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It is often proposed these days that building one’s Self-esteem is the panacea for many issues plaguing our lives. But this can be an oversimplification of deeper issues and there can be many “weaknesses” is such a proposal.
We need to question the validity of this idea, at least to how it is often promoted. We live in a time when more attention is paid to people’s “mental health” than at any time in history, yet simultaneously seeing huge and unprecedented rises in depression, mental illness, suicide etc.
So maybe we need to consider other perspectives, more ancient and traditional perspectives.
Some quotes I used:
For one who has conquered the mind, the Supreme Soul is already reached, for they have attained tranquillity. To such a person happiness and distress, heat and cold, honor and dishonor are all the same. Bhagavad gītā 6.7
One who is equal to friends and enemies, who is equipoised in honor and dishonor, heat and cold, happiness and distress, fame and infamy, who is always free from contaminating association, always silent and satisfied with anything, who doesn’t care for any residence, who is fixed in knowledge and who is engaged in devotional service—such a person is very dear to Me. Bhagavad gītā 12.18-19
The saintly brāhmaṇa said: Everyone considers certain things within the material world to be most dear to him, and because of attachment to such things one eventually becomes miserable. One who understands this gives up material possessiveness and attachment and thus achieves unlimited happiness. Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.9.1
In family life, the parents are always in anxiety about their home, children and reputation. But I have nothing to do with these things. I do not worry at all about any family, and I do not care about honor and dishonor. I enjoy only the life of the soul, and I find love on the spiritual platform. Thus I wander the earth like a child. Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.9.3
Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya
So last week we spoke on the topic of the false ego. If you haven’t yet seen that I would highly recommend that you do look at that video. The topic is of huge significance to anybody that’s interested in understanding yoga, and understanding, or wanting to engage in, the process of self-realization.
In that conversation I presented the very ancient yogic understanding of who we really are, that there is a false self, and there is a real self. The real self is the spiritual being, the actual person, the perceiver who resides within the body. That person, that spiritual being, the soul is covered by two bodies. The first is what is known as the subtle body, the linga sarira, and that subtle body is divided into three parts, each playing a different role in affecting our state of consciousness. And then there is the gross external covering, the gross physical body that we all see and are aware of.
I had presented that (even though I should have probably done it some time ago) partly because of the topic that I was asked about, which I’m speaking on tonight, the idea of self-esteem and looking at that concept from a yogic perspective.
It’s become such a common thing that people talk about how a lack of self-esteem really lies at the heart of a lot of the problems that people are facing in the world today, and that if we could just help raise people’s self-esteem then it would be somehow a panacea to address, or correct many of the issues, or ailments plaguing our lives today—at least that’s what’s often presented. But in discussing this subject from a yogic perspective, I think you will come to see that that idea and many of the ideas that accompany it are factually an over-simplification of a much deeper and more important issue.
The way actual clinical—highly trained clinical psychologists or psychiatrists speak about self-esteem is not exactly the same as the way it is often being presented or addressed in the world today. What we’re seeing is ideas that are cropping up–and we see them within the educational institutions and amongst parents that are genuinely wanting the best for their children and being afraid and not wanting children to experience disappointment or the idea of failure, then there is this attempt to make it so one never encounters failure or any kind of actual disappointment.
What happens is, as a result of that, rather than actually helping people come to grips with the reality of life in this world, you create in people’s minds unrealistic expectations. For instance, you’ve got this idea now that we should somehow eliminate all forms of competition or even in schools, the idea of testing people on academic attainment and grading people on how well they’ve comprehended or can–how well they’ve learned academic subjects; but in doing that you actually erode people’s resilience. The need to experience different forms of failure–now I’m not speaking from a spiritual perspective here just, from a practical and worldly perspective—the need to be able to address failure, shortcomings, competition, and learn how to live with that is part of the development of people’s character and the development of their resilience. The idea that you’re going to have some sporting event, and there’s not going to be any first place or second place or third place, everybody gets a trophy, this is not an idea that is going to really help people in their life. But people think that–the people that promote these ideas think what it does is it reinforces people’s self-esteem and makes it so that they are healthier mentally, there’s—they’ve got better mental health and they’ll be more balanced.
