Author’s bio: For sixteen years Lesley Edwards pursued inner spiritual development with the Brahma Kumaris. Her career took her into teaching and she gave herself wholeheartedly to her work with children at various schools in London. She was equally committed to her spiritual quest. As a student and teacher with the Brahma Kumaris, she was a much loved and respected member of the BK family. For almost four years she conducted a largely private battle with MS and eventually cancer. She passed away in June of 1999, but the legacy she left in the hearts and minds of all who knew her was a vision of tremendous courage, selfless service and a serene acceptance of her role amongst us in this lifetime.
During her last five years, one of her main areas of focus was the development of self esteem. She designed and ran courses throughout the UK sharing all that she had learned on her own journey. This is the first of two articles on self-esteem which she wrote before her death. As you will see from the profound and articulate way she talks about this most important topic, she has done her inner work, and speaks to us directly from her own experience.
Beauty and the Beast
By Lesley Edwards
Lesley Edwards clarifies the role of self-awareness in building self-esteem.
Building Self Esteem is about deep personal transformation. I do not believe that we can discover our true worthiness without making the effort to change, without having the courage to look ourselves straight in the eye, appreciate what we see and then move on from there.
I was showing a class of 6-year-old children some pictures of the life cycle of the butterfly one day and I asked them how they thought it happened. One little boy’s face lit up and he exclaimed, “I know, the caterpillar has the heart of a butterfly!” What a wise old soul. It is true that if we know within our hearts what we want to become, then we will become that.
A friend of mine recently realized that she was only able to see herself through other people’s eyes. A counsellor asked her how she saw herself, and she replied that people said she was attractive, intelligent, and fun to be with. On being further pushed to say what she saw, she realized with horror she saw nothing, only a reflection of herself in other people’s eyes, and she was experiencing a profound feeling of being disconnected from herself.
It is a frightening feeling when we don’t know who we are. And many of us don’t, or have come to a point in life where we are seriously seeking some clarity. There has never been a time when we were more in need of some simple ancient wisdom—a spiritual as opposed to a material explanation of who we are. For so long we have been caught up in an identity based on external factors such as our job, appearance, talents and relationships. We have looked to other people, situations and circumstances to define us, to affirm us and to be the source of our pleasure. We have lost ourselves by comparing ourselves with others and measuring ourselves against material standards of success and achievement.
To begin to retrieve ourselves from this mess means a change of perception from physical self-awareness to spiritual self-awareness, seeing ourselves as a soul or spiritual consciousness that is beyond form. The natural state of the soul is internal strength and highest expression of the soul is to express that strength in the form of love, confidence, courage, and many other positive qualities. To have our center of gravity firmly anchored in this part of us makes us bigger than the detail of our daily lives, so that whatever challenge life presents us with we can stand firm and solid. It is to have an experience of Self that “brings a feeling of standing on solid ground inside oneself, on a patch of eternity, which even physical death cannot touch …” (Marie-Louise Von Franz).
It’s quite a challenge to work with a vision of yourself that is beyond image!—for your butterfly to have wings of compassion, peace courage and love as opposed to promotion, beauty, wealth and success! Yet I have seen many people meditating for the first time, connecting with this inner reality, breathing sighs of relief and sharing experiences of an inner freedom and lightness they have never felt before.
Of course the real challenge comes in integrating this experience into daily life, for spiritual self-awareness does not mean ignoring your physical, social and emotional world, but using it to give you the will power, the tools and strength to bring healing and change into all areas of your life. Without a spiritual awareness you may find yourself trying to make superficial changes when things go wrong, like putting knick-knacks and decorations over subsidence or putting more icing on a rotten cake—the equivalent of buying more clothes, eating more food, or drinking more alcohol when you feel depressed. Without a spiritual practice such as meditation you may know very well what changes in attitude and behavior would be good for you, but simply not have the energy or power to put them into practice.
The energy and inner strength that is experienced in meditation equips you with the right weapons to fight a non-violent war—weapons such as patience, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, acceptance and generosity. For however deeply we believe in our positive selves and however real our experiences of our spiritual self have been, this reality will inevitably be challenged. You may believe that you are a peaceful, loving soul, but can you maintain this experience in the face of sickness or criticisms. A spiritual awareness means always being ready with the right weapons, where battle and victory are an opportunity for alchemy. Where there was fear let there be courage, where lies and illusion—truth, where anger—acceptance, where hurt—forgiveness. Attacks will not just come from outside. Our self-image is made up of layers and layers of past experiences in our own subconscious in the form of deeply ingrained habits of negative thought patterns and behavior. Lasting change and healing requires a deep commitment to emerging gold from lead.
