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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourselves: Overcoming Self-Hatred > Session One: Developing Equanimity toward What We’ve Done in Our Lives

Equalizing Our Attitudes toward Ourselves: Overcoming Self-Hatred

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, September 2010

Session One: Developing Equanimity toward What We’ve Done in Our Lives

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:59 hours)

This evening and this weekend I would like to speak about a problem that is quite typical among Westerners, which is the problem of a negative attitude toward ourselves, low self-esteem, and it can go even to the extreme of not only not liking ourselves, but even hating ourselves. And it’s very curious that this doesn’t seem to be a universal problem. For instance, it’s something which is quite strange and alien to the Tibetans. I was at a conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a group of psychologists, I think it was – or maybe it was other scientists, I don’t quite remember. But the topic came up about this low self-esteem and self-hatred, and His Holiness was very surprised; he had never heard of that. And he found it very hard to believe that Western people actually had this type of attitude toward themselves. And there were about maybe, I don’t know, twenty of us at this conference, and His Holiness asked each of us if we had low self-esteem, and everybody in the room said “yes.” He was completely shocked. 

And, of course, one could speculate as to what the reasons are for this, why we don’t find this so much among Tibetans or among Indians either. I lived in India for twenty-nine years and one theory I came up with was having to do with the childrearing practices. In traditional societies – and I think this is the case not just among the Tibetans and Indians, but I think in medieval times in Europe, and certainly in Africa and Latin America, and other parts of Asia besides the Indian subcontinent and Tibet – the babies are always with their mother or an older sister. And they’re either on the back of the mother, or in India they hold them on the sides. They always have this physical contact. I think this makes the baby, especially when they’re very young, feel quite secure. And if you think about the way that many modern Westerners treat their babies, they leave them alone in a crib and they only reward them when they cry – by then picking them up, hopefully. So by leaving them alone in the crib, it engenders a basic feeling, I think, of being abandoned and being insecure. 

Think of a baby carriage, the strollers that people in the West walk babies in. The baby is in front of the mother or the father. So here’s this little child, maybe a year old, sitting there looking at the traffic on the street. They’re very small and there are these big trucks and things going by, and they’re just facing it by themselves. This is very frightening, I’m sure. Whereas in traditional societies, the baby would be strapped to the mother or the father’s back, facing these things, feeling secure – that they are protected. So I think at a very, very early age, the way that we raise our children, it gives a feeling to the child that “Something’s wrong with me.” And I think that helps to engender this bad feeling toward oneself. 

Now whether that’s true or not, what I just explained, I don’t know. But it seems to be at least one factor for why we find this attitude so prevalent among modern people raised with Western methods and we don’t find it in traditional societies so much. And, of course, in a system in which there’s competition, and so on, very often we feel “I’m not good enough” if you don’t win. So, in any case, this is a problem that we face, this low self-esteem, this self-hatred, and if we look at the Buddhist teachings, the Buddhist teachings are all intended to help us to overcome suffering by overcoming the cause of suffering. So if low self-esteem, negative attitude toward ourselves, is a cause of suffering – of unhappiness – then if we have a strong confidence in the Buddhist teachings, there must be Buddhist methods that can apply to help us to overcome this. 

Perhaps some of you are familiar with this program that I developed called Developing Balanced Sensitivity. I wrote a book like that; it’s on my website. I think it’s also in Russian. But, in any case, in that program of twenty exercises, I used various types of Buddhist methods, putting them together in a way that could address specific types of problems that we tend to have more strongly in the West and are not discussed so explicitly in the traditional Buddhist teachings. So primarily problems of being insensitive to others or to ourselves; or being oversensitive and getting hurt so easily; being out of touch with our feelings, out of touch with the body, alienated – these types of things. So, anyway, I developed this program probably about twelve years ago now, and since then I have worked out other types of programs to deal with yet other problems that I didn’t address in this first book. Specifically one in terms of integrating our whole life and all the different aspects of our life, because very often in our modern times our lives are so fragmented that we don’t feel whole. That’s also on my website. But I’ve developed another program, another training, specifically now to deal with this overcoming self-hatred. So I’d like to present it, actually for the first time, this weekend here in Moscow. Not that I’m saying that people here have such a strong problem more than anywhere else; it’s just this opportunity has presented itself. 

