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I while ago I read a story about the Dalai Lama and the metta bhavana practice. Someone was talking to him about the difficulty in practicing the first stage (wishing well for oneself) and was observing that low self-esteem was hindering the practice at that stage. The Dalai Lama was apparently baffled and it transpired that in Tibetan culture there is no such concept as low self-esteem.

More generally it occurs to me that the first stage of the metta bhavana practice is meant to be an easier on-ramp to the practice and the practice becomes more challenging as it goes on culminating in wishing well to the difficult person. But I have spoken to many people who have difficulties with the first stage practice because of low self-esteem. The easy on-ramp is more like a rocky cliff for the modern (or maybe Western) mind.

So the main questions is

  • Is low self-esteem a Western (sorry for the term I don't know a better one) or modern phenomenon and does it not trouble people from other places or in other times?

Also related to this I have a couple of supplementary questions

  • Am I right - is the first stage meant to be an easy start or have I completely misinterpreted that?
  • Also if anyone has a reference for the Dalai Lama story - could you pop it in? I would be really interested to know the details or even if I have just imagined the story (I don't think I have).
  • I read somewhere that Chogyam Trungpa was surprised at people in the US having self-loathing. He had no concept of that in his experience. It seems to arise for Western people due to parenting. – user2341 May 16 '16 at 3:03
  • depression / sadness manifests itself differently in different cultures, it is well known that in china depression is more somatic e.g. see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18489206 – sorta_buddhist May 17 '16 at 16:35
  • also worth adding, if not "answering", that self esteem so low that you can't wish well for yourself, is quite extreme! i'd guess that the lama is covertly complaining about the emphasis on individualism, outside tibet etc. – sorta_buddhist May 17 '16 at 16:45
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1- You are right. The first stage is meant to be (if not easy) at least easier than the others. It is why it is the first, because it is supposed to be what we can do from where we are.

3- It is true. I do not remember the instance, but it happened a long time ago. More recently, I was translating (actually interpreting) Kyabje Ahbay Rinpoche interview with lay disciples, and at some point, he was visited by a young girl in her twenties. She said to him that she suffered from low self-esteem and the like... and it came to him as a big surprise. He said, I quote, "it's not possible, it doesn't exist!"

Self-deprecation does exist since it is listed as the third type of laziness in the Mahayana abhidharma. It seems that for Tibetan, though, stepping from "I can't do it, I'm not presently capable" to "I'm worthless, it's me" is not just a step but a leap they don't seem to take.

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I recall around 20 years ago an Australian university psychology professor wrote a local newspaper article about what he regarded as superior self-esteem in Thai children. I have lived in traditional (provincial/village) Thai culture & I can attest to this.

I would suggest, at least for Thailand, this is obviously a combination of cultural factors, including: (1) the loving-kindness of the Thai monks in Thailand; (2) the traditional strong maternal culture in Thailand & the amazing lovingness of Thai mothers (3) the traditional material simplicity of the culture; and (4) the general morality of the culture.

For example, with the recent huge growth of commercial (Western) materialism in Thailand and cultural focus upon the accumulation of wealth, being physically beautiful, having social status, etc, I would imagine the lack of self-esteem issues would be growing.

The Buddha taught self-respect (including lack of regret) comes from the practise of morality & generosity. I would suggest Western self-esteem issues arise from judgmental religious culture, patriarchal culture, unloving parenting, childhood abuse, narcissistic media/commercial/entertainment expectations &/or unskillful behavioral conduct, particularly sexual.

In women this can be most prevalent, as seen in body-image issues, but also in men, particularly with expectation of sexual bravado. Traditional Thai culture, for example (contrary to the sex-tourism stereotype) has a matriarchal bent & men are raised to not be sexually aggressive & women are raised to be assertive.

