I was just beginning to feel strong again, after my ordeals with the flu in April. Steadily, I built up my yoga practice and supported it with some regular time at the gym. I felt some pride in how my body was strengthening.
Then, out of the blue, yet another humbling event put me back at square one: the simple act of opening a door tore my big toenail clean off. As I hobbled about for a few weeks, helpless at the limitation this seemingly insignificant injury created, I had to surrender my ego and impatience and wait until my body healed enough to start my practice over once more. Yet another lesson in humility.
For the last year or so humility has been an ongoing theme in my life, primarily through my body – neck injuries, back injuries, illnesses, and my recently ripped-off toenail. It certainly put my yoga practice into a whole new realm: one of much less intensity and more being, more presence. Meditation has been stepped up quite a bit, for the injuries have forced me to slow down and stop, let go of my attachment to any particular poses, and certainly to let go of looking good.
From Humiliation to Humility
My spiritual path has been one opportunity after another to learn about this uncomfortable and unfamiliar quality. For many years, I didn’t think humility was very important and never gave it much thought at all. I associated it with humiliation, which indeed wasn’t positive (and which I had too much experience of in my early years). But by my late twenties, it became clear that I had to learn how to change from being humiliated to being humble, which was no small task.
What is humility, or humbleness, anyway? The dictionary offers these definitions: absence of pride or self-assertion; to lower oneself in pride; make modest or humble in mind. There are some less desirable definitions, too, but these are the ones I’m interested in.
Humility is about letting go of pride, which translates as letting go of the ego. The ego is that which gives us the sense of I-am-ness – the yogic concept of Asmita, one of the causes of affliction according to the Yoga Sutras. This is the idea that I am “me” and this is “mine.” Pride, however, takes the sense of “me” and “mine” a step further: to the sense of I –am – betterness.
Pride often is accompanied by comparison, a comparison that puts us above others. This comparison has ramifications. When we believe we have a skill or quality that is superior to someone else’s, it distances us. This attitude pulls us away from relationship, putting a wall between ourselves and others, a wall that says “this is mine, not yours, and mine is better.”
When we get pulled into pride, our humanness and interconnection with the world is repelled, like the opposite side of a magnet. We know what it’s like to be around someone full of pride – it’s quite annoying and unpleasant.
The flip side of the coin
As you can predict, another outcome of pride – of thinking ourselves as better than others – is the flip side of the coin. We can’t avoid occasionally feeling the short end of the stick when we get stuck in pride. Sooner or later, we’re going to worry that someone else has a better job, does a more beautiful yoga pose, makes more money, seems happier, is more attractive, etc.
You can be certain that if you’re feeling better than someone, you’re eventually going to feel less than another. Hence, my fluctuation for years between being prideful and feeling humiliated.
As a child, I often looked out my window at night. Seeing the vast expanse of stars, I felt wonder and humbleness. I was clearly in this big, huge universe that I knew very little about, and I was minute within the big scope of things.
In contrast to this feeling, I often would simultaneously feel something big within me wanting to come out. Something that would touch others, that was special. I would cry with this feeling, both from excitement about the possibility of what that was, and from the feeling of not being worthy of such a gift, being a small, insignificant thing.
What unfolded from that experience was a dichotomy of feeling “I am special/I am pathetic”, which didn’t serve me too well on finding my path. The “I am special” feeling helped me through some tough stuff, but was also the secret cover up of the fear that I’m really pathetic.
I went through times where I was overconfident and assumed I was right, and then I’d swing back to big insecurities, feeling like nothing I did mattered or was good enough. Ironically, I was humiliated because I lacked humility. There certainly had to be another way, and if I was destined to make a contribution to the world, it wasn’t going to come from either of those places inside me.
Some other way
I came to the conclusion that there must be some middle way. Or some other way entirely. If I was to overcome the feeling of “I am pathetic,” that I had to somehow convert this feeling of “I am special” from something exclusive and pompous to something more inclusive, receptive, and, well, humble.
So I sat and wondered, how am I supposed to practice humility and yet at the same time have confidence in what I do? Having come from the school of “humility is hitting oneself over the head”, I was confused. I had always believed, coming from the I-am-pathetic side of the equation, that if I wasn’t proud of myself, then I must be ashamed of myself. Humility was about the “we’re not worthy” idea – I will bow down to everyone else because I’m so very insignificant and worthless.
Back to the first side of the coin
It may not come as a surprise to you that this I’m-so-worthless attitude is just the other side of the same “pride” coin. There’s actually a bit of pride in the practice of “how low can you go”. Yes, I am so very humble that I am a much more humble and self-effacing person than you are. Or, no one is as pathetic as me.
The ego enjoys the feeling that it can have the corner on the market with something, even if it’s being the most pathetic. And the idea of being more humble or modest than someone else is, well, rather humorous (as well as a contradiction in itself!). I had to redefine humility and embrace it.
Can’t have one without the other
It became clear that true humility and confidence go together. We have to divorce the idea that confidence is about ego, and humility is about self-negation. Confidence is not about self-aggrandizement, thinking that you’re the best. It’s about trust and certainty in the process.
When I speak in public or teach a class, I don’t fill myself with the belief that I’m the best speaker or teacher there ever was. That feeds the ego and sets one up for disappointment: if anything isn’t up to that standard (and you can be sure something won’t be), you swing back to the “I’m so pathetic” frame of mind.
What I do attempt to cultivate in my mind is trust in the process. I am here for a reason, giving this class for a purpose, and I trust that it is working out for the good of all that are here, including myself. With that certainty in the value of that moment, I have confidence.
Trust in something greater
That trust involves placing myself in the hands of something greater. When I teach, or work with a client, I hand it over to the Divine. I allow what wants to be shared and expressed to flow through me. This is humility – recognizing that something bigger than us, that isn’t our small self, is coming through, and to step out of the way.
We can’t take credit for more than allowing the process to happen. Like an artist or an athlete, we prepare ourselves in body, mind, and spirit for running a race or embarking on a new painting. But the great performers then set their egos to the side and just let it flow. It is in those moments that something extraordinary happens – when we are truly humble.
Humility and confidence
The greatest spiritual teachers in our age are filled with the blending of these two qualities. When I’m in the presence of Amma, I am always struck by how fully present she is, how fully giving, loving, and confident she is in what she does. But she has no investment in any of it. She gives her hug completely to one person, and then is on to the next. She doesn’t stop to look at their reaction, as I might when my ego wants some validation. She is completely in the flow, and has no personal attachment to any of her actions.
The Dalai Lama also exemplifies the union of confidence and humility. His kindness and compassion to all shines through, while he also has clarity and power in his teachings. He surrenders himself fully to the will of the Divine.
The key to fulfillment
Every time I return to my yoga mat, I do my best to put aside what I think I should accomplish and check in with what wants to be expressed. I attune myself to my body’s needs, and follow their cues, rather than an agenda that may not be in the best interest of where my body is. When I’m able to practice in this way, it flows naturally. I feel joy and strength. I feel surrender and peace. When I’m in a humble place, I emerge from my mat fulfilled, yet not full of myself.
We must embrace humility to find our inner fulfillment, and to progress on the spiritual path. Only when humility and confidence in a greater Presence come together do we experience our strength, empowerment, and gifts. Trusting the process, we are naturally humbled by it, and confident that it continues to carry us towards our greatest good and highest transformation.
Copyright © 2009 by Constance L. Habash