In Buddhism there's this great concept of near-enemies and far-enemies. Two things are far-enemies if they are polar opposites: the far enemy of compassion is cruelty. But near-enemies are more subtle: they seem very similar at first, but when you look deeper, they're still opposites. The near-enemy of compassion, for example, is pity. They kind of seem like the same thing, because both mean you "feel bad" for someone else, but compassion is dignified and brings you closer together. Pity is condescending. It distances you from the other person.
Far-enemies aren't that interesting to me because they're pretty obvious. Polar opposites. Ho-hum. But I love near-enemies, because there's a lot to talk about in the subtlety.
So let's talk about two of the biggest near-enemies of all: self-consciousness and self-awareness.
Superficially, they seem very similar. Both of them are about paying attention to yourself, your thoughts, words, and actions in the present moment.
Except self-consciousness is a horrible compulsion that can ruin your life, and self-awareness is a precious skill critical to living life to the fullest.
How's that work?
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Everyone knows self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is the judge and jury in your head, the voice that criticizes, the hesitation to act in public. Self-consciousness is the reason when you're home alone you dance in front of a mirror to embarrassing songs with the vigor of an epileptic seizure, but at clubs you carefully skirt the edge of the dance floor, never more than awkwardly bobbing your shoulders a bit.
And if you're reading that and thinking, "No way, man, I love dancing in public," then it's something else. Public speaking? Having a really tough conversation at work? Karaoke in front of a big crowd? I'm pretty sure everyone I know has at least one social situation where they struggle with self-consciousness.
Me? Self-consciousness and I go way back. We're old pals. As a child I was inquisitive, constantly reading, constantly talking, wanting to tell everyone the latest thing I'd learned in my zoology magazines or Farmer's Almanac, always asking questions, especially "Why?", arguing, ceaselessly debating. But over time I learned that my behavior could annoy the people around me, and slowly I learned to regulate myself. I learned to analyze others, their body language, their voices, their reactions, to know their inner state, to know when they were starting to get uncomfortable. I learned how to alter my behavior to keep people comfortable by presenting a different front, by being someone else.
On top of that, I was pretending to be straight, all the way up until I was nineteen years old - until I was 18 even I didn't consciously know I was gay. And so I had a big incentive to use all these skills, reading others and acting in the right ways to put them at ease, because I needed them to believe I was someone that I was not.
I got really good at it. Years of practice will do that. By the time I turned twenty, I was a master.
Self-consciousness is an acute awareness of how your behavior is impacting those around you. It is seeing yourself through the eyes of others: seeing yourself, as it were, from the outside in.
The problem is that for most of us, this ability confers a kind of pressure. When people say they're "feeling self-conscious", they do mean "I'm aware of how I seem to others right now," but they also mean "... and it's making me afraid to do what I really want to do."
That's what I mean when I say it's a "horrible compulsion that can ruin your life." Every time you restrain yourself because you are feeling self-conscious, you are living your life for others, and that's not a metaphor. When you live a self-conscious life, you are literally living for others and not for yourself.
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Self-awareness is a simple concept: it's just being aware of your thoughts and feelings. Just like self-consciousness, it requires the application of attention in the present moment. The difference is that with self-awareness, your attention isn't focused on your outward appearance. It's focused on your inner experience.
Self-awareness is when you're about to eat some junk food and you pause and realize you're not actually hungry. Self-awareness is when you feel a bit "off" halfway through the day and you take a moment to just sit and see what's going on. Self-awareness is when you're on the dance floor doing the tense, self-conscious dance and you realize that it just feels bad. Self-awareness is when you then realize what you actually want, what you yearn for, is to ignore all the people around you and feel your body moving fluidly with the music instead.
When I turned twenty, I may have been a master of self-consciousness but I had next to no self-awareness. I remember going to a meditation sit in Austin with a teacher, Noah Levine of Dharma Punx and Against the Stream, who as a former punk junkie tends to draw crowds from the recovery community, punks, inked-up kids, and the like. So I'm listening to one person after another ask, "When I meditate, it's like there are storm clouds in my head, it's unbearable. What do I do?" But when he got to me I just said, "When I sit, I feel nothing at all. It's unbearable. What do I do?"
To all of us he gave, in short, the same answer: keep sitting.
I think of growing self-awareness like eyes adjusting to darkness. When you have very little self-awareness, it's like you're in a very dark room and your eyes haven't adjusted and you can't see anything. And you're trying to feel your way around but you keep hitting sharp corners of things and knocking stuff over and it's just getting you all worked up. Eventually you realize, all you actually have to do is just sit still and be patient and let your eyes adjust. Slowly, blurry shapes come into focus. You can make out the big features. Over time, you can see smaller and smaller details. And as your eyes adjust, you can begin to move around, safely, taking care of yourself as you do.
Noah was right: I just kept sitting. My eyes began to adjust. I found a good therapist, and working with her helped a lot, too. I started a yoga practice, and it taught me proprioception: how to actually feel my own body, from the inside. Change is gradual, just like eyes adjusting to the darkness, but it's so different now I can hardly remember what it was like back then.
Only with self-awareness can you live for yourself, because when you are not self-aware, you may know what you're craving, but not what you truly long for. D.H. Lawrence put it well:
"Men are not free when they are doing just what they like... Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving."
* * *
So there you go. Self-consciousness and self-awareness. End of story.
OK, not quite. There's an epilogue. I told you: near-enemies are nuanced. In this case, they do something funny when you mix them together, self-consciousness and self-awareness, like a chemical reaction, like alchemy.
Self-consciousness is really two things: it's a set of skills for reading other people, and it's also a compulsion to avoid doing anything that makes them uncomfortable or might cause them to judge you critically.
The skill is quite useful; the compulsion is the dangerous part. The problem is that most of the time when we're "feeling self-conscious" we aren't able to separate them and cannot simply choose not to care what other people think.
But self-awareness gives you that ability. The more in-touch you are with what's going on inside you, the more you feel the unpleasant tension of self-consciousness. You start to see your fear more plainly: it's just a thing you've got going on. It doesn't need to control you. And you begin to feel all your pent-up longing; it starts as a quiet voice but gets louder, more assertive. It emboldens you to confront your fears and start chipping away at the compulsion of self-consciousness.
And when the compulsion is gone, what's left?
It is called "empathy."
The skill of self-consciousness means you can read others well: you know what they're feeling, what they're experiencing. And the skill of self-awareness means you are in touch with your own experience, too. Put those together and you can feel what others feel. Not figuratively: Literally. And moreover when you're free from the self-conscious compulsion, you can sit there, with them, and have that experience together. Not like you have to hold hands and stare deep into each other's eyes. It doesn't have to be a big production. Maybe you're just having coffee with a friend. But you're both there, together.