The other day, a friend of mine was telling us that when he is asked to express himself in a group, he gets "self-conscious". I thought about that term for awhile and wondered what that meant, and its ramifications relative to its perpetuation of the notion of a separate, independent self.
Normally our attention is pointed outward into the world to various objects brought into focus by the mechanism of the senses. The brain-mind relates to the objects by identifying them, registering them and relating to them, in an amazingly fast and (for most people) unconscious fashion. When we begin to reflect on "ourselves", attention moves from the "outer" sensual objects to the "inner" psychic objects; various thoughts, emotions, feelings, ideas, memories, fantasies and musings dominate our attention. We may not even be conscious of an "outer" world, our focus is so intent on the psychic panorama. I am sure that we've all felt this experience driving a car, noticing that the car has been driving itself while we've been lost in thought or other psychic experience.
In the case of "being put on the spot" people's attention is focused on us, and this may cause a host of reactions. For those without strong boundaries, it is as if others' attention draws our attention "within" to our inner ethos. But essentially what happens to people who are "self-conscious" is that attention begins to focus on some critical, antagonistic or pathological psychic program, often a combination of thoughts, emotions and bodily feelings. When this type of psychic show fills up or dominates the panorama of attention, often a kind of paralysis occurs. This is due to the fact that an overly intensive bond is made between the attention function and these aforementioned psychic patterns, resulting in a sense of isolation, a heightened feeling of subjectivity and a strengthened assumption of the difference between subject and object. One feels like they are standing alone, very separate and very much judged. But in actuality, the judgment is for the most part generated by their own patterns far more than any apparent outsider. In psychological terms, these patterns are often labeled the inner "critic" or "judge". Just to see this can free a person just a little bit from the paralyzing bondage of "self-consciousness".
And the reality is that this pattern of attention bonding to critical patterns is no more incriminating to some so-called self than any other pattern or function. It is merely the transfer of attention from a pattern of easeful and functional relationship of attention with "external" objects to a pattern of dysfunctional relationship with "inner" objects. This kind of pattern may seem to indicate that there is a self to be conscious of, but in actuality, this activity is simply giving evidence to a presumption rather than what is actually true. Psychic patterns are simply arising in the field of awareness that may result in paralysis, dysfunctionality, tension, and hesitancy, as opposed to other more joyful or easeful patterns. There is nothing to indicate that a "self" has been found, though it may appear that way.
The appearance of this kind of pattern of "self-consciousness" is an opportune time to apply any form of enquiry to the situation. Who is being self-conscious? Where is this self, where is it located? In what are the bodily feelings, emotions and thoughts arising? Where did these feelings come from (not from a psychological, but rather a functional or systemic standpoint)? One may trace feelings of "self-consciousness" to psychological causes, but these simply are indicative of the interdependent flow of patterns that occur within a lifetime of an individual, which may change over time to a different set of dependent patterns (which may or may not indicate a healing, if the particular pattern is considered pathological or dysfunctional).
The incidence of "self-consciousness" is ripe to look at our (very) deeply held notions and presumption of a self. "Self-consciousness" is a time when there is a contraction of attention and energy to a more focused point, which can be the "inner" psychic field, as opposed to a more spacious external world. This often heightens the idea of "self" since something seems to be in place over against something else, "me" versus "them". When we're joyful, rapt, in love or watching TV (!), we seem to be "self-forgetting", even though attention is the same - it is just that the object is not "internal" and takes into consideration "the world". When we are happy, attention is not as fixed to "personal" patterns - it is flowing and more encompassing of the world in greater and greater quantities; i.e. the field of awareness can grow to more universal proportions. This, of course, can feel like a temporary relief of our suffering, because most often it feels less contractive than when we are attentive to personal elements. Energy is moving and flowing outward, in relationship to the "world". Like all crises, the crisis of "self-consciousness" is a time when there is an increase in psychic, emotion or physical energy, and this energy can be re-routed to be used as a sword to slice through various illusions, knots and presumptions in order to recognize what is not affected by the arising of apparent phenomena. Being overly "self-conscious" can be a time when we wish we were someone else (or somewhere else), but in the spirit of true tantra, where all situations are workable, it can be a springboard for real spiritual insight and growth.
But summarily, the function of attention itself must be penetrated so that the presumption of subjectivity (or "self"), subject and object and any other forms of separation are "cut through" and seen for what they are. The kind of enquiry that addresses these issues can eventually lead to a breakthrough whereby attention can dissolve into its source and as a result, the "nature" of awareness can become evident, beyond subjectivity, selfhood and separateness