THE RISE OF ME


Whether it captures your silliest or slickest moment, the selfie conveys a snapshot representing the height of today’s increasingly self-obsessed culture. A current trend among teens, and growing in popularity over ages and cultures, the “selfie” is the almost contemporary equivalent of a self-portrait and a word that has only recently entered my vocabulary. Taking photos of myself at any dull or quirky moment in my life and inflicting the pictures on my friends and family is a novel idea to me and will probably remain just an idea. For more discerning people, the concept of the selfie is intriguing on another level—it’s a visual excerpt from a life embedded in a narcissistic culture.

Many of us have heard our grandparents and even our parents comment on how self-absorbed young people are these days, and it’s likely that every generation will denounce the next generation’s level of self-fixation. But what we may distinctly notice about the youth of today is a profound shift in their attitudes about themselves. A shift that reflects a higher level of self-adoration and self-centredness. This rise in narcissism or self-absorption raises questions, not only about young people, but also about an individual’s sense of self or self-identity.

The term narcissism is derived from the character Narcissus in Greek literature who fell in love with his image reflected in a pond. Now the name for a fascinating personality disorder, narcissism frequently captures the interest of the media and is often a subject of modern psychological and sociological studies. Infamous cases of narcissism earn the attention of the general public. New Zealanders wonder ed, aghast, how Clayton Weatherston could have stabbed his former girlfriend 216 times, while psychologists attributed his horrific act of aggression and his clear lack of remorse or empathy evident in court to the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. Some of these symptoms include a grandiose sense of self-importance and entitlement, a need for excessive admiration, and exploitative relationships with others.

Yes, the Weatherston case is one extreme example of narcissism, but what about the average person—how self-centred are we, and why should this cause any concern? Social scientists are not so much concerned with an individual’s healthy sense of self-confidence or assertiveness as they are with the ramifications of a culture that encourages people to develop an excessive sense of self-importance. For instance, Jean Twenge, Associate Professor of Psychology at San Diego University and world-acclaimed author on narcissism, says sociologists conclude that current trends in relationships reveal a pattern of numerous short-term relationships with no commitments. They term this pattern as a marriage-go-round wherein people don’t get married, but just “hook-up.” [1] Twenge claims, “In the US the percentage of babies born to unmarried mums is now 40% and it used to be 5% [in 1950].” [2] They explain that narcissistic people are only interested in how a relationship can meet their immediate needs, and when such a person’s partner no longer meets these needs, it’s time to find someone else.

Furthermore, studies reveal the role internet technology plays in promoting these superficial relationships; social networking online provides the ideal vehicle for self-promotion; it “satiates the craving for attention, and promotes shallow relationships, all of which are associated with narcissism.” [3] Many online dating services now specialise in offering people the facility to discreetly have affairs and cheat on their spouses. Most recently, the group of New Zealand school boys known as the Roast Busters used social media to brag about their sexual exploits including those with rape victims as young as thirteen years.

While not everyone can be clinically identified as a narcissist, (and obviously nor is every Facebook user a narcissist), an artificial sense of self, the Vedic texts claim, is an inherent part of living in our material world. The increasing trend of me-centred relationships is obviously not exclusive to people with the personality disorder of narcissism, and we need only look at our social crises to conclude that the human preoccupation with self-entitlement at the expense of others is at the heart of these issues.

In search for profound wisdom to aid our understanding of who we really are beyond this baffling obsession with ourselves, we turn to Vedic literature for illumination. In his Teachings of Lord Caitanya, (Chapter 20) Srila Prabhupada, authoritative teacher of Vedic wisdom, explains where the artificial sense of self originates:

The living entities are factually beyond this covered inferior energy. They have their pure spiritual existence and their pure identity, as well as their pure mental activities. All of them are beyond the manifestation of this material cosmos. Although the living entity’s mind, intelligence and identity are beyond the range of this material world, when he enters into this material world due to his desire to dominate matter, his original mind, intelligence and body become covered by the material energy. When he is again uncovered from these material or inferior energies, he is called liberated. When he is liberated, he has no false ego, but his real ego again comes into existence. Foolish mental speculators think that after liberation one’s identity is lost, but that is not so. Because the living entity is eternally part and parcel of God, when he is liberated, he revives his original, eternal, part-and-parcel identity. The realization of aham brahmasmi (“I am not this body”) does not mean that the living entity loses his identity. At the present moment a person may consider himself to be matter, but in his liberated state he will understand that he is not matter but spirit soul, part of the infinite. To become Krsna conscious or spiritually conscious and to engage in the transcendental loving service of Krsna are signs of the liberated stage.[4]

