As long as there is a sense of a separate self, I am self-conscious. And the stronger the sense of a separate self, the more self-conscious I am.
(For me, the sense of being self-conscious drops away when I am in nature, or do Breema, or am around people I am comfortable with. All situations that tends to reduce any sense of separation. And it comes more into the foreground when I am around people who are quite different from myself, or themselves are very concerned with holding up a particular image, or when I find myself in a situation that brings me outside of the boundaries of my habitual identities and how I define myself.)
Self-conscious in two ways
I am self-conscious in the sense that I am conscious of (apparently) being a separate self, and I am also self-conscious in the conventional way… conscious of how my desired identity fits with how I appear in the world… wondering how other people see me, if what I am about to do or say fits in with the image I want to build up for myself, and so on.
First, there is a story about a separate self. Then, this simple story is elaborated through various other stories about this separate self, defining what and who it is in the world. And there is a comparison between my stories of what should be, and of what is.
Self-conscious = belief conscious
So when I look closer at feeling self-conscious, I see that it is really the process of comparing my stories of what should be (my beliefs about who and what I am) and what is.
A lot of work
And the reason why it feels like a lot of work is because it is.
In immediate awareness, I am neither a separate self, nor bounded by any particular identity. It is not because I am special, it is what (it seems) anyone will find if they look.
There is just awakeness here, not defined by any story. And there is everything arising within, to and as this awakeness… sights, sounds, smells/tastes, sensations, thoughts… the cool air over the skin, the birds chirping, the sound of distant cars, the soft fabric on the skin, my beard tickling my lips, the cat sleeping on the floor, the after-taste of an apple, thoughts arising, fingers tapping on the keyboard… all of these arising in space… there are no boundaries here… it is all a seamless whole without a center anywhere, without any separate self anywhere…
The sense of a center and a separate self arises only when this is filtered through a story, and especially when that story is taken as the absolute truth.
It is a lot of work maintaining those stories, and even more work comparing stories of what should be and what is, and even more work acting to align those stories in different ways.
It is a lot of work, because it is all added. It is the head we put on top of our head, as they say in Zen.
There is nothing wrong about that. It is just something we can notice.
The difference between stories and beliefs
In immediate awareness, there is just awakeness and whatever is happening within, to and as this awakeness. Stories are part of what is happening, sometimes. And these stories can be very helpful, even essential, for this human self to function in the world.
So far, there is only ease (even in the midst of turmoil and hard work).
The stress comes in when these stories are believed in. Inherently, they are just stories, they only have relative truth, of temporary, limited and utilitarian value only.
But if they are taken as an absolute truth, if a story is added to these stories about how they are absolutely and ultimately true, then there is automatically stress.
There is stress, because it is at odds with what is already more true for us, what is always and already alive in our immediate awareness. There is stress because life may, and will, show up in ways that are at odds with these stories, outside of the boundaries they define. And there is stress because we have to defend these stories from their reversals, the other stories that may undermine the absolute truth of these particular ones (and reveal to us what we already know, that they contain no absolute truth).
With beliefs, there is stress all around.
As usual when I start writing something without knowing where it is going, it was a journey with lots of twists and turns, much longer than it would have been if there was more clarity in the beginning, but maybe also more close to our real-life explorations of these things. Often, we are only presented with the end product of a long and meandering exploration, which, although it may be clear, also removes some of the richness of the process.
So what is the summary of all of this?
It must be that our familiar sense of being self-conscious is really a consciousness of being a separate self, defined by particular identities. And it is also the process of comparing these identities with how life shows up, and trying to align the two.
If we believe in the stories of being a separate self defined by particular identities, if we take them as gospel truth, there is automatically stress. There is stress, because it is at odds with what is already more true for us, alive in immediate awareness. There is stress because life may and will show up differently from our stories, and outside of the boundaries created by them. And there is stress because we have to defend those particular stories from their reversals, which would undermine the appearance of them reflecting an absolute truth.
Without taking them as absolute truths, there are just innocent stories which helps this human self function in the world. We are more aligned with what is already more true for us, and what even the wider world tells us is already more true for us (through life showing up outside of the boundaries of our stories, and the reversals of our stories insisting we take a look at the grain of truth in them). And here, there is just ease, even in the midst of a great deal of activity.
When I believe stories of being a separate self defined in a particular way, and these come into the foreground, I am self-conscious even in the conventional way. When the belief goes out of these stories, the sense of being self-conscious also falls away.