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Ask a Buddhist: Self Esteem

Ask a Buddhist: Self Esteem


Question (summarized): I have tried meditation in the past, especially back in my home country. My meditation has not been so successful since I came here and experienced the distraction of the nearby freeway noise. My true intentions of meditations were to become a better person, and to hopefully get better and good karma that could match me with a good fruitful relationship that I have always tried to visualize. This hasn’t worked out as I hoped. The root comes from self-esteem issues, especially around my looks and fear that my wish to be a nice person makes me appear needy. Do you have some advice?

By Ven. Thubten Chonyi

First, I want to thank you for sharing your present dilemma and acknowledge your courage in reaching out. I have summarized the key points I see in your letter so other readers will have context.

One of the first things we learn in Tibetan Buddhism is to set our motivation before the meditation session. This means that we sit, focus our mind, and deliberately cultivate a strong wish that our practice will plant the seeds for our own liberation and, eventually, our full awakening.

Equally important, we motivate our practice for the benefit of others. This expands our thinking and helps us let go of specific outcomes, allowing the meditation session to be what it is – focused or distracted, pleasant or irritating, or any other experience -without judgment. We do our best in the session, and then end by dedicating the merit and rejoicing that we have made some effort to tame our minds.

It gets a little tricky when we tie our meditation practice—or any spiritual practice—to a worldly outcome. Of course it’s possible and even reasonable that as we subdue our anger, cultivate love and compassion, and develop a broad view of life, we will also become friendlier and more attractive to others. But setting up expectations for such a result jeopardizes our spiritual journey. Why? Because if our expectations aren’t met, or we don’t see results as quickly as we think we should, we can get discouraged and give up on the practice altogether. Which is sad.

There are many wonderful benefits to spiritual practice, but doing spiritual practice doesn’t guarantee a nice relationship or better job or higher income. The rewards, if you want to call it that, are internal. Meditation and other spiritual practices can help us develop universally admired qualities like kindness, generosity, wisdom, and courage, all of which make us happier in general. Thus we cultivate an inner beauty that far outshines external appearances. These internal rewards of spiritual practice form the foundation of genuine self esteem.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks of compassion and cherishing others as the antidote to low self-esteem. Here’s what my teacher, Ven. Thubten Chodron, says about that:

“When we suffer from low esteem, the mind tends to focus negatively and unrealistically on ME—although life is not all about ME, the mind of low self esteem certainly feels like it is: ‘I’m unlovable.’ ‘I’m hopeless.’ ‘I can’t do anything right.’ This mind state may seem to be a feeling, but if we look closer, there is often a litany of self-critical thoughts causing it. We lose our energy, we become depressed and then, to top it all, we often get angry with ourselves for being depressed!” Sound familiar?

The solution she proposes is to help others. “Studies have shown that people who care for someone or something outside of themselves have more energy for life and tend to suffer less from depression.”

Volunteering is a fantastic way to care for others, stretch beyond our focus on self, and also meet like-minded people who can become friends. When choosing volunteer activities, put yourself in situations where you have the opportunity to nurture, to really connect with the caring part of you that revels in helping others. That could include helping kids to read, doing yard work for elderly neighbors, or stocking shelves at the food bank. United Way’s Volunteer Spokane, which lists all kinds of opportunities, is a place to start.

When we help others, we feel good about ourselves. When we feel good about ourselves, we are happier, less needy and friendlier to others. When we are friendly, we make friends. And long-term partnerships go well when the relationship is based in friendship. So grounding our self-esteem in a compassionate wish to benefit others makes logical sense.

Here are resources for further reading about developing compassion as the antidote to low self-esteem and depression:

Article: Vanquishing Depression and Anxiety – reflections of a prison inmate who practices meditation to heal his own mind

Article: Building Courage and Compassion – A letter from someone discouraged about developing compassion for difficult people and Ven. Thubten Chodron’s encouraging reply.

Article: 12 Ways to Apply Compassion – Ways to think about and apply compassion in daily life.

Book: An Open-Hearted Life: Transformative Methods for Compassionate Living from a Clinical Psychologist and a Buddhist Nun – by Russell Kolts & Thubten Chodron

The title speaks for itself. It’s an excellent and easy-to-use guide for how to develop a loving heart.

Book: Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with Heart of a Buddha – by Tara Brach

Another excellent guide that acknowledges, “For many of us, feelings of deficiency are right around the corner.” Tara Brach helps untangle the web of thoughts that create that situation and teaches “what it means to live fully.”

So much benefit comes from developing a compassionate view and helping others. I hope you’ll give it a try. Wishing you fruitful meditations and a strong network of spiritual friends to guide and support your life’s journey!


Ven. Thubten Chonyi

About Ven. Thubten Chonyi

Ven. Thubten Chonyi is a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has studied with Sravasti Abbey founder and abbess Ven. Thubten Chodron since 1996. She received novice ordination at the Abbey in 2008 and full ordination in 2011 in Taiwan. Ven. Chonyi regularly teaches Buddhism and meditation at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and other local locations.

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