When I think of humility, the first thing that comes to mind is receptivity, the ability to learn…
When someone approaches a teacher, there is more or less of this quality, of attentiveness and respectful listening, placing oneself under their guidance and care.
The proud person, by contrast, may think they already know something. They have less receptivity, and less learning happens as a result.
I think of how in Eastern Traditions, teachers are deeply respected, and how out of reverence, they are visualized on the crown of one’s head. This allows for a flow of grace and blessings, and communication that is deeper than book learning.
With arrogance, one is easily offended, boasting directly or less directly, and putting others down, so as to proclaim one’s own superiority.
It’s not easy to be around an arrogant person. In contrast, no matter how accomplished they are, a humble person puts one at ease.
I remember having a couple of lessons with the great guitarist, George Sakellariou. I was a little intimidated, but he was so warm and encouraging, and this helped me feel comfortable. This was on account of his humility and self worth. A humble and dignified person has no need to be thought of as higher than another.
If only more teachers had this quality, oh what a different world this would be!
I think of humility as a part of patience, and perseverance as well. For example, when I have more of this quality, there is an acceptance of myself, wherever I am in life or in a spiritual practice.
I won’t resist starting meditation, or continuing, even if my mind is not as clear or settled as I would like. With humility, I am able to meet myself wherever I am with patience, and gentleness, and go from there.
Humility moves on a spectrum. A person with less of this quality would not even begin a task, if they think they would not easily succeed.
Humility is necessary for learning. I recall how Thich Nhat Hanh taught non-attachment to views, saying:
Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth… be ready to learn your whole life…
He also said that if a person feels like they are at the top of a ladder, they won’t take the next step.
There is always more to learn. There is always someone who knows more than I do. This is essential for me to keep in mind.
Humility is also a protection against falling back, once we’ve made some progress.
Saint Augustine said:
If there be holiness in you, fear lest you may lose it. How? Through pride.
and John Climacus taught:
Rebuff the vanity that follows obedience.
It’s with good reason that the Tao Te Ching says
Conduct your victory like a funeral.
We may think we’ve accomplished something, or have overcome some negative emotion, only to have it return, on account of our carelessness, orlack of thoroughness.
Humility brings safety.
There’s a story about Ajahn Buddhadasa that I like, and try to keep in mind. In Buddhism, it is against tradition to speak of one’s accomplishments, and once an interviewer asked Ajahn if he suffered. This may have been a sly way of asking if he had attained the goal of Arhatship. Ajahn Buddhadasa knew what he was up to, and with a twinkle in his eye, said, ‘No, but you can never be too sure’ – i.e., keep practicing.
Humility was there, and it secured his attainment.
It’s much easier to see pride in others than to see it in oneself!, but once we turn around and start to examine our own attitude about ourself, we’ll almost certainly find that with some we hold ourselves as higher, or better than them. Check out how often we go against the Zen precept, of ‘Praising oneself and belittling others’…
Humility quiets the mind and emotions, and it brings clarity. It is grounding.
Some things take time, and with more humility, instead of assuming we should be able to go this far in this amount of time, we have more of a more realistic attitude, with an interest that says, let’s see how long this will take…
Then, if something is worthwhile, we’ll give ourselves to it comfortably.
When I think of my teachers, their humility is one of the qualities that always stands out. I’m thinking first of Thich Nhat Hanh. He was so soft spoken, lucid, gentle and patient with everyone – all of which I feel came from his sense of self worth, dignity, and humility.
It was some time before I realized how many languages he knew. He didn’t come out and say it, but I remember he was speaking English, with a French – Vietnamese accent, comparing Chinese and Pali texts. I got a sense of his great learning, that was supported by this wonderful quality.
Matthieu Ricard is another teacher who has this beautiful quality, as did Khenpo Palden Sherab Rinpoche. When I had the chance to meet him in 1996, I had no idea at the time of the great depth and breadth of his knowledge, only that he was warm, present, and generous. Later I came to know something of his profound learning and experience.
What to make of this? What is the difference between a scholar like him who is both deeply learned, and still humble, and one who has a lot of knowledge, but is proud of it?
I know it is harder to learn from a proud person. There is something offensive about them from the get go, but the modest teacher is easy to be around and listen to. They are not aggressive; they are undemanding, and the respect that naturally comes to them is entirely due to these fine qualities.
Interestingly enough, the word humility is related to earth, and to lowliness; and even humiliation, painful though it may be, can have this one good quality – if it brings us back down to earth when we’ve overestimated ourselves.
Often we think too much of ourselves.
Being able to be humbled means a person has some self worth, or dignity as a basis. This is in contrast to a person who can’t stand to be second to anyone. Such a person needs to heal that wound, and have their genuine self worth shored up and supported. Only then can they accept a lower place, and gradual growth, in its own time.
What more can I wish for myself and others?
With humility, there is space within, quietness, attentiveness, clarity, and gratitude; gentleness, and joy.
The humble person learns from this whole world, from children, animals, the educated and the less book-learned. We can see the precious qualities others have, and be inspired by them. We can afford to be generous, caring, supportive and encouraging.