In any case, what I have modeled this on is a very specific set of teachings in Buddhism, which is a type of training known as equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others, which is intended to help us to overcome what’s called “self-cherishing” – so selfishness: just thinking of ourselves and ignoring the needs of others. It culminates in a practice called “tonglen,” which is “giving and taking.” I mean, it goes further than that, but that is one of the main aspects of that training. 

Tonglen is the Tibetan name, but many people have heard that Tibetan name, so that’s why I used it. And, with that, what one does is specifically one imagines taking on or accepting all the problems of others and dealing with them with as much importance as if they were our own problem, and then giving them a solution to it – and happiness. In one text, the Seven-Point Attitude-Training – attitude-training is the genre of this type of practice – it says for this practice, start with taking on your own problems; start with yourself. That is referring specifically to problems of growing old, getting sick, having to take care of our sick parents, not just ourselves getting sick. These sort of things that sometimes we don’t even think that this is going to happen. Even just providing for our family after we die; that is something that we need to take care of. So, rather than being in denial about these things, we take it on now. We say, “Okay, now I’m going to deal with this.” And am I going to be emotionally prepared for this? Am I going to be psychologically prepared? Do I have some idea of how I will handle this situation? And so on. So we deal with it now, at least in our minds, which is of course a very, very helpful practice. 

And it has an application in daily life as well, because if we’re trying to undertake something – plan A – my teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, always emphasized: always have prepared plan B and plan C, in case plan A doesn’t work. Like, for instance, one of my students was applying for a visa to study in another country, but he didn’t have plan B in case the visa was refused. And that’s very dangerous because his visa was refused and he already was past the deadline to be able to apply for a study program in some place that would have been easier to go to. Well, anyway, he was fortunate: he applied for that visa again and eventually, on the third try, he got it. But this strategy, I think, is very important – that be prepared in case it doesn’t work out – then you have some alternative; then you’re not just left with nothing. 

So, anyway, the point being that if in this giving and taking practice it says start with yourself, and there are a whole series of steps in this training that precede this giving and taking practice, then I got the idea of: why not start from the very first step in dealing with our own problems? So that’s how I derived this method. So, rather than applying all these steps in a way which is focused on others – which is the traditional way – what we will do is focus it on ourselves in different periods of our life. 

Now we don’t have very much time this weekend, and actually there are many steps; and in order to really benefit from this, I think it needs to be done slowly over quite a number of sessions, more than the number that we have available this weekend. But here I’ll just introduce the material and you can work with it later. It’s being recorded; it’ll eventually go on my website. 

Now in each step, what it requires is what we call “meditating,” but maybe meditating is too strong a word – but it requires really thinking, going deep in ourselves and considering various aspects of our life. And, as with this sensitivity training, I need to warn you beforehand that dealing with difficult issues in our life can bring up some emotional turmoil. And so if any of this becomes a little bit too much for anyone, don’t do it. And, in any case, we don’t have so much time to spend on each part of this training. Just a little taste. 

Okay? Good. Any questions? Fine. Then let’s begin. 

The first step in the process is to develop equanimity toward ourselves. There are many different types of equanimity, but this type of equanimity is a state of mind that is free of aversion, attraction, or just ignoring. Ignoring ourselves is traditionally referred to as naivety. We’re just naive about ourselves. We don’t really consider ourselves seriously. So what we want to do is to, in a sense, clear away – at least on an initial level; we’re not going to get rid of it completely – but clear away, a little bit, any disturbing emotions that we have toward ourselves, so that being open, having sort of an even ground, we can develop a more positive feeling toward ourselves. 

