The “Mirror of the Self” Test

15 May 2010

When we really like something we read, we sometimes feel as if we had written it. Out loud we say we “wish” we had written it — but inside we feel differently. We feel, somehow, as if we did write it.

The bulk of this week’s post is the product of my happily typing out one of those kinds of passages. I have typed out word for word a piece or two of that section of The Nature of Order which lays out why and how we can trust the ground of our lives to be luminous.

The section is entitled, “Liking Something From The Heart”:

Let us start with the idea of liking. What we do as artists, in the realm of building, really depends on what we like. What society builds depends on ideas that are shared about what people like. But contemporary ideas of what is likable are extremely confused. It is a current dogma that you may like what you wish, and that it is an essential part of democratic freedom to like whatever you decide to like. This occurs at a time when the mass media have taken over our ideas of what is likable to an extent unknown in human history. Thus if one were pessimistic, one might even say that there is very little authentic liking in our time. What people like can often not be trusted, because it does not come from the heart.

On the other hand, real liking, which does come from the heart, is profoundly linked to the idea of life in things. Liking something from the heart means that it makes us more whole in ourselves. It has a healing effect on us. It makes us more human. It even increase the life in us. Further, I believe that this liking from the heart is connected to perception of real structures in the world, that it goes to the very root of the way things are, and that it is the only way in which we can see structures as they really are.

As we begin to appreciate this liking from the heart, we shall find out a number of important things about it.

1. The things we like (from the heart) make us feel wholesome when we are near them.
2. We also feel wholesome when we are making these things. As we make them, and after making them, we feel whole in ourselves, healed, and right with the world.
3. The more accurate we are about what we really like, in this sense of liking from the heart, the more we find out that we agree with other people about which these things are.
4. What we like from the heart coincides with the objective structure of wholeness or life in a thing. As we get to know the “it” which we like from the heart, we begin to see that this is the deepest thing there is. It applies to all judgments — not just about buildings and works of art, but also about actions, people, everything.
5. There is an empirical way in which we can help ourselves to find out what we really like from the heart. Nevertheless, it is not easy to find out what we really like, and it is by no means automatic to be in touch with it. It takes effort, hard work, and personal enlightenment to understand it and to feel it. It requires liberation from opinions and concepts and ego to experience deep liking.
6. The reasons for the existence of this deep liking are mysterious, not obvious. To plumb them we shall have to examine the nature of things — even, ultimately, the nature of matter itself — very carefully. Nevertheless the reasons are empirical. We may determine, empirically, to what extent a thing has the ability to rouse this deep liking in us. It is not a private matter.
7. Somehow, the experience of real liking has to do with self. As we find out which things awaken real liking in ourselves, we find ourselves more in touch than before with our own selves.
8. When we find out the things we really like, we are also more in touch with all that is.

The ideas are a little strange (real liking, deep liking) and lofty, kind of “new-agey” in appearance (personal enlightenment, integrative healing, the objective structure of wholeness). Maybe this Oregon air I am living in is soaking too deeply into my blood, making me fall for ideas like this? This is how Alexander introduces the “empirical way” mentioned in Important Thing #5:

Suppose you and I are discussing this matter in a coffee shop. I look around on the table for things to use in an experiment. There is a bottle of ketchup on the table and, perhaps, an old-fashioned salt shaker. I ask you: “Which one of these is more like your own self?” Of course, the question appears slightly absurd. You might legitimately say, “It has no sensible answer.” But suppose I insist on the question, and you, to humor me, agree to pick one of the two: whichever one seems closer to representing you, your own self, in your totality.

Before you do it, I add a few more words. I make it clear that I am asking which of the two objects seems like a better picture of all of you, the whole of you: a picture which shows you as you are, with all your hopes, fears, weaknesses, glory and absurdity, and which — as far as possible — includes everything that you could ever hope to be. In other words, which comes closer to being a true picture of you in all your weakness and humanity; of the love in you, and the hate; of your youth and your age; of the good in you, and the bad; of your past, your present, and your future; of your dreams of what you hope to be, as well as what you are?

Later in the chapter he offers a final, impossible, yet for me the most effective way of pinpointing the feeling, independent of any idiosyncratic or autobiographical smoke: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death? If you were going to be reborn as one of these two things, then which one would you be?”

Now [he continues] I ask you again to look at the two things, the salt shaker and the ketchup bottle, and decide which of the two is a better picture of all that. In the experiments I have made, more than eighty percent of all the people who ask themselves this question choose the salt shaker. The result is, as far as my experiments can tell, independent of culture and personality. People make the same choice, whether they are young or old, man or woman, European or African or American.

