On Humility

I often reflect on humility.  Of all the developments in my life, this is one I am most grateful for.  Yet, it is a virtue that remains ever elusive and unfolding.

The dictionary definition of humility is “a modest or low view of one’s own importance.”  This always gave me a sense that humility was somehow related to the estimation of my capabilities and that to be humble was to somehow downplay myself.

Occasionally, I encountered explanations where people alluded to some life changing aspect of humility.  Although I vaguely connected with this idea intellectually, I struggled to bring its meaning into my own life.

My first entry point into humility came a few years ago while I was on a ten day silent retreat.  Between meditations I reflected on a particular person that often triggered me, trying to understand the root cause of my frustration.  At one point I had an epiphany that has affected my life ever since.

I realized that I felt triggered because the person was assertive about something that I felt strongly about but ultimately experienced uncertainty around.  In truth, my actual orientation to the subject at hand was one of not knowing.  My reactivity was an avoidance of the discomfort of that position.  As I acknowledged that I didn’t know and embraced that not knowing, my attitude transformed from defensiveness into openness and curiosity.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment was my first genuine experience of humility.

For me, humility has come through recognizing the subtle ways in which arrogance permeates my life.  It is the arrogance of needing to be right, of projecting my worldview on to others, of all the judgements and predispositions that I carry with me all the time.  It is a filter between my self and the experience of life as it actually is.

Zen Buddhism has the concept called beginners mind – a state of experiencing each moment as if for the first time.  For me, humility has been the root of such aspiration and simultaneous acceptance of just how far I often feel from any such mastery.  Yet I consider this very recognition to be the seed of humility – what could be more arrogant than thinking that I can be free of judgement and bias as a human being?

The paradox of this experience is that while it has enabled me to create space between my judgements and the world around me, it has also enabled me to be more forgiving of myself as I am, with all of my judgements as they are.

I find the practice ever elusive.  As soon as I think – ah, I have found it! – immediately I observe some new facet of my life lacking in humility.  My experience has been subtle and paradoxical.  Humility is not something that I have attained.  Rather what I have attained is a lasting awareness of my own arrogance.  This has gradually opened my mind to the possibility of experiencing the world more directly.

How can I perceive the majesty of life when I am continuously projecting my beliefs on what I experience?  My desires, my fears, and my assumptions obscure the actuality of what is there.  They make it smaller.  They make it something that fits into my conception and comfort zone.

The significance of this nuance is that it is not me that is limited.  It is the filter through which I process my experience.  And, without that filter, who am “I”?  This puts an entirely different spin on the dictionary definition shared earlier.  It puts into question the importance of my worldview, not my self.  But it also opens an inquiry into the very nature of that self.

Interestingly, the word humility originates from the Latin word humus, meaning earth or ground.  The word is related to the word homo, meaning human.  Perhaps the virtue’s original significance implies humanness or humanity.

As I continue to unpack the many layers of this experience, I wonder how does one learn or teach humility?  Is it possible to precipitate an awareness of genuine humility within another?  

There is the mythology of master and student.  The master engages the student in endless mundane tasks while the student boils over in frustration, waiting to learn the “real” lessons.  Perhaps the real lesson is humility and the mundane exercises are there to break down resistance to something that can only be experienced directly.

I invite you to share your reflection on humility.  How have you experienced it and what does it mean to you?  Is there a pedagogy for this attribute?

4 Replies to “On Humility”

  1. Hi Lorenz,

    I love this clear, clarifying, thoughtful reflection on the nuanced dynamics of personal humility and arrogance – spiritually, psychologically, cognitively, relationally, and just as part of living everyday life. It blew me away, while articulating much that I’ve come to understand without having put it all in words. So thank you!!

    As you know I have been researching and developing a set of design principles for co-creating a wise democracy https://wd-pl.com. (Who knew such a thing was even possible?!!) There’s a whole worldview underneath/behind the wise democracy vision to which your essay on humility speaks volumes. The “prime directive” driving this idea of wise democracy is “to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole.” I see humility as fundamental to that undertaking, in so many ways.

    You address humility through the lens of the awareness and life of one person – yourself (with an understanding that your experience may be relevant to many other people). I have a different and complementary take on it. Through the lens of wise democracy and its prime directive, I see applications for your insights at the collective, societal level – in the dynamics of politics, governance, economics, worldview, cultural relations with the Other and with Nature, and so on.

