The human lens is inherently distorted. We are unable to see, to perceive, without filtering what is seen through a unique set of experiences and expectations. We are, each of us, like a human version of Instagram, recoloring and retouching everything that we witness. We change the proportion, the lighting, the angle, without even being aware. AI has nothing on the human mind. Everything you believe you see has been remastered by passing into your sight.
Perception is perhaps nowhere more warped than when we are looking at ourselves. Viewing the self holds inherently existential challenges. If what is seen is altered by the seer, we are truly slipping into a Wonderland mirror maze when self-observing. Into the looking glass darkly we gaze, seeing darkness reflected back in countless replications. Curiouser and curioser, and ever more obscure.
All the same, we each encounter moments where we suddenly see ourselves with piercing clarity, crystalline glimpses into a truth rarely witnessed in the mirror of the mundane. In these moments, we bear witness to our deepest truths. In these moments, we transcend beyond the blurred line dividing the witness and the witnessed.
These moments rarely come when we are gazing in the mirror, hoping to see past our thoughts, our biases, our expectations. Instead, they descend upon us when there is no time to reflect. They are the opposite of the drive you've taken so many times that you can leave Point A, reach Point B, and recall nothing in between. These glimpses of personal reality come when we are fully immersed in being the person we struggle to see in the mirror. It is only from our peripheral vision that we notice her, that we spy him.
In these sidelong moments we're offered the chance to realize who we've become, who has replaced, surpassed, the vision we believe we see in the looking glass. In these moments, we bear witness to our own expanding radiance. In these moments, when our eyes are turned away, at last we see with clarity.
I am blessed with a regular opportunity to stand in this house of mirrors, in the form of a twice-annual women's retreat that I host. Without fail, FEnomenon offers me the opportunity to witness my growth as I gaze away from myself and into the eyes of my community. At my first retreat, in 2021, I watched in wonder as an unplanned theme emerged, a materialization made possible only by my recently acquired ability to let go.
As presenter after presenter spoke from their own heart and offered a message that tied seamlessly into the spirit of the others who had or would take the stage, I came to realize that I could never have planned such an outcome. On the heels of this realization, the knowing that I had learned to release outcomes, and the glorious understanding that an energy whose planning skills far eclipsed mine would take care of such things for me, always. In this hindsight I was humbled, and suddenly aware of how far I'd come from a woman who felt paralyzed with panic any time she felt out of control. Until that moment, I hadn't realized I had shed that persona, that wings had grown where chains once bound. With my focus on creating a retreat, I'd simultaneously created the space in which to witness my emergent self.
Next came the fall 2021 retreat, which took place one scant week after my daughter's bachelorette party in California. To attend both events, I took work with me on the flight, where I scripted my final presentation on paper (as is my style) and carried my laptop, to complete final tasks in stolen moments of downtime. Within hours of arriving in sunny Napa, our rental car was broken into. Very little was stolen. Only my carry-on. Which contained my laptop, holding my poorly backed-up files for the retreat, and my notes.
Six days to bingo and three days to spend celebrating my only bride to be, I focused my eyes on this potentially devastating blow. Suddenly I could see her there, on the periphery; the woman I had become. Just six months prior she'd realized she could let go and trust. Now she was acing her final exam.
As I stayed present with my daughter and carefully reconstructed what had been lost, I shot glances at her, the expanded version of who I used to be. If I looked directly in the mirror, it was hard to see her. The shadows of hustle, mistrust, lack, and anxiety still seemed to crease her face. But what my old filters offered when I was gazing head on disappeared when my focus was elsewhere. The truth of my evolution was there, revealing the untruth of what I might perceive in any given moment.
This spring I hosted my fifth FEnomenon retreat, and I was once again offered the chance to glimpse, sidelong, the expansion I've achieved. Life, as it turns out, does not care what you have scheduled. It's not in the least concerned with how many weeks you spent planning, in how many places you've posted information, how many souls have paid you for a select experience. In an echo of last fall's event, at the last minute this spring, one of my presenters let me know she might not make it to the stage. Her kids had been ill, and on Friday night it was evident that she was coming down with the same bug. She was first on the schedule Saturday morning.
At 6:00 a.m. on Saturday a flurry of text messages and phone calls began. Yes, she had been ill all night. No, she wouldn't make it today. Maybe tomorrow. Fingers crossed. I quickly rearranged our schedule, amidst showering and preparing for the day. Multiple pivots took place. Two presenters changed their time slots, filling the schedule for Saturday and leaving room for hope on Sunday. I formulated a back-up plan. One of the creators in our community approached me to say she could speak with no notice; put me in coach. The day was seamless, and in the end Saturday morning's presentation happened on Sunday, which felt like perfect timing for this offering (see the lesson from FEnomenon 1.0).
It wasn't until I was driving home from the venue, talking with husband on the phone, that I saw her, that other me. I told him how often this event allows me to witness my growth, how I had so skillfully and effortlessly navigated this hiccough. "So you're better at adapting to stress?" he asked. No, I replied. There was no stress. The woman I have become felt no stress, only that trust that two-years-ago Deb was just beginning to understand. My anticipated experience, the view in the mirror, might have included stress. But the reality, the view available as I was too busy pivoting to gaze directly at myself, was one consisting solely of trust and capability.
With the luxury to time to view myself straight on, I might have seen, through 48 years of filters, a woman who worries. A woman who hates changes in the plan, who struggles to adapt and overcome. A woman who prefers situations where every variable is controllable, and who avoids those where they are not. I might have seen who I once was, instead of who I truly am. But these moments of clairvoyance, of glimpsing the divine reality at the edge of our distorted perception, don't arise when time is a luxury. These magic moments of true sight come when our gaze is focused elsewhere.
To witness who you are becoming, keep your eyes focused on the stuff of life, but allow your awareness to expand to its margins. Notice, in hindsight, what you can do now that would have once been impossible for you. Witness your choices, your reactions, in retrospect and feel the wonder of watching your own evolution. Notice your new edges not by feeling for them directly, but by allowing yourself to become surprised when you suddenly find yourself filling space in an entirely novel way. Don't ask the mirror. Watch the wings. Your unfoldment is waiting there.