The reality is, the adoption of this modern or the current value system that is being promoted with these ideas–I mean in this time that we are currently living and over the past couple of decades more attention has been paid to people’s mental health than probably at any time in the history of mankind. And yet simultaneously we’re seeing huge rises in depression, reported and self-reported mental illness, and of course, suicide. And in many cases we’ve seen that over the last five or eight years there’s been anything from a 55 to 80 percent increase in some of these conditions. And so that has to tell you that there is something wrong with the way these issues are being approached.
Another way people try to reinforce young people’s self-esteem is by promoting ideas like, “You can be anything that you want to be.” That is not true. What if you had–I’m in New Zealand here–what if you had four million Kiwis all wanting to be the prime minister, actually sincerely wanting it? Is it even a possibility? And the answer is, of course, no. It’s not a possibility. And to promote the idea that it is a possibility, through this broad idea you can be anything that you want to be, what it does is raise unrealistic expectations in people’s minds, expectations that they are never going to be able to fulfill; and you will end up contributing to people’s deep sense of worthlessness and failure because they didn’t get to be everything that they wanted to be.
One of the realities of life in this world is that everything is not equal, and you cannot by artificial means make it so, that everything is. Different people have different natural talents. Not everybody is born with the same natural talents and abilities. Every person has a different physical abilities. Some people are more suited to certain types of physical activity or sport and more suited to others. I remember hearing some years ago how, in Australia I think it was, they developed tests so they could go around to, in primary school level or beginning of high school, they could subject kids to tests and identify, based upon their physical structure, the nature of their—the muscles that they have, that certain people have the capacity to excel in different types of sport. And people were encouraged to develop and to train in those particular sports because they can do exceedingly well. Countries like China and stuff, it’s the same kind of thing. It’s not simply because I want to be an ice skater that that’s going to make it so that automatically that I’m going to be a world-class ice skater, or a ballerina. I may be more suited to be a weightlifter or to be a paddler—this is where I’m going to do well.
Different people have different artistic abilities and tastes. Different people come with a different capacity for intellectual proficiency. Some people are drawn towards more physical endeavours, others are more philosophical or scientific in their attractions and what they’re drawn to.
Not everybody has the same physical beauty; not everybody will, even with the aid of plastic surgeons. I mean— and it’s so—we have this world where enormous amounts of pressure are put on people, particularly young women, to appear in a certain physical way; and the idea that comes with that is that my worth, my value, is determined upon how my body looks.
These ideas are incredibly destructive and not helpful. And the idea of artificially promoting what passes for self-esteem doesn’t change reality very much. If we look at ancient yoga wisdom and how they understood these terms and the significance of them, we will be able to draw a bit of a contrast.
The word esteem in English, it is defined as respect and admiration. So when I put the word self in front of it I’m speaking about how much I respect and admire myself. This is not–For me, this sets off alarm bells.
When we talk about the self, in the materialistic and hedonistic philosophies, the naturalistic philosophies, the body is considered the self, and the mind: these are what’s considered the self. But as I pointed out earlier, in the yoga system the self is the eternal spiritual being residing within the temporary body. And so when we consider the meaning of these words, and the two different perspectives, or how they can be viewed, it opens up the potential for a very serious look at life.
The definition that is given for self-esteem, it’s defined as: “an individual’s subjective evaluation of their own worth,” subjective meaning how you see it yourself. “Self-esteem,” this is continuing, part of the definition, “Self-esteem encompasses beliefs about oneself for example, “I am unloved,” or, “I am worthy,” as well as emotional states such as triumph or despair, pride and shame.” So this is the definition.
Something that we don’t train young people in, and we ourselves may not be very thoughtful in, is asking the question: “So where do these ideas come from? Where have they arisen from? Who started them?” The origin of ideas is actually really important if you want to live a balanced and healthy and productive life, a life that is meaningful and happy and peaceful.
This idea of self-esteem is actually a comparatively modern concept when it is viewed in relation to the history of mankind. You consider that mankind has lived on this planet for tens of thousands of years—more! In the Vedic teachings they talk about much vaster periods of time. Modern anthropology, they talk about something in the area of 200,000 years. So in the history of mankind this idea of self-esteem first actually surfaced in the late 18th century. It was a Scottish writer, and he was regarded as very enlightened. His name was David Hume; and he made mention, in the very end of the 1700s, 1790-something, he made reference to this concept or idea. So this is not even going back to the Greeks or the Romans or different groups. You didn’t see this in Asia, this idea at all in the ancient civilizations.
