“Human beings are social animals,” my grandfather used to say. He meant, “You can’t just keep to yourself all the time; go out there and play with kids your age!” Fast forward a few years and we find that the meaning of the term “social” has transformed into something much more intricate than just describing the basic human need for companionship. Rather, when paired with the word “media,” “social” has become a mega-entity, providing connection on local and global scales.
Everyone needs an online presence because, without it, you are essentially signing yourself up to fizzle into the online ethers of no man’s land. The pressure is on. If you want to be an authentic, current, popular, or smart individual you need a social identity, and you need to do what everybody else is doing with that social identity. It seems as if all social outlets lure us into the depths of cyber-consciousness, rather than consciousness of the real self. The media dictates our actions, reactions, fashions, and the people we should like or dislike. Everyone has their favourite stars, their most watched TV shows, their best-looking brands. Everywhere you turn there is a link to this and a promotion about that. In fact, social media itself has become a megabrand, because if you’re not online, whether you’re a person or a business, you’re well behind the times, and therefore unlikely to get any substantial attention.
You may argue, however, that the prevalence of varied social outlets has given us all a drive to accomplish more, to get organised, and to meaningfully instigate change. But, how has a consumer-focused online culture shaped society’s priorities for change, particularly that of the younger generation?
In the nineteenth century, young women protested for equal rights at a higher education, but today you’ll find, at least in North America, that the same age group of girls spend time planning, promoting, and performing a massive protest against not having a high school dress code that restricts how much (or how little) clothing girls can wear at school, simply because the boys don’t have the same restrictions. Similarly, prior to the internet marketplace, buying something involved a conscious, calculated observance of a product’s value and its contribution to a person’s daily life. Today it involves one click and a few seconds wait—and even that is too damn much, right? Even just looking not too far back from today, if you wanted to spend time with someone you would have physically walked to that person, going out into the tangible world, instead of Skyping in and screen sharing a Youtube-uploaded rom-com. You would, therefore, have had a far greater range of physical and psychological experiences leading up to the interaction, over a longer period of time.
Instead of instigating meaningful change, saving time and improving health and relationships, we are bogged down by the social and consumerist demands of the media machine, causing an inner mayhem of stress and loneliness we all know too well. Too absorbed in the problems of celebrities, we are hardly aware of our own. Too caught up in the next big thing—whether a product, an album, or a person—we have no clue of the biggest need in our life.
Being encumbered by a bombardment of social alerts that feed a regurgitated, reconstructed identity, the thoughtful person may question: what is the purpose? How much of my time, my existence, goes into the cyber universe, crunched within its flickering pixels, never to return again?
LONELINESS: ONLINE MATRIX TO ESCAPE THE OFFLINE UNREALITY
Despite the unstoppable surge of social media, people are more anti-social and apathetic than ever before. But on an internal level, the loneliness epidemic is spreading like wildfire. Recently, Time Magazine published an article warning that loneliness might just be the next big public health debacle because this “disease” ups the mortality rate by 26 percent, and social isolation does that by 29-32 percent. Last year, Britain was voted the loneliness capital of Europe, despite the fact that just the year before, social networking had skyrocketed in the nation. This finding supports a 2014 study by the University of Michigan, which revealed that extended usage of Facebook leads to lower life-satisfaction. Indeed, although we are ultraconnected in our social feed, our hearts hunger for the personal touch, the intimate, interrelationship between one emotional being and another.
The online “matrix”—the cyberspace that pulls us into its world of links, hyperlinks, advertisements, videos, profiles and so on—may be a world of connection, but because such connection is not expanding from our true self it lacks the power to give us real peace and happiness. The social hemisphere has instead become a magic mirror where we can artificially impose our want-to-be reality and thus revel in our own illusory misconceptions. For example, there was the young girl in the United States who posted a series of happy, upbeat messages on her social stream, but in the privacy of her room attempted to end her life. Conversely, many suicide threats posted online go unnoticed and are not acted upon, leading to the inevitable. Identity theft and fake profiles are a whole other can of worms.
But even in our general, day-to-day lives, we are unable to really be “offline.” The temptation to check the phone one last time before bed is too much. The urge to respond to one last email is overpowering. The desire to post one more picture is nearly head-spinning. In fact, recent research by the University of Glasgow showed that teens’ obsession with social media is affecting their sleep and thus their schoolwork, as they wake up in the night to check for new tweets and messages on social media.
