By Megha Bajaj
The self changes, constantly, completely, and ceaselessly, and with it, the value that we attach to it. learn about the various stages that a seeker’s self-esteem goes through before it comes to rest at a place where nothing and no one can disturb it.
A guru began his discourse thus. He held a 1000-rupee note and asked a room filled with people, “Who wants this?” All the hands shot up enthusiastically. He then crumpled the note and asked if anyone still wanted it. The hands shot up. He then threw the crumpled note on the floor and stamped on it, and repeated his question. Again, all the hands went up. He smiled, and said, “My friends, you have learnt a valuable lesson. No matter what I did to the money, you still wanted it because it did not decrease in value. No matter what challenges do to you – crumple you, grind you, make you feel ‘stamped upon’, know, that in the true analysis of life, your value remains intact.”
Indeed, so many of us plod through life trying to make sense of its vicissitudes. It is hard, without understanding the self, or knowing its worthiness. In psychology, self-esteem refers to an individual’s assessment or appraisal of his self-worth. It is intricately woven with the thoughts and feelings one attaches to oneself, for instance, “I am intelligent/I am dumb” or “I feel good about myself/ I hate who I am.” The quality of one’s life itself depends on one’s self-esteem as it colours every experience, every perception, and every moment that one goes through.
The reason, perhaps, so many of us find it difficult to develop a healthy self-esteem is because the self itself keeps going through metamorphosis. It has to acclimatise to all the changes life constantly brings to it. By the time a person starts feeling comfortable in one setting, everything dissolves and he suddenly finds himself as the actor on a brand new stage. The self, which understands everything only in relationships, adapts, grows, makes sense of its new environment in relation to itself – and there, another change is on its way. You just start loving your class one teacher – and it is time to be promoted to class two. You finally become comfortable with your marriage – and motherhood is around the corner. It goes on. It has to. For without change, there can be no life. How then, can you develop a permanent, impeccable self-esteem that will anchor you through the changing tides of life? How does one love oneself, and life, even through the darkest hours?
Many have found the answers, but for others, like me, the search continues. Doing my research for this article gave me several insights. It made me understand the various stages in self-esteem, where I am right now, and yes, the exciting journey ahead. The only way one can progress from one stage to another, I recognise, is through self -awareness. At each stage, if we are aware of the self – its innermost thoughts and feelings – chances are we will be able to transcend our current stage, sooner. Gurus, books, and even life experiences will teach nothing if self-awareness is absent.I understood, that I cannot ‘try’ to go to the next stage. Life is a natural flow – once I am ready, I will automatically find myself ahead. For now, let us begin, at the beginning.
A self within a self
Our self-esteem started developing even before we were born. It is surprising, but true! The inner world of a mother throughout the nine months of pregnancy has a strong impact on a child’s self-esteem. Studies found that almost all the babies who were unplanned, and whose parents often discussed options of aborting them, often grew up with tremendous guilt and inferiority. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. Babies of mothers who thought positively about their pregnancy and affirmed to the child even before he is born, “You are special. I love you. I am waiting for your arrival,” showed an inclination, from birth itself, towards confidence. Birth itself, writes Richard Lansdown in his book, Your Child’s Development, brings a sudden dramatic change in a child’s life. Suddenly the baby is brought out of the warm, dark, comforting womb to a cold, dazzling alien world. In the first hour, says Lansdown, if the mother holds the infant closely, chances are that it will grow up with a healthy self-esteem. This is because, for the baby so much has suddenly changed – if it can be made to feel, through touch, that all is well, chances are it will feel good about itself and its life. Freud, describing the importance of a child’s relationship with its mother, said, “It is unique, without parallel, established unalterably for a whole lifetime, as the first and strongest love object. It becomes the prototype of all later love relationships for both sexes.” The more the mother holds the child to her bosom in the first few years (the child feels secure listening to the sound of heartbeat as it gives the child a feeling of being inside the womb once again), the more wanted it feels.
Lansdown also alerts the parents that the child begins to learn as soon as it is born. In fact, the first five years are crucial in terms of developing self-esteem. The child does not remember this period of its life, but the pre-dominant emotions that arise at this time, are long lasting. “Therefore,” asserts Lansdown, “The most important thing you can do for your child in these few years is to show her she is valued, loved and protected.” He adds that simple gestures of acceptance (like not screaming when she breaks something valuable, but explaining her mistake to her), kind words (“I love you”, “You are special” or “Wow, you did that well”), a lot of touch (cuddling, patting her head and holding her hand), can ensure your child feels good about herself in her growing years. Both the parents play a key role in these few years in building a healthy self-esteem in the child. However, one should understand that most often parents do not have either enough knowledge about parenting or a healthy self-esteem themselves, and may err. If they have not been able to gift you a healthy self-esteem – you can bestow it upon yourself!
