Selfies at the Mona Lisa

Steven Schwartzberg
April 9, 2019

Hard to believe, but here's an astounding true fact: For the vast majority of human existence, including all but the last few of the 14,000-plus years since nomadic hunter-gatherer clans coalesced into nascent human civilizations, we didn't carry a fabulous instant camera in our pockets and photograph every single moment of our existence.

Strange, but true.

Somehow, we managed to survive.  And perhaps — just perhaps — we might have been a little more present, engaged, and mindful in the ordinary, magnificent, and ever-changing moment-to-moment unfolding of our lives.

While all technology poses a challenge, and thus an opportunity, in cultivating mindfulness, it might be the tempting little camera in our pocket or purse that offers, well, the greatest snapshot of just how easily we lose focus. 

Of course, the cameras in our phones offer many benefits. They're a technological marvel and a ready-made, tote-as-you-go artist's easel. They turn us all into exacting life archivists and probing photojournalists.  We can document everything from small, intimate moments to the horrific societal wrongs that desperately need to be exposed. I photograph the play of sunlight in puddles. I photograph strangers with interesting hair. I photograph my shopping list. 

But is it possible that the more we document our lives, the less we actually see? Does incessant photography unintentionally diminish, rather than enhance, appreciating what's right in front of us?

This phenomenon particularly hit home for me on a recent trip to the Louvre Museum in Paris, which I have visited several times over the years. The gallery displaying Leonardo da Vinci's iconic masterpiece, known in English as the Mona Lisa, is always dense with visitors. On my last visit, though, I observed something new. Now, most visitors snap an image of the world's most celebrated enigmatic smile with their phone camera — in a selfie!  In a strategic small corner of the screen, there's one of Western art's greatest achievements. Big front and center — here's ME! 

As a long-time mindfulness practitioner, I couldn't help but thinking... what's wrong with this picture?

At one level, I get it completely: Seeing a famous painting is a rare experience, one we'd like to celebrate and share. But just as striking in the larger picture is the disproportionate self-importance and lost opportunity of a transcendent, ephemeral moment of beauty.

Most likely, of course, when you take a picture, there’s something you want to preserve or capture. You'd like to hold onto the moment, savor it a little longer, seal it into a time vault so the rich fullness will remain available. Sometimes, that works. We all have photos that serve as personal or familial touchstones. 

But how many pictures in your e-albums actually deliver on this subconscious wish to preserve the ephemeral fullness of any given moment? 

Other times, the urge behind a specific photo is that we see something that overwhelms us with beauty, mystery, or complexity. Maybe it's something we'd like to understand or study, to harness or tame. So we take the picture thinking that with time, later we'll be able to grasp it. I find this is often true for myself when traveling, faced with something alien and fascinating. 

But time and again, this impulse also fails to deliver on its promise. When I'm honest with myself, I'm snapping the photo because it's a moment I fear I may never experience again, and there's a secret sliver of hope that one day, I'll return to it with a fuller appreciation. Frankly, that's never worked. 

All of us tend to assume that holding onto pleasant experiences will make us happier. If we can record and document them, catalogue them in a time-proof video bubble, then maybe we can revisit the same joy whenever we want? But mindfulness offers something different and paradoxical: happiness that springs from the sweet-bitter wisdom of knowing that whatever joy we taste in the moment is transitory and, by its nature, impermanent.  

Consider trying out this quick camera-phone / mindfulness check-in. In the moments before reaching for your camera, are you aware of what fuels the impulse to document what you are seeing? What are you thinking and feeling?  Can you tune into what underlies the urge to record the moment? Can you sense an anxiety about not recording it, of letting it go? Pause instead and give yourself time to reflect: What is the urge to photograph this? 

Then go ahead and take the picture, but now with more present-moment awareness.  Or, don't take the picture at all. Just let whatever is unfolding unfold and watch the impulse to document it arise and subside. You might be able to sense, for a moment, the whiff of impermanence, the freedom that arises counterintuitively from not trying to hold onto something. And I promise you — there will still be countless, fabulous photo-ops in the future.

Steven Schwartzberg, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who has lived, by choice, as an intentional nomad since 2003. He has been a practitioner of Insight meditation for 20+ years, including several immersions into long periods of meditation and silence. Before beginning his home-free wanderings, he maintained a psychotherapy practice in Cambridge, MA and served as assistant clinical professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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