Self-Image

Swami Niranjanananda and Dr. Swami Vivekananda Saraswati

How can we overcome guilt?

Swami Vivekananda: Natural self-expression, not guilt, is a natural tendency within a human being. Guilt is something that we learn from the authority figures around us when we are young. They use it as a way to manipulate us, to make us do as we are told. At a certain point in our lives, we reach a stage where we can do the right thing without having to be told. We can then do away with that voice in our head that is telling us how terrible we are for doing what we think we shouldn't be doing.

In my experience yoga is very effective for people with a lot of guilt. It just takes a simple level of yoga nidra for people to look inside and find out where the guilt is coming from. On the visual screen, they will get pictures of the ways in which they were manipulated by people in the early years of life. Then, having come to that realization, whenever the pang of guilt occurs, they can say to themselves, “Huh Dad, I'm not paying any attention to you now. I'm doing my thing the way I believe it should be done.” Or, “No, you're not going to get away with that anymore. You know I've been through 45 years of this. I want the other 45 years to be guilt free, so it's my turn now.”

Do it with love and I'm sure that the guilt will just slowly dissolve, with increased realization of where it comes from, and then increased insight and interfering with the process of guilt before it starts.

How can we face rejection, and what can we learn from it?

Swami Vivekananda: It is interesting that the people who are most sensitive to rejection are those who have been rejected. People who, during their early years and throughout their lives, have been accepted and who have been held in esteem by the most significant people around them, especially mother and father, elder brothers and sisters, school teachers, peer group, have a high self-esteem.

A person with high self-esteem will tend to see someone who is rejecting them as having a problem. It is just a matter of viewpoint. If you have a good self-esteem, then you will see that person as being rather unlucky for not choosing to accept you. On the other hand, a person with low self-esteem, who is rejected by somebody, will look into themselves and try to see what their faults are, and why they are being rejected by that other person.

Now the question is not about sensitivity to rejection. The question is about self-esteem. To me, the practice of Karma Yoga is obviously the greatest way to build up one's self-esteem. The beauty of Karma Yoga is that there is no expectation, either from out there or from in here. We are not expecting to accomplish something, we are just doing our best. During the process of Karma Yoga, there are rewards that come along, but they are not the rewards that we are seeking. The person with low self-esteem can quite easily accept these rewards, and their self-esteem just gradually increases.

One of the greatest ways of accomplishing something is to put our full energy and full concentration into it, and not be preoccupied with thinking about what we are going to get back from it. That is a very, very powerful accomplishment. Even a person with very bad images of their self-esteem will have to start accepting some of the credit for what is produced by their Karma Yoga. I have never seen any system better than Karma Yoga, when practised the right way, for a person to develop self-esteem. It is a very long process because people with low self-esteem tend to push back any positive accomplishments, not to give themselves credit for them, and to subtract any credit they receive from other people. But gradually, after a period of time, the self-esteem starts to develop.

The practices of Karma Yoga also enable the person to develop an insight into how he/she is dealing with other people. That person will develop a realization of the level of their self-esteem. The practices of meditation will enable the person to actually look within to go into their mind and find out where the problem arises. Then they will look around, see people who have high self-esteem and start asking the question, “Why?” People who ask the question, “Why?”, and do the yoga practices, find the answers.

What is the difference between self-image and self-esteem?

Swamiji: Within the structure of our mind, there is a level of awareness about our identity that has existed since the time of our birth. Later on, this awareness is combined with the samskaras, karmas and impressions, as well as with the education that we receive in life. As a result, we seem to look at ourselves in a particular way, which becomes our measurement of our self-image. When we begin to appreciate that self-image, then I think it becomes self-esteem, an appreciation of what we are. If I do not have any appreciation of what I am, then I may not have self-esteem, but I will continue to have a unique identity of my own self, which is the self-image.

I will give you an example. You look at yourself in the mirror every day. You never think, “I am ugly.” Although you may be the ugliest person in the Guiness Book of Records, you will always find something nice to say about yourself – “My eyes are nice,” or “I have nice rounded ears,” or “My lips are in the form of ajna chakra.” You will always find something nice. Even if it is a mole, you will see a beauty in it, because you have to accept it. Although that mole is the ugliest thing on your face, you will feel that it enhances your own beauty, and makes you unique. I have yet to find a person who can look at himself or herself in the mirror and accept the fact that, I am like that. Ugliness is the creation of our own mind. Physically we are the creation of God's hand; He can make us into anything.

When our belief about ourself is on the positive side, it becomes a very positive self-esteem. When that belief is on the negative side, it becomes a restrictive, oppressive self-esteem, which changes our perception of our image. We begin to think, I am like this, I am like that, I am depressed, I am unhappy, I am suffering, I am sick. When these kinds of thoughts become obsessive, then that is a very difficult aspect of self-esteem to manage. To build up the self-image after that is difficult.

When you have an idea about yourself and other people reject it, then that is a very difficult form of rejection to cope with. Generally, if somebody says, “I hate you”, they do not say what they hate. Hate my body, hate my eyes, hate my nose, hate my performance, hate my beliefs, hate the way I perform and live and act. What do they hate? But that simple word 'hate' affects us so deeply that if we are not bright enough we can go deeper and deeper and deeper into states of depression, stress and anxiety.

Rejection is a mental belief; it is not physical. Rejection is more mental, more emotional, more psychological, than actual. My father may kick me out of the house. Will that hurt me more than what happens to my emotions, thoughts and feelings? Which will hurt me the most? Not the fact that he has given me a kick and thrown me out of the house. One can live with being homeless by sleeping under a tree and scraping for food to eat. One can survive physically, but one cannot survive a shock which is psychological, which is emotional. So rejection or guilt are purely creations of own mind and nature. As Swami Vivekananda mentioned, yoga can help manage that when applied properly.

—Ganga Darshan, 6 October 1995