We have learned to live our lives trying to satisfy other people’s demands. We have learned to live by other people’s points of view because of the fear of not being accepted and of not being good enough for someone else.” Ora North’s I Don’t Want to Be an Empath Anymore.

In the communities I participated in the past two weeks – communities of care, accompaniment, and witness – I saw clearer mirrors through which we offered truer, trusting, and more humane reflections of each other. In these communities of genuine care, we shared a collective, communicated vision and engaged together in the sacred work of witness and support. We experienced comfort and bonding thanks to oxytocin – the same bonding hormone associated with mothers and babies, couples in early courtship bonding, and post-coital bonding. To me, it felt genuinely pleasurable to be in conversations and with these people at these two meetings. Some words I wrote down in my notes from these two weeks of meetings: 

  • Sacred
  • Belonging and uniqueness
  • Transcendence
  • Interbeing
  • Of the earth, air, and stars
  • Paradoxes and dialectic – the harmonious existence of both/and
  • Nuance and complexity
  • Genuine filial care in support of each others’ wellbeing

At the same time that our communities have competing commitments to capitalism through various means of status-building in our academic institutions, the communities I experienced these past two weeks felt like a priority commitment to humane care (see Robert Kegan’s and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s work, Immunity to Change). 

Pain alchemy affirmations

I am drawn to empaths, caretakers, and caregivers. I work specifically in the field of graduate student development and I see how we know how to support and help each other. We are a field of empaths and caretakers. And also, we are burning our candles at both ends as we continue to show up for our graduate students _even as_ we are burnt out and feeling exhausted and empty.  

For the empaths of the world, I offer the following insights from Ora North’s I Don’t Want to be an Empath Anymore.

“Saying ‘good vibes only!’ to an empath is like saying ‘Only half of you is allowed here!’ All these new age distortions employ spiritual bypassing, which encourages people to bypass their own pain and individual experiences, and results in a world full of people who pretend to be happy because they should, not because they are.”

“Empaths need validation for their feelings more than anything else, they need a different kind of affirmation…Empaths need to feel separate from the messiness of others before they can use oneness as a helpful spiritual ideal…their mission is first to be able to separate from everyone else and see themselves in their independence before striving for oneness. Empaths are always the first to experience the shadow side of oneness.”

“The goal of pain alchemy affirmations is to literally alchemize pain into something beautiful and healing.” 

Here is my summary of Ms. North’s wisdom:

Imagine a conversation where a friend tells you about something difficult and painful that happened to them. 

“I am hurt that….

…my colleague didn’t recognize my contributions to the project.”

…I don’t feel like my expertise matters to my officemates.”

As the friend and true mirror to this revelation, name and validate the pain. 

“I know that…

…it hurts to not be noticed for how much you put into the work.”

…it feels demeaning to not be recognized as an expert in this field.”


“I know it’s important to you that…

… everyone receives proper acknowledgement and gratitude for their efforts.”

… you feel like you and your contributions matter as part of the team.”

That’s it. That’s all. That’s the care many of us need to feel and hear. We want to know that our experiences matter, that you deeply that you understand how it feels, and that you know why it matters to us. That is how a community of shared vision, genuine care, and sacred witnessing works.

One thought on “Smoke and mirrors

  1. Thank you so much for sharing these insights, making these connections, and highlighting perspectives from other healers/practitioners. I feel like I should print out this script at the end and give it to my loved ones so they know what care looks like for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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