Making Space for Humility


I’m on my knees on the floor of a temple in Guayaquil, on the tropical coast of Ecuador. It’s well past midnight, and the other residents of the temple sleep fitfully in the heat. The temple windows lost their panes years ago and through them dust from the street and latenight salsa music from the building across the way float languidly in the humid air. The cotton cloth of my robes, drenched in sweat, clings to me. My throbbing skin is an angry reminder of the equatorial sun’s effect on fair skin, and hot water scalds my hands as I scrub the marble tiles.

What do you think of when you hear the word “humility”? The quality is lauded in spiritual traditions around the world and across time, but in contrast, “humiliation” and “being humbled” do not sound attractive—at least, not to me!

As a spiritual practitioner, I struggled for years to understand what humility is, and how to develop it, but I became frustrated. Every time I thought I was becoming humble, shortly afterwards I would become “the most humble”—proud of how humble I had become in relation to others—and everything would fall apart: “Why the hell is everyone else sleeping while I’m here washing this floor? Obviously they think they are too good for this! What kind of sadhakas (spiritual practitioners) are they?” Washing the temple floor after the late night festival became yet another experiment in the laboratory of spiritual practice, where what showed up under the microscope was my Midas-touch ability to transform literally anything into an ego trip.

Humility was elusive, and eventually I gave up—and that is when it found me. I was looking for what humility was, and the reason I couldn’t find it is because humility is not a thing—it is a space: a not-thing.

Humility shows up in the clearing created by the absence of the opinion “I am better than others.” If the opinion “I am better than others” is present, then humility has no space to show up. You can try as hard as you want to “become humble”—pour as many affirmations, practices, and “fake it till you make it” behaviours in there as you like—but as long as you are putting them on top of “I am better than others,” they will simply become more evidence for why you are superior to others: “Why can’t they be as humble as I am? What’s wrong with them?” When illness is present, even healthy food can be poisonous. Similarly, when the opinion “I am better than others” is present, even spiritual practices can produce evidence for this subversive idea. The more you do, the “better” you become. It’s like pouring petrol on a fire.

Furthermore, “I am not worthy” is in itself not humility. Great personalities, recognised for their humility, have expressed opinions such as these. An extreme example is Krishna das, a sixteenth century Bengali poet, who laments: “I am lower than the worm in stool.” Imitating this position can indicate either low self-esteem (which is not humility), or a form of sadism: the opinion “I am not worthy” on top of “I am better than others” equals: “I’m worthless—and you, you’re less than worthless!”

Imitating the outward expressions of humility has as much utility as imitating the sounds of a woman in labour. The imitation might sound the same, but the result it produces in life is radically different.

Instead of looking for what to put in—how to become humble—look for what to take out. When the opinion that “I am better than others” is absent, a space is created, and in the clearing of that space, a life with humility can show up.

And why develop humility? The Wikipedia article on humility says: “Humility is variously seen as the act or posture of lowering oneself in relation to others, or conversely, having a clear perspective and respect for one’s place in context.” True humility is not an act or merely a posture—it’s the removal of the opinion “I am better than others” that externally may appear as lowering oneself in relation to others. However, it’s the second meaning, having clear understanding of one’s place, that reveals how humility brings clarity and power to life: “Having a clear perspective and respect for one’s place in context.” The article goes on to say: “The concept of humility addresses intrinsic self-worth, relationships and socialization as well as perspective.”

C.S. Lewis famously said: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Having a clear perspective on intrinsic self-worth means getting yourself out of the way: you’re fine with yourself (intrinsic self-worth) and the transparency of that (clear perspective) creates a space that allows you to fulfil on what you are committed to in your relationships and in life.

We can create that space in our relationships and conversations by taking something out. You can look to see where a relationship is constrained, or disconnected, and see what you can take out. The first step in taking it out is simply to recognise that it is there. Self-righteousness and indignation are usually the camouflage for something that you can take out. Look underneath those to find a place where you are being right and making someone or something else wrong. The second step is to take responsibility for it.

