We cannot remember our birth, but I am pretty sure our thoughts were something like, “What the hell’s happening? Get me outta here!” Because we could not speak we were unable to express our indignation other than by screaming loudly. This only brought smiles to the faces of those standing around, adding insult to injury and convincing us we had been born into a world of sadists. From that moment on it was us versus the world. Our demands were simple: the world owed us pleasure, praise, love, and possessions.

Throughout our life, the rise and fall of our self-esteem has been directly related to the fulfilment or frustration of these four demands. We crave pleasure, praise, love, and possessions for both the immediate happiness they give us and for the self-confidence they engender. The more happiness we receive, the more we feel we are in control of our lives; our problems take a back seat and we become more adventurous. On the other hand, we fear pain, criticism, dislike, and poverty because the unhappiness they bring causes our selfconfidence to crash. Without love, respect, or a means of livelihood, we fall into a descending spiral of low self-esteem, depression, and an even greater incapacity to find pleasure, praise, love, and wealth.

If we take a good, hard look at the way we have lived our lives, we will see that we have selfishly pursued these aims from the time we received our first toy in the cradle until recently when we bought a new car; or from the time we competed with our siblings for parental attention until the time we stole another person’s partner, or cheated on our own.

Our adult behaviour is just a sophisticated version of our infantile wants and don’t wants. Our bodies have matured but our minds have not. And what has been the result of our relentless pursuit of pleasure, praise, love, and possessions? Dissatisfaction, separation, loss, an empty future and a wasted past. When things go wrong in our lives, especially when we are dying, what use is all the sensory pleasure we have experienced in the past? What use is our collection of possessions or our circle of loving friends? Even when we are well our nostalgia for the good times of the past prevents enjoyment of the present, and is utterly boring for our children, who constantly remind us to “Get real.”

Self-esteem has two factors:

  1. The self that is esteemed, and
  2. The fulfilment of the four demands that we rely upon to support our self-esteem.

If we look at the objects we desire, they are unreliable because they are transient by nature, so the pleasure they bring is brief and impossible to maintain. We are not cast into despair when the beauty of a sunset is replaced by darkness because we know the light-show is temporary. But, as children, we screamed when it was time to go home from the beach because we thought the pleasure would never stop; as adults we wept at the loss of loved ones because we thought they would remain with us forever. It is our grasping at pleasure and the objects of pleasure as if they were permanent fixtures in our life that causes us so much pain. By remembering the transient nature of things, we will be able to enjoy pleasure without pining for it when it has gone.

The transience and unreliability of objects of desire is not our only problem. From our side we suffer the terrible disease of dissatisfaction. We cannot rest when things are going well. We begin to see faults in our partner, in our job, in our car; and we dream of change, wanting something or someone better. Dissatisfaction makes it impossible to maintain happiness and causes us to abandon friends and possessions, actions that later bring regret.

With regard to the self that we esteem, we must distinguish between the self that exists and the imagined self. When we are introduced to “George,” we learn to associate that name with a particular appearance. Later, when somebody asks, “Who is that?” we correctly identify the person as George. The conjunction of the correct name and his appearance is the conventional way of establishing George to exist as a person. There is no George beyond this labelling process, nothing more to identify as being George. Nevertheless, as we grow
more familiar with this person, it seems that “George” exists not in dependence upon the name but somewhere within that body and mind. As soon as that person enters the room, “George” seems to appear towards us from within that body and mind rather than being labelled by us onto that base.

In a similar way, self-esteem is based upon the false appearance of an “I” that we imagine exists in its own right independent of the labelling process. In reality, there is no such self, but we think our body, our mind, even our history of achievements and failures in life, are intrinsic qualities of this imaginary self. Our self-image sometimes appears attractive, sometimes unattractive, always bearing the decorations or scars from past competition with the world. And we like or dislike our selves according to the way we project our self to exist.

Herein is our greatest mistake. We incorrectly believe our self-image to be our real self, and our chance for future happiness is diminished by thoughts such as, “I can’t do this because I failed in the past.” And so we join the billions who fall by the wayside of life without courage to continue. Anorexics and body-builders obsessed with improving the physical aspect of their self-image are flogging a dead horse. Academics competing with each other in their desire for fame and glory are chasing shadows. Romantics seeking perfect love are doomed. Business tycoons seeking ultimate power and wealth are walking on clouds. They are all destined to failure because the self they are attempting to please does not exist in the way they imagine it to exist. And healthy bodies, fame, love, and wealth are not possessions or intrinsic qualities of an independent self.

If we have committed a heavy deed, such as murder, we are a bad person; but we are not an intrinsically bad person. The bad stain can be removed with sincere regret and actions done to purify the karma. The false belief that we are intrinsically bad takes us down a blind alley from which there appears to be no escape other than suicide. The great Tibetan yogi Milarepa attained enlightenment even though he had killed many people earlier in his life. In the same way, if we have done something good we are not an intrinsically good person; we should beware of our pride.

Invincible self-esteem and true happiness can only be achieved when, through the power of seeing that we are empty of existing independently, we gain the courage to engage in the practice of giving pleasure, praise, love, and gifts to others without seeking reward. We will easily abandon our innate urge to compete with others, and we will see the world as our friend.

So we have to teach our babies that “I want” and “I don’t want” are the mantras of despair, while “How can I help you?” is the mantra of happiness. And how do we teach them? By being perfect examples for them to follow.