Self-esteem is absolutely essential in Buddhist practice, but it may seem like self-esteem has no place in Buddhism. The Buddha taught us to stop identifying anything as I, me, or mine, because doing so leads to suffering. In Mahayana Buddhism we say the self is empty of any inherently-existing, enduring, independent self-nature. What exactly is it we’re supposed to hold in esteem, or have confidence in? If the main point is to transcend self-concern, isn’t self-esteem the opposite of what we’re going for?
Quicklinks to Content:
The Importance of Self-Confidence
Self-esteem Means Letting Go of Negative Preoccupation with Self
Ordinary Self Esteem Is Based on Conditional Things
What is “Self,” Anyway?
Reconciling Individuality with Non-separation
What Does It Mean to Have “Esteem” for an Empty Self?
The Importance of Self-Confidence
Before I get to how self-esteem relates to the emptiness of self, let’s explore why I say self-esteem is absolutely essential in Buddhist practice. In part this is because self-esteem leads to self-confidence, and it takes self-confidence to walk the path to liberation. We don’t necessarily have to have a huge amount of it, but just enough. Just enough to be able to take the next step into the unknown, to face your doubts and fears with some degree of confidence that you’ll end up being okay in the end – that you’ll be able to respond appropriately and cope. It’s pretty much impossible for us to act in ways we think are going to endanger us, and you might be surprised how daunting Buddhist practice can be at times. It may ask you let go of your most cherished narratives about who you are. It may challenge you to let go of deep-seated anger and fear even though nothing has changed in your external circumstances. It may ask you to sit silently and stare at the wall for a week, contemplating how your habitual sense of self is an illusion. As we go about this practice, we have to have some sense that we’re up to the task.
In case you think a lack of self-confidence is just a modern problem, or just a problem of ordinary Buddhists, consider the story of what happened just before the Buddha finally achieved enlightenment. He was sitting there, incredibly determined and abiding in profound meditative states, but the demon Mara came to prevent his awakening. Mara attacked the Buddha with his armies, and threw giant rocks at him, and all that kind of stuff, but none of it touched the determined meditator. Then Mara attacked the Buddha with doubt, saying, essentially, “Who do you think you are, trying to attain liberation?”
The story of Mara is a myth, of course, but myths convey truth even if they aren’t factual. To me, the myth of Mara trying to get the Buddha to doubt himself acknowledges that, at some point in his practice, the Buddha did have doubt. Who wouldn’t? Who would sit in meditation, determined to discover a whole new approach to spiritual practice, and not have at least one thought like, “Maybe I’m delusional!” But the Buddha had practiced long enough that he did not succumb to doubt, and finally attained what he had worked for.
Self-esteem Means Letting Go of Negative Preoccupation with Self
There’s another reason self-esteem is important, and it’s unrelated to self-confidence. In order to achieve liberation thought Buddhist practice, we have to let go of negative preoccupation with ourselves. We mean well, of course – we’re just trying to improve ourselves and our behavior so we experience less suffering, and cause less suffering for others. We think that dwelling on our faults is a good, righteous thing: Our responsibility, really.
However, as long as we’re caught up in a painful narrative about our own inadequacy or past sins, we actually remained obsessed with self. This obsession constrains us and our practice, preventing growth. Instead of being able to settle into our meditation, we’re plagued with negative thoughts about ourselves and our lives. We walk around in a state of defensiveness, imagining other people are as preoccupied with our shortcomings as we are. We imagine they either secretly dislike us, or are looking for opportunities to undermine us. We cut ourselves off from all kinds of practice opportunities because we’re afraid of being exposed as the fraud we are.
Once again, in case you think a lack of self-esteem is a modern problem, I’ll share a classic Buddhist story. In the Lotus Sutra – a Mahayana Buddhist text composed around 2,000 years ago – there’s a parable called “the lost son.” As a young adult, the son leaves his country of origin and wanders for many years. Over time he has many difficult experiences and becomes destitute. He essentially “loses” himself over time, and when he ends up wandering back home, he doesn’t even recognize it as home. He also doesn’t recognize his father, who has become very wealthy and powerful in the intervening years. The father recognizes the son, however, and, overjoyed to see him alive, immediately sends a couple of his men out to greet the son and bring him to the palace. The son reacts in terror, figuring the men have come to arrest and imprison him.
