I have just climbed the 450 stone steps to the top of Lying Dragon Mountain in Ninh Binh Province, Viet Nam. Near the top of this exquisitely beautiful setting I encounter a group of young people talking selfies. And I wonder — why are they so focused on taking pictures of themselves? Can they not see how beautiful and special this place is? Why must they focus on themselves, on their own images?
As I try to place myself into their mindset the answer that comes to me is something like: Look at me in this beautiful place. I’m beautiful too. (For beautiful, you could substitute the words important, significant, happy, etc.) Also, I gather that by taking a picture on this happy occasion, later they can look at the photo and re-experience a similar happiness, the same thrill of being alive.
While all of this is well and good, part of me does worry that by focusing on oneself and the social network in such a singular place, one might miss taking in the full scope of nature’s remarkable beauty. Indeed, Lying Dragon Mountain is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been too on this remarkable earth. Yet, no real damage has been done, apart from a missed opportunity for quiet reflection. (Does the selfie take the place of self-reflection, the smart phone a replacement for the self-aware mind?)
Now imagine this — a photo app that disfigures every image that is taken with it. Let’s give this app a suitable name: Lying Dragon. Lying in the sense of making up a story that is fundamentally untrue. Dragon because it’s powerful and lives mostly under the earth. The Lying Dragon app turns everything beautiful in its essence into something ugly and shameful, an image that makes us turn our gaze away in disgust. And let’s say that the app is encoded into the operating system so that the user doesn’t even realize it’s there — or if they do, they don’t know how to upgrade the OS to a better version.
By this point you may be wondering: what on earth am I talking about? What do defective operating systems have to do with a blog on self-help? To put your mind at ease, I could draw a connection between Lying Dragon and low esteem, depression and social anxiety. All of these, to various extents, can involve a morbid self-preoccupation, a distorted view of oneself baked into the firmware of our minds.
If you have read this far, I would not feel like I’m doing a very good job unless I could offer at least a partial solution to this corrupted operating system.
To remove this app that turns the image of yourself into something ugly you may need to look at it square in the eye and see the dragon for what it is — and what it is not. You may need to face down the Lying Dragon and say, You’re not real. You’re just a figment of my imagination. I am stronger than you. After all, the dragon is made up of your own thoughts and feelings and the story you tell yourself about yourself.
It may be helpful to also realize that the real self is not limited by words and stories, nor by the memories of what happened to you. The self — unlike the selfie — is unlimited, full of stories yet to be written. Some call it the silent observer, the witness who has been present through all of your experiences, yet not identified with any of them. You could also call the self a free spirit in that it is not shackled to the past nor to any imagined future. This may sound beyond reach for some of you, but there are practices and skills you can learn that will help you go beyond the dragon and connect with your real self.
And here is another tip. If you get dragged down by negative thoughts about yourself, turn your mind — your smart phone — the other way around and focus on the beauty of the world. It’s true, the world can be painful at times. Imperfect too. But it is also beautiful. And remember, you are part of this beauty too, even without a selfie to prove it.
Let no one tell you otherwise.
Mark Evans, Ph.D.