February 18, 2014

Selfies & Self-Love: Getting to Know Discomfort.

monkey face selfie

In 1839 the photographer Robert Cornelius was able to produce a daguerreotype of himself, becoming the first person who took a selfie.

The term “selfie” came into the popular vernacular around 2002 as phones with cameras became more prevalent. Today, we can’t go online without seeing someone we know post a photograph of themselves.

Why have selfies become such a thing?

I have a theory. There’s no “Dislike” button on Facebook. Or Instagram for that matter. And if we want to dislike something on Twitter the way we do that is by replying to that person with a statement of complaint.

The way we have set up our social media tools is that we can post something to our friend group, like a photo of ourself, with the blanket expectation that we will get dozens of waves of positive feedback in the form of likes, comments, retweets and hearts.

In this cloud-based network we have built an impenetrable fortress of positive reinforcement.

Am I against people feeling validated? Heck no. But the people I see posting photo after photo of themselves are not always the most confident. I see someone doing that and think, “Oh, they really rely on external validation.” Behind that is the (admittedly) judgmental thought, “Oh, I wonder how much they really love themselves.”

In my most recent book, Walk Like a Buddha, I devote a full section to Buddhism, love and romance. In this section I cover 10 questions people have asked me over time, ranging from “How can I work with loneliness?” to “What’s a Buddhist approach to online dating?” to “How do I hold my heart in the midst of a break-up?” Underlying these questions, and the plethora I get from readers each week, lies a much simpler question:

“How can I be at home with who I am, right now?”

Whether we are looking for love, struggling with a long-distance relationship or nursing a broken heart, there’s a certain level of discomfort that exists. Each of us has spent decades habituating ourselves to run from discomfort. We drink, or hook up, or shop, or post selfies. Anything to make us feel good about ourselves.

From a Buddhist perspective, we’re never going to get truly comfortable.

Even if we find a wonderful partner, the relationship might shift and end in a break-up or death. If we look to work for stability and comfort, we won’t find it in today’s economic situation. If we look to technology as a way to get comfy, I have bad news: there’s always going to be a new tech trend that will put us to shame.

Things change, folks. Impermanence is part of the nature of reality.

It’s what the Buddha taught not because he was a great philosopher but because that’s the way things are and he was able to see that.

What does all of this have to do with self-love?

In my own experience, the times when I have felt the most discomfort, when I have had loved ones die, or gone through terrible break-ups or been very ill, are the times when I had to look at my ability to love.

I have had to contemplate what it means to love myself, even if I wasn’t who I wanted to be in that moment. In those times, no selfie was going to save me. I couldn’t look to external validation. It came down to me, lying on a bed, crippled by emotion, and asking that simple question I listed above:

“How can I be at home with who I am, right now?”

For me, the answer has been equally simple. I meditate.

I sit down on a cushion and practice calm-abiding meditation. One of the words for meditation in Tibetan is gom, which means “become familiar with”. Through the practice of returning to the breath, over and over again, I start to notice the way my mind works. I become more familiar with my mind, and thus befriend it. My teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, wrote an amazing guide to this practice with the apt title: Turning the Mind into an Ally.

Through meditation we are learning to befriend our mind. We are learning to not struggle so much against who we are. We can embrace ourselves, as we are, in this moment. That is the power of meditation. That is what I mean by self-love.

The next time you feel uncomfortable, look to your own mind. Dating and relationships bring up a wide range of emotional reactions. Don’t flee from them. Just rest with what you are feeling. Rest with who you are. Practice self-love this season.


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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: Wiertz Sébastien


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