Monday, March 10, 2014

Inexistence of the “Selfie”

Jenna Vondrasek

Jenna Vondrasek in Big Sur, California
her favorite place in the world

The self-portrait, once regarded as a representational work of art, has evolved into a groundbreaking new concept: the selfie. It became largely popular with the introduction of smartphone technology. Taking a selfie involves flipping the camera around and snapping a picture of yourself—often in a specific and flattering manner. With the number of selfies growing quickly and occupying social media such as Facebook and Instagram, one must question the reasons for such a craze. The underlying significance of a selfie communicates self-recognition and identity but also vanity and self-obsession.

But, when does this form of expression become self-obsession? Websites such as Facebook and smartphone apps like Instagram have become a place for people to build up their own image and social identity. The popularization of the selfie allows control over how one is viewed on his or her respective “page” or “account.” Essentially, one can completely morph and change one’s image via this craze.

This cultural obsession with the self contradicts the Buddhist concept of “no-self” or the rejection of the notion of personal identity altogether. This essay intends to discuss the Buddhist principle of anatman, or no-self, and the narcissistic psychological implications of the selfie trend from a Buddhist perspective.

Although we commonly use the words “self” and “I” in everyday life, the Buddha taught that using these reference words does not indicate that there is an inherent existent self—but rather they refer to the conventional self. A Buddhist would go so far as to reference the doctrine of impermanence, that things are ever-changing. The five aggregates of the person, namely form, feelings, perceptions, mental dispositions, and consciousness are constantly shifting. Hence, a Buddhist realizes it follows that one should not hold onto these aggregates because to do so leads to unhappiness and suffering. The only aggregate to carry on postmortem is the conscience.

With the acceptance of the religious doctrine of anatman, a Buddhist would question the cultural phenomenon of the selfie. If there is no truly inherent existent self, a Buddhist would marvel at the cultural obsession with constructing and maintaining a social media identity. Ray Crozier and Paul Greenhalgh conducted a study titled, “Self-Portraits as Presentations of Self”¹ that examines the psychological meaning of self-portraits in terms of self-awareness, self-presentation, and social construction of the self. Their study provides a useful framework for examining the issue of the selfie from a questioning Buddhist perspective.

The first subsection of “Self-Portraits as Presentations of Self” suggests that taking a selfie increases self-awareness. “This is an unpleasant state because it brings to one’s attention discrepancies between one’s standards and one’s current state—it reduces self-esteem and generally makes one more self-critical” (Crozier and Greenhalgh, p. 29). This point in itself poses a lot of issues for a Buddhist thinker who would agree that this attachment to the concept of a self leads to suffering. Ignorance of this attachment to the idea of self leads one to make false comparisons with others that end up making one feel worse.

When one participates in creating and maintaining a Facebook page, for example, a vicious cycle is formed. The intricate detail and time put into creating a selfie, including positioning the camera in a certain light and consequently editing the photo, seems a bit odd and feeds this fixation on the self. It becomes a constructed and manipulated image by which one is defined in comparison to others. Crozier and Greenhalgh also question if the formation of this kind of self-portrait truly makes one more confident with one’s social identity or instead, more aware of certain parts that one wants to accentuate—touching on the important fact that these pictures are unnatural.

Jenna in San Diego
Because of the interconnectedness of our culture via the Internet and comparable technological advancements, our world has become increasingly attached to identity and image. A Buddhist would agree with Crozier and Greenhalgh that this unnatural narcissistic obsession with one’s image and identity nourishes “ego-clinging” and builds up our false notion of “self.” The more selfies one posts, the more one wants to post, and it quickly becomes an obsession.

Taking this a step further, a Buddhist would link this false “awareness” of self to the second psychological theory of self-presentation. This theory has to do with how one presents oneself to others. In the popularization of the selfie, the self-presentation theory comes into play in the fusion of the selfie and social media. What does posting this kind of picture exactly communicate?

