As I trudged up a snowy, tree-lined hill, bundled in three coats and two hats, I became self-conscious.
I heard a dog bark in the distance, and I quickly looked around, wondering: is anyone watching me?
A couple with a dog appeared from behind a tree—and I stopped talking, pressing pause on the recording app I was speaking my writing ideas into.
My self-consciousness caused me to tighten my shoulders and clench my jaw. I was aware of being watched. What if they thought I was talking to myself (which I kind of was, wasn’t I)? Would they think I’m crazy?
Critical judgments moved across my mind like cuts in a film scene. I couldn’t escape them.
In that moment, I saw the harm self-consciousness can inflict. I saw the way it restricts our authentic expression—keeping us prisoner in the realm of judgement and self-criticism.
Just before I saw that couple, I’d been feeling open and uninhibited. Just before I became concerned about my appearance, I’d felt free.
As the man, woman, and their dog ventured past me up the hill, I started talking again into my recording app—this time exploring the topic of self-consciousness, which I felt super inspired to write about.
Suddenly, my mind was conjured up an image of my daughter (who is six years old) next to an image of myself at a younger age, maybe three—both of us completely open, curious, and exploratory—romping around the woods like sprites. To those young children, other people were simply background noise.
Life—to children under seven—is a playground to be explored. Everything and everyone is new, exciting, and life-giving. And then, something happens.
Self-consciousness hits when the ego forms, around the age of seven. Suddenly, we care what other people think. Suddenly, we begin to see what actions are acceptable. We see what behavior gets rejected and labeled as “weird” or just altogether “bad.” We develop a set of insecurities (or at least have a stronger tendency to develop them), and the world becomes a place to fit in, instead of a place to explore, express, and adventure in.
So, how can we get that not self-conscious, child-like self back?
We can get her back by being mindful. Yeah I know, “mindful” is the new buzzword. And, what the hell does being mindful have to do with treating life like an endless playground?
Being mindful has a lot to do with embracing life with the free-spirited abandon of a happy-go-lucky child.
Mindfulness is not really a practice—it’s a state of being. Its core self is highly aware, non-judgmental, and super curious. We are mindful when we observe what is simply for what it is.
Skip the adjectives and just see what is, already.
The simplest way to embody the mindful state of being we were born with is to stop using flowery words—those words that describe how our minds feel about something, rather than how our senses observe it.
Substitute the adjectives with sensory descriptions. For example, you walk outside on an early winter day, and your mind may want to judge it as “too cold, too gray, and depressing.” When we let those feeling-based descriptors color our perception, we further enhance that feeling state—which, in this case, is quite negative and downtrodden.
What to do instead of judging? Experience.
The alternative scenario: You walk outside on an early winter day. Immediately, you notice the bitter air on your face and the coolness on your fingertips, which have thin gloves on. You look around and see a blanket of white—freshly fallen, fluffy snow. You look up, and the sky has a gray hue, which means the sun is hiding behind the clouds. As you breathe in, the cool air slightly freezes your nose hairs, which makes you walk more quickly to your car, seeking warmth.
What’s the difference here? Did you pick up any judgement? You’ve probably deduced that based on how this person experienced the cold, they were indeed “feeling” cold, and it was perhaps influencing their actions (a quick walk to the car), but they were not shunning it.
Some people fear mindfulness will squelch their uniqueness by erasing their opinions and turning them away from their innermost thoughts. However, it’s quite the opposite. If this person suddenly turned their awareness inward, they may have noticed that their thoughts about the cold day were critical. But, there’s a difference between noticing and judging—a big one.
The ice melter: mindfulness.
Mindfulness lets everything breathe. It acknowledges both the internal and external environments. It allows us to give attention not only to our thoughts and feelings, but also to our surroundings, so that we don’t hyper-focus on any one aspect of life.
You see, the mind likes to pigeonhole things. The mind often has an extremely restrictive view, because that’s what it got accustomed to when the ego developed. It likes to claim: this is me, and I stand out!
But, think back to that small child, openly expressing herself on the playground of life. She didn’t consider what you think about her, because she’s too busy playing with everything in the world around her. She’s too busy noticing and engaging.
Mindfulness helps us to engage more with our whole selves—with what we feel, what we think, and how we interpret the world outside of us.
A meditation to banish self-consciousness:
Close your eyes, and take a breath.
Notice that breath…notice the temperature of it.
Take another breath; notice the sound of it.
Breathe again, and notice the sensation.
Keep breathing…notice where the breath goes in your body.
Stay in tune with yourself and with your senses.
Keep noticing your breath moving through you.
Now, open your eyes—maintaining that same breath-centered awareness.
Let your eyes begin to take in what’s around you.
Let your eyes take in the colors.
Let your eyes observe the objects.
Let your ears take in the sounds.
Breathe deeper, and notice the smells.
Take it all in…whatever is going on inside of you;
And then, what’s going on outside of you.
It’s all one.
Breathe with it.
Stay present here.
Stay present now.
In this space of being, you are being born anew.
Each breath is a new chance to dance with the moment.
Author: Sarah Theresa
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy editor: Catherine Monkman