The nature of human experience is to reflect on and react to the human experience. That is, human beings are constantly noticing their thoughts, feelings, and bodies, and having thoughts and feelings about them. In fact, one could say that this is one of the defining features of humanity. We are born with the ability to observe ourselves and, typically before two years of age, we become aware of ourselves as individuals. Have you ever stood with someone in front of a mirror? The immediate recognition of self and other is so familiar that it probably wasn’t something you thought about.
Humans have the capacity to imagine our place in a context, whether physical or mental, and to consider who and what we are within that context. It’s called being self-conscious or self-reflective. What we notice can be the simple observation of a small detail of experience with little impact, or something intensely painful, or a profoundly uplifting experience as vast as the cosmos. The reflection can be so quick that it seems automatic or that it is assumed to be present before we notice it. At other times, it takes decades to form around an experience long past. In myriad ways, human beings spend quite a lot of our time and energy reflecting on ourselves.
Practice is an effort to bring to awareness that capacity for self-reflection, using Buddhist principles and teachings, and to turn self-reflection into a source of clarity, calm, and deep inspiration. In particular, the practice of zazen or meditation can be about clear and positive self awareness. Even the word “self-conscious” can have a negative connotation, an implication of discomfort, unease, and awkwardness. Yet my experience of many years of the practice of self-consciousness has been incredibly valuable and healing, leading away from unease. So, I am suggesting that you can reframe this term, and learn the usefulness of this powerful mental ability that we all share.
Consider, for example, what happens when you hear a sound. Perhaps you think, “Why is that garbage truck ruining my silence so early in the morning?” or “Isn’t it lovely how that bird is singing me a song?” Can you notice the constructed self that is implied in those thoughts? Can you see how those events actually don’t belong to you, or say anything about you? Can you allow them to come and go without clinging to some idea of wanting less of that, or more of that? There is so much to work with on the cushion. and there is plenty to work with off the cushion too.
This kind of practice can go a step further, too. If you examine deeply, in detail, the components of the experience, perhaps using the framework of the five aggregates or skandhas (body ~ feeling tone ~ perception ~ volition ~ consciousness), then you may begin to see the constructed nature of hearing itself, the way that the experience of hearing is a group of conditions that depend on one another for an instant, and then shift in the next moment. Perhaps you can begin to dismantle some of the sense of continuity and permanence, and begin see the fleeting nature of life. Life is as brief and insubstantial as a mirage. This kind of awareness begins to get at the reason why the self is not actually referenced by events, and it begins to loosen our grip on the wanting and wanting, or not wanting and not wanting, that causes us so much difficulty. Look deeply at the conditions and their relationships, their presence and absence. Notice whether that begins to soften your ideas of how things ought to be, of how you ought to be. Because, after all, having a look at yourself is the most natural thing in the world. And what you will see, if you are honest and persistent, will wake up a whole new you.