    The level of collective, systemic, institutionalized and habitual arrogance – the amount of unwarranted blind-spot certainty – that infects our culture is a growing source of disaster and, potentially, extinction of our civilization and species. This dysfunction is profound and so deeply embedded that most people don’t even see it. It constitutes a tragic situation that calls for the kind of awakening you’ve had as an individual, but at a collective, cultural, systemic level. The current social and environmental crises are calling to us to pay attention to this potent self-destructive tendency and to break through to a new way of being in the world grounded not in humility, per se, but in the deep understanding from which humility arises, regarding the limits of our understanding and the dangers of arrogance, especially as our collective powers and dysfunctional social dynamics grow exponentially (thanks largely to technology, the application of potent but limited understandings in a deeply complex and interactive world).

    Each of the 96 design factors in my “wise democracy pattern language”
    https://www.wd-pl.com/pattern-list-v2/ is accompanied by resources and examples potentially useful for people who want to learn more about – or work on – that “pattern”. Usually a resource is listed with only one or two patterns. A few appear a half dozen or a dozen times. I find your essay so valuable for my efforts to catalyze action towards collective, participatory wisdom, that I’ve decided to offer it as a resource for 19 of the patterns, as follows.

    Big Empathy; Capacitance; Complex Identity; Constraints on Concentrated Power; Context Awareness; Creative Experimentation; Dancing Among Clarity, Inquiry, Mystery….; Equity; Expanding Situational Curiosity; Full Spectrum Information; Generating Shared Orientation; Generative Interactions; Holistic Leadership and Governance; Prudent Progress; Prudent Use of Power Over; Range of Tolerance; Tackling Cognitive Deficits; Wholesome Life Learning; and Wise Use of Uncertainty.

    It may take a few weeks before it is listed on all of these patterns’ pages (I’m juggling a lot right now, filling out version 2.0), but I have the link already logged for inclusion. If you think it belongs in any of the other patterns, let me know.

    As a final note, I’d like to share a philosophical joke I often share in person with interested people. I say: “I know the ultimate secret in the universe. It is applicable to every circumstance and is the most important thing to know in any given circumstance.” (pause… and then with conspiratorial tone I say:) “Would you like to know what it is?” (I again pause, for their inevitable smile and nod, and then announce:) “There’s more to it.” It almost always takes a moment to register, and I stand proudly (after all, I’ve just announced the ultimate truth in the universe! 🙂 ) while waiting for the enlightenment lightbulb to turn on. Sometimes I add, “There’s always more to whatever we think is going on. Whatever we think we see or know, there’s more to it than that.” I can see that they get at least a glimpse, sometimes more; I have no idea if more layers unfold after that (like the layers in your essay). There is, after all, more to it than whatever seems to be going on in that moment, endless stuff of which I’m totally unaware…. 🙂

    Coheartedly,
    Tom

    1. Tom – thank you for your thoughtful reflection. I think we very much share a similar outlook here. Much of my own work revolves in trying to understand how deeper reflection and humility can be extended to a collective level in practical and accessible ways. I feel that humanity has just barely scratched the surface of true collective potential. In this domain alone there is definitely “more to it”. I also love some of your language here, like “blind spot certainty”. It’s a much more nuanced way of speaking to the kind of arrogance I allude to in my piece.

      Thank you for including my essay as a reference in your pattern language resource. That means a lot to me.

  2. I really enjoyed this exploration of humility, and your process of discovering how it’s corollary, arrogance can interfere with our experience of what is real. We tend to see humility as desirable, but it may be so mainly because it helps to collapse the arrogance which is so damaging. In itself humility can lead to timidity and lack of assertiveness. But arrogance left unchallenged leads to the concept of the self made man, the creator unrecognised, and eventually to the current domination of the competitive materialistic scarcity mindset.

  3. lorenz,
    The day I read your writing on humility was a day I had experienced humility in a new way and a few things you write resonates with me.
    Yes, humility got in the way of my arrogance and I can say avoidance is futile. The actual word humility has been raised in front of me a few times in the past few months and of course once recognized on the radar screen I have had the opportunities to exam and experience the different ways it has been presented to me…. in remembrance of who I am…. lessons learned or experienced and each time I am in the becoming of being more humble and each time I notice more love. Love for myself and love more for others. Humility, a journey not a destination. Many blessings. Namaste -Wendy

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