And here I’d like to do this in terms of three large steps; each step having many parts. This is in terms of what we’ve done in our life – our attitudes about that. And then how we’ve treated ourselves in our life – how we’ve regarded ourselves and treated ourselves. And then different parts of our personality – some that we like, some that we don’t like. So, as you can see, we’re going to get very personal. Not that you have to share it with anybody, but you’re going to have to – if you want to do this program – really look at yourself honestly. 

Let’s first think in terms of what we’ve done in our life. And for this, we’ll look at three situations. First, when we’ve made a big mistake in life or failed at something; then when we have succeeded at something; then when nothing significant was happening in our life. And let’s examine our feelings about each of these three. 

First, try to remember when we’ve made a big mistake in life or failed at something – whether it’s at work, whether it’s in a relationship, whatever if might be – that we felt, “Wow, I really messed it up.” Now we might have many examples of this in our lifetime. If we work more fully, we can think of several examples, but just use one as an example. And if it’s really difficult – don’t choose one that is really too painful. 

So we think of this failure of ours, and let the feeling arise of “How horrible I am.” I’m sure we often use much stronger language than that toward ourselves in terms of where we’ve made a big mistake or failed. 


And we then reflect, “Well, why do I think I’m so horrible?” And the reason is because I failed, made a mistake. I failed. That’s why I feel I’m no good. 


So whatever it might have been. Maybe I hurt somebody emotionally, or whatever. Might not have been a good parent, or a good son or daughter, or a good friend. But, there are many other things that I have done in life that I have done well. Isn’t it? It’s not that I have failed in absolutely everything. I’ve not only made mistakes in life. So it’s not fair to just focus on these mistakes and failures. It’s not being fair to myself. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody succeeds at some things. And I’m not different from anybody else. So why do I expect that I am always going to succeed? I’m only human. 


And so now we try to think of that situation where we failed or made a mistake in our life and try to regard it without a feeling of self-hatred. Now, of course, we regret mistakes that we’ve made or failures that we’ve made, and we’ll try our best not to repeat it – to do better. But there’s no need to hate myself because I failed. And this is what we’re trying to achieve here, is to be able to think back about these failures – or even when we presently fail at something – and have equanimity toward it, in the sense of “Well, I’ll try better.” But equanimity here means not self-hatred, by thinking, “Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I fail. Just like anybody else.” So there’s nothing special about making mistakes sometimes in life. Everybody does. 


Then the next thing that we consider is a time in our life when we have succeeded. We really did a good job, whether it’s in terms of work, or school, or helping somebody – whatever it might have been that we did well. 


And then we let a feeling arise, as if we have this, of “How wonderful I am.” 


I’m thinking of the gesture of a football player when they kick a goal and “Oh yeah!” So proud of themselves. 


And we consider, “Why do I feel so wonderful and so special about myself?” It’s because I did very well. I succeeded. But I haven’t succeeded in everything. Sometimes I’ve failed, haven’t I? So, again, nothing special. 


And again we resolve that – similar to what we had with failing – that resolve when I succeed, when I do well, I’m not going to get this overexcited: “How wonderful I am!” as if I could go and kiss myself in the mirror. 


In other words, with a calm state of mind. When we talk about equanimity here, we’re talking about a calm state of mind. Whether we fail, whether we succeed, we remain calm. Feeling calm doesn’t mean that we feel nothing. What we want to do is, here, to diminish as much as possible, hopefully – temporarily, not have it at all – a disturbing state of mind in terms of succeeding or failing. So that instead of a disturbing state of mind, on the basis of being calm, we can develop a more constructive state of mind. 

Rather than feeling guilty if we’ve done wrong – and then I have to punish myself – we just simply feel regret. “I’m sorry that I messed up, and I will try my best not to repeat that.” That’s not the same as guilt: “How horrible I am! I’m a bad person.” And instead of feeling “Oh how wonderful I am that I succeeded” – which is actually quite a disturbing state of mind, of arrogance, pride, etc., as if we have to reward ourselves – we simply rejoice in what we’ve done. “I’m happy about that.” 

