Why am I up one day and down another?” cried the sensitive teenager. The father answered wisely, “It is part of our growth, son. A bird that cannot flap its wings up and down cannot fly.” Who hasn’t gone through bouts of high self-esteem (HSE) and low self-esteem (LSE) at different times in life? We get a promotion, praise, even flattery, up zooms our self-esteem like a rocket. Faced with a job-loss, financial setbacks, criticism, down it sinks like a stone in water.
Each time we rise in self-esteem, we experience what it is to be a god. Each time we fall, we experience what it is to be a fallible human being. And as we flap our mental wings between glory and humility, we learn something precious about ourselves — that we can be resilient and flexible in our approach. As the father put it: we grow.
All would be well if we left it there — the godliness, the humbleness — and moved on. The troubles begin when we allow it to stay with us. Experiences that could be agents of transformation, growth, realisation then become distorted with our emotions getting into the act. Ah yes, our emotions coil around these experiences and we want to constantly draw attention to ourselves — of admiration, adoration, virtual worship which are symptoms of suffering from HSE; or of sympathy, shock, indignation on our behalf which are symptoms of LSE. To draw attention, the one with high self-esteem brags and the one with low self-esteem blames. However, neither state, adopted as a permanent way of being, promotes health. And this is a matter of deep concern.
High self-esteem creates aggression when demands are not met, angry petulance when attention is withheld and there is this arrogance about one’s imagined superiority over others. The hyped-up mind goes quickly into the fourth gear of histrionics, hysteria, panic attacks and this constant surge of adrenaline can raise blood pressure, cause irritable bowel syndrome, a restless body and fatigue.
Low self-esteem creates mental turmoil, spells of sadness, an obsessive urge to complain, cravings for food, a tendency to see more of the negative in situations and people, including oneself. This constant uneasy undercurrent can lead to depression and nervous breakdowns lowering the body’s immunity which will affect the nerves and heart, with a wildly fluctuating blood pressure.
So, I think, the time has come to work on our emotions. When we are high-strung, our perception also distort. Distortion is seeing oneself as worthless. Distortion is also seeing oneself as a gift to humankind. So, we have to go back to our emotions, pay attention to them, cool their feverishness, infuse some balance and maturity into them to uncoil them from the experiences.
If we look deeply into our emotions, we realise that they rise and fall like tidal waves within ourselves because we are so overly self-absorbed —
we constantly crave attention, approval, sympathy, adulation and reassurance. Thus, the person with LSE dejectedly reiterates, “I am worthless, I think I am abnormal” and, naturally, pat comes the response from the listener, “Of course not! You are so good, so intelligent” and so on. The person with HSE says, “When I walk into the room, heads turn!” and comes the response from the listener, “Wow! Yes, you have poise…” etc. There’s no need to judge our self on this excessive craving, all we need to do is focus attention away from our self. You see, our attention has taken the wrong route that is always toward oneself. It is like the eye trying to see itself! That is why so much self-attention strains and pains us.
Look outward. We can start the outward process by looking deeply at our home, appreciating its beauty, its cosiness, its warmth. Appreciation is a sweet embrace — we touch things and conditions that make us happy, safe and secure. Then we look at the people in our life with love and empathy — their kind nature, the courage they’ve displayed when in trouble, their consistency, determination and humour. We extend this loving attention to people who pop in and out of our day — the vendors and workers who labour day after day unceasingly, uncomplainingly and we salute their never-say-die spirit in adverse circumstances.
When you do this daily, the hard crust of your self-constructed cocoon softens and something truly beautiful happens — you realise how much affection you have locked inside you for others. And when you experience this wonderful outflow, your heart smiles and steadies. You feel it and this feeling is simply marvellous. When we look at everybody with appreciation and love, we literally hold our heart in the sweetness and softness of this love and it is deeply comforted and healed.
The Buddha presence. We also need to teach our mind to be fair towards our self and everybody — to be understanding and accepting rather than demanding and self-critical. Practise looking in the mirror. Visualise the Buddha-presence in you, tranquil and silent. Be in this soothing presence. Watch your mind not demanding that the Buddha be different, pay attention to you not passing any judgement on this wonderful presence. The Buddha presence is perfectly fine as it is. Feel the harmony in you. Inner harmony indicates a mature, balanced and healthy self-esteem.
Now, practise on other people. Visualise the Buddha-presence in them. No demands, no judgement, hence, no expectations, no tension. Again, feel the harmony. Practise this visualising approach with all your activities as well. This develops an attitude of surrendering self-lowering thoughts and self-promoting thoughts. And you come into your own. A clarity emerges as the emotional mists dissipate. Tips: To ensure your continual ascent to a harmonious way of being, desist comparing yourself to others. And, yes, keep away from folk who try and undermine you at every opportunity.
It is important to hold a steady course and gradually win the mind over towards a stable grounding knowledge — the know(your)ledge that you and every other individual is as is. Each of us has a quality that has a fullness to it rather than quantity that is full of emptiness. That’s why, do not be discouraged. Keep strengthening your inner Buddha presence and come back to your fullness. When the mind is calm and harmonious, the body becomes relaxed and at ease. Then it can do effortlessly any exercise, any activity you choose. Your smile is the sparkling meeting point where mind, lips and eyes synchronise. Your smile is a beautiful equaliser, for it says,
“I am okay. You are okay.” And your inner presence shines.
The writers are authors of the books Fitness for Life and Simply Spiritual — You Are Naturally Divine and teachers of the Fitness for Life programme.