Oh, I feel self-conscious we say, either in our heads or out loud but what does this really mean and what happens to us? It means we have noticed sensations in the body, mind or emotional landscape that are in some way causing discomfort or a sense of unease. As soon as we notice the sensations, all of our attention floods to the areas of discomfort, magnifying and intensifying them and most of the time resulting in behaviour that is limiting; we contract, withdraw, close down and generally make ourselves ‘smaller’ - we do anything to avoid the rising feelings of embarrassment, shame, fear, anxiety, doubt or whatever is rising in that moment.
But what I’ve realised lately is this mostly unwelcome experience can be a great way to practice and grow our awareness and we can really learn a lot about ourselves. Mindfulness can be defined as the act of focusing our attention on an object to bring our awareness back to the present moment. We can do this in so many ways, whether that’s through formal meditation practices or using our everyday lives, our emotions or bodily experience as the bridge to the present moment. We can shift from what we call autopilot to making more conscious choices and become less overwhelmed by whatever is happening. So, when a situation or event causes us to feel self-conscious, it means our attention/awareness has focused on aspects of our sensory landscape, normally fuelled by powerful inner narratives and ‘negative’ self-chatter. If we aren’t mindful of all that’s going on and don’t take a breath to pause and ‘mind the gap’, (this is the space between the event and the reaction and also the space between the in and outbreath) it can become overpowering, all-consuming and very distressing. Suddenly all our energy is channelled often unconsciously to avoiding the uncomfortable feelings and the preventing the potential worst-case scenarios we have run through at ten million miles an hour in our heads. We are instantaneously bombarded with ways we should react, actions we can take to avert, avoid and protect at all cost.
Now, here’s the good bit! The part or parts we are conscious of I am going to call the ‘small self’; this is our personality, our thoughts/beliefs, our physical body and our emotions, the parts that we might call our identity/persona. Now if we can find a way to stop in that moment of ‘small-self’ consciousness and ask ourselves a few simple questions (before the emergency shutdown ensues), we might just learn something utterly life changing.
I would like to make it clear that the aim of what I am now calling the ‘mind the gap questions’ isn’t to avoid, disconnect or reject anything that is rising, being felt or experienced - ‘self-consciousness’ is a perfectly natural part of being human, it’s unavoidable and happens to all of us. But there are a few things we can do when we find ourselves in this unwanted space, so firstly let’s understand the process that happens behind the scenes. Perception is the key ingredient here – every one of us has a unique lens that we view the world through. This lens is shaped by years of conditioning, from our families, ancestral, social, traumas and difficult events; everything we have experienced is woven into a convincing narrative about the world, how it should be, what we believe and what defines our personal identity. A lot of the time the underlying primary driver in this story revolves around how to keep ourselves safe, we hold many subconscious beliefs about what is ‘dangerous’ and we are always on the look-out. When something happens that causes us to feel fear, we instantly go into preservation and survival mode - we are very much hardwired to respond this way, but the good news is we can change this. Over the course of our lives we continue to build layers upon layers to reinforce our sense of identity, many of which are beyond the level of our awareness (basically we don’t even know they are there, or we are thinking them). And it might surprise you to know that this set of ‘pre-recorded’ scripts about the world is always running in the background of our lives, behind our interactions with people, driving our thoughts, reactions and even creating events.
So it’s a bit like our own personal filter and unless we know what our filter looks like and the lines of our subtle personal scripts, our perception may well be flawed or even distorted and we can find ourselves reacting automatically and unconsciously to keep things in line with our inner hidden story. This is why each of us responds to the same event or stimulus differently. For example, I know some people who feel very comfortable with public speaking – in fact they love it, it makes them feel alive, excited, joyful - it’s a wonderful experience for them and they love being on centre stage. For others, the moment they are called to speak up publicly, even at a small informal gathering they can find themselves ‘small-self’ conscious and their experience is made up of fear, dread and wanting to do anything to run away and avoid the event and the feelings that arise. So we can see that it can’t be the event that is the cause of the discomfort - it’s the thoughts and programming each one of us personally holds around it that determines how we feel, how we experience it and what we do to restore our version of harmony and safety.
Perception is shaped by underlying beliefs - our personal story.
Our experience is shaped by our perception.
So, now we know what’s happening here comes the eureka bits!
The first instant you notice some form of discomfort or ‘small-self’ consciousness, your first ‘mind the gap question’ is "Who or what is noticing these aspects of you?". I will say that again . . . who or what is noticing the emotions or the sensations in your body? Who is noticing the chatter running through your mind offering a host of survival strategies?