Over the course of many years, the father gradually befriends his son and helps him regain his self-esteem. First, he hires the son to shovel manure, and the son accepts the job without suspicion because it fits with his idea of himself. Then the father promotes the son from one job to another, until the son is ready to accept a powerful position in the father’s house. Still, the son doesn’t imagine he might be the heir to the father’s fortune until the father finally makes a public announcement about their relationship.
The Lotus Sutra story about the lost son is meant to illustrate how each of us has the capacity for Buddhahood, but we can’t imagine ourselves as having anything to do with Buddhahood. Mucking out the stables, maybe. A low-level administrator? Maybe. If we have a decent level of self-esteem, maybe we think we deserve a pretty prestigious job. But the only child and heir of the most powerful person in the area? And not just an heir, but the beloved child of a beneficent parent who has been waiting for our arrival for many years?
In order to reap the most liberating rewards of Buddhist practice, we have to conceive of ourselves as being worthy of them. Actually, though, we don’t create a new narrative about how great we are, we just have to work on giving up our limited ideas about ourselves. When we manage to let go of our negative preoccupation with ourselves, we open up to a greater sense of reality.
Ordinary Self-Esteem Is Based on Conditional Things
That brings me to the question, “What is Buddhist Self-esteem?” Let me start with what it’s not. The kind of self-esteem we need to cultivate in practice isn’t about pride or confidence in our skills, our capacity, or our character. Isn’t that remarkable?
Ordinary, mundane, relative self-esteem is about pride or confidence in our skills, our capacity, or our character. Ordinary self-esteem is fine. As long as it doesn’t become arrogance – an overestimation of ourselves – ordinary self-esteem can give you the self-confidence to practice, and help you be less preoccupied with an ongoing negative critique of yourself.
However, ordinary self-esteem is conditional; it’s based on what’s happened in your past, or what’s happening for you now, and such events are only marginally under your control. Maybe you’ve had lots of success so far, but things could change. And maybe, despite your best efforts, things haven’t gone so well. Ordinary self-esteem depends on comparing ourselves to others, or to our ideals: How do we measure up? Any comparison or measurement is relative, and subject to change. There’s always someone better than we are, and it’s kind of sad if our self-esteem depends on there always being someone worse, although there is. Our capacity to act, understand, cope, etc. will probably end up being seriously diminished at some point in our lives, whether by circumstances, illness, or old age – what then?
When it comes to our character – our aspirations, morals, values, etc. – we may feel safe taking pride because these things seem unconditional. At the deepest level they are, but over the course of our lives we’re likely to face serious challenges to our ordinary self-esteem when we become aware of our limitations, blind spots, and mistakes. We may face moral quandaries we never anticipated, or circumstances may change and the values we’ve held dear will go out of style, or come in conflict with the values of others. Even when we base our self-esteem on our character it can be fragile.
What is “Self,” Anyway?
So, what do we base our self-esteem on, if not on conditional things? Well, first we should examine what we mean by self. A Mahayana Buddhist saying goes, “Our true self-nature is no self-nature.”
Now, the “no self-nature” part of this is something we talk about a lot in Buddhism. As we carefully examine all the aspects of our experience we could possibly identify as “I, me, or mine” – our body, sensations, perceptions, thoughts and feelings, and even our consciousness itself – we discover there is nothing within these things that can be grasped. No inherently-existing, enduring self can be located, and assuming such a self exists causes us suffering.
Put another way, we usually conceive of “I” and “me” as limited to our body and mind, and “mine” as extending a little further than that. In reality, though, the boundaries we assume are inherently real are little more than mental designations we make for practical reasons. For example, is your “self” limited to your body? Your physical existence is completely dependent on things like gravity, oxygen, and air pressure. You would not exist in your current form without them. Aren’t these conditions and elements, then, an indispensable part of who you are? Why not? At an atomic level you’re mostly space; exactly where are the boundaries between you and the rest of existence? Admittedly, metaphors about boundaries and atoms fail to do justice to the reality of emptiness, but if you spend much time studying Buddhism, you’ll get familiar with at least the concept of it.