The identification of self-esteem as a distinct psychological construct has its origins in the work of the philosopher and psychologist William James; and he wrote about this in 1892. So this is almost the beginning of the 1900s. This was when it first actually burst on the scene and began to be discussed. In the mid 1960s the social psychologist Morris Rosenberg actually was the first one to really define self-esteem, and he defined it as a feeling of self-worth. So as of 1997, in what was called the “core self-evaluations approach”, it included self-esteem as one of the four dimensions that comprise one’s fundamental appraisal of one’s self.
I just want to touch on something that I sort of mentioned a little bit earlier. You can see that the focus here and in the definition has to do with an individual, as it says here, “an individual’s subjective evaluation of their own worth.” So this has nothing to do with what other people may think but it’s how a person feels supposedly about themselves. And we have entered a period in time—I mean it used to be a common saying, and I mentioned it last week, that you should not judge a book by its cover. This was considered a profound idea that people really took to heart where you did not consider a person’s physical appearance, how they may be dressed, whether they had any physical deformities or imperfections, any health challenges, mental or physical, that one should not simply look at that and make a judgment about the worthiness of someone or their value, that one should learn to look within. This was the idea. And now in such a short period of time that ancient truth has been completely overturned and thrown out the window, and it has become all about the cover, not about the content of the book within. If the cover is fantastic the assumption is the book must be fantastic.
And of course, the problem with that is you can have—you can spend a lot of money on gyms and physical augmentations and massive amounts of plastic and other substances implanted in your body, and have everybody going like, “Wow, you’re so beautiful,” and yet feel like crap. And if that happens somebody would say, “Oh you’re suffering from low self-esteem,” but that’s all based on the idea—and it’s only an idea and a belief—that the body is the self. There has to be an understanding that it doesn’t matter how much I stimulate the body, how much sensual experience and gratification I grant it, if I am not receiving spiritual nutrition then I am like a starving bird in a cage. The cage has all been highly polished and looking fantastic, the bird within is malnourished and wasting away.
If you look at the series that I’ve done, Finding Myself which I highly recommend to anyone that wants to begin the journey of self-realization, in the first part I used an example of a woman that some years ago burst onto the scene as a model through Youtube and became the hot model, and was taken from relative obscurity to being offered the opportunity to pose on the Swimwear edition of Sports Illustrated, and she was absolutely elated. She revealed in an interview that the body that she had was something that she actually prayed for as a little girl. She wanted the curves. She wanted the voluptuous breasts, and to look the way that she did, and having attained this she was filled with happiness. And now being recognized and on the cover of a magazine, she thought this was like everything that—and being paid for that, and everybody admiring her—this is everything that she wished for. And she was just thought it was going to be the most wonderful thing; but she quickly came to recognize that she was being leered at by all these lusty guys that simply saw her as a sex object that would gratify their senses, and it was so heartbreaking. She said, “I’m not an object. I’m a person.” And it’s sort of like, well, what can I say? You aspired to be seen as that body, and then when everybody goes running after with their panting tongues hanging out and wanting to grab hold of you, you know what I mean, and use you, or use your body, then you feel like they’re not seeing me, the person within.
So this is the pitfalls of creating unrealistic expectations, promising people that if they can just like, if everybody gets a trophy then we’re all gold medal winners, we’re all—we’ve all excelled, and therefore we should all be happy, whereas everybody knows it’s not true. We’re just cheating ourselves.
So one of the things that you would have seen when I read the definition that part of this self-esteem lies in people’s emotional states, how they see and deal with triumph or despair, and pride and shame. So I’m just going to focus on those two things, the pride and shame thing, for a minute because I think it really points to the issue. The definition that’s given in the dictionary of pride, “It is a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements or the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, our team, or from their qualities or possessions that they have widely admired.” Like if I admire a certain brand of car, and then I can acquire it, I take pride in my acquisition of this thing that I hold in esteem.
Ancient wisdom has always taught that pride was a negative quality. And this—now this is already going to spazz some people out—the idea, “But shouldn’t we take pride in ourselves and take pride in these things?” Well, who is the self? If I’m going to take pride in something which is not me, something that—You know, the body is destined for death, and before death the process of old age, and the process of becoming diseased and ill; these are natural occurrences, and if I am placing my value on the youthfulness, and the strength, and the agility of this body, if that’s where I’m finding value and worth I am in for a big shock, because that cannot last and it doesn’t last. And taking pride in having something that is destined to fall apart is obviously not very wise.