So before you hurry off to complete a personality inventory to find out how narcissistic you are, consider Srila Prabhupada’s words for a moment. He points out, just by being in contact with this mater ial world, or by being in contact with matter, we take on an endless stream of artificial identities, which are simply insubstantial descriptions of our temporary bodies and minds. The artificial notion of self-entitlement comes from two fundamental errors: first, thinking the body and mind of matter is ME and second, assuming that the material cosmos is my property and thus owes me a good time.

Derailed by these errors, mistakenly thinking we are what we look like, feel like, what we buy, and the matter that we interact with, we dwindle in a material realm with increasing material expectations. Social and marketing forces influence these expectations, taking us off our true spiritual course. For example, according to Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, author, Professor and Head of Psychology at Georgia University, the self-esteem movement, which began in the late 1960s, contributed to this sense that the world owes us a grand time, as well as the shift in the way parents raise their children from setting limits to “letting the child get whatever he or she wants.” Moreover, we cannot ignore marketing and its contribution to shaping consumers’ selfcentred attitudes. Even the language of advertising echoes this sense of self-entitlement, as shown in the taglines “Because I’m worth it,” “Have it your way,” and “It’s everywhere you want to be,” which justify people’s agendas with products they promise will fulfill one’s every desire—the desire for love and adoration, for status, and for belonging. Seldom do the products follow through on these promises, but we allow these messages to sink deeply into our psyche; we become amenable to them, and before we know it, we’ve spent a hundred dollars on a fifty ml bottle of perfume or cologne because I’m worth it! “The marketing revolution is convincing every consumer that you’ve got to be the centre of your own world; you’ve got to be an ardent narcissist,” says Geoffery Miller, Professor of Psychology at the University of New Mexico, who points out the huge effect marketing has on our sense of who we are. [6]

Despite this barrage of social and marketing influences, beyond the various material designations of one’s Facebook profile, or one’s artificial sense of self, lies the real ego, the authentic self, who craves connection with that Supreme Consciousness. This self is, in quality, the same as the Supreme Consciousness, but in quantity much smaller, just as a drop of sea water from the ocean is salty like the sea but in quantity very small and insignificant, and certainly not equal to the vast ocean. The analogy puts things in perspective: we ar en’t the centre of the cosmos, but the good news is that we are in substance very much like the Supreme, possessing qualities of eternity, knowledge, and bliss, on a smaller scale. When we make that conscious link with the Supreme, we begin to break free of our artificial sense of self, gradually uncovering our real identity as spirit soul, part and parcel of the infinite.

When we begin to free ourselves from artificial identities, or the illusion that we are these temporary bodies, we find genuine self-esteem, derived from a solid understanding of who we really are as spiritual beings. This confidence in our real identity grows more and more, as we connect to the Supreme Consciousness, Krishna, in loving service. In this way one becomes inwardly satisfied, understanding himself or herself as a small part of a big whole, with a significant role to play, by cooperating with the greater purpose of this universe. Consequently, we find no need to search for false happiness through an artificially inflated ego, based on ever-changing identities. Such a self-realised person who places Krishna in the centre, not “ME,” has the ability to connect with others selflessly and develops an ocean-like capacity to care and love.

Notes
[1] Joanne Black, “It’s All about Me,” New Zealand Listener, May 2012, 18.
[2] Ibid., 16.
[3] Laura E. Buffardi and W. Keith Campbell, “Narcissism and Social Networking Websites.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 34, 10: (2008) pp.1303-1314. DOI 10.1177/0146167208320061
[4] A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Teachings of Lord Caitanya, (California: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1969). Also see Bhagavad-gita As It Is by the same author for complete information on the same subject matter.
[5] “Have We Become a Nation of Narcissists?” Ronald Pies M.D. Livescience September 21, 2009, http://www.livescience.com/5743-nation-narcissists.html
[6] Find documentary Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast, directed by Richard Heap, 2011, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOKl04TWVsU

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