What Would Buddha Say About Selfies?
By Pastor David Lai
A photograph that one takes of oneself with a digital camera or a front-facing smartphone, tablet, or webcam, especially for posting on a social-networking or photo-sharing website.
In a generation of smartphones installed with Facebook and Instagram apps, taking selfies in all its variations are part of the latest social media craze. With most modern smartphones being fitted with front facing cameras, selfies are made even easier because it is so easy to take flattering and casual pictures. You either love or hate selfies but that does not deny their popularity. The funny thing is, I have been taking selfies even way before I heard of the word, no thanks to Facebook and the webcam on my laptop.
In 2012, Time Magazine included the word “selfie” as one of the “Top 10 Buzzwords” of that year, thus reflecting the current social trend. According to a survey in 2013, two-thirds of Australian women between the ages of 18 to 35 take selfies and naturally, the most common purpose of doing this is to post them on social media platforms. A poll commissioned by Samsung found that selfies make up 30 percent of photos taken by people within the age group of 18 to 24. By November 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary declared the word “selfie” as the “Word of the Year” and traces its origins to Australia.
What I think of Selfies…
First of all, I think selfies are fun. On second thought, I also think they made an action that is overtly narcissistic into something fun and guiltless by giving it a cute name – selfie. The vain part of me loves this and the cute little word makes it all the more inviting and fun to do so. The thing about selfies (if you read the definition at the beginning of this article) is that you have to share that little picture of yourself with people on social media to get some sort of response.
People take selfies essentially to have it uploaded onto their social networks in order to get a response from their followers. It has never been this easy and far-reaching, considering how many users there are on social platforms. It’s addictive to watch that little thumbs-up number go up. I know it’s silly but most of us selfie-lovers do that. We wait for the numbers to go up and hope someone will say something in the little box below because that would mean that my picture was interesting enough or good enough for you to make a comment. If I got over a hundred likes, I would be smiling from ear to ear and if I had more than five comments, especially from people that matter to me, I would be walking on clouds. I know. It isn’t much.
However, when I observed a few selfie-lover friends (or should I say, selfie addicts) repeatedly post pictures of themselves on Facebook, my initial reaction was, “Wow! You look great.” I clicked “LIKE” and thought I should take a selfie too. Then, I saw another selfie and I clicked “LIKE” again. Somewhere between the 20th to 30th selfie (all in a slightly different pose), I was almost screaming, “Not again!” On the 40th to 50th selfie, I would just scroll down real quick to avoid them. Finally on the 100th selfie, I found myself thinking, “Is it bad karma to unfriend someone on Facebook?” No… I didn’t do that but it got me thinking, “Why would people take so many selfies of themselves?”
So, what’s wrong with taking a few selfies for a few cheap thrills? On its own, I think that taking selfies is not a bad thing actually. It is the underlying behavioral pattern that is bad. This is when selfie-taking develops into an addiction. This is when people take selfies to the next level of narcissism and self-deception. This is when people project a make-believe world that they are always smiling, always happy, always at a party, always in a designer outfit, always on holiday in an exotic location, etc. to their audience when the reality is quite different.
More often than not, this make-believe world is an escape from a reality that they refuse to face. Self-deception is dangerous when it becomes chronic because it would mean that one will eventually resort to lying, cheating or cover-ups in order to maintain that pretence. Consequently, the more selfies one takes, the more one just feeds into this self-deception and its underlying insecurities. At this point, I am already reconsidering taking most of my selfies although I let one or two slide just for comedic relief. I know all this may sound dramatic to you but let’s check out what the experts say about this social activity.
What Some Experts Say…
In 2013, a social study done on Facebook users entitled “Tagger’s delight? Disclosure and liking in Facebook” found that frequently posting photos of oneself have a correlation with lower levels of intimacy and social support from Facebook friends in general. This is because Facebook audiences would find it difficult to relate to those who constantly share photos of themselves.