British culture in particular is traditionally authoritarian towards children whereas in Thailand, for example, children do not stand up for adults on a crowded bus. It is the opposite. Adults give children the seats on crowded buses. Traditionally in Balinese culture, the children were considered to be the 'gods'.

This Thai video is an interesting insight because we would not expect children visiting a western religious institution to behave as free, without fear & uninhibited as shown in the video.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yaTT7nUAxE

  • I wonder what Buddhism would have to accomplish if the culture is so positive? If people already feel happy and have self-esteem, what is the point? – user2341 May 16 '16 at 3:07
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    'Self-esteem' is ordinary psychology. It does not end suffering. People with self-esteem still get angry, remain enslaved to lust, have social quarrels & suffer over loss. A lack of self-esteem is a form of self-hatred. Freedom from self-hatred does not infer spiritual awakening. Regards – Dhammadhatu May 16 '16 at 3:48
  • I suppose what I was really saying - I said it wrongly - is that I wonder why people with self-esteem who are happy would ever bother with Buddhism? They might experience some suffering, but I can't believe it would be sufficient to drive them to seek relief. From my point of view, I was motivated partly by depression and unhappiness, so the very things that the Dalai Lama was surprised at led me to seek a better life. I also had "positive" reasons but the motivating factor was unhappiness. Why would happy people seek relief from suffering? I don't get it. – user2341 May 16 '16 at 4:01
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    There are many kinds of dissatisfaction. Some people with self-esteem lose interest in sensual pleasures, marriage, etc, which creates an existential dilemma. They look for an independent inner peace or happiness. As I said, 'self-esteem' is psychological normalcy but not freedom & total peace. – Dhammadhatu May 16 '16 at 6:06
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    Excellent answer, I'd say India was much the same. Kids growing up in today's urban India though are less emotionally stable. We never needed drugs or alcohol while in school. It wasn't cool, the one or two rogues in class might drink, that's all. – Buddho May 16 '16 at 8:59
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I suppose the key point here is that, from Buddhist perspective, low self-esteem is considered high self-esteem in disguise -- I've heard numerous gurus' statement's to that regard.

If you look up Buddhist definition for "conceit" (if I remember correctly), it says it means considering oneself better, worse, or equal to others. The way Thanissaro Bhikkhu explained this very well is, any image of self is a drastic over-generalization, an abstraction we reify and then obsess over.

The healthy Buddhist attitude is to not get stuck on one particular abstraction, but to see abstractions as mere tools and work with things as they are in all their multifaceted complexity. Practically speaking, this means you focus on getting things done, not on worrying about your image or worth.

The nature of Samsara is the opposite of suchness. This inherent wrongness is based on perceptual mistakes and wrong generalizations - and this is the state we begin with. Whether we consider ourselves awesome and the world horrible, or the world awesome and ourselves horrible, a reality we thus create is not a pleasant one to be in. The first step is then to accept (get at peace with) our closest observable phenomena - the immediate "this" accessible via meditation - and then expand to the rest of the post-meditation existence, including one's entourage, the frequent encounters, and gradually, the rest of life.

And again, in my experience, this acceptance requires breaking through the ice of abstractions (=attachments to ideas!) and into the real world.

From this perspective, I'm not surprised that Dalai Lama was baffled. From ancient times thousands of outcasts including such figures as Angulimala have joined the Buddhist order and all must have faced the similar difficulty: getting at peace with themselves (=their difficult past) and restarting their interactions with the world from the fresh perspective of fundamental sanity, instead of continuing to be defined by their past. How are the people in Western society fundamentally different?

  • Outcasts who succeed probably believe strongly in themselves. Ordinary people who fail, probably do not. If one is depressed or hopeless, it is hard to get started at all. This might be conceit, but potentially harder to work with than the conceit of believing in yourself. – user2341 May 16 '16 at 3:14
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There are some excellent answers already, so this is only in addition. Excessive individuality automatically produces self esteem issues. Modern Western culture largely prevalent everywhere today is very individualistic.

