Are you a Buddhist? Do you suffer from low self esteem? Confusing, huh? I mean, didn’t you get into Buddhism so you wouldn’t feel like that anymore?
Strangely, your Buddhist practice could be part of the problem. In this post, I’ll explain how this can happen and teach you some ways to turn it around.
How Buddhism can lead to low self esteem
The Buddha is perfectly enlightened, peaceful, compassionate, wise. Not only that, but his meditation posture is great. Pretty intimidating, eh? If the Buddha was standing behind me in the gents, I’m not sure I’d be able to pee.
He always knows just the right thing to say. He always has the upper hand. He’s kinder than Santa Claus, better looking than Brad Pitt, with the charisma of the Fonz and the mind of, well, the Buddha.
It’s fine to be inspired by the image of the Buddha. One of the meditations from the early tradition is recollecting the Buddha. Later this practice developed into a whole host of practices, featuring a whole host of mythical beings. Take your pick – they’re all pretty awesome!
The benefit of such practices is that we become what we focus on. As Mike Dooley says, “Thoughts become things – choose the good ones.”
If you’re regularly contemplating a wise, compassionate, perfectly balanced, peaceful happy being, chances are some of those qualities will rub off on you. The downside of having the Buddha as your role model is you are always a million miles short of your goal. Being simply human is no longer enough. You have a million and one reasons to feel like a failure right now. Your bad moods, your stupid actions, your greed and selfishness. Call yourself a Buddhist?!
It’s no wonder so many Buddhists fake it. And then feel bad for faking it.
If we don’t give ourselves a break from trying to be Superman all the time and failing spectacularly, Buddhist practice can (ironically) result in low self esteem.
How to keep the Buddhist ideal and get your self esteem back
- You don’t know what the Buddha looked like, walked like, talked like or acted like. You can’t trust the texts on this. That’s not to say that awakening is impossible, it’s just that it isn’t remotely like what it says on the tin. Awakened people may have something special, but in lots of ways, they are very ordinary. They still have hang ups, they can still be a pain in the arse. You don’t have to believe me on this if you don’t want, but it’s true. Try to imagine what ‘perfectly psychologically balanced’ even looks like. The Buddha figure is a cartoon version, but if you really try to imagine that person walking around, interacting with others, sitting on the toilet, buying a new phone. What does it look like? It’s always possible to be more of something, and less of another thing. There is no such thing as perfectly balanced. Moving towards balance is balance. We are process – before or after enlightenment.
- You don’t know what the Buddha said or did.The nearest thing we have is the Pali Canon. The current consensus is that this was originally expandable and contractable, depending on the audience and the time available. It only got fixed when it was written down. It was designed to be memorised, chanted and recited. It has rhythm and patterns. And it wasn’t written down for a few hundred years after the Buddha died.That’s not to say it’s nonsense or made up. There is evidence to suggest that it was passed down orally in an incredibly accurate manner. There is also evidence to suggest that it isn’t simply a mishmash of ideas and people rolled into one fake Buddha, but actually the teachings are the work of one mind. Cross referencing with what remains of the Sarvastivadin Canon shows remarkable consistency. The names and places are different, but these are essentially designed to frame the teaching anyway – they aren’t the important part. Kind of like how a joke gets told in different ways, but it’s still the same joke. But it’s also clear that the Buddha is a mythologised Buddha – a deified character. The Buddha of the texts is not the historical Buddha.
- You’re not as far away from awakening as you think you are.“Not realising it is near, they seek it afar. What a pity!” There are schools in the (Japanese) Buddhist tradition that consider us to be already enlightened, and we simply have to realise that. That is the point of practice. It’s very easy to compare yourself with a fictionalised Buddha in your mind, and swallow all the stuff in the tradition about it taking lifetimes, and think that awakening is pretty much impossible for you. And of course there are lots of Buddhists who have deified the Buddha as an unattainable ideal who scoff if you even mention the idea that you want to go all the way.All you have to do is let go of craving – how hard can it be??!!
- Where are you trying to get to anyway? Craving for enlightenment is still craving. Let go and enjoy your life. It’s now, and it’s passing. Each breath is never to be repeated. Cultivate loving-kindness for yourself. Why not take a year off? Stop trying to make progress! Go and do something fun that you’ve been putting off because you’ve been trying to be spiritual!
- Understand that the path is a metaphor. It doesn’t mean you’re literally here, the destination is literally way over there, and you’d better get your skates on. It’s a way of talking about things. This is what the idea of you already being enlightened and just having to realise it is designed to topple. It’s a temporal metaphor instead of a spatial one.
- Take off the Buddhist goggles. Buddhism itself can be a distraction (and is for many Western Buddhists). I was reading a blog post by Brad Warner only today, where he likens Buddhist retreats to nerdy comic conventions (he’s spent a lot of time at both). Buddhism is a tool, not a hobby. If it is a hobby, it’s not the Dharma. Like the Take off the goggles and look out once again at the world. Realise you are a child of the universe. You are perfect just as you are – in the same way that a tree or a sparrow is perfect right now. There is no need to push.