But there’s another important part to the teaching “our true self-nature is no self-nature,” and that’s the other half of the phrase: “Our true self-nature.” So, the Buddhist claim is that there is no self-nature the way we usually conceive of it, so why are we talking about a true self-nature?
Basically, no matter how profound spiritual practice gets, no matter how transcendent our spiritual experiences, there’s no getting around the fact that each of us manifests as an individual. If life weren’t parceled out into our respective bags of skin, there would be no spiritual practice. There would be no Buddhism.
Our individuality is inseparable from our spiritual practice. Sure, we’re trying to transcend our individuality by seeing beyond our limited, self-centered narrative. We’re trying to give up self-attachment in order to be liberated from suffering. But in the end, there we are, still an individual. Through no merit or fault of our own, we’ve ended up as a unique manifestation of life, with our own body, sensations, perceptions, thoughts and feelings, and consciousness. We don’t share those things with anyone else, except through language, which can never convey our full reality. We have the power to act, make choices, learn, and practice – and we directly experience the repercussions of our actions and choices whether anyone else notices them or not. At the most fundamental level, our sense of self is simply our experience of being an individual.
Reconciling Individuality with Non-separation
Now, manifestation as an individual is a mixed bag. On the one hand, we’re fascinated by ourselves. Nothing interests us more. We’re passionately concerned about our own well-being, and determined to continue existing as an individual as long as possible. The perks of individuality include being able to express ourselves, create a life for ourselves, wonder, relate to others, and grow. At the same time, we may feel isolated and cut off. No one can actually share our experience, and we can never taste theirs. The universe is so big, and we are so small. We’re responsible for ourselves, and this can feel like a huge burden at times – especially because the help we get from others is always going to be limited. Ultimately, care of this person is up to me, especially when it comes to the state of my own body and mind.
Spiritual practice is about reconciling our experience of being an individual – our sense of self – with the underlying reality that we’re not separate from anything. Obviously, those two things seem mutually exclusive. We can’t get our heads around it. Either we’re separate, or we’re not. If we’re separate, we’re doomed to feel isolated and cut off, if only at a subtle, spiritual level. If we’re not separate, then our individuality is just particularly powerful delusion we can only break free from for moments at a time.
Fortunately, reality is not dualistic. It can be interpreted in dualistic ways, but reality itself has no problem with us being individuals and inseparable from the universe at the same time. We discover through practice that we can let go of all of our ideas about who we think we are, and we’ll be fine. And not only fine: We can be blissfully reconnected with everything, like the lost son was reconnected with his father at the end of the Lotus Sutra story. And then, after we’ve experienced being blissfully reconnected and liberated from self-obsession, our sense of self will come back because we’re individuals.
The important thing to realize is that Buddhism doesn’t teach we have no self. It teaches that we have no fixed self. We’re individuals experiencing the miracle of life, riding our wave of karma – the repercussions of our actions – from the past into the present, and then into the future. We have to take responsibility for ourselves from here on out, doing our best with our unique blend of strengths and weaknesses, but there is nothing within us that stands independent of this ongoing process. There’s no “one” to be saddled with an unchanging narrative, or blamed for past wrongs or current inadequacies.
Because our sense of self is a phenomenon arising from our individuality, we also don’t have to worry about maintaining it, or getting rid of it. It will be our constant companion in this life, except at peak moments when our non-separation from the universe becomes so obvious to us, our individuality recedes into the background for a while. Even outside those peak moments, though, we can take solace in our knowledge that “our true self-nature is no self-nature.” “True self-nature” points to the reality of our experience as individuals, longing to be reconnected. “No self-nature” invites us to let go and reconnect. The beautiful thing is that our reality includes both aspects fully. This is what is meant by the Buddhist phrase, “no sentient beings, no Buddhas.”
What Does It Mean to Have “Self-Esteem” for an Empty Self?