All beings struggle with wanting freedom and also wanting society. One cannot be had without sacrificing the other. Little insects like bees and ants are at one end of the spectrum who know they can't afford individuality. Survival is impossible if they don't work their roles faithfully. As the animals get larger, individuality arises. Bull elephants are notorious loners during musth, their annual hormonal phase. Once they work off their desire to be alone which they can afford to indulge in because they are big and strong, they join the herd again. This is a kind of suffering.

Humans began as social animals, building pyramids as a civilization. As technology advanced enough, the desire to be independent of society could be easily supported. To be in solitude is one thing, which monks are, to be lonely is another.

Society increasingly doesn't see the value in inter being. Thus loneliness.

This creates a lot of brooding and disappointment, because one blames oneself for everything that goes wrong. In a materialistic society where value is placed on youth, wealth and success, a lot of things will go wrong for lots of people. However society will often not support the losers, denying them promotions, health care and pensions, reinforcing their loser status mentally and socially through such social signals.

For a long time in Asia and traditional European cultures, success wasn't something to boast about. A boastful person is even now looked upon as highly disrespectful in many parts of the world. Low self esteem is the twin of pride.

An individualistic society will have both pride and low self esteem in abundance.

  • Yet it seems that only 'individualistic' people start movements aimed at bettering the world. Some of these people are even attacked by society. It would be like a herd animal that wandered off, found lots more food and tried to tell the others, but was pushed away. Bees go in search of food and tell the others. Perhaps we should be more like them? But who goes in search of transcendence? It doesn't sell. – user2341 May 16 '16 at 12:31
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    @Buddho - But also: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." -- George Bernard Shaw – Peter M. - stands for Monica May 16 '16 at 16:43
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    Individualism that arises from ignorant selfishness is not as good as one that arises from wise self interest. The latter is less common. Most modern individualism arises from changing social protocols, a passive shift towards feeling more freedom without knowing the value of freedom. One of the truths that following the Buddha's path unfolds is the realization that freedom is in being integrated, in inter being with others. Our happiness and success truly arise only with the success and happiness of all. Being one's brother's keeper is not very popular but necessary. – Buddho May 16 '16 at 19:21
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My answer as a non westerner is:

No, low self esteem and insecurity can affect people of all cultures and races throughout history. In fact in Buddhism, the Asuras are gods who despite being quite high up in terms of power in the cosmic scale, are intensely jealous of their inferior status in comparisons to the Devas resulting in a lot of conflicts. They effectively suffer from 'inferiority complex' compared to the Devas.

The Asuras symbolized the attachment to the sense of Self in Buddhism. This should be a clear indication that Buddhists identify the issue of Self as a source of misery since ancient times in India, and continue to find applications in other cultures.

As someone with Chinese ancestry, I can attest to the cultural feelings of superiority complex with respect to other neighboring cultures being historically one of the largest and most powerful nation in East Asia (other societies are often degraded as barbarians), while exhibiting intense inferiority complexes after experiencing military and technological defeats from western powers. This was what resulted in communist ideas taking root, they were desperate to try anything, and were willing to destroy their own culture during the Cultural Revolution, perceiving it as the cause of their inferior status.

As China grew in power in the modern day, other form of psychological compensating through conspicuous consumption emerged in the rich and powerful class. But in fact this behavior goes back to ancient times.

All the East Asian nations are highly competitive hierachical nations where status often have powerful affect of people's sense of self worth. Resulting in the phenomenon of Hikikomori where people who feel they are unable to cope with society's expectation of a successful person drop out of society and become a recluse.

I also live in Thailand, and they too have a term to describe inferiority complex - ปมด้อย literally 'inferior knot'. Searching on Google I see over 360,000 results return for this word. So it's not exactly a rare pheonomenon.