In the Bhagavad-gita, the timeless text of applied spiritual technology, Krishna explains that those who are resolute in purpose have one-focused intelligence. This type of intelligence is not many-branched, running after various endeavours. But again, we need to focus our intelligence upon what purpose?
CYBERSPACE, OUTERSPACE, AND INNER SPACE
As humans, social animals, or living beings, we have the innate desire not just to connect with others, but also understand how we connect with ourselves and the universe at large. In today’s technologically super-powered age, we are busy stylising our online space, our internet identity, and our social media structure, but we have little knowledge of our inner space or our eternal identity.
Identity can be seen in two ways. Identity is relative and grows from a simple statement like, “My name is Sankirtana” to, “I’m twenty years old, born in India, raised in Canada, living in New Zealand,” and so on. Relative identity encompasses our physical nature, our biological make-up, our psychological tendencies, and our inner propensities. But identity can also be seen as absolute. This has nothing to do with the body or the mind. Now one may easily understand that we are not this body—a preliminary level of knowledge to be achieved in spiritual science—but to understand that we are also not this mind is another ball game. The yoga texts explain that the spirit soul is a unit of consciousness qualitatively distinct from matter (which includes the elements earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and the false ego, or misconceived identity). The soul, who we really are, is innately drawn to and linked with the Supreme Consciousness, but because of the misuse of its minute independence, the soul desires to control and enjoy outside of the Supreme Consciousness. Thus, it is enveloped in matter, bound by the illusion of an existence separate from the Supreme Consciousness.
The wise might wonder, is there any way out? In a world where we are desperately trying to connect and share on a deeper and more meaningful level, who is truly aiming to realise that ultimate connection?
The advanced bhakti-yoga encyclopedia Srimad-Bhagavatam explains that “the misconception of self-identity can be diminished gradually” (3.7.12) by the process of realising our absolute identity in relation with the Supreme Person. Social media may be all about connection, but the word “yoga,” which we throw around to refer to downward dogs, flash yoga mats, tight-fitting yoga pants, and the advancing Lululemon culture, in its Sanskrit core means “the ultimate connection” or to link up, or even further, to meet via that process with the Supreme, the Divine, or Krishna.
We can understand this ultimate connection in the conception of our absolute identity as a nonmaterial part of the Supreme Person, or the Supersoul.
HIGHEST CONNECTION — IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE?
In the preface of another advanced text of the bhakti tradition, the Nectar of Devotion, renowned bhakti monk and scholar His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada states: “Our loving propensity expands just as a vibration of light or air expands, but we do not know where it ends.”
Are our flailing attempts at virtual connection just an expression of our innate narcissistic nature or is there more to such superficial attempts at companionship and reciprocation? This quotation from the aforementioned text expresses a beautiful, magnificent truth. We are creatures of love and we are for love. Love and connection go hand in hand. To love means we love someone, an individual, and there can be no love if there is no connection. Thus, caught within the trappings of our material aspirations and misconceived realities, we are running on the social media track, attempting to squeeze out some ephemeral connection to satisfy our need for love.
Krishna, the source of our consciousness, clarifies: “The living entities in this conditioned world are my eternal, fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.” (Bhagavad-gita 15.7)
Many processes are given to connect with the Supreme Person and invoke our own spiritual identity, doing away with the misconception of our perceived personality. Of all the methods, the sages of the bhakti tradition, who teach by personal example, including the most prominent one within recent history, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, recommend the process of mantra meditation as paramount in these times. The maha-mantra: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna / Krishna Krishna Hare Hare / Hare Rama Hare Rama / Rama Rama Hare Hare is the technology capable of delivering the chanter into the realms of clear reality, where our nature to love and be loved is fully realized.
When we are connected with the source of all love, of all connection, all other connections are immediately had, and there is no question of mayhem, loneliness, or even self-realisation. In our fast-paced, technology-infused culture we depend on social media to fuel our choices and aid our lifestyle, thus posing as high-class members of an advanced civilisation. However, in the highest state of spiritual advancement, the spiritualist participates in the connection of souls, not devices, and thus his or her dependency is centred on a reciprocal, loving reality, rather than impersonal, avaricious illusions.