Mark Epstein, author of Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, elaborates, “Since it [the self] is just a fixed idea—and one made up by a child, no less—it cannot possibly be an accurate representation of an ever-changing human living from moment to moment. As such, while preserving this self-concept, we are in a constant battle to defend something which is indefensible.”[2] Epstein carefully chooses to describe this phenomenon as a battle to showcase the struggle that links itself to partaking in this cycle. In composing a selfie, one can manipulate others’ reactions. It invites criticism and enhances socially manipulated emotions such as anxiety and low self-esteem. If one’s purpose for creating the selfie is to feel better, it inherently ends up having the opposite effect. It becomes an internal battle and from a Buddhist perspective, a battle that is completely avoidable.

A Buddhist approaches both low and high self-esteem as problematic. “No matter how descriptive these constructions [of self-esteem] might seem, they are incomplete and biased, and they represent only one way of construing the self at any given time. When mistaken as “real,” the fact that they are motivated creations is forgotten.”[3] A Buddhist would encourage the deep cultivation of awareness and mindfulness. Embracing mindfulness eliminates attachment to the idea of “self” and instead focuses the mind on the context of the situation and one’s experiences and behaviors.

Being mindful of how experiences and behaviors affect identity works in tandem with the final theory presented by Crozier and Greenhalgh—the social constructionist theory. Similar to the Buddhist principle of interpermeation, this theory suggests that all phenomena and perceptions of individuals, groups, or ideas are constructed jointly by society. From a Buddhist perspective, David Loy[4] describes our sense of separation as a delusion. The interconnectedness of our world shapes our culture and in turn allows phenomena such as the “selfie” to be born. But at what point does our culture become too connected?

A Buddhist may say that we have already gone too far; that our continued support and obsession with Facebook, Instagram, and social media sites alike has created a dual reality: literal and idealized. Selfies make up a small part of a much bigger problem. Is snapping a picture of oneself an unwholesome action? A Buddhist would argue no. However, when one becomes attached to this idealized view of reality and becomes increasingly infatuated with one’s social profile, the battle begins. But to sidestep the ominous impression that society is facing a large identity crisis, some would say that there is hope. So—as a quick note from an anonymous Buddhist—I warn devoted selfie snappers across the world to snap with caution, be mindful of which reality you choose to feed, and note the inexistence of the selfie.

[1] Crozier, Ray W., and Paul Greenhalgh. "Self-Portrait as a Presentation of Self." JSTOR21
(1988): 29–39. Print.
[2] Epstein, Mark. Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. New York, NY: Basic , a Division of Harper Collins Publ., 1995. Print.
[3] Ryan, Richard M. and Kirk W. Brown. "Why We Don't Need Self-Esteem: On Fundamental Needs, Contingent Love, and Mindfulness." Psychological Inquiry14.1 (2003): 27–82. Print.
[4] Loy, David. The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory. Boston: Wisdom, 2003. Print.

Jenna Vondrasek: Student

Jenna Vondrasek is a business student at the University of San Diego. At a young age, she began collecting Buddha statues from all over the world. She read books about Buddhism and jumped at any opportunity to take classes on world religions. Upon moving to California for school, she started identifying as a Buddhist. Buddhist ideals continue to help her work through the kleshas of her youth—anger, hatred, and greed. She has shown many of her family members and friends the healing nature of meditation and yoga. Taking Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo's class on Buddhist thought and culture at USD strengthened her passion for the development of healthy and strong women in Buddhism and beyond.

Photos courtesy of Jenna Vondrasek

  • Crozier, Ray W., and Paul Greenhalgh. "Self-Portrait as a Presentation of Self." JSTOR21 (1988): 29–39. Print.
  • Epstein, Mark. Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. New York, NY: Basic , a Divisin of Harper Collins Publ., 1995. Print.
  • Fausing, Bent. "Selfie and the Search for Recognition: See for Your Selfie." Danish National Research Database (2013): n. pag. Print.
  • Galin, David. "The Concepts: "Self," "Person," and "I" in Western Psychology and Buddhism." Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground. By B. Alan Wallace. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. N. pag. Print.
  • Giles, James. "The No-Self Theory: Hume, Buddhism, and Personal Identity." JSTOR 43 (1993): n. pag. Print.
  • Loy, David. The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory. Boston: Wisdom, 2003. Print.
  • Ryan, Richard M., and Kirk W. Brown. "Why We Don't Need Self-Esteem: On Fundamental Needs, Contingent Love, and Mindfulness." Psychological Inquiry 14.1 (2003): 27 82. Print.
  • Safran, Jeremy D. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003. Print.

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