Sunday, 3 May 2009

Strive for higher self-esteem

Excerpt: Should We Strengthen Our Sense of 'Self'

Psychotherapists tell us we should have a healthy sense of self. Should strengthening our sense of self be part of Buddhist practice?

A: People working in the field of psychology often speak of our having a sense of self. But when there is a self, one tends to compare it to other selves. Out of that comparison come the ideas of low self-esteem, high self-esteem, inferiority, superiority, and equality. Low self-esteem is considered to be detrimental. We're told to strive for higher self-esteem. But high self-esteem can also be harmful. The complex of superiority brings unhappiness. It's not a compliment to say, "He's full of himself." The person with high self-esteem can make himself and others suffer. The desire to be equal, to be "just as good as" someone, also brings unhappiness. Only the person who is empty of self is happy; he has no jealousy, no hatred, no anger, because there is no self to compare.

According to the Buddha's teaching, the self is the foundation of sickness. There are many negative mental formations; when they manifest they make us and others suffer. And there are many positive mental formations that can improve our quality of being and increase our concentration and insight. We practice in order to strengthen these positive mental formations, rather than to strengthen our "sense of self." The practice of mindfulness will help these energes to manifest, and you will have a better equality of being... Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to be truly present. When you are truly present, you are more in control of situations, you have more love, patience, understanding, and compassion. That strengthens and improves your quality of being. It can be very healing to touch your true nature of no-self. Psychotherapy can learn a lot from this teaching

Thich Nhat Hanh from Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses to Burning Questions (Parallax Press)

Received in The Daily Enlightenment's weekly Buddhist email newsletter 30.04.09.

When I first read this I was struck by a couple of things that this seemed to contradict.
  • I wasn't entirely in agreement with the apparent definition of "self-esteem" being used, I tend to view "self-esteem" as the view or opinion we hold of our own value, with little reference or comparison to other people. Obviously it will be relative to others to some degree, but not particularly in the sense of feeling we are better or worse than someone else.
  • In teachings I have received through the Western Chan Fellowship, including those of Master Sheng Yen, the instructions have been that we must first gather the mind before we will be able to transcend the mind and a state of no-mind might arise. This is often related to our sense of self in that it is first necessary to gain a clear and strong sense of self ("a healthy sense of self") before we are able to transcend this and a state of no-self might arise. Awareness starts with the self, then the question of what this "self" is follows. (However, to be clear, the underlying motivation is never to gain a stronger sense of self.)
These were first reactions though and on further reflection, the second paragraph really pulls it all together for me and I can see that what TNH is teaching doesn't really contradict the teachings I have received. I appreciate how he distinguishes the ideas of negative and positive mental formations in the Buddha's teaching from the idea of self and I find this has a valuable sense of clarity.

I also re-examined my ideas around "self-esteem" and noticed that my first reaction was a defensive response to the challenge of TNH's words. Actually I am fully in agreement with what he teaches and have in fact reflected on this before. Low self-esteem and high self-esteem are both forms of self-cherishing.

What I take in conclusion from this excerpt is: "
Mindfulness ... strengthens and improves your quality of being."

[I think this is probably also a good reminder that reading an except from a book doesn't necessarily give the whole picture being presented!]


Alice said...

I agree that self-esteem, whether high or low, definitely is a form of self-cherishing.

I think the "other" part that TNH talks about are two-fold:

1) Self-cherishing exists because there are others. Although we may not consider having a certain self-esteem to have much reference or comparison to others, the fact is that we have a fundamental misperception of seeing ourselves as separate, validating our own existence from the existence of others. 2) Therefore, our self-cherishing, no matter how we look at is, creates suffering for ourselves and others.

And of all the 51 mental formations found within the skandhas, or samskaras, there are 11 whose nature is virtuous, from which well-being comes forth. Some of these are: mindfulness, pliancy, equanimity, nonattachent, absence of hatred, noharmfulness, etc.

So as TNH said, when we practice to strengthen the positive samskaras, they bring forth "well-being", which I believe is the genuine way to have positive self-esteem - for ourselves and others.

"Mindfulness ... strengthens and improves your quality of being." I'd say that's the proper definition of positive self-esteem.

Thank You!

Puerhan said...

Thanks Alice, I think your comment helps clarify what I was getting at!