Notes on Humility
“Love says ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.’ Between these two my life flows.”
– Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
In my work, on a daily basis, I have the privilege of witnessing our human capacity for humility. Humility shows up in myriad ways, but most often and simply, I witness humility in the people I speak with who are willing to become intimate with reality, an endeavour of bringing one’s truth into focus. Bringing the uncomfortable, capital t, Truth that nags at the periphery into focus requires humility because in doing so, we let down psychological armour that keeps us at a distance from what’s painful or unflattering. In becoming more honest with ourselves, humility gives us a chance to play at the edges of ego. At those edges, we become familiar with the ego’s tendency to provide a limited view of reality- one that puts us at a fixed centre of experience. With humility, ego boundaries that falsely define reality with a separate me at the centre of experience are revealed for what they are- a transparent construct of mind. From the vantage point of humility, we see through all of this to the greater and truer reality of ourselves as part of an interconnected whole that’s greater than the sum of separate individuals.
In our efforts to exercise humility, which benefits the me, the we, and our earth endlessly, we need an inner eye of discernment that helps us to differentiate real humility from false humility. Humility disguised as pride or self-deprecation is false humility. Within a context of socialised expectations, false humility that raises others up at the expense of ourselves can often be encouraged, making it all the more devious in its guise. Many of us know this as the quiet or blatant deflection when others try to acknowledge our strengths, contributions, accomplishments, or even just those admirable inborn traits that make each one of us us.
In one of her wisdom-packed and candid essays from her much loved book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed brings us back to the true meaning of humble, one that resides more deeply than assumed, socially defined expectations of it which become too easily laden with ego, or confused with social niceties. Strayed reminds us, “To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground.”
If humility is to be of the earth and to be on the ground, humility is devoid of measurement against others, and instead, in its gravity, we can look down to see our feet on the same soil as our near and far neighbours. If we’re diminishing ourselves in the process of lighting someone else up, the mind or sense of self is operating out of the delusion of separateness as much as when we shine the light on ourselves to diminish others. False humility as pride or self-deprecation is ultimately two sides of the same coin- separateness. This sense of an isolated and separate experience of self that the ego delineates is incomplete without practicing our conscious awareness of it because it leads us to forgetting our system-level existence. Dan Siegel’s depth of work and writing about our experience of self in his most recent book, Intraconnected, gives poignancy to the reminder of the harmfulness of forgetting ourselves in relationship to others and to our larger system:
“A complex system is composed of interacting parts, often called nodes, and each node interacts with other nodes via their linkages. This is how the system functions. If a node functions as if it is the totality of its identity, that it belongs only to its nodal part in the system, it will behave in a disconnected way, interdependence will shut down, and the whole complex system will lose its ability to adapt and learn. Its self-organization toward harmony will be compromised, and instead the system will move toward chaos or rigidity. If the human mind has constructed a view of the self as separate, it may be that the body (a node) has come to identify itself as the whole self- rather than the self also including the whole of the systems in which that node (the body) exists. In medicine, when this happens to renegade cells in the body that grow without regard to the complex living somatic system, we call it cancer.”
The point here is not to berate ourselves or liken ourselves to a cancerous cell every time we lose our footing on the earth and misstep into ego-led moments of pride or self-deprecation. Our fallibility is inevitable because we do have an ego and we will lose sight of it doing its thing. In our present day existence, where we happen to be along our collective conscious evolution, ego serves us in necessary but limiting ways. We do, of course, exist in the world as a person, and our personhood is as functional and real as the relationships between us. Ego itself is not fundamentally problematic or cancerous, but ego without returning to humility is. If we’re spending too much of our lives disconnected from the reality of our relational existence with each other and the earth by raising or lowering the importance of our belonging to the whole collective, we enact harm. An uninterrupted perception of oneself at a fixed centre of conscious experience impacts choice of speech, behaviour, and action, which ripples out to our wider existence. Jack Kornfield reminds us in The Wise Heart that, “Only to the extent that we act from the wisdom of no separation, understanding how we are woven together, will our intention bring benefit.”
While a life’s work and responsibility to recognise the false reality of ego-led perspective is an uncomfortable one, far more unbearable is the futile effort to uphold the ego’s grasp on the delusion of existing at the centre, a delusion that narrates fictional stories about what we, as the main character, do next as servants to control and certainty. Would we even want such an unfathomable role? To keep the world turning round and round according to our plan for it?
Humility doesn’t necessitate a total transcendence of ego, or sainthood existence in the world, but simply an awareness of the ego’s plays in action. Our responsibility to ourselves and each other is not to reveal ego and judge it- this, as judgement of mind, would only be another ego play. Instead, we remember the missteps and limitations of ego as part of our humanness, as just another essence that we share with one another that connects us on shared ground. With humility, we can extend kindness inwardly and outwardly for all the ways that we get mixed up and confused in separateness while occupying these animal bodies of ours; for all the ways that we forget our survival has and always will rely on each other. When we meet our missteps with honesty, gently approaching them with curiosity, we discover a longing to return to our true nature as part of an interdependent whole. Humility reveals the deeper Truth of the ego’s expression of fear, anger, ambition, and so on, as our cellular longing for connection with each other and our collective.
Real humility- the ground on which we claim the light we bring to the world as well as our shadows- is, like any sincere practice, useful in day-to-day living. When we level ourselves onto the same plane as all of humanity, we become willing to consider the hurts and harms onto both ourselves and others. With humility, we gain conscious awareness of how quick we are to condemn others and right ourselves, or to condemn ourselves and right others in the stories of our lives. Humility guides inquiry such as: Am I awake to the ways that I’ve lost my footing, or is my view constricted only to the ways that others have lost theirs? Am I willing to consider accountability as much as offer it out, or do my running narratives contain one without the other? Humility is the vantage point that provides a view of our judgement of others, a view of our irritations and annoyances, but with the space from that view to consider, “Maybe, I do that too?” Humility is not a self-blaming over-accountability, nor is it a self-righteous under-accountability. With it, in Strayed’s words, we’re neither “up too high or down too low”.
Humility exists in the daily ebbs and flows and in-betweens that are simply the truth of our immediate experience. We see it in an athlete dropping to their knees in their greatest feat, in the person acknowledging the weight of depression, and in the pause amidst hurry to admit, I’m grumpy. We see humility in the quality of an apology that’s ripe with acknowledgement rather than defence of our part, and in the discernment to apologise when we mean it. We see humility in a parent teaching a child, I make mistakes too. With humility, we remember that we’re all hypocrites and that’s fundamentally okay. We can find humour and lightness in our shared humanity, in the notion of our shared hypocrisy- a truth as close as the air we breathe that we forget it. With humility, we’re okay in our fallibility, and our neighbours are okay in theirs. We all live short of our ideals and values while continuing to do our best to live up to them. With humility, we’re less quick to self-justification and so we listen better, and we remain more curious and open to each other. Humility, as our guidance back to shared ground, is the foundation of sustained love- with ourselves, in friendship, in partnership, in relationship to our earth and with each other.
As a guiding force back to each other, humility recognises the language of “self-made” as a misnomer. We are all made of others. We are made of the family we grew up with- burdens, blessings, and all- of the saving grace of the family we choose, of every school teacher, of strangers we’ve encountered, of familiar baristas and bus drivers, of every piece of sage and misguided advice, and of every coach, author, artist, and beyond that has made contact with us. Real humility does not exile us from our shared ground through self-deprecation or pride, but instead, insists that we belong. As in the words of wisdom from Craig Foster, from my favourite documentary, humility insists “That you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference.”