Self-awareness vs. self-consciousness. This is one of those semantic paradoxes we wordsmiths enjoy dissecting.
Some time ago, I had the jolting revelation of my self-consciousness around someone I admire, someone who has genuine, extra-sensory perception, and thus could feel into me and know my inner thoughts, even those I was unaware of having. She wasn’t “spying” on me or anything. I had GIVEN her permission to do this, as I was seeking her guidance in understanding myself better. (I’ve mentioned Diana Lang here before in a post or two. She is a brilliant empath, intuitive, and spiritual counselor here in Los Angeles).
After years of working with Diana and learning so much, I suppose I was finally ready to see this particular veil. I had long been aware that being looked at from the inside out, even by someone with the most loving eyes, someone to whom you have given permission, can be, well…intimidating! But somehow, I had not realized (duh) that I was self-conscious because of it. Nor did Diana ever use the word self-conscious. She used the word “closed.” She said my heart was closed.
“My heart is not closed!” my ego would assert, irritated, and I balked at the notion, claiming to be simply self-aware, objective. But over time, I began to recognize, to actually feel my closed heart, though outwardly I was smiling and saying all the right things. My ego had thrown up a sleek, gracious, smooth-talking, invisible-to-the-naked-eye defense, which she, the wily woman that she is, recognized, but that I couldn’t see myself. She kept reiterating, “This is just data, Angie, not judgment. Let it teach you.”
And, wow, has it taught me.
In mindfulness study, self-awareness is what we practice. We are learning to observe ourselves, to become awake to how our minds work, how our perceptions filter reality and drive our actions, and how our perceptions are influenced by a multiplicity of inputs, most of which are occurring subconsciously. Over time, we learn to recognize our defense systems, even the sheerest and most seamless of them, and we learn we have the choice to let them go. It may take a lifetime to do, but we learn we can.
Self-consciousness, on the other hand, is a consumptive kind of self-awareness, one that is negative and implosive in nature. We are not seeing our “data.” We are being overwhelmed by inner questioning, self-criticism and comparison, to the point that our hearts are too full of this spew to be available to others. Our best-intentioned, egoic impersonation of heart may keep reaching out, but the reaching will be shallow and conflicted.
Mindful availability is a new term for me, one I learned from an article written by Sue Monk Kidd in her book of devotions, Firstlight. It is a term I am now using in my writing groups, encouraging not only mindful and heart-filled writing, but mindful and heart-filled listening to others’ writing. The idea is to REALLY listen, to practice surrendering our own internal chatter (mostly self-critical and hyper-sensitive) in order to free up bandwidth to deeply hear and encourage the delicate, budding, heart-song of another, then feed back to them something authentically appreciative about what they wrote.
Each week, as we move around the circle and read, self-consciousness begins to gently thaw, and our hungry-to-be-known hearts begin to warm up and come forward. This is the greatest gift we can ever give anyone, our willingness to receive their hungry hearts. And it is the greatest gift we will ever receive from someone else. A two-way blessing.
All week long Bruce Springsteen’s lyric “Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart” has been playing in the background of my mind. I think it was there, calling this post forward. Self-consciousness tells us to be ashamed of our hungry-heartedness. Compassionate self-awareness tells us hungry-heartedness is the essence of our divine humanity. We are hungry to know and be known, to love and be loved, and to experience the richness of life we know deep inside we were put here to have. Nothing wrong with that! Nothing to be embarrassed by! Nothing to be defensive about!
And right there in our shared hunger, we can feed each other. It’s vulnerable. It’s raw. It’s real. And it’s as good as it gets!