A typical Facebook audience consists of a broad range of people – partners, friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances, and each group would take a different view of the information shared. Many would find excessive selfie-taking to be distasteful and even offensive. In fact, the author of this study even suggests that “those who frequently post photographs on Facebook risk damaging real-life relationships.” This is logical considering how social media is dominating inter-personal relationships with the advent of smartphones and the easy access to the Internet.
In April 2014, a young English man by the name of Danny Bowman recalls spending ten hours a day taking up to 200 selfies and still feeling that they were not good enough. All this culminated to the point when he attempted to commit suicide after failing to take the perfect selfie. He was diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder, a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This incident led to several research articles connecting excessive selfie-taking with body dysmorphic disorder. The connection does not indicate suicidal tendencies but the fact that excessive selfie-taking may likely indicate the underlying problem of body dysmorphic disorder.
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Body dysmorphic disorder is a psychological disorder that relates to an obsessive preoccupation with the flaws of one’s appearance. Those who suffer from this disorder would usually go to extreme measures to conceal or correct their perceived flaws. This condition is fairly common and affects somewhere between 1.7 to 2.4 percent of the population. In addition, this condition usually starts during adolescence, and affects men and women equally. Sufferers usually hide what they feel and therefore, excessive selfie-taking could be one of the indicators of this disorder.
On the other hand, recent studies conducted this year (2015) on social media users suggest correlations between selfie-taking behavioral patterns with psychological conditions like narcissism and psychopathy. More specifically, selfie-posting behavior was linked to both narcissism and psychopathy while users who religiously edited their photos would possess a narcissistic tendency but not psychopathic behavior.
According to experts, narcissism disorder is a condition where sufferers believe that the world revolves around them due to deep-seated underlying insecurity, while psychopathy is where the sufferer lacks empathy for others and are governed by impulsive behavior. The connection between the number of selfies posted online and narcissism seems to be stronger among men than in women. As smartphones and social networks become increasingly popular, everyone is becoming more concerned with their appearance. That means these conditions may eventually become a common problem.
What would Buddha have said?
Now that we’ve heard from the experts, what about the Buddha? I would not pretend to know the Buddha so well that I could tell you what he would have said. But I think we can get an inkling of his thoughts on the matter of selfies by going through some of his teachings on the self. Experts have long said that the selfie is an expression of the self, and there is no one more qualified on the subject of the self than Lord Buddha. In fact, the Buddha gave voluminous teachings on this subject and it forms the core of his higher teachings.
The most basic aspect of the Buddha’s teachings is the development of renunciation. This does not mean that we abandon our responsibilities, family, friends, home, job, and so forth and run off to meditate in a cave instead. Renunciation is a special wisdom that sees the flaws of our attachment to short-term gratification and worldly pleasures and turns us to invest our time towards learning, helping others and other spiritual pursuits.
Selfies are generally an exercise in self-gratification because much of the thrill of posting a selfie is in amassing the likes and compliments that one gets in the comments below. When we think deeper, all that self-gratification leads us to nothing but serves only to increase our attachment for it. Selfies may seem harmless but doing it excessively is an indication that we have particularly strong attachments. Strong attachments are synonymous with a strong self-cherishing mind as well and that is the basis for suffering. In Buddhism, cherishing ourselves leads to suffering while cherishing others leads towards happiness.
In the highest teachings of the Buddha, our self-cherishing mind doesn’t inherently exist in the way we think it does. Our self-identity is attached to many aspects but the strongest are on the body and name. How we conventionally identify ourselves is based on these aspects that are in reality false in the ultimate sense. Selfies essentially celebrate that attachment to these aspects that don’t actually exist and thereby further solidifying this false notion of self that we hold so dearly to.
Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the Buddha would not have approved of selfies. However, the Buddha being the one endowed with great wisdom and skillful means would not have denounced selfies completely but would probably have advocated the middle way of approaching selfies. That is, to allow selfies in moderation for the mass majority of his students and to discourage it amongst his closest students who are more dedicated towards reaching the selfless state of enlightenment.
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