As one great Indian Buddhist master said, “When our hand feeds our mouth, do we have to congratulate our hand and thank our hand? ‘Wow, you really did a good job there. You brought the food up to my mouth.’” This is silly, isn’t it? Don’t misunderstand that the state of equanimity means being a robot and having no feelings whatsoever. It doesn’t mean that. But we want to have healthy emotions, not disturbing emotions. So go back now and try to regard when we’ve succeeded without this “Oh wow. I’m so great! I’m so fantastic!” type of attitude. More calm. And then, on that basis, we can feel happy about that. What we call, in Buddhism, rejoicing. 


Now we think of the third situation: when nothing significant was happening in our life. We neither were failing at anything nor succeeding at anything, just going through our usual life. And what do we feel about that? “How boring.” Isn’t it? Don’t we? How boring. And we would just as soon ignore those aspects of our life. We’re bored with ourselves, bored with life. And we let that feeling arise. 


Then we consider, “Why do I feel bored with myself? Why do I feel tired of myself?” Well, because nothing’s happening, really. Nothing exciting. Neither succeeding, failing; just the same, over and over again. How boring. 


But that’s not really true, if we think about it. First of all, why does life have to be exciting all the time? Who said that it has to be exciting? Hollywood movies or what? And, in fact, I do succeed and I do fail at small things all the time: “I made a nice meal.” That’s a success isn’t it? Or “I made not a very good meal.” Even very simple things: “I had a successful bowel movement this morning.” Went to the toilet. Right? If we’re constipated. Constipated: you can’t go to the toilet. 

If you are constipated, then to actually be able to move your bowels is a big success. It’s not a dramatic success. I’m just saying that we have small successes. We found a parking space. We managed to get home without getting stuck in traffic for two hours. Life isn’t just boring, boring, boring. There are the small ups and downs. So we try to look at these periods in our life that we tend to just ignore and think are so boring, without that attitude of “Urgh. Nothing!” 


Okay. The next step, if you can do it, is to try to keep all three situations in mind at the same time: So here’s myself as failing. Then next to it is myself succeeding, and then next to it is myself just leading my same old life every day. And we try to have an equanimity toward all of them: not attracted to one, not repelled from another, not ignoring the other. Not feeling repelled from this “me” that failed. Not being attracted – “Ooh. Ooh. I want to always be the successful one.” And “I don’t even want to think about this boring one over there.” If it helps, you can think that we’re at a dinner table, the four of us. I know that this is really very – not even dualistic; it’s even double dualistic. But to just try to imagine that, in an emotional encounter, that I deal with all these different “me”s without feeling repelled from one, attracted to another, and ignoring this one – the third one. We’re just open to all of them, all these aspects. 


Now we have to get a little bit Buddhistic here. We make a difference, in Buddhism, between what we call the conventional “me” and the false “me.” The conventional “me” is what is labeled on this whole continuity of our whole life. Each event that’s happened in my life, that’s part of my whole life. “Me” refers to all of that. And that’s part of the pattern of life: it goes up and down. So I exist, of course, based on all these changing events throughout my entire life, the whole thing. That’s the conventional “me.” 

The false “me” doesn’t exist at all. It’s what we project. And what we project is a “me” that’s identified with just one part, one event: “I failed. I’m no good!” And we just imagine that that is the totality of “me”: “I’m guilty,” or “I’m so wonderful. I’m God’s gift to the world,” or “I’m such a boring person. I’m a nobody. I’m a nothing. Just a little piece in the big machine of this society. How boring!” So that’s the false “me,” the “me” that doesn’t really exist. But when we have disturbing emotions, that’s the one that we imagine we are. 

What we need to realize is that this projection is garbage; it’s not referring to anything real. And reaffirm the conventional “me” that has all these different aspects, all these different things that have happened in my life. Sometimes done well, sometimes not done well, sometimes nothing special is happening. That’s it. So we try to reaffirm that. If we have these false ideas of me, identifying with just one or two events – and I’m stuck in that – just say, “This is garbage. This is not reality.” And to try to, as we imagine these three different incidents in our life – Well, we’re the whole thing. “Me” is labeled on all of this, changing all the time, as different things happen in our life, not stuck on one event. 


