Last night when I was at a meditation and dharma discussion at the local Shambhala Center, two comments were made that were very telling and relevant. A man from India noted that Westerners were so sensitive to what other people say or think. In Eastern cultures, he said, people are taught self-love from the very beginning. So their self-esteem is not dependent on other people. And so they suffer less.
It is important to note that this is not “self-love” in the contemporary American sense. Here the term is used to describe children, typically upper class, being told they are bright, talented, etc. to the point that they believe they are owed everything and can do no wrong. This is an egotistical self-love, not spiritual self-love. It may lead to “success” but it also leads to self-doubt and insecurity as people rarely measure up to the exaggerated image they’ve been given of themselves, and they know what that foretells in the real word … failure … and so it leads to always wanting to be more than one is. A perfect prescription for samsara.
Spiritual self-love is understanding that you are the embodiment of the Buddha nature … good, kind, pure, caring of others. If you have such self-love, you are secure in yourself and will never think less of yourself regardless what you encounter in life. Success or failure are ego-terms; they are irrelevant to self-love. Regardless what someone does or says to you, they can never take away that feeling of self-love. Spiritual self-love is caring; contemporary self-love is conceit. The former enables one to feel loving-kindness towards oneself and others; there is no kindness or caring in the latter, even towards oneself.
Of course, it goes without saying that the average American child receives neither type of self-love teaching. Instead, they are more likely to be told often that they are bad, stupid, lazy, don’t do as told, etc. Thus for the average person, the spiritual problem is more one of self-hatred and insecurity than a narcissistic self-love and insecurity.
The other comment was a story someone had read about the Dalai Lama. He was meeting with a group of Western psychologists who started talking about low self-esteem. The Dalai Lama wasn’t familiar with that term and asked his translator to explain. (I assume this was early in the Dalai Lama’s life.) When he did, the Dalai Lama commented that he would think that was very rare. Again, he grew up in an Eastern culture, Tibet, where self-love was taught most every child and so low self-esteem was not an issue.
As I’ve written before, insecurity is not a fact of human nature. It is a product of human upbringing, which changes from culture to culture. But even in India, I’m sure there are many children who are not taught self-love and are told they are bad, stupid, etc. At least the emphasis of the culture lies elsewhere.
Of course, even if you have spiritual self-love and are secure in yourself, that does not mean you are free of samsara, from the forces of society and the push and pull of your ego-mind. You just have fewer challenges or obstacles in walking the path, making the choice, and finding peace and happiness in the moment.