“Self consciousness is the indispensible means to enlightenment; at the same time it is the greatest obstacle in the way.” -Aldous Huxley
I live among teenagers, which brings me into intimate contact with the often crippling kind of self consciousness that awakens in the human mind during adolescence. The experience of being seen in these years swings between a primal desire and a punishing shame. Constantly conscious of what others think of what they look like, what they are doing or saying, we parents watch in dismay as our child’s once natural ability to be fully one’s self in the present moment erodes into habitual judgment of self and others. Gone is the playful innocence of being one’s goofy and changing self; it is replaced by a lingering defensiveness that colors almost every interaction. Relationships large and small become matters of dissection and the opening to new and different people begins to shut down. It becomes increasingly challenging to separate the internal filter of how we think we are being seen with the simple reality of being.
Sadly, many of us hang onto residual aspects of this kind of self consciousness for way too many years of our adulthood. It is a slippery slope, because as we age, this mental habit takes up permanent residence as our inner critic. This voice of self doubt has many disguises- many that are invisible even to us. Its most toxic and insidious quality is the barrier it creates in our most intimate relationships. As our capacity for trust is continuously compromised by this silent evil twin, our inability to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt spills over onto the people who love us most. Worst of all, it blocks our access to the real purpose and gift of self consciousness, which is the capacity to wake up to ourselves and to life. When we move from self consciousness as a habit of judgment to the mechanism of witnessing and accepting reality as it is, our self consciousness becomes the vehicle for enlightenment.
Moving from a self conscious cage to a waking quality that makes life spacious is an act of love, arguably one of the most highly skilled aspects of loving. Most of us swing on the pendulum between the critic and the witness for many years before we learn what a relief it is to give up that unreasonable yet familiar critic. Slowly over time and with practice, the harsh critic voice has less credibility, and as we lighten up on ourselves we become more adept at witnessing the people we love as they are. This simple witnessing practice is a profound gift and serious relationship game changer. As we experience a new kind of peace in letting things be what they are, we often begin to embody a childhood innocence that gets lost but allows us to play again.
Enlightened self-consciousness is another way that our capacity for love is built into us from birth. Coming back to our selves feels like waking up from a dream of trying to be someone else. It is a warm homecoming.