Spiritual practices help us to become aware of the distinction between what we might call our “constructed self” and our “true Self.” Or we might speak of the distinction between self and Self, or between what Tara Brach refers to as our real self and the “spacesuit self.” Regardless of the language we use to speak about this distinction, mindfulness and the beginning stages of any contemplative practice help to shed light on it. We might think of this constructed self as a necessary projection of our ego. It derives from our sense of ourselves as a unique and separate “I.”
I have said that this is a “necessary” projection, and that is because we all need to have a persona (the term derives from the Latin word for an actor’s mask) in order to function in the world. For this reason, I have deliberately not called this the “false” self (because it is real, in a limited sense), but rather a “constructed” self.
In Part 1 of this series on email, social media, and spiritual practice, I focused on the ways in which I have tried to bring a greater intentionality to the ways I use them in order to decrease the ways they make me feel anxious and distracted. In this post, I’d like to focus more on how the electronic constructed self may also function as a barrier that blocks our ability to access and to live out of our true Self. Many social media apps even have a name for this self – it’s our “avatar.”
Let me state again that I don’t believe there is inherently anything wrong with email, social media, or my constructed-avatar self. (The app that I am using to write this post uses an avatar!) The problem only arises when I identify my deeper sense of Self with any version of this smaller self.
Most of us have probably had the experience of looking at someone else’s social media profile and being completely overwhelmed with jealousy. Whether you’re creeping on your ex, looking at a friend’s beautiful family and perfect vacation pics, or noting the promotion or professional achievement of a co-worker, we all know the feeling. Here’s where I think social media can serve to underwrite our identification with our small self. There is immense social pressure to create the illusion of perfection and success in our social media because we want people to “like” us. But do you feel any sense of human connection with another person when you are jealously admiring their avatar self? Probably not. We only feel human connection when we are vulnerable. But how does one become vulnerable or express the true Self through social media?
The short answer is that we can’t. The true Self is only something that can be experienced in the depths of our subjective consciousness that we explore through a spiritual practice. It is that space within where we connect on a profoundly personal and interior level with the Divine Presence within us, with the God who is the source of life, and whose Spirit wants to be expressed through us. In Genesis 1:26 it is called the “image of God,” which Christians see fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ, and in yoga philosophy it is Atman. It is the basis of the inviolable and infinite dignity of every human person. Ultimately, it cannot be described with words, let alone through social media. (In an even more precise sense, there is no “self” at all involved in this experience. Rather, there is a profound experience of oneness that some have described as total absorption in God, or non-dual consciousness.)
However, if you are lucky enough to have been in the presence of someone who has experienced the true Self, then you know it because you feel it. This is how I imagine people must have experienced Jesus or the Buddha. In my own experience, I think of my brief time with Bruce Kramer, the former Dean of the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling at the University of St. Thomas, who died last month of ALS. He recounted his process of letting go into his true Self through dying in his Dis Ease blog, radio interviews, and most recently a book.
Note that Bruce used social media to tell his story of giving himself over to the natural process of dying and letting go. Most of us are not going to have a story as profound as Bruce’s to share. But when it comes to social media I do think it’s important that we learn how to present ourselves to the world through social media in way that at the very least does not prohibit our ability to go deeper into our practice to encounter the Self, to find the God within.
It is also possible to use social media in a way that does not obscure our true Self through a constructed self, but rather to allow the beautiful characteristics – and perhaps some of the vulnerability – of the deeper Self to shine through. This need not mean that we all try to become social media gurus. In a recent article in Outside Magazine, for example, Mike Kessler writes about his experience of practicing radical honesty on Facebook. He found that he received a decent outpouring of support when he posted about some of his struggles (not all of them – there’s a necessary boundary to protect personal privacy), and even reconnected with a few old friends.
And there is still room for using social media to promote one’s worthy accomplishments and to share those gifts with the world. As a spiritual practice helps us to access our true Self we also come to have a more truthful perception of ourselves. This truthful perception includes not only recognition of our shortcomings and struggles but also a genuine desire to share our good qualities and accomplishments with others, for their own good and for the common good.
By bringing some wise attention and intention to our practice of email and social media, they can take their rightful place in this human life, and maybe even be a vehicle for deepening a spiritual practice. Just don’t confuse your avatar with your true Self along the way!