Look for what it is that you can take responsibility for, and take it out by apologising unreservedly for it. “Unreservedly” means without subtly shifting the blame to circumstances, or saying “that’s just how I am.” It means taking responsibility for the impact on the other person and saying: “I am sorry. That’s not what I am committed to.”

The Srimad Bhagavatam, a primary Krishna text, describes a historical encounter between King Ambarisha and the great sage Durvasa. The sage Durvasa visits King Ambarisha while the King is observing a spiritual practice involving fasting. To complete his practice King Ambarisha needs to break his fast. However, Vedic custom dictates that he should not break his fast until his guest has been properly received and fed.

“What’s the big deal?” you might say. In Vedic culture honouring a guest is a big deal—even more so an unexpected guest. King Ambarisha is fully aware of this, and he is also aware of his commitment to break his fast right now. The King decides to break his fast by drinking a little water. In this way he thinks he can simultaneously honour both his guest Durvasa and his commitment to his spiritual practice.

In this account of King Ambarisha and the sage Durvasa, King Ambarisha faced the dilemma of a person who is up to big things in life—the choice between Great Option A and Great Option B (in King Ambarisha’s case it was Lost Opportunity A—breaking a fast—and Lost Opportunity B—honouring his guest). The readers of Enough! Magazine are up for a big life, and they are going to face significant life choices—more than “go out to the movies” versus “stay home and watch TV.” The stakes were high for Ambarisha, so he got coaching from someone else, to get an outside perspective. The solution his coach came up with honoured both of his commitments to the fast and to his guest. When we are faced with an intractable problem, the intractability of the problem indicates that we are operating inside an invisible constraint, one that we cannot see but that can be visible to a coach with an outside perspective.

Without making him wrong or making a personal aspersion on him, Durvasa may well have had the attitude “I am better than others” and so been motivated to thwart King Ambarisha’s fast (in order to stay ahead) and also to look for, find, and be offended by King Ambarisha’s taking of water. When we have the opinion that “I am better than others,” we can’t stand to see someone else win or be congratulated, because it threatens us.

Failing to thwart the fast, and having found an excuse, Durvasa created and put something into the space of the relationship in the form of a fiery demon. When we are thwarted, we often speak into the conversational space of the relationship in a way that unleashes a fiery demon. As children we’re taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” As adults, as soon as we have our heart broken, we realise this is more wishful thinking than fact. Words do hurt people.

King Ambarisha was protected by the Sudarshan chakra (disc-like weapon) of Vishnu, which proceeded to chase Durvasa. Durvasa attempted to take shelter of many personalities, all the way to the Supreme Person himself, and none could help him. Whether our “righteousness” about being right and making someone else wrong is self-righteousness, based in morality, ethics, or even religiously justified (“I’m not making you wrong—God says you are wrong!”) whatever its basis, a relationship cannot be restored without being in the relationship and owning up to the other person. Durvasa was only able to remove the Sudarshan chakra by approaching and apologising to King Ambarisha in person.

In the space that was created by the withdrawal of the weapons, their relationship was restored, and even elevated to a new level. Whatever had Durvasa look for an excuse to unleash a fiery demon on King Ambarisha was now gone.

Knowing all this makes no difference. Without putting it into practice it just becomes more evidence that you are more knowledgeable, more spiritual—in fact better than others. This is just a map, not the actual terrain. To make a real difference it has to be discovered out there, in your life. To put this into practice, in the next 24 hours, look to see where a relationship or conversation is constrained, or disconnected, and see what you can take out. What are you being right or righteous about? What are you making the other person wrong for? Look for what it is that you can take responsibility for, and take it out by apologising unreservedly for it. See what you discover from this, what opens up in the conversation or relationship, and be looking for what it makes available. This is an access to authentically discovering and creating the space where humility can show up.

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