A lot of modern technology, particularly social media, is a technology for selfing. This is why we’re so addicted to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest etc (well, I am anyway). They’re technologies for Selfing. Every post and tweet, we’re making another little carving in the epic construction of our Public Self, then we wait to see how many likes we get.
Great global crises are merely means to the mini-rush of a Like or a Retweet. Hey, that tweet I did about the NHS got five retweets. That carefully-constructed In Memoriam tweet for Robin Williams was a smash. The petition I shared about the Yazidis or whatever got 18 Shares. That video of me pouring ice over myself for Ebola-sufferers got 87 Likes!
All of us, staring at our phones on the Tube, we’re really staring at little pocket mirrors. Does the Public like me? Does it like me when I do this? How about this? We’re slaves to the Public, just as Plato predicted we would become in liberal democracy. We twist, turn and contort ourselves to win the approval of the thousand-eyed God.
Is there another way? Plato thought that perhaps that we can go beyond the sucking black-hole of the ego, beyond the endless shadow-play of our ego-projections, and turn towards the shining reality of Truth, Beauty & Goodness. Iris Murdoch, the Platonist philosopher and novelist, wrote about this. She called it ‘techniques of unselfing’. The opposite of Selfies, in other words.
Murdoch writes in The Sovereignty of the Good:
The psyche is a historically determined individual relentlessly looking after itself. In some ways it resembles a machine – in order to operate it needs sources of energy, and is predisposed to certain patterns of activity. One of its main pastimes is daydreaming. It is reluctant to face unpleasant realities. Its consciousness is not normally a transparent glass through which it views the world, but a cloud of more or less fantastic reverie designed to protect the psyche from pain….
We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world. Our states of consciousness differ in quality, our fantasies and reveries are not trivial and unimportant, they are profoundly connected with our energies and our ability to choose and act. And if quality of consciousness matters, then anything which alters our consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue.
The most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ is what is popularly called beauty…I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel.
In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.
When we move from beauty in nature to beauty in art we are already i a more difficult region. A great deal of art, perhaps most art, is actually self-consoling fantasy, and even great art cannot guarantee the quality of its consumer’s consciousness. However, great art exists and is sometimes properly experienced and even a shallow experience of great art can have its effect. Art…affords us a pure delight in the independent existence of what is excellent.
As this excellent essay by two Iranian scholars informs me, we see this process of unselfing taking place at key moments in Murdoch’s novels. In The Bell, for example, Dora is suddenly unselfed in front of a painting in the National Gallery:
She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they [the pictures] were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect…Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless…the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary, trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. when the world had seemed to be subjective, it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all….
Another great technology for unselfing is listening to other people. Actually listening to them. Attending to them. Not turning them into extras in your ego-fantasy. Becoming alive to their independent reality. Their themness. Novels, I guess, are trying to teach us how to do this, how to be empathetic listeners, how to wake up. Part of becoming an adult, for example, involves waking up to the independent reality of your parents, not just as sources of love, approval and money, but as beings, with feelings, frailties, needs.
Contemplation and prayer is another great technology for unselfing. Check out the Bishop of London talking about it, in very Platonic terms (this is from his brilliant collection of sermons and talks, tree of knowledge, tree of life):
All human beings emerge from an experience of oneness with the source of life, but very early on we set to work subconsciously building a shell for protection and a surface self so that we can negotiate with the world around us. Gradually the experience of oneness with the well-spring of life is lost, a crust forms over our deepest self (a crust of unawareness often described in terms of blindness) and we come to operate more and more from what we have constructed, from the shell, the false self…The effect of this is, in the end, exhaustion and a sense of absence, which we try to full with hectic over-activity.
Spiritual growth at a certain point in life demands a reversal and a progressive diminution of the egotistical false self so that our true selves may be liberated and flourish…The surface self is a barrier between our selves and God: a barrier which in the end prevents growth and interrupts the healthy and energizing exchange of love which is intended to pass between the heart of our being and the heart of God.
Certainly the pain involved in breaking through the crust, which has been so many years in the making, and the peril of journeying to the centre through the zone of the hidden drives and complexes which lies beneath the crust, this pain and peril is inescapable: but beyond lies the promise.
Contemplation, he says, is a guide and a resource on this journey:
I have found that the simple way of prayer taught by John Main, one of the spiritual explorers of our own generation, very helpful in widening the breach [in the crust of the false self]. A period morning and evening in simple contemplation. I was tired of continually instructing God in his duties. Gradually I can see more light which does not come from my own generator but is the uncreated light…Truly, this is a door into a new way of being in the world.
Isn’t that awesome? I’ve also been practicing Main’s prayer-technique for the last three months or so. It’s very similar to Transcendental Meditation – you say a mantra in your mind, and use that to settle your restless consciousness, until it descends to a deeper consciousness, in which you can sometimes rest for a while. It feels great, so it’s not a hassle to do it, you want to do it – your soul is drawn to it, like metal towards a magnet. And maybe it slowly transforms us by taking us beyond the restless grasping ego (too soon to say in my case!)
Main learned the technique from a Hindu guru, Swami Satyananda, though similar techniques have existed in Christianity for centuries (though the Church has often been suspicious of them, alas). You can learn the technique for free, and practice it with others, in any of the many Christian contemplation centres around the UK.