And we try to feel calm about the whole thing. Neither repelled, attracted, or indifferent to “me.” Just open to each moment of life, without making a big deal out of anything that happens. 


So, basically, we’re at peace with ourselves and we accept ourselves. On that basis, we can build more positive attitudes toward ourselves. And on the basis of that, we can develop more positive attitudes toward others. But first we have to be at peace with ourselves. 


Okay. So maybe that’s enough for our first session. Do you have any questions or comments? 

Question: How do you think this attitude of hatred toward ourselves – is it a characteristic only of Western culture, or is it also quite common in other countries like China or Muslim countries, or maybe Hindu traditions? 

Alex: I’ve not seen it so strongly in these other countries. I think a big difference is whether it is a traditional society or a so-called modern society that follows the Western pattern. I think the more competitive a society becomes and the more that it emphasizes winning, then the opposite side of that is to consider yourself a loser and no good if you haven’t won. So, I wonder – now I’m ignorant so I have to ask you, and maybe some of you are not old enough to remember – but is there a difference in terms of people’s attitudes toward themselves under the Soviet system, which was not so competitive, and at the present time where it’s very competitive? Do people have a different attitude toward themselves? That’s hard to say if you were only a small child during the Soviet time. Anybody have any insight in that, those who are older here? 

Participant: Yes. There was less of this self-hatred. 

Alex: Right. Less of that attitude. And I think you will find that in China as well. With the rapid economic rise and competition in China, I’m sure that this has affected the people now compared to in the past. 

You asked about Muslim countries. Well, there’s a tremendous variation, a variety, between Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria. These are incredibly different societies that have a great deal of Muslims. But in general, Muslims that I know are very proud and self-confident, and there’s a big emphasis on equality of everybody in Islam. So I don’t think they have so strong this idea of self-hatred, of guilt. 

Question: So, in general, can we say that’s a product of a modern Western society and we can’t find it in our Western past? That it has only now developed? 

Alex: I couldn’t say for sure, but I think that it would have been less pronounced during... Well, it all depends. It all depends. If you have a culture that emphasizes that you are a sinner, then probably one has a great deal of self-hatred toward oneself, I would guess. And that certainly was evident in the Middle Ages. And there are still certain religions that emphasize that aspect: “I’m a sinner.” 

I think there are many factors that are contributing to this attitude. But you certainly don’t have in traditional Chinese or Hindu or Buddhist thinking the concept of being a sinner. Not in sort of this biblical sense of sinner. And I don’t know enough about Islam to really know how strong that concept is in Islam, of being a sinner. There’s a very strong emphasis on forgiveness, which you have in many forms of Christianity as well. 

Among Shiites, there is – I forget the name of the festival, but I witnessed it once in Kashmir, in which they have this procession and everybody whips themselves. They’re either whipping just with a whip, or with razor blades, and stuff like that, and beating their chests. It’s an unbelievable scene, marching in the streets. But it’s not based on self-hatred. Just because you’re beating yourself doesn’t meant that it’s self-hatred. They’re doing this out of the sympathy of remembering the martyrdom of a great martyr in their religion. He died for a religious reason, in a battle that had to do with the founding of the whole Shiite movement. So it’s out of sympathy, remembering that, that they try to experience that same suffering themselves. But it’s not out of self-hatred. It has nothing to do with self-hatred. 

Question: Thank you very much for these meditations. I think it is very important to apply them in order not to forget these problems in our daily life. You said that if we compare ourselves with other people, we – all of us – we have failures and we have success in our life. But nevertheless, I feel that I have less achievements, for instance, compared to other people. Is your point that actually in our lives we have the equal amount of failures and successes and boring periods? 