This exercise he calls the “mirror of the self” test. With it Alexander is claiming, incredibly, that a person can take any two objects, yes, any two objects, and ask, “Which of these two objects is more like my self?” — and, from the perspective of liking something from the heart, there will be a right answer. That might seem almost offensive. But if we follow this claim to its conclusion, what he is in fact saying is this:

True life is so close, and so real, we cannot even tell, when we touch it, whether it is inside of us or outside of us. Those things and places which are alive are so personal in their nature it is difficult to identify them in any other way than as the heart’s beloved. Where this life is at its most intense, there is no quarreling, no dispute, about the beauty. Everyone agrees. Where it is less intense — in a way, this is “all” Alexander is saying — it simply takes greater attention to sense it, and a little more trust that, to some degree, it is there, and that it can be nurtured. The Mirror of the Self test is not a way of discerning what to throw away and what to keep. It is a way of exercising our hearts to what true life looks like, so we don’t forget. It is a way for staying awake, aware (as Ignatius might say) of what consoles us.


In place of a postlude for this week, I would like to point you in the direction of a spillover blog — let’s call it a “studio” — where I will be posting pictures of the chapel project I am apprenticing on this year, as well as other creative ventures — something of a working portfolio.

Most relevantly for this post, I have begun creating a series of Mirror of the Self tests, which you can also find there. Each test has a poll to go with it, to record the feeling of those who participate. It will be interesting to see if the results of these tests are as unanimous as Alexander’s!

But it is not to prove something either way that I am creating these tests. It is just for practice. This, like all the rest, is primarily for myself: I am finding I exercise my vision and my understanding of things much better if I am working toward sharing with others.

So the studio blog can be found at ““. I have placed a link in the tabs above, on the far right.


6 Responses to “The “Mirror of the Self” Test”

  1. mom said

    well the whole thing is very thought provoking, a little scarey, and very deep:) but you wrote it ( most of it) therefore I LOVE IT !!!!!!!!!!

    • Mom H, I’d be interested to hear what you find scary about this idea. It is definitely strange, and I have some idea of what you might mean — but I’d be curious to hear it from you…

  2. Chris E said

    I think the idea of why I “like” a particular thing is a concept that needs a lot of unpacking. We like a lot of things because others like them or because we are told they are likable, but I guess the larger question is: Can things have intrinsic likability? If they do, then there must be something much deeper, much bigger that draws us to things.

    I am also fascinated by the idea that things we deeply like make us feel whole when we are near them. I think that’s probably the only way I could describe why I like certain things and Alexander gives validity to this idea.

    I’m going to keep thinking about these ideas. Nice post.

    • Chris E,

      I appreciate your comment. I hope you might continue to share your thoughts about these ideas here! Thank you for introducing the mimetic liking question — I hope to try and address the reality of it in a post sooner than later.


  3. Lucas Harriman said

    Yes, I second Chris E’s “liking” of this post. For me, I like it because it puzzles me. How strange to think of intrinsic likability — especially after spending so much time surrounded by philosophical perspectives suspicious of anything intrinsic or essential. Not that I have become persuaded by such thought — especially since I stubbornly continue to worship the Creator of these very “things themselves” — but I have grown sympathetic to the needs and frustrations which have generated such philosophical skepticism.

    Another reason why the idea of this test intrigues me is the fact that I am privileged to be spending a lot of time with a very young human as he makes various discoveries and his own likes and dislikes gradually emerge (or are created/inflected/determined by his environment/parents/circumstances — I guess I’m not sure yet). I mean my 15-month son Maurice André, whose sense of wonder is highly contagious. There is certainly no doubt that he is drawn to certain objects, places, and even sounds more than to others. Why? What does this tell us about the things themselves, or even about God? I’d be interested to know if Alexander ever ventures into developmental psychology or the attitudes of very young children in his research. I know some architectural perspectives do. And, if she’s out there somewhere, I know Michaelanne has been or perhaps will soon be doing some thinking in this area as well. Any thoughts?

    Thanks Mike.

    • Luke,

      I am not sure that Alexander ever treats developmental pyschology. It is an interesting question, and one probably without some nice answer, like “Maurice, as young as a human can almost be and ezert preferences, will always be expressing deep liking.” Somehow I doubt it is that simple.

      One way that I have been thinking about it is to think of children as playful without discipline, trusting without an understanding of authority, and, already, of course, caught up in mimetic liking from the start. Their un-self-conscious playfulness and their trust appeal to us, and probably lead to some general affinity for real life in their judgments — but that is just a guess. More likely, development is best understood as such – as development – and we need to learn to trust the deep liking which is always conditioned by mimetic liking (desire to please parents, etc). What do you think?

      Most often, though, these days, people only get farther from any idea that deep liking exists and is trustworthy. That seems indisputable. But, on the positive side, I believe each one of us, wherever we are, has the ability to be touched by beauty, however simple, and to trust their deep like of it.


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