Developing a Self
“If ultimately you’re going to develop the perception of not-self, why spend time developing a perception of self? The short answer is that the path is a skill, and, as with many other skills, there are many different stages in mastering it. Sometimes you have to do one thing at one stage, and turn around and erase it at another. It’s like making a chair. At one stage you have to mark the wood with a pencil so that you can cut it properly, but when you’re ready to apply the final finish, you have to sand the pencil marks away.” Selves & Not Self, p. 21, Thanissaro Bhikkhu
This is the best description of what a self is all about I have seen. We are all told we have to develop certain social skills and self-esteem. Religions talk about surrendering ourselves to the process or God or whatever, but how can you surrender something you never developed in the first place? Then Buddhism comes along and says, “What self? No self actually exists.”
Thanissaro explains it in such a Buddhist way: it’s all about being skillful and doing what needs to be done appropriately at each stage. After you cross the river, you don’t then strap the canoe to your back and carry it around.
Do we need self-esteem? Definitely, at certain developmental stages and in specific situations. We need to be functional in the larger world, not crippled by shame, rage, or whatever.