We all have minds that seem to have an infinite capacity for adding a running commentary to everything we see or do. If we pay too much attention to this commentary, we risk living our lives stuck in a very superficial level of our consciousness. There is also a risk that we mistake our commentary about ourselves for our true selves - we become 'what we think about what we see' rather than 'the one who is doing the seeing'. Richard Holloway summarised this conundrum beautifully in a recent interview for ABC radio in Australia, which can listen to here. He describes a cyclical kind of self-consciousness that plagued him in much of his younger life whereby he was never able simply to give himself to a task or a role without a self-conscious awareness of the fact that he was 'being a slum priest' or 'doing good works'. I suspect this is a particular risk for those who, like Richard, have both a very quick intelligence and an active conscience. The interviewer asked if Richard was not being a little narcissistic in this reflection on his self-regarding tendencies - surely all that mattered was doing the right thing. Richard agreed that he should have known this, given that the Prior of the religious community where he studied always warned people never to examine their motives - they were always wrong!
But I think Richard is correct in identifying this commenting tendency as a problem and his keen awareness of it shows the depth of his spirituality. Teachers of meditation in all traditions see the purpose of meditation as being largely to overcome this tendency. Anthony de Mello described the goal as 'non-interpretative seeing'. The practice of meditation or awareness is the simple giving of attention to what is without adding the commentary. Awareness of the commentary is the first step in being able to let go of it.
The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh shows how this kind of simple awareness can be practised in the most ordinary aspects of life from breathing to cooking and eating. He also shows how the practice can be used in relation to our emotions, including the negative and difficult ones like anger. As one who loves paintings, there is a great challenge in looking at a work of art without getting completely sidetracked by spotting the symbolism, guessing the artist or date, or examining the technique. Simply to see what is there is a kind of meditative practice.
I think this is, in large part, what Jesus meant when he challenged those who followed him to 'deny themselves'. This is not a self-destructive thing, but a gentle letting go of our self-consciousness in order that we may learn truly to see.