Alex: Well, actually this is a point that will be addressed in one of the later steps in the training, when we think in terms of kindness – that I’ve actually been kind to myself more than I have hurt myself. All my life, I have brushed my teeth, I have slept – I’ve actually taken care of myself throughout my life. If we consider that aspect of it, we’ve been very kind to ourselves; we’ve been very successful. So, as I said, success doesn’t have to be dramatic. It doesn’t have to be that we win a Nobel Prize. 

Translator: I think that mostly this question is about if we compare ourselves and other people. For instance, do I really have the same amount of success as other persons? 

Alex: Well, that’s really hard to evaluate because the question is how do we measure success. This is what I was referring to in my answer. Does success have to be dramatic – you win a prize – in order to count as success? What we’re aiming for, I suppose, is to be secure enough in ourselves and at peace enough in ourselves that we don’t judge ourselves in terms of what others have done. Now, of course, the philosophy of capitalism, for that matter, is that by having competition, you compare yourself with others; and you want to do not only as good as them, but even better. So by comparing ourselves to others, it can inspire us to do better. That’s certainly a positive aspect. 

But, you see, I’m thinking of… In tantra, what you want to do – one small, small aspect of it – is use a certain emotion which could be potentially disturbing, to use it in a beneficial way. Transform it. A simple, everyday example: anger. There’s something unfair happening in society, or in the family, or whatever, and you can get very angry at that. So that anger could lead to you destroying something – throwing a bomb – so that leads you to a destructive action. Or that anger could move you to “I’m so incensed about this, so angry about it, I’m going to do something about it to improve it.” So it can get you moving. So you can use the energy of anger in a constructive way rather than in a destructive way. So similarly with competition. Comparing ourselves to others. You can use that energy to whip ourselves: “I’m so terrible.” Or you can use that energy to motivate you to try to do better. 

Anything else? 

Question: Sometimes I feel positive feelings toward myself only in relationships with others. And, in a sense, it seems to be, maybe, contradictory to what you said about – that firstly we need to develop a positive attitude towards ourselves and only then towards others. What can you say about it? So only when we deal with others, then we have these positive feelings. When we don’t deal with others, then maybe we don’t have. 

Alex: Are you saying that when you have a positive feeling toward others that, at the same time, you have a positive feeling toward yourself? 

Participant: Yes. So when I am thinking about other people then, in this situation, it’s easier for me to have positive feelings towards myself and to have compassion towards myself and accept myself. 

Alex: Yes. That’s very true. One of the best ways of building up self-confidence, and a more positive feeling toward oneself, is being generous. If we’re able to do something for somebody else, or be kind to someone else, or think of others in a kind way, then we have something to offer. And when you feel that “I have something to offer,” you don’t feel that “I’m worthless.” So, yes, this is definitely one of the methods that is used to develop a more positive attitude toward oneself. 

But what I was saying was that if we start with a very negative attitude toward ourselves, then to jump from that to being generous and helping others… For some people, maybe it’s possible to make that jump, but I think an intermediate step is to calm down that self-hatred first. But for some people that might not be necessary. It might be easier to just work straightforwardly with being generous and giving the opportunity for the other to be generous. 

What I’m thinking of is one psychiatrist friend of mine who was dealing with how do you help unruly teenagers who are violent, who never cooperate; very, very hard to discipline. Those that society says, “You’re a loser and no good,” and so then they identify with that and “I’ll show you really how bad I could be.” This type of attitude. Now if you could somehow get that teenager to help do something, even if they do it terribly, it gives them a sense that they do have something worthwhile to offer. So one therapy that’s used is to give them a mule, a donkey, to take care of. They have to do something. 

What you’re saying is totally true. I’m not refuting that. But the problem here is how to motivate yourself to think of others – to be kind to others, to do things for others – if you’re completely obsessed with self-hatred. How do you make that transition? This is the problem. And for many people who are stuck in self-loathing it’s very difficult to make that transition, and this type of calming down that self-hatred can be helpful. I think that’s why it says in this giving and taking practice that I mentioned, in the standard Buddhist texts, you start with yourself. But that’s not the end of the program; that’s the very, very first step. Then you gradually extend it to people you like, then strangers, and then even people you don’t like. And for some people, helping strangers actually is easier than helping people they like, because there’s not so much emotional baggage, emotional involvement. People who can help in some social movement, but can’t really deal with their family. 