Self and things
This is the phase when an individual starts associating himself with things. His self-worth depends on what he owns. Twelve-year-old Shivang Kagzi, studying in Cathedral school, Mumbai, says, “I am embarrassed. I hate going to school. Everyone comes in a Mercedes or a Honda City, and I am the only one who comes in a small, disgusting, Maruti 800. Life sucks.” The association with things becomes so much so that one believes that their very existence depends upon it. My own experiences in the early years of school taught me quite a bit. The very first day that I entered my class, I remember my partner asking me how many cars I had. At that time, we had none, so I confidently replied, three. One lie led to another. The entire class at a point believed I was some sort of a princess. In fact, I started believing it myself! Lies are always found out. What a day it was, when at 10 I was ostracised by my entire class of 40 girls because I was a liar. Luckily, my parents helped me through this phase and made me believe that I was all right – with or without a car – with or without anything. Gradually I was able to face everyone, and be accepted though I was not rich.
Unfortunately, many individuals never seem to outgrow this undue obsession with things. As Aditi Shah (name changed), a young psychologist from Mumbai discloses,“Somewhere deep within, such people believe that they are unlovable and unacceptable without their material abundance. Often, they do not even bother to loosen their hold on things to discover their true self. I had a 40-year-old client who had a complete nervous breakdown when due to some financial problems he had to shift from a five-bedroom flat to a three-bedroom one. His belief was that his friends, whom he often hosted at home, would now not love him or visit him because he didn’t have a guest room.”
Self and other selves
Most of us find ourselves stuck for years in this stage. Every bit of our self-esteem comes from a particular person, a group of people or the world at large. It is a phase when we can feel on top of the world and devastated all within seconds of each other. As the object of our dependence goes through mood changes or personality shifts so do we. Chandrika, a Mumbai-based seeker and author, believed she found herself and all that she was worth through her husband. When marital challenges came up, everything went awry. She describes the phase as the most traumatic and yet, the one where she learnt the most. Things gradually changed for her through a dialogue with a close friend who told her, “Draw the circle of your life with yourself as the centre.” To her, no words could be more profound. For, she says, by keeping your sacred self at the centre and all other relationships at the periphery – the circle remains intact and eventually expands. Renowned psychologist, Nathaniel Branden, has worked in the field of self-esteem for over four decades. He explains that a person whose self-esteem is dependent on others will constantly seek approval for every action. Until last year, I could not do a thing without consulting 10 people – I felt good about myself only if my mentor/editor/parents/sister/fiancé told me I was good. The downside was that if anyone who mattered said a single negative thing – it would depress me for days. There would be no self-analysis – whatever loved ones said was accepted as the absolute truth. Since everyone had conflicting views about aspects of my personality, I remained completely confused about who I really was!
Naren, my spiritual mentor, describes this phase as LKK (Log Kya Kahenge/ What will people say?). We try to impress others. We tend to be overly people-conscious. Moreover, the inner self suffers in meeting the demands of all the people outside. X may heavily be in debt, but he will get his daughter married in style, after all, LKK. Y may want to dance in the rain and experience the bliss of becoming one with the heavenly showers – but LKK? Z’s husband may be physically or emotionally abusing her – but she will continue because if she files for a divorce, LKK?
Self and self
“As we progressively move through fragmented and inauthentic ways of gaining self-esteem, we eventually recognise the futility of such externalised seeking and turn within to finally begin the journey of true self-recognition,” says Alan Scherr, a seeker. Indeed, what a relief it is when after many meanderings, wanderings, and hurtful experiences borne from a dependent self-esteem and introspection following it, we finally arrive at the stage when we can say, “My self-esteem is independent of all external factors. I am in charge of it.” Branden observes that common personality traits of such people are that they are stress-free, happier, confident, and often, the achievers in life. Shalini Sippy, a cancer survivor, says, “I went through cancer and a painful divorce simultaneously. My husband wanted out because I had only one breast and he did not find me attractive anymore. I asked myself at that point – is Shalini a lesser person because she has only one breast? Is there something wrong with her because her husband wants to leave her for this reason? The answer was a loud no. And it was this self-belief, that there is more to me than bad health and a bad marriage, that pulled me through and created a more resilient and happier me.”
