“It’s not an old-fashioned if you leave out the bitters.”
Let’s think about the basic concepts of self-worth. Even the vocabulary around it can be a bit confusing.
We talk about people who tend to think negatively or critically about themselves as having low-esteem, and people who are arrogant or egotistical as having an inflated sense of self (or in British English, “thinking a lot of themselves.”) This gives the impression that self-esteem is a resource that fills up or subsides, like a balloon. Having a “healthy self-esteem” seems a bit precarious then – not too much, or too little, but just right. So how can we maintain just that perfect level? What’s the magic formula?
Of course, the irony is that if you have low self-esteem, you may actually be thinking a lot of yourself. Sure, these thoughts may be unpleasant, they may be critical or hurtful, they might even be the kind of thing you wouldn’t tolerate from someone else, but they still, nonetheless, centre on you. In my training this was sometimes known as the inverted ego. While egotistical people think they’re the best in the world, the inverted egotists think they’re the very worst. In the end, neither is a very realistic point of view.
I understand that if you’re already thinking negative thoughts about yourself, being told that you’re an egotist, even an upside-down one, may not feel like the best thing that has happened to you today. But trust me, looking at things in this light can offer a bit of relief. While it may seem obvious that the egotists’ inflated opinions of their own importance is out-of-line with the reality, perhaps there is more of a tendency to believe in negative patterns of thought. As though negativity is, by its nature, more real. But seeing negative thoughts for what they are, not a sign that you’re missing out on self-esteem, that the balloon needs filling up, but just as another kind of thinking that centres on the self, can help take away some of their persuasive power.
In meditation, we’re training the mind to come to rest in such a way that thoughts, positive or negative, are recognised as just that – merely thoughts. All we have to do is sit there, see them arise, and see them pass. There might be certain kinds of thoughts that we want to chase after, but by doing so we’re only meeting thinking with, well, more thinking. So when negative thoughts arise, just try to note them with a sense of curiosity (“ah, thinking”) and then let them pass. With practice, and a little time, we may find that we’re not giving them quite so much attention. In fact, we may even find ourselves smiling at them.
That sense of quiet confidence doesn’t spring from thinking positive thoughts about oneself. It’s the underlying nature of mind. It’s not something that’s too empty, or too full. This quality is limitless, ever-present and beyond all thought. We have only to let go of thinking to hear it, to feel it and to experience it as part of our life.