What about the “esteem” part of self-esteem? When we hold someone in esteem, or high esteem, we regard them with respect and appreciation, and generally feel motivated to help or defend them if needed. What on earth is it we’re supposed to hold in “esteem” if our sense of self is simply a phenomenon arising from individuality?
It’s possible to hold in high esteem our own manifestation of life, and it’s possible for that attitude to be unconditional.
That might seem a little abstract, so let me share my personal experience of moving from ordinary self-esteem toward unconditional self-esteem. Early in my practice I was still very dependent on a sense of self-esteem based on pride or confidence in my skills, capacity, and character. I knew I had some faults and weaknesses, but at least I was smart, capable, responsible, spiritually deep, aware, and considerate of others. I felt good about myself when this narrative was holding up, but I was plunged into self-loathing and doubt when I made mistakes or faced negative feedback from others. Over many years of practice, I learned that I was fairly smart but lacked a whole lot of other positive characteristics like generosity and a willingness to listen to others. My strong focus on being capable and getting stuff done often intimidated or alienated people. I might have been drawn to deep spiritual questions, but my Zen practice was impeded by my arrogance and my compulsion to conceptualize. I was aware of certain things, like whether a row of cushions was straight or not, but I often was completely oblivious to people’s feelings.
As I discovered more about myself, I didn’t know what to think. In some respects, I was at least better than some people, but did my positive characteristics outweigh my weaknesses? At a certain point in my practice, I really hated myself. I wished I could be almost anyone else. I felt deep despair when I contemplated the likelihood that I, personally, would ever achieve or taste any of the spiritual insight or liberation I craved. Someone so flawed could never be a “good” Zen practitioner, let alone a Buddha.
Personal doubt about our worthiness is also something addressed in the 2,000-year-old Lotus Sutra. In one part of the text, the Buddha makes a prediction of Buddhahood for one of his disciples. He says something like, “This person, in a future life many eons from now, will be born as a bodhisattva who achieves supreme enlightenment. He will be called Buddha so-and-so. He will rule over a vast Buddhaland called such-and-such, and help countless beings attain the way.” After the Buddha made this prediction, his other disciples muttered to themselves, wondering why they hadn’t received predictions of Buddhahood. Finally, some of them gathered the courage to approach the Buddha and essentially ask, “How about me, Buddha?”
The Buddha then proceeds to give specific predictions to thousands of his disciples, one by one, including his stepmother, former wife, and the rest of the nuns. Try to picture this scene: Despite a very obvious pattern (everyone gets a prediction if they ask), the Buddha’s disciples – some of whom were very advanced practitioners – still longed to here their own, special prediction. No matter how confident we are, we still wonder, deep down, whether we have Buddha nature, too.
I remember feeling a sense of aversion to the Lotus Sutra stories about predictions of Buddhahood when I first heard about them. In a strange way, I wanted to earn my way to liberation, not simply be handed some kind of generic assurance that’s available to everyone, no matter who they are or what they do. It was only when I reached the end of what I could do with conditional self-esteem that my heart opened, and I could picture myself getting in line to hear my prediction of Buddhahood. I imagined my heart filled with humility and longing. Me too? I think this must be what Christians mean when they talk about accepting the grace of God.
Gradually, I have come to hold in high esteem not just the luminous universe I know I am part of, but also the individual I am. This life itself is precious. So precious, in fact, that all of my shortcomings and foibles can’t detract from it. I’ve actually come to regard with a certain affection the imperfect individual I am – unique, with a flavor and a path all my own. I can recognize how even my faults and mistakes arise, deep down, from a life force that seeks to survive, experience love and belonging, learn and grow, and deepen my conviction that I’m ultimately not separate from the universe. Even my worst qualities are me doing my very best with an incomplete understanding.
In closing, then, I’ll say the self-esteem we want to cultivate in Buddhism can be conditional and unconditional. Conditional self-esteem is useful as far as it goes, but we gain great stability and dignity when we can regard this very, imperfect, individual life with respect and appreciation. Just think about people or beings you love unconditionally; why shouldn’t you treat yourself any differently?