For me, confusion finally gave way to clarity when I started, in little ways, to make my self-esteem independent of others. I got intimate… with myself. I would go for long walks alone. Have coffee with myself; even watch a movie all by myself. This made me start enjoying my own company and thereby reduced my dependence on others to feel a ‘connection’. It also made me see myself more clearly. I felt free. However, soon after I discovered that this self-esteem too comes with conditions. I have become my own harshest critic. I do not need to meet others’ expectations – but when I fall below my own, it depresses me. My own value of self keeps fluctuating day to day. When I have been positive and proactive, I feel good, if not, I get irritated. There are others, who begin to love themselves so much that they start thinking that this stage is the final destination. In the spiritual realm, however, understanding one’s self, and being in charge of its value is just the first step. Life is truly mysterious. For you spend years finding your self, and when you can proudly proclaim that you know who you are, you must begin again: by destroying that very self that you have discovered. This self, according to the cosmic intelligence is nothing but an illusion, a false identity. It is fed by ego or the identification with ‘I’ that is created as a coping mechanism to give us a feeling of importance. Akber Ayub, writer and seeker, feels that the ego is self-created, without substance, and therefore we continue to feel hollow inside despite all our possessions, accomplishments and associations. Several seekers and gurus themselves fall in the trap of the ego. Alan admits, “At one time, I was quite attached to my spiritual practices and became heavily invested in using them as a source of pride and a kind of spiritual elitism or snobbery. I would talk to other meditators about their experiences and compare them to my own to see how advanced I was. But I soon discovered that instead of self-recognition, I was actually creating self-delusion simply because every journey is unique to the individual and comparison is meaningless.” Ego, indeed, works either by comparison to give one a feeling of superiority or by exclusion. It flouts the understanding, ‘All is one’ and proclaims in arrogance, ‘One is all!’
The no-self self
Here we are, finally. In that sacred space, where the self-esteem is whole, untouchable, and absolute. For it no longer depends on things, people, or even its self. Here, self-esteem exists with the realisation that it is a part of a whole, which is infinite, stupendous, and magical. It is the microcosm of a perfect macrocosm. It is a piece of a cosmic jigsaw puzzle – but small as it may be, the entire jigsaw depends upon it for completion. Mother Teresa so beautifully said, “We ourselves feel that we are just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”
I am beautiful, because I am. You are wonderful, because you are. Just the fact that we are alive – and a part of this cosmos, is enough for the realised soul to feel incredible about itself at all times. Yet, it is also enough to make it feel tremendous humility because it understands that there can be no part without the whole. In addition, every part is equally important to make the whole – so no ego can step in to complicate things. No differences, no boundaries, no judgments remain for such an evolved soul. No wonder the great sage Ramakrishna Paramhansa began to swoon when he saw a flight of birds in air. He became the birds. This is why Adi Sankara said the words “Aham Brahmasmi (I am God, God is me)”. It is also the reason why Buddha accepted, without discrimination, all those who wanted to be a part of his sangha. This even included the man who spat on him!
Chandrika expresses, “I used to always think that Buddha was wrong – in dropping his family, his kingdom, his responsibilities. But then I realised, all he actually did was drop himself.” In dropping Siddhartha, a Buddha was born. Ramana Maharshi too walked away from home at the age of 16 when he got liberation. His mother went to Arunachala and said, “Venkataramana (his original name) come back.” He replied, “Who is Venkataramana?” No longer did he associate himself with a name, a person, or a role. He said, “The place where even the slightest trace of the ‘I’ does not exist, alone is Self. Self itself is the world; Self itself is God.” There are others, like Krishna, who chose to live in the world, without allowing the world to live in them. Happily, he went through life, singing, dancing, stealing butter, enjoying the company of women, guiding,loving, waging battles – and yet, remained untouched by it all. When Krishna said, “Worship me”, there was no arrogance in it. The me itself included everything and everyone – so in worshipping Him you are worshipping your self, the trees, the insects – everything the human experience can behold and more. I am far away from experiencing this absolute self-love and respect. The glimpses that I have had of no selfness in deepest quietude are themselves enough to last me a lifetime, so I cannot even begin to imagine that constant connection.
Arun Wakhlu, a seeker from Pune, describes how he got a glimpse of his true self while he was sitting in a car moving on Marine Drive, Mumbai. He says, “There was this amazing wondrous paradoxical feeling of being still and moving at the same moment. As the sound of the car moving entered the ears, the vibrations shook the body, the sight of the cars whizzing past entered the eyes, it was clear that awareness was receiving all these sensations. Amidst all these changes, there was profound stillness. There was no one inside, just a vast loving stillness that had no boundaries, no limits, and no definition. This is who I Am. This is who we all are.”
Awareness will, indeed, lead to self-esteem and finally to self-realisation. While I work on growing in awareness, I leave you with the words of Aurobindo, who knew, what I seek to know: All is abolished but the mute Alone The mind from thought released, the heart from grief, Grow inexistent now beyond belief;There is no I, no Nature, known-unknown……Only the illimitable Permanent Is here. A Peace stupendous, featurless, still.Replaces all, – what once was I, in It A silent unnamed emptiness content Either to fade in the Unknowable Or thrill with the luminous seas of the Infinite.
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We are a piece of a cosmic jigsaw puzzle – but small as we may be, the entire jigsaw depends upon us for completion
Just the fact that we are a part of this cosmos, is enough for the realised soul to feel incredible about itself
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