Over the past few years the digital self-portrait has come into its own. Decried by some as a symptom of narcissism, celebrated by others as a vehicle of self-empowerment, the so-called “selfie” has assumed center stage, not only in social media but in the media at large. Ellen DeGeneres’ “group selfie,” spontaneously snapped at the Oscars, may well be the world’s most widely viewed example, but it is literally one among millions.
In another decade or two, we may find out whether the selfie was a fad, a portent of a cultural shift, or something else entirely. But from the vantage point of Zen teachings, the ubiquitous selfie, shot in a mirror or from an outstretched hand, offers what is known as a “dharma gate”: a point of entry into a deeper truth. “To study the way,” wrote the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, “is to study the self.” And the phenomenon of the selfie, however superficial it may seem, provides an opportunity to do just that.
To begin with, the selfie underscores, as never before, a fundamental quality of the self, namely its radical impermanence. Posed self-portraits on canvas have been with us for centuries, and their earliest photographic counterparts date from the late nineteenth century. But the digital self-portrait, taken, as it were, on the fly, represents something new, insofar as it is a transitory image of a transitory subject. It can be deleted, whether by accident or design, in an instant and at any time. Our most basic misperception, Buddhist teachings tell us, is “taking what is not self to be self.” We mistake what Joseph Goldstein has called the “pairwise progression of subject and object, arising and passing moment after moment,”* for a lasting entity. We posit continuity where it may or may not exist, and we construct from successive moments the concept of an unchanging self. To that persistent habit of mind, the vulnerable digital image offers a potent corrective. It prompts us to inquire whether the self we assume to be solid and enduring may be no more substantial than the virtual image on our screens.
Even as it demonstrates the impermanence of the self, however, the selfie may also challenge our conventional notion of the life span: the personal self’s finite existence. As many users of social media have discovered to their chagrin, self-portraits posted on the internet can last far beyond their creators’ original intention. Their life spans, if such exist, are not always in our control. According to the Diamond Sutra, a fundamental text of the Zen tradition, the concept of a life span is itself an erroneous notion and a primary source of human suffering. “A cloud can never die,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. “It can only become rain or snow.”* Nothing is annihilated, only transformed. And what is true of the cloud, the Diamond Sutra asserts, is also true of ourselves. Whether as stardust, a field of energy, a photo on a dresser, or an impression in a loved one’s memory bank, we continue beyond our dates of expiration. The enduring digital image, launched into cyberspace and winding up who knows where, can alert us to that eventuality–and prompt us to act accordingly.
Yet, lest the lessons of the selfie be restricted to the personal, it is worth remembering that the digital self-image also represents the interdependent nature of the conditioned self. The one includes the whole. However conformist or individualistic, conventional or outlandish any one selfie might be, its very existence exemplifies what the Zen priest Shohaku Okumura has called the “network of interdependent origination.” More concretely, it represents a complex network, at once electronic, social, and economic, whose components include the makers of micro-chips and smart phones, the creators and managers of social media, the purveyors of laptops, desktops, and mobile devices, and the eager consumers of such products. For all its elevation of the affluent leisured self, the selfie offers a context in which to contemplate something beyond the self: the one, indivisible body of interconnected reality.
“To study the self,” Dogen went on to say, “is to forget the self; and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” Viewing a recent selfie, which features a muscular young man flexing his bicep in the mirror, I suspect that the enlightenment of which Dogen speaks may not be high among the photographer’s priorities. But it remains an ever-present possibility, whether its vehicle be a cup of tea, an ephemeral mandala, or yet another selfie.
* Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness : A Practical Guide to Awakening (Sounds True, 2013), Kindle edition, 36.
* Thich Nhat Hahn, Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way (Parallax, 2010), xiii.
Photo: Mogens Engelund