|Balasana, the physical manifestation of humility|
Sunday, February 21, 2016
Humility, The Ultimate Virtue
What’s up, NIP?
I’ve been thinking about humility lately and what an unsung virtue it is within our culture. Humility in many ways is perceived as a weakness rather than a strength, mainly because the images and stereotypes with which we are bombarded are constantly conveying that we need to be proud of our individual accomplishments. This pride, though, often borders on (and sometimes spills over into) the realm of braggadocio. Coupled with the pernicious myths of “self-reliance” and “rugged individualism,” there is a tendency toward solipsism that is both unhealthy and extremely shortsighted. Being humble, however, can counteract these impulses, especially when we constantly take into consideration how much of what we have accomplished in our lives has been dependent upon the help of other people.
The other reason I’ve been contemplating and cultivating humility has to do with death, which I’ve been pondering a lot lately. This has happened for several reasons: a coworker from the math department died suddenly at the age of 53 about 6 weeks ago; around the same time my father had a significant health scare (he’s okay now); my paternal grandmother is currently on the verge of making the transition; and, since at least the beginning of the year and perhaps even a few weeks before that, I have been actively visualizing my own end every day as part of a Stoic exercise that Seneca discusses in his essays and letters, the net effect being an overwhelming appreciation of my life and all that it contains.
The words humble and humility have a rather intimate connection with death because they come from the Latin word “humus,” which means “ground” or “earth,” and the word humus is also used in English to designate the dark layer of topsoil that is primarily composed of recycled organic material. When we die and (traditionally) are interred, we are made low or “humbled” by life itself, reconnecting with the life of which we were a small yet important part. But we shouldn’t wait until our deathbeds to contemplate and cultivate humility, because in doing so now we become free from the shackles of our own ego. As we work to become more and more humble, we readily accept the help of others and offer our help to others in turn. We start to truly realize that self-reliance—though a noble idea in one sense—is a mistaken view that has pitfalls that can sabotage our true potential, specifically when it comes to recognizing and celebrating the symbiotic interdependence that binds everything and everyone together in this miraculous life.
I don’t think anyone I know would have ever called me a braggart or boastful, but I know I can be even more humble than I am. For the last several years, I’ve always had a “we” mentality when it has come to how I speak about (or with) family, friends, coworkers, and perhaps most importantly, my students. Just as the concept of emergence has demonstrated time and again, the whole is always something much more, much stronger than the individual parts that comprise the system. I am starting to realize that humility works in much the same way—as an emergent property. The more I have focused on cultivating love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience in myself and others, the more humble I become because I realize that SO much of my life has been handed to me by chance, not by my own efforts. I can’t credit myself for having been born in the late 20th century to two loving parents who saw to it that I had all of my basics needs such as food, clothing, and shelter met. I can’t take credit for the education I received, as much of that was imparted to me by teachers who cared. I can’t take credit for the skills I received in other areas of my life, as there were coaches and other committed individuals who helped me achieve my dreams. And I certainly can’t take credit for having the excellent fortune to be born in a highly developed country such as the United States. And whether you ascribe these facts to providence or randomness doesn’t change the single most important fact—that this is the life that we have all been handed and the recognition of this fact necessitates the cultivation of humility.
Granted, I could mention personal effort, circumstance, and how I have used these gifts to my advantage, but that doesn’t negate the need for humility. In fact, I think humility is essential for egalitarianism. A big part of being humble is accepting that, on a basic level, each and every one of us is the same. We are all human beings. We all are born, live, and will one day die. This amazing, fantastic ride we call life only moves in one direction, and in accepting this gift with humility we honor all who were instrumental in us being here in the first place. I think this idea really puts into the proper context just how silly it is to boast about oneself and/or brag about accomplishments. If all elements of who we are and all of the things that we have done in life are ultimately contingent upon the efforts of others, then self-reliance proves itself to be at best a misguided view and estimation of oneself and, at worst, a worldview that blinds a person to the possibilities and potentiality of an other-centric life.
The most important aspect of cultivating humility along with the other five virtues that I mentioned above and in numerous previous letters is that it/they foster a willingness to put others first. By recognizing we all have been imbued with an inherent sense of equality and dignity by the simple fact that we have been born, coupled with the fact that all of life is extremely interdependent, we realize that we have a crucial part to play in the lives of others. We all have various strengths, capacities, and resources at our disposal, and I believe each of us has a moral imperative to help one another in whatever way we can. But this is difficult to do without humility. Humility is the glue that binds us to one another, whereas extremely egocentric pride only inures us to the plight of others because of the mistaken notion that one has done everything in life without the aid of other people. We must overcome this tendency toward the notion of self-reliance by critically examining this one aspect of our American ethos, and balancing its unintended detriment to others with a healthy dose of humility.
One of my favorite poses in yoga is balasana, often translated as “child’s pose,” which is a restorative pose that is used to promote relaxation of both the body and mind. I don’t use it during my regular practice very much, but every night before I go to bed a do several stretches for my back and legs, often culminating in balasana for a full minute. In literally making myself low, I often find myself thinking about humility in those moments. Whether these thoughts come to mind due to the direct connection to the ground, the physical posture of bowing/surrender, or a combination of both, all I know is that I feel most humble and grateful in that closing moment of each day. It’s as if I am bowing to all of life, and especially the other human beings in it who have been instrumental in helping me become who I am today. I also realize that I am a work in progress and must continue to cultivate humility in my own life so that I may be of greater service to others, including you, NIP.
Namaste (literally, “I bow to you”)!