As you can see, the feeling of inferiority complex can result in a whole society mobilized to compensate for it often through a projected superiority complex, as seen in Nazi Germany after it's defeat in the first world war. Japan in numerous period of history including the Imjin war attempt to invade Korea, China and India to wipe off their feelings of inferiority (in relations to cultures they learned from).

Finally, are the Tibetans special in this regard, having interacted with the exiles I would say no. Because they were understandably sore about being forcefully incorporated into China, they often point out that it was the Tibetan Empire who invaded Tang China and occupied it's capital Chang'an. You can see that they make up for the feeling of inferiority through historical achievements.

The question should perhaps be, is low self esteem more prevalent in western societies? I would say not necessarily, however I notice that Americans (including Asian Americans) being in a consumption, image based society often fret about their sexual desirability, and on the flip side of inferiority complex - the superiority complex, often brag about their sexual conquests when they do. I can only imagine that their psychological well being suffers when their sense of self worth is so strongly tied to external factors.

One of the goal of Buddhism is to realign your sense of self worth towards one which is tied to our practice of morality:

As Thanissaro Bhikku stated:

After several years of teaching and practicing meditation as therapy, however, many of us have found that meditation on its own is not enough. In my own experience, I have found that Western meditators tend to be afflicted more with a certain grimness and lack of self-esteem than any Asians I have ever taught. Their psyches are so wounded by modern civilization that they lack the resilience and persistence needed before concentration and insight practices can be genuinely therapeutic. Other teachers have noted this problem as well and, as a result, many of them have decided that the Buddhist path is insufficient for our particular needs. To make up for this insufficiency they have experimented with ways of supplementing meditation practice, combining it with such things as myth, poetry, psychotherapy, social activism, sweat lodges, mourning rituals, and even drumming. The problem, though, may not be that there is anything lacking in the Buddhist path, but that we simply haven't been following the Buddha's full course of therapy.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/precepts.html

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    I like the quote, I think that this hits the mark. I am always surprised at the strong emphasis people place on sexuality - both to prop up self-esteem, as you say, and also that it is disdained by most religious people. It is quite natural and unproblematic in most respects. It just happens to provoke some of the already existing ego-failings. Don't shoot the messenger! – user2341 May 20 '16 at 0:54
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Apparently, the Dalai Lama's original encounter with the concept of low self-esteem occurred at a psychology conference that he attended as related by Sharon Salzberg:

“What do you think about self-hatred?” I asked when it was my turn to bring up an issue for discussion. I was eager to get directly to the suffering I had seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with myself. The room went quiet as all of us awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama, revered leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and asked pointedly in Tibetan again and again for an explanation. Finally, turning back to me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English. “What is that?”

All of us gathered at that 1990 conference in Dharmsala, India-philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and meditators-were from Western countries, and self-hatred was something we immediately understood. That this man, whom we all recognized as having a profound psychological and spiritual grasp of the human mind, found the concept of self-hatred incomprehensible made us aware of how many of us found it all but unavoidable. During the remainder of the session, the Dalai Lama repeatedly attempted to explore the contours of self-hatred with us. At the end he said, “I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange.”

However, tracing it back to the article you read may be difficult as the story has been written about or spoken of by others: Dr Alexander Berzin, Edward Tolle, Steven A. Alper, K. Chandarami, Jack Kornfield, Jetsuma Palmo, to name a few. It is a very popular story, so giving you the article that you read is difficult, but Salzberg's is the one with the most detail.

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    Maybe you could add the tag "reference request" so my day can continue to be pleasant?? – Bonnie Topits Jun 11 '16 at 21:26
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I'm not sure this answer is on-topic but I guess that "self-esteem" might be an ambiguous word or difficult to translate.

For example I think that "thinking that I'm important" or "having self-love" or "wanting to care for oneself" (or just "being selfish" or a bit self-centric) is almost axiomatic even in Buddhism (see for example the opening lines of the Dhammapada's Violence chapter) -- if that's what "self-esteem" means (and is perhaps what it ought to mean in a metta bhavana context) then maybe that's what the Dalai Lama was thinking: "what do you mean by saying that you don't love yourself or don't have compassion for yourself? Of course you do, everyone does!"

