Perhaps one of the defining features – or should we say, symptoms – of our age is the widespread phenomenon of the ‘selfie.’ The ubiquity of the mobile phone makes it possible for everyone to photograph everything, and we do this with unrestrained enthusiasm. If people meet each other in an unusual context, during a walk by the sea, for example, or in a village market or maybe on top of a mountain, it is quite common to crowd together while one member of the group holds a phone at arm’s length and takes a picture. Such a snapshot could be seen as an admirable tribute to friendship, but there is a another, more dubious sort of selfie, in which the ‘self’, always smiling triumphantly, and often with a stylized posture, one arm raised or one leg at an angle, takes a photo in front of something special such as a monument or a work of art. This kind of picture is clearly meant as a trophy, verifiable proof that there is some connection between ‘me’ and the fame of whatever is in the background. It has nothing to do with the experience of the object; a grinning tourist in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà doesn’t seem to have assimilated any of the deep sorrow and love expressed by the sculptor’s artistry.
Nevertheless, the ‘selfie’ wasn’t invented by the phone, but by people; since the beginning of history we have always taken mental selfies. Why else would the rich and powerful have so consistently built impressive environments for themselves? A comfortable bed need only fit the sleeper; it need not be as large as a tennis court. What is the purpose of the palace of Versailles, if not to allow the royalty and members of the court to mentally admire themselves as they pace the Hall of Mirrors or stroll through the endless jardins?
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, if we look carefully at our thoughts while we are praying and catch ourselves also making selfies. ‘Here I am, being respectful, head bowed, very proper, don’t you think? And this is me, praising. This is one of me saying sorry for my shortcomings; that’s God in the background.” And when we finish our prayers, when we sit down to a morning coffee, we might idly shuffle though the collection of images in our mind and feel some satisfaction with our degree of spirituality – or like so many other images we have taken, they might be filed in the cloud and forgotten. “I’ll look at these later,” but somehow we never do.
Surely we should turn the camera toward the One, and leave our little self out of the frame. To do otherwise is unwholesome, the fundamental source of suffering. However, the remedy for this illness is simple: to forget ourselves, to come without agenda and let the Divine fill us with its perfect Self. The prayer Salat begins, “Most gracious Lord, Master, Messiah, and Saviour of humanity, we greet Thee in all humility.” If we are mentally checking ourselves to see if we have been humble enough, if we are sufficiently prostrate as we say this, then we are still looking in the wrong direction.
Discarding this self-absorption seems to be a hopeless task, paradoxically requiring endless self-monitoring when that is just what we want to eliminate, but the secret to its attainment is in the magic of love. It is not hard to forget ourselves completely when we are filled with love – we do it automatically, and that is why we find this saying about humility in Vadan Talas : Humility in love is the humility of the master, and humility in surrender is the humility of the slave.
Perhaps we begin the path of prayer because we think it is required of us, believing that we are ‘obliged to pray,’ it is ‘expected’ that we fulfil this duty. The true nature of prayers, though, is only revealed when we perform them out of love. If we love, and our Beloved is eternally present, surely the desire for selfies will then be completely forgotten.