By Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D.
In a clever update of the renowned painting of Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, the ego-driven youth is shown lying on the riverbank obsessed with his own image on a smartphone. Technology evolves but human behavior is slow to change! Today it is very easy to become completely absorbed in our smart devices to the detriment of our spiritual development and we risk a fate as dire as his. Not able to pull away from his image, Narcissus died there.
Research data is quite revealing about the effects of smartphone use on cognition, and while the results are not surprising, the facts serve as red flags for the fate of the human condition. Memory, concentration, and intellect are all significantly compromised. So is civility – as has been noted in big cities where people would rather photograph someone in distress than act like the Good Samaritan and lend a helping hand. Simply stated, when our attention is diminished by a series of repeated distractions, the light of the ego eclipses the light of the soul and the health of the human spirit is greatly compromised.
While many in the field of psychology note the behavioral pathways of addiction to screen devices and describe, for example, the increased dopamine levels associated with pings and text alerts, we cannot ignore the effects on spiritual health or, as some describe it, “the hijacking of spirituality.” Like the kryptonite that weakens Superman’s powers, frequent use of digital displays can deplete the vibrancy of our consciousness. Moreover, repeated headlines reveal an alarming number of acts of incivility that supports the supposition that egos can run amok in a me-first, social media driven world.
Addiction, some experts (including Carl Jung) will tell you, is a disease of the human spirit, an imbalance of the ego and the soul. Throughout the ages, the wisdom keepers of sacred science and knowledge about consciousness have repeatedly reminded us that to live a balanced life we must regularly close the door to the outer world and direct our thoughts inward for periodic and essential times of self-reflection and soul-searching. By doing so we shift the focus from ego-driven behavior to a healthy cultivation of the conscience. That’s a word not commonly used in today’s narcissistic culture, but one that is very important for our integrity and humanity.
Early in his career as a psychiatrist Jung had the good fortune to meet Albert Einstein. It was the first of several meetings between them and their subsequent discussions of energy and relativity helped Jung formulate his theory of the Collective Unconscious, a vast reservoir of wisdom that’s within the grasp of each individual. About the same time that these chance meetings occurred, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin proposed the concept of the “noosphere,” the global sphere of human thought. It is this bank of consciousness that Jung and de Chardin suggested we make a habit of accessing in periods of stillness so we can better navigate our lives. Jung also warned that alcoholism (the social disease of his time) served as a huge distraction from the soul-growth process. No doubt he would see a parallel in today’s use of smart phones and tablets.
A model for human spirituality that I created decades ago proposes that the foundation of human spirituality is built on three factors: relationships, values, and meaningful purpose in life. Relationship includes both internal (our self and our higher self) and external connections (other people, animals, and even the planet Earth). Cultivating a relationship with the self and higher self (whatever you conceive this to be) takes an unyielding practice, a dedicated daily routine. While there are many ways to do this, meditation is not only the most common it’s also the one most often recommended for spiritual health and personal balance. Meditation can be described in many ways, but one of the best I’ve heard is that meditation “domesticates the ego.” Today the practice of mindfulness has gained much attention and for good reason. Being able to live in the moment without ego attachments in a culture filled with distraction is a great ability to develop, not only for self-care but for the fabric of society as a whole.
Similarly, eco-therapy (sometimes known as “forest bathing”) and spending time alone in nature are becoming quite popular as people make a concerted effort to disconnect from technology and reconnect with something bigger than themselves. And, of course, mindfulness meditation in nature is even better. (Please, no selfies allowed).
Today, soul-searching (not to mention tapping into the Collective Unconscious or noosphere) has become a lost art. The seduction of screen devices with their never-ending content has lured people away from a sense of personal contemplation, centering, and inner knowing that come from the practice of cultivating the conscious mind and the conscience. We could argue it has weakened our relationship with the Divine as well. An ancient Chinese proverb reminds us that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” A daily practice of meditation helps the student to become ready. Creating a dedicated time each day and choosing a dedicated place in which to sit in stillness, one free of distractions, works to help us “domesticate the ego” and is an essential way to rekindle relationship to the self and allow us to relate to many others.
Socrates is credited with saying that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” When the ego takes center stage, the practice of examining the self and the life we are living falls away and we are left only with being self-absorbed. The story of Narcissus reminds us that self-absorption can rob us of life.
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Brian Luke Seaward is a health psychologist who lives in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of several acclaimed books:
* STAND LIKE MOUNTAIN, FLOW LIKE WATER
* STRESSED IS DESSERTS SPELLED BACKWARD
* MANAGING STRESS (9E)
His website is: www.brianlukeseaward.net