On the other hand, meanings of "self-esteem" in Western psychology (or "pop psychology") include thoughts such as, "I am capable" and "I am powerful" and also "I am deserving" and "I am able to give to or to take care of myself" (not to mention "I am worthy" and "parents and society teach me to value myself"). Maybe that's what the person was talking of when they said they felt that low self-esteem was hindering their practice.


Slightly off-topic but as a maybe-interesting aside, somebody English was talking to a French lady, last week, I didn't catch the conversation but as I walked past the English person asked me to translate "to forgive oneself" because they were trying to say that but the French lady they were talking to didn't understand it. So I told her the word meant, not pardonner but the reflexive, se pardonner, and she replied, "But that's archaic! In the old days the (Catholic) church would talk about God and guilt and sin etc. Now (in a secular society) there's just us (people), we might forgive each other but there's no such thing as 'forgiving oneself'."

So I don't know, there are psychological phenomena or models that aren't even universal in the West: one person might think "There's a word for it: e.g. 'low self-esteem' or 'lack of self-forgiveness'; but someone else might say, 'There's no such thing'."

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No, it definitely isn't a Western phenomenon. Perhaps the term may be 'Western,' but the phenomenon certainly isn't. Low self-esteem is especially common among people on the fringes of society, whatever and wherever that society may be.

Judging from my personal experience, at least, this seems to be especially common in cultures which have long been subjected to the rule of other cultures, especially when that rule was often brutal and totalitarian. However, to avoid bringing up issues to which some readers may be quite sensitive, I'd prefer not to elaborate on contemporary examples and will instead provide some historical non-Western examples.

Moses

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Moses was born in Egypt and lived around 1,500 BC. When asked to go before the Egyptian Pharaoh, he repeatedly tried to find reasons why he wasn't up to the task (see Genesis chapter 3 and chapter 4.) That is pretty much the essence of low self-esteem and predates even the existence of 'Western' culture.

Gideon

Then the Lord turned to him [Gideon] and said, “Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites. Have I not sent you?”

So he [Gideon] said to Him, “O my Lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.”

Judges 6:14-15 NKJV

'Woman at the Well'

An example from around 30 AD (in Israel, not 'the West') is the Biblical story of the 'woman at the well.' While you can read the whole story in John 4, the relevant part here is that the woman had such a low view of herself that she didn't even understand why a Jewish man (Jesus in this case) would even speak to her.

A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.

Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?”

John 4:7-9 NKJV


Disclaimer, in case this isn't clear:

Of course, I don't expect the Bible to be taken as authoritative on the Buddhism SE. These examples were just chosen because they're historical and non-Western (even predating the concept of 'Western culture' in some cases.) Whether you believe the events in question actually happened or not is irrelevant, as it is rather beyond dispute that the writings in question are not of Western origin and, at least for the first two, are over 2 millennia old. The examples are provided only to show that the phenomenon of low self-esteem isn't limited to the West (or even of Western origin.)

  • Is this a type of "low self-esteem" which would prevent one from "wishing well for oneself"? The "metta bhavana practice" (a.k.a. "cultivation of compassion") being talked about is a practice of saying "may I be free from suffering" as a practice/precursor for saying, "may others, may everyone else, be free from suffering." Can you understand why anyone's "low self-esteem" might make it difficult to practice compassion, to the extent of aspiring to be free of suffering? – ChrisW May 17 '16 at 9:30
  • One possible example in the style of the above from the canon is in a story where the Buddha with the sangha arrive at a river and an "untouchable" ran out of the way. (Of course the Buddha called him and resolved the problem in some way which I do not actuallly remember) – Gottfried Helms May 17 '16 at 10:24

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