“I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility.” Says John Ruskin.
“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds.” Adds Saint Augustine.
So what exactly is this priceless virtue called humility? And why do deeply virtuous souls seek it out and protect it, while less advanced souls view it, at best, as a bitter necessity – and at worst, as a foolish relic of our less enlightened past?
I believe the answer to the second question is due in large measure to humility’s association with certain very well-meaning but misguided practices of Christianity. While being one of the greatest sources of truth and inspiration regarding this beautiful virtue, sadly Christianity has also been the source of many a harmful myth about the nature of it. Many faithful Christians have made the mistake of attempting to reverse-engineer humility by imitating the outward practices of the saints. The saint, seeing the enormous disparity between the divine and the purely corporeal aspect of their humanity, will often be moved to utter cries of self-loathing. Despite this clear recognition of the disparity between the divine and the corporeal, the saint understands that he is loved by the divine.
Well-meaning Christians, knowing the value of imitating the saints, will often see it as an act of virtue to take pot shots at themselves and outwardly verbalise their shortcomings. Although usually well intentioned, these efforts are faulty because they lack the saint’s glorious vision of the divine and the knowledge of its love for them. Instead of being animated by these powerful insights, they are simply reciting hollow words of negativity, which will be ineffectual at best. At worst they can cause shame and self-loathing – and lacking the saint’s clear understanding of the divine love, there can be no great flowering of reciprocal love. This is the great fruit of true humility – an increase in love for the divine and for other souls; but such faulty attempts at humility can produce nothing but a festering self-hatred.
Furthermore, the ego – being the sneaky creature it is – often hides behind our best intentions, and sometimes these seemingly pious words of self-deprecation are simply the ego’s way of showing others how special it is. “Look at me – I’m humble. I must be spiritually advanced, or at least making a darn good effort. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m one of those nasty proud people – I’m keeping my ego in check, you see?” Thus what appears to be humility is sometimes actually its polar opposite – pride.
The true definition of humility is extremely simple. It is not specifically about saying or doing anything – it is an understanding. Whatever words or actions tend to accompany humility will flow naturally from this understanding, but the understanding cannot be acquired by mechanically repeating the words or actions. The understanding is, quite simply: you are not more important than anyone else.
For many spiritual people, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Often the first awakenings of spirituality – even our feeblest, most faulty first steps – tend to be accompanied by a corresponding temptation of the ego to view ourselves as more advanced or more important than the masses due to our comparatively advanced knowledge. Perhaps we envision ourselves somehow enlightening others by spreading our insights or healing the masses through our radiant positive energy. Such thoughts are, of course, the work of our old friend the ego – in this case, disguising itself as a disinterested healer of others. But perhaps our path in life will involve no such renown, and perhaps not even a visible impact on the world around us. Perhaps we are here to labour in obscurity, with no purpose other than to develop ourselves internally. After all, we are no more important than anyone else.
Paradoxically, the souls whose virtue has shaken the world to its foundations are the souls who deeply recognised this fact. Christ spent most of his life as a carpenter. Buddha renounced his position in the Indian royal family for a life of secluded contemplation. Laozi was basically a filing clerk, so tradition has it. None appeared to seek glory and influence, and yet all established spiritual legacies that have long outlived them.
The great spiritual masters therefore rightly prescribe humility as an essential remedy against this potentially fatal trap of the ego. Indeed, there is a certain point beyond which no further spiritual understanding can take place until the ego is subdued. One example of this is during the first stages of kundalini awakening. It is not uncommon for the accompanying insights and powers of kundalini awakening to evoke a powerful ego response, with feelings of superiority and an arrogant sense of all-knowingness – such that the kundalini actually stops in its path, and the whole process is halted until the ego is tamed.
Christianity has long taught that pride is the father of all sins. Indeed, “Pride goeth before destruction”, says Proverbs 16:18. The flip side of this is that once humility is acquired, all the other virtues become much easier to attain. When we truly appreciate that we are no more important than others, if we have any degree of love for ourselves then we cannot help but love them also – and “love covereth a multitude of sins”, says St. Peter in 1 Peter 4:8.
Rick Warren almost got it right in his famous quote: “humility is not thinking less of ourselves – it’s thinking of ourselves less.” But this is perhaps a better definition of charity and generosity than of humility. Truly, humility is not thinking less of ourselves – but it is thinking no more of ourselves than of others.