I never really understood what it meant when someone was told to eat humble pie. Although I knew it was an admonition to stop bragging, it wasn't until recently, while studying ancient spiritual teachers, that I gained a deeper understanding of the true lessons in humility.
The ego is two faced. One moment it tells us we are great at everything and the next moment it tell us we’re the worst. Either way we are blind to the reality of who we really are. True humility is seeing what lies between the extremes. Instead of allowing the ego’s all or nothing way of being, humility allows us to understand our weaknesses and want to improve, not to give up on our selves or get into self loathing or self criticism. Lord Brahma, the god of Creation apologized to Krishna, the Supreme god because in the course of building the world he was too impressed with himself. He confesses that he was like a firefly. At night when a firefly glows, it thinks how bright I am, how amazing, I’m lighting up the whole sky. But in the light of day no matter how brightly the firefly glows, its light is weak, if not invisible and it realizes its insignificance. Brahma thought he was lighting the world but when the sun comes out he was just a firefly.
In the darkness of the ego, we think we’re special and powerful and significant but when we look at ourselves in context of the great universe, we see how tiny a part we play.. Perhaps the reason why I never grappled with humility was that I had the most incredible role model in the world. My dad, an incredibly successful, brilliant and talented man, always led by example. He has always been authentically humble, never once seeing himself as better than anyone else. He's the guy who feels as connected to the doormen in his building as with the men and women with whom he served in JFK's administration. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “A great man is always willing to be little" and that was what was modeled to us. Not being arrogant was a given. But there's another lesson in humility that I didn't know I had also been taught. Focusing on our own insecurities, failures and self doubt is just as much a function of the ego as is bragging and self aggrandizing. Why? Because when we feel insecure, worried that we are not where we want to be in our careers or relationships, our self esteem plummets. This is also solely about us. As Thomas Moore in "Care for the Soul" says, “being undone by failure is akin to negative narcissism.” We need to appreciate failure with imagination and reconnect it to success or it falls into narcissistic fantasies of success and dismal feelings of failure. To be humble we need to be neither hindered by self doubt and criticism nor blinded by arrogance and and self-centeredness. I did not realize that my self doubt, negative self talk and fear of failure have made me less humble. True humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less. Rick Warren. Yet, as I think about it, it makes sense that those traits are another way of not living our most authentic selves and keep us from being available to serve others in the most humble way. As I think about my dad, I realize that although I have never once heard him brag, nor did I ever hear him put himself down. He never obsessed about what he didn't achieve or where he slipped up. He didn't seem troubled by his failings. His successes were no more or less important than his challenges. He was always steady, focused and humble. Radnath Swami talks about the qualities we need for self actualization and suggests that we need to be like salt, only noticed when there is too much or not enough.
When salt is used in the best way possible, it goes unrecognized. Salt is so humble that when something goes wrong, it takes the blame. When everything goes right, it doesn’t take the credit.
Sounds a lot like my dad.
I will continue learning. If you are inspired to become more humble, Mother Teresa offers some tips on ways to practice humility:
Mind one’s own business.
Accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
Pass over the mistakes of others.
Accept insults, being slighted, forgotten or disliked.
Be kind and gentle, even under provocation.
Choose always what is hardest.
We are all works in progress and growth is our only teacher. As Ernest Hemingway said "there is nothing noble about being superior to your fellow man, the true nobility is being superior to your former self." May you grow and become superior only to your former self.
With love and light,