When awakened to their spirituality, people typically discover a sense of purpose and meaning in life. This should not just be a fleeting sensation! The challenge is to live every day with a sense of meaning and purpose. Do you understand the significance of the roles you play, the work you do, the talents you have? This is a potential minefield of stress, frustration, and boredom, of unfulfilled dreams and feelings of failure. Yet from a spiritual perspective, whatever you do is presenting you with exactly what you need for your growth and inner change. You may need to be in a situation to learn patience and humility. You may be bursting to change things on an external level but the best thing you can do right now is to change your attitude and perception towards what you do—patiently waiting for a time when the change that will happen is not a reaction against something bad, but a conscious choice to move towards something good.
What does it mean to translate spiritual self-awareness into your relationships with other people? Are you able to love? Do you love yourself enough to love other people? —to know that love is a verb and not something that will be found in the ideal person, or the ideal situation? —to be as committed to seeing gold in other people as you are to seeing the gold in yourself, appreciating how deeply connected those two perceptions are? When our inner resources are weak we cannot take other people’s attacks and defenses, and the easiest thing to do is to highlight their weaknesses as a way to avoiding responsibility for how we are feeling. To be stable in our own spiritual self awareness is to be able to turn things around, so that faced with someone coming from a space of anger, fear or jealousy, I am not threatened but I can disarm their negativity by seeing beyond it to their goodness. To maintain this vision needs a lot spiritual power—when you are tired and low on energy yourself you get stuck in the external appearance of things and it is much easier to blame, criticize, and put others down.
True self awareness is to see and accept the full life cycle of change—that there is the caterpillar, the cocoon and then the butterfly; that the alchemist uses lead to make gold and daylight always follows the night. A spiritual perspective gives an understanding of this complete story, and enables you to view the story from some place “outside of” or “beyond” yourself, without getting too caught up in any part of the detail. It enables you to see weakness and strength with equanimity and stability; to see weakness as a temporary reality but not ultimately part of true identity; to see weakness as the flip side of strength and to always make the choice to move towards the light, to move towards gold and to move towards flight.
Without seeing the full picture it’s very easy to get caught up in a small part of the story. Many people can accept their weaknesses but not their strengths. When asked to list positive and negative things about themselves, the negative list comes far easier and is a lot longer! Maybe it feels safer to stay on familiar ground, “It’s my personality to be like this. I can’t change., I was born like it!” To see themselves in a positive light is to step out of their comfort zone into dangerously unknown territory. I am reminded of children whose only way of reaching out and making contact with others is through physical violence, because that is the only language they know; and whose attention-seeking strategies result in constantly being told off. But they are getting exactly what they want—attention! For those whose early and subsequent life experiences have been characterized by pain and suffering it takes a Herculean effort of will and courage to step beyond this into a language of love.
Perhaps less common but certainly a potential hazard, is when we accept our strengths but go to great lengths to avoid facing and accepting weaknesses. None of us is perfect, and even the greatest souls have a shadow side. And this shadow has to be seen and embraced if we are to keep on growing. Courage can only come from facing fear, compassion from understanding anger. The peace we can experience is only in contrast to chaos. Every weakness is a strength out of balance; a feeling of worthlessness can be humility distorted, and arrogance may be confidence for the wrong reasons.
It is an art to look at Beauty and Beast with equanimity. And the greatest threat to that is fear. Fear is the big distorting mirror. We look in the mirror and see Beast, and stay with Beast because Beast says I have nothing to live up to, and has plenty of excuses for not having to do anything. Or we look in to the mirror and see Beauty and ignore Beast. And if Beast does not get at least a nod of acknowledgement he will chase us, driving us from within the labyrinth of our subconscious, demanding sacrifices—a missed opportunity here, a damaged relationship there. He will rear his ugly head manifesting as projections, denials, excuses and distortions of truth. So Beauty has to fall in love with Beast to turn him back in to a prince. And the only way for Beauty to love Beast is go beyond fear. Look in to the mirror and see beyond Beast and just see light. Light fills you with the love and courage to face and transform your weaknesses and the strength to express your strengths.