Self-Discovery Portal

Mirror Therapy
by Art Ticknor

Walt Whitman traveled to Virginia during the Civil War to look for his brother, who had been wounded at Fredericksburg. He wrote to his mother about the "heap of feet, arms, legs &c." he saw under a tree in front of a hospital tent. He then spent three years attending to wounded soldiers, which led to the "Drum Taps" section of his evolving and growing masterwork Leaves of Grass.

A common phenomenon of the soldiers with amputated limbs was feeling those missing limbs, and frequently the feelings were painful. Silas Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia doctor who became a friend and correspondent of Whitman's, kept a medical notebook documenting the "sensory ghosts" of the amputees from the battle of Gettysburg, thinking he was the first person to do so. However, as Jonah Lehrer points out in Proust Was a Neuroscientist, a dozen years earlier Herman Melville gave Captain Ahab a sensory ghost of the leg eaten by his nemesis, Moby-Dick. Ahab tells the carpenter who's fashioning an ivory replacement leg, "here is only one distinct leg to the eye, yet two to the soul," and says that he felt tingling life there just as before.

amputated limb mirror therapy Mitchell felt that the amputees' sensory ghosts supported Whitman's poetry, which stated that matter and spirit were not separate but intertwined. He wrote an anonymous short story, "The Case of George Dedlow" (published in The Atlantic Monthly and available now as a free e-book) giving a first-person fictional account of waking up in a hospital tent with all his limbs missing.

I saw a segment on a TV news program recently showing a treatment for phantom limb pain that's simple and surprisingly effective. Navy doctor Jack Tsao prescribed it for artillery sergeant Nicholas Paupore, who was wounded in Iraq.

Participants in a trial administered by Tsao[1] used the mirror therapy technique – simply moving the leg, watching the movement in the mirror and imagining that the missing leg is making the movements – 15 minutes a day, five days a week for four weeks. Pain levels came down the first week and continued down. Every person experienced relief, with pain completely disappearing for some. Paupore and some others were able to get off painkillers entirely. "It tricks your brain into thinking your leg is still there, so it's not misfiring," Paupore said. "I don't know how it works, but it works."

Pain is a signal that something's wrong. Seeing their missing legs in the mirror convinced the subconscious mental equipment that they were whole again and relieved the pain associated with the phantom limb.

Consider now, if you would, the existential pain that people suffer. I recall reading somewhere years ago that social outcasts were sometimes banished outside the protection of a city's walls and survived on the city's garbage dump – and I thought, "That's it!" We court the approval of others to fix some perceived lack – some missing limb – and fear the hell[2] of social ostracizing.

Even worse is the fear of annihilation. We believe we're separate creatures, and we know the creature's existence is threatened every moment. What will death bring? We don't know, so we latch onto beliefs and repeat those beliefs as a mantra whenever the subject of death passes through our awareness: We will continue on forever in the Happy Hunting Ground, in Paradise, in Heaven … or our molecules will gracefully disperse back into the cosmic soup … or we will slip placidly into the comforting oblivion of dreamless sleep. But those beliefs don't really eliminate the underlying fear; they merely provide distraction, like sticking our fingers in our ears and singing or talking loudly when we don't want to hear something someone is saying to us.

Can we apply mirror therapy to the existential pain?

dejected prisoner We believe ourselves to be individual human beings, irrevocably separate from whatever created us and from other human beings. No matter how close we get with another person, we never approach absolute knowing. And we feel even more not-one with whatever created us.

Our self-beliefs – for example, that the self is a separate entity; is somehow dependent on a body that was born and is going to die; is or has an individual consciousness; is limited, changing, vulnerable, uncertain – cause psychological turmoil and suffering. Like the amputee's phantom limb pain, it is phantom-self pain. Panic attacks (fear of dying or going insane, which reflect the fear of losing the phantom self) and depression (based on the conviction that something that's necessary to our happiness is not possible to attain) are extreme examples.

Have you ever stopped to wonder how it is that we know we're conscious? Our self-consciousness indicates a mirroring effect that's already taking place in the mind. It's as if there's one part of us looking outward and another part of us that's looking backward, aware of the part that's looking outward. But what does that backward-looking part of us see? Nothing … no entity, no Wizard of Oz making things happen … an empty, boundless, changeless, aware non-space.

We have a feeling of what we are. Sure, that's our bike, our car, our toes, and so on, but we feel we're essentially something deeper than those things. We feel that we're what's aware … aware of external things but also of inner things such as thoughts and feelings … and also, somehow, mysteriously self-aware.

We believe mightily that we're a separate, isolated entity attempting to know an unknown self … as if we needed to look into a reflection of our eyes and, in that mirror image, see a reflection back into our "real eye." The hang-up is that we can't conceive of direct seeing without an intermediary. We can't conceive of seeing without a separate seer doing the seeing. We can't conceive of our self as not being a separate seer. How do we get beyond this phantom-seer pain?

Looking for the self, we need to notice what we're looking at (i.e., what we're aware of) and continue looking at it until we see, intuitively, what its relationship is to us. To do this systematically, we begin with more exterior objects – like bikes, cars and toes – and move inward to thoughts, feelings, and beyond. Doing occasional credo exercises to identify our current beliefs about what we are, or what we become identified with, provides us with ongoing material for investigation. All the while, we compare what we're looking at to the feeling of what we really are: that which is aware, which we sense (intuit) from the mirroring aspect of awareness itself.

Letting go of faulty self-beliefs may cause some jolts, but if we persist, we will get down to a final faulty self-belief … and a final jolt will leave us with a recognition of direct seeing and absolute knowing.



[2] The Old Testament term "hell" is a translation of the Hebrew word Gehennam, which Wikipedia says derives from "Ge Hinnom," meaning "Valley of Hinnom" – the location of the burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem.

Book: Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer.

In addition to, and are good sources of new and used books.

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