The problem with being proud is that it is a very self-centred emotional state or mental state. We know from all spiritual teachings that the more self-centred a person is the more unhappy, and the less peace they will be able to experience; and we’ve talked about this subject a lot. It was a commonly taught and understood thing within the Western world of Christianity. Of course, there are equivalents in other religious and spiritual traditions, but in within Christianity they had what they call the seven deadly sins, that if a person was influenced or controlled by these things they would most assuredly experience great unhappiness, a downfall and a destruction. And one of them was pride.
There was a famous verse in the Old Testament, very ancient Abrahamic texts:
“Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty but humility comes before honour.”
I mean if—and it later became translated as a common saying in English that pride comes before the fall, that when a person becomes proud it will inevitably lead in one way or another to their downfall. And so it’s kind of like we’re at cross purposes here, with the older and more ancient traditions that are actually founded on a deeper spiritual understanding and the more modern and more superficial values that are being promoted now, that were previously understood to not produce desirable outcomes.
So there is this idea that’s being promoted is that one should be proud, and they should take pride in themself and things. And the other end of that spectrum is shame; and shame is bad at all costs. We need to teach children and young people how not to feel shame. Part of this came from the hedonistic ideas that one should not have any guilt feelings, that we should enjoy life to the fullest and not have any guilt feelings or any hang-ups or anything that would hold us back from experiencing the maximum amount of physical pleasure and stimulation, and through that we will be fulfilled. And the idea within that context, if anybody feels shame then it holds them back from their highest potential.
But if you look at the actual dictionary definition of shame, it is, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.” That is a pretty amazing definition. What it’s saying is that there is right behaviour and there is wrong behaviour. There is intelligent behaviour and there is foolish behaviour. And the idea of shame, it can actually be a very powerful regulator of anti-social behaviour. Anti-social behaviour, for the average person they have a little bit of a hard time relating to what that means, but it’s kind of really interesting with the work I do in prisons, and you see the way that people that are put into prison for murder for violent crime, for sexual crimes: Their understanding of anti-social behaviour that they cultivate there is that these activities that I engage in that are harmful to society, these are anti-social. And to not feel shame in doing them means that there is nothing to regulate my behaviour, and so to feel ashamed in and of itself is not necessarily bad and can actually be a really good thing. And so these moves of people under the banner of raising people’s self-esteem to promote the idea that you should feel pride in everything, and you should avoid feeling shame in anything, this is an utterly modern construct that actually is very destructive for society.
Yoga wisdom teaches the need to actually learn to rise above the things that are naturally encountered in life. I’ll use a couple of examples that are kind of like—they’re not spiritual but they’ll broaden the understanding. You have people that are really good at sales, and they will have—they will know the statistics that if I have to knock on so many doors or I have to make so many calls, and one in thirty people, or one in twenty-five, or one in forty-five people I’m going to be able to make a sale to them, then their attitude becomes every time that there is a rejection they are one step closer to a sale, and they just don’t even feel put off at all by rejection. Whereas another person would go to the door, and the first door they knock on to try and make a sale about something they get rejected, and then they feel utterly depressed. And so you’ve got these two different ways of looking at things.
Failure: People that were often amazing inventors–Thomas Edison, he tried over 900 times and failed before he successfully invented the light bulb. And he said he considered every failure as a positive lesson that this is not the way to do it, which meant that he had to focus on other areas, because he knew theoretically it was possible, and so his failure was an impetus for him to eventually succeed. Whereas other people will take the idea of failure as being something that we should avoid at every step.
In the yogic philosophy though, the teaching was with the cultivation of an understanding of my spiritual identity. The fact that I am an eternal spiritual being I should not be artificially or unnecessarily put off or deterred by the nature of this world and the nature of material consciousness and dealing with other materialistic people; that I should become situated in the glory of my spiritual existence. I am an eternal spiritual being. This body is not me. My body doesn’t determine my self-worth, or whether my body is good looking or attractive or liked by others. There was a deeper way of looking at and understanding things, and one was taught how to become tolerant, how to tolerate the dualities of this world, like fame and shame, or pride and shame. They’re two different experiences on either end of the same scale, and they’re part of the natural dualities of this world. And the promotion of the understanding that if I develop and cultivate an appreciation of my spiritual identity then I can easily tolerate these temporary material situations and not be overly influenced or affected by them. And so this made it so that people were highly resilient.