You had a question? 

Question: Is it true that if we develop a positive attitude toward ourselves, it can help us to eliminate our “me,” our self, and our selfishness? And which techniques, besides that, can help us in that? 

Alex: Well, as I said, we make a big difference between the conventional “me” that does exist and the false “me” that doesn’t exist. So a positive attitude toward the conventional “me” is quite different from a positive attitude toward the false “me.” A positive attitude toward the false “me” – “I’m so wonderful. I’m so great” – that could lead to reinforcing selfishness. A positive attitude toward the conventional “me” can lead us to be more open and fair, not only with ourselves but with everybody else. 

So there are many methods which are used in Buddhism to refute this false “me.” In other words, to demonstrate to ourselves that it’s not referring to anything real. If I’m so wonderful or I’m so horrible, then if that was really my identity, I would have had to have been like that always, in every situation. This is clearly not the case. So I’m not the same as that “God’s gift to the world” me. But am I totally different, totally separate? If so, who is that “me” that thought it was so wonderful? Is that somebody different from me? So, analyzing like this, we come to the conclusion that this whole concept of a solid “me” with this solid identity is just garbage. It’s not referring to anything real. 

Question: Can I ask your opinion about one concept, about one word that you said many times today? 

Alex: Please. 

Question: I think that it is a new religion of a modern world. Your example with going to the toilet was very funny. And really, indeed, if we think that going to the toilet is success, then we are very successful. Then my question is: from your point of view, what is success? Is it some sort of inner feeling? Or are there just a set of social parameters – because of that, we are always in competition? 

Alex: There are two things that you are mentioning here. What does society consider as a success? And what do I consider a success, subjectively? So there’s socially or subjectively. And, of course, subjectively could be conditioned by what the society considers a success. And obviously what society considers a success varies from society to society. Being thin, some societies is successful. Being fat in other societies is successful – in African societies. What is the criterion for success? 

So, in a Buddhist sense, we’re not talking about what society might say – and then you’re talking about what it feels like – that’s something else. But success from a Buddhist point of view means to accomplish some spiritual goal. And spiritual goal here means some sort of level of self-improvement – self-improvement with a goal of being able to help others better. So it’s not a matter of how good looking you are, or how much money you have, or you have the latest fashion clothing. And the attitude toward that is one of rejoicing. So you’re happy about it, but not overexcited. It’s a more calm state of happiness. It’s a secure state of mind. It’s a feeling that I’m going in the right direction, and I’m happy about that, and I will just continue. So it’s a very calm and peaceful state of mind which is happy. But not “Whoopee!” and a pat on the back, and pet my head, and I wag my tail – not like that. And not making a big deal out of it. You don’t have to put a notice in the newspaper. And whether other people acknowledge it or not is irrelevant. You’re secure enough in yourself to know that you’re going in the right direction in life. You did a good job – as well as you could at this stage. 

There’s a big difference between being happy about what we’ve done, and identifying this false “me” with “I’m so great!” So the focus is not on “Me Me Me.” The focus is on – there’s a greater and greater ability to help others. This could be I’m more patient, not so angry. I mean, these are the types of successes that we’re talking about. I handled that situation of a family dinner with all the aunts and uncles without getting angry. Pretty good. That’s a success. I didn’t get angry when my mother kept nagging me: “Why don’t you do it like this?” “Why don’t you make more money?” “Why don’t you? Why don’t you? Why don’t you?” 

Participant: But maybe if we had more money, then she wouldn’t ask us. 

Alex: She’ll never be satisfied. Never be satisfied. That we know. 

So let’s end here. The Buddhist way is with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause not only to overcome low self-esteem, but to go further and further all the way to becoming a Buddha in order to be of best help to everyone.