If all you are is a ‘self’ made up of body, mind and emotions then who is the one that is conscious of and witnessing all of those?? And so here we find that we have discovered the witness, the observer, the seat of consciousness flowing through us and I believe this is the most transformational life changing thing any one of us can do. Now you stand at the threshold of meeting the truest deepest aspect of yourself . . . your essence . . . and holy crap we suddenly realise we are this ‘thing’ noticing the experience rather than the experience itself. Our body is the vehicle that carries this ever-changing landscape of thoughts, feelings and emotions. So, step one is to stop and ‘mind the gap’ . . . pause . . . and let the breath come in and out. That small pause allows a sliver of space to open, the space to step back and inwards into the seat of the witness.
And then it’s time to ask ourselves another question . . .
The second ‘mind the gap’ question is "can I allow the feelings arising to be, can I rest with them from the place of the witness and let them move through me?" This can be uncomfortable and scary at first because we are so used to distracting ourselves or evading discomfort that to stay present with them seems crazy. But once you move ever so slightly back into the seat of the witness, its amazing how much more bearable things can become and how much quicker they pass through us too.
The third mind the gap question which is "what is the narrative in my head right now . . . what am I saying to myself? If I just step back a little can I observe these ‘lines in my script’ in a more detached way rather than as fact and absolute truth?”. By sitting back in the in the seat of the observer, we get much more insight as to the nature of our own stories (I bet you’ll find it’s not very positively affirming and I bet you’ll find that it’s also at its core repetitive). Once you notice what your story is, perhaps you can turn the volume down a little bit, because that story is certainly fuelling your emotional response and generally not in productive or kind ways. See if you can watch it all play out – the sensations in the body, the thoughts and narrative in the mind, the emotions rising . . . and all of this from the space of the observer who is neutral and non-judgemental.
Remember without the pause, without stepping into the place of the witness we get very lost very quickly and we respond and react from the survival focused ‘small-self’. We can quite often become totally unconscious in a split second as we become fully identified with the experience so much so that it shapes what we do without any awareness. How many times have you looked back on a situation and wished you had responded differently – ‘mind the gap’ gives us the little space we need for that inspired choice and action to come in.
So, do MIND THE GAP. It brings us choice,freedom, peace and acceptance. Switch to the observer who is noticing what is occurring rather than getting lost in or being fully identified with what is occurring – there is a subtle but oh so powerful difference.
Once we learn how to reside more in our inner world of the true self, the witness, a force that is constant, still, quiet, powerful and wise, we can learn a lot about our inner programming and limiting beliefs and take the first powerful steps to freedom and peace. Our true Self knows nothing of fear or contraction, it is vastness and expansion, pure awareness, pure being ness and this is who you really are. The temporary house of your emotions, body, thoughts and physical reality is simply that - a temporary accommodation for you to explore and experience and along the way to become conscious again of who you really are.
So I invite you, the next time you feel the familiar feelings of ‘small-self’ consciousness, remind yourself that this is the small you wanting to be seen and felt. That doesn’t make it any less real or unimportant or that it should be rejected or judged. But it isn’t who you really are. You are the witness watching this unfold and feeling it happen. You have a choice as to which seat you wish to respond and react from.
Will you be your emotions and thoughts or will you ‘mind the gap’ and step back into the powerful compassionate watcher that you are? If you just try you might be really surprised by what happens. Again, I want to be really clear that mindfulness it not about pushing away or avoiding our experience – in fact its more about welcoming it all from the place of your deepest most powerful Self, witnessing it with a sense of neutrality, presence and even compassion. You’ll be amazed what transformation this can do. And then you breathe and take your next step.
Remember: It’s not always possible to stop our automatic reaction and step back into the witness. Sometimes life’s triggers and events are just too overpowering for us to be able to step back or detach from our experience and we become consumed by whatever is happening at that moment. And that’s absolutely okay! When we can again, we simply take a moment to ‘mind the gap’ with compassion. We begin again and again, as many times as we need to, and we turn towards ourselves with the care and love we would give to a wounded animal or a child. We don’t judge ourselves and we don’t berate ourselves for losing ourselves - it serves no purpose except to add to the negative self-chatter we are intending to free ourselves from. Instead we choose to accept that we did the best we could in that moment, we honour ourselves and right now we choose to begin again.
Mindfulness is simply that . . . beginning again over and over with innocence, curiosity and compassion.