So I’ll read a verse here which is speaking about this idea of learning to become more neutral to material influences and the material dualities and not to be driven by that. It’s just like when we teach mindfulness, where this idea that people don’t have to respond to emotions, particularly negative emotions. Just because something arises in my mind, anger, fear, greed, envy, lust, any of these things, doesn’t mean that I have to express that, that that has to be the driver in my relationship with someone else and how I’m going to relate and deal with things. So this spiritual cultivation was a big part of this self-realization. It was a big part of becoming more neutrally fixed and to feel completely secure in my connection with the Supreme Soul and my eternal spiritual identity.
So in the Bhagavad-gita there is a verse that says: “For one who has conquered the mind…”
—and of course, we’ve talked about this so many times, how the mind should not be determining how we speak and how we act. We should be directing the mind rather than the mind dragging us around.
“For one who has conquered the mind, the Supreme Soul is already reached, for they have attained tranquillity.”
Interesting concept. For one who’s conquered the mind one experiences tranquillity.
“To such a person happiness and distress, heat and cold, honour and dishonour are all the same.”
This is where real security lies. This is where real understanding of self-worth will come from.
Another couple of verses from the Bhagavad-gita:
“One who is equal to friends and enemies, who is equally poised in honour and dishonour, heat and cold, happiness and distress, fame and infamy, who is always free from contaminating association…
—bad association of people that have ideas that are counter, that are living lives that are counter to these principles. One:
“…who is always silent and satisfied with anything, who doesn’t care for any particular residence, who is fixed in knowledge and who is engaged in devotional service, such a person is very dear to Me,” states Lord Krishna.
So this is a very deep spiritual subject. And I actually had a whole bunch of other verses but I won’t read them.
Maybe I’ll read this last one. The person speaking was somebody who in their younger life was schooled in spiritual understanding, but then later became materialistic, and very absorbed and hungry, avaricious, for money, and became prepared to cheat, lie and steal, fundamentally, to gain a higher status and position, and eventually lost everything. And in losing everything he even became rejected by his own family members who had become very addicted to the high lifestyle, and now their father could not provide them with this, and the husband. So it was like, what value does he have? So he was even rejected. And this experience, and reflecting on his earlier years, he meditated deeply upon this and took up the path of self-realization, and had these incredible realizations and displayed this amazing, amazing personality of being so tolerant and kind even in the face of provocation and violence and— He was an extraordinary person. So he was questioned, and he stated:
“The saintly brahmana said: Everyone considers certain things within the material world to be most dear to him, and because of attachment to such things one eventually becomes miserable. [That is a deep idea.] One who understands this gives up material possessiveness and attachment and thus achieves unlimited happiness.”
So this doesn’t—it’s not suggesting that one get rid of everything and go live in a cave. One can live within this world and be responsible, but renounce and give up the consciousness of possessiveness and being excessively attached to things, knowing that they will all pass, they will all be removed from me in time.
Then in the next verse he said:
“In family life parents are always in anxiety for their home, their children and reputation, but I have nothing to do with these things. I do not worry at all about any family. I do not care about honour and dishonour. I enjoy only the life of the soul and I find love on the spiritual platform. [And] thus I wander the earth like a child.”
Very beautiful verse that clearly lays out the spiritual condition, where one is not even concerned about this self-esteem. I mean it’s what—the way my mind is taking things and what my mind is telling me, and my mind is subject to the influence of social media, what everybody else is putting out there, and I become all caught up in that and completely lost to myself, completely unaware of my own spiritual identity; and because of that great suffering is experienced.
Artificial attempts to feel good about bad ideas are not going to help you. Maybe temporarily they can put off things a little bit, but eventually the house of cards will collapse, as they say.
So I hope that that is helpful to people and particularly young people. I mean you need to grow in your independence from others, to be an independently strong person, to know that you have innate worth, that you are eternally loved. And these are profoundly spiritual principles and truths, and it is these that need to be cultivated, these understandings, rather than trying to falsely find esteem, to admire your body, or your mind, or physical possessions, or characteristics associated with this temporary garment known as the body.
With that I thank you very much and invite you to chant with me. This is, of course, the process that brings about this enlightenment, that brings true understanding of the self, that brings real security. So I’ll sing the mantra Aum Hari Aum. This transcendental sound Hari means the remover of the burdens of the heart, the remover of sin, sinfulness, the remover of distress, and in that we will experience transcendental pleasure and security and love, when all of these burdens are removed from the heart and the mind.