Self-esteem and pride are two challenges in my life. Maybe other readers too. It’s frustrating because even though friends and family tell you that you are a good person, or smart, etc., you still don’t feel like it.
I was thinking about this recently, and I realized that low self-esteem, like arrogance, is a form of self-absorption. The Buddha even talked about it in some of the sutras. The most famous example is Soṇo Sutta (SN 22.49) where the Buddha says to Sona:
“Whatever recluses and Brahmans, Soṇa, hold views about the body, which is impermanent, unsatisfactory and subject to change, such as ‘I am better [than you],’ ‘I am equal [to you],’ or ‘I am worse [than you]’ [likewise ‘feeling,’ ‘perception,’ ‘mental formations,’ ‘consciousness’], what else are they but folk who do not see things as they really are?
“But, Soṇa, whatever recluses and Brahmans do not hold such views… What else are they but those who see things as they really are?”
The translation of this sutra is kind of hard to read, but it says that if you think you’re better than someone, equal to someone or worse than someone, you’re not seeing reality. If you don’t think like that, you are now seeing reality.
Why is this?
Because for all three, you’re obsessed with yourself. You become drunk with self-absorption. It’s a cycle too: you can become more and more obsessed with yourself until it consumes you.
After all these years, I still remember a classic scene from a old game called Starcraft: Brood War.1 In the final scene, the famous war hero Admiral DuGalle is defeated and must return to Earth. He killed his best friend, and failed to accomplish his mission to defeat the alien invaders. He sits alone in his room, listening to music, and finally kills himself after sending a message to his wife. Starts around 00:54 if you want to fast-forward.
The words that really strike me are:
Whatever you may hear about what has happened out here, know this: Alexei did not die gloriously in battle. I killed him; my pride killed him. And now my pride has consumed me as well.
Self-esteem problems and pride can be really dangerous if they get out of control.
But the Buddha’s words are like a medicine for this fever. He reminds us that none of it is real. Pride, self-esteem, etc, are all things we construct for ourselves, but have no foundation in reality.
As the Buddha said in the Maha-Rahulovada Sutta (MN 62, trans. by Ven. Thanissaro):
‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’
We build up an image of ourselves in our mind, obsess about it, etc, but as the Buddha teaches, whatever image we have about ourselves, this is not who we are.
1 I used to play Starcraft a lot before my daughter was born. Once she was born though, the games were put away. Recently I started playing again, but with #2 coming, I will probably put them away again. 🙂