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Humility 1 – which self are we talking about?

By - May 7, 2012 - Category Articles - Print Print - Version française
Golden Matte Letter I

Humility used to be a cardinal virtue. It is, however, not so appealing to our minds anymore. It may be that we subconsciously associate it with humiliation, because both words are derived from the same root: humus (earth, ground). To be humble would then mean to belittle oneself, to stay on the ground, to submit: that is hardly a prospect one would consider desirable.

Why then should we contemplate this concept today? What use can it be to our practice of ethics? Well, it can transform the relationship we have with ourselves and with others in an extremely beneficial way.

Let us begin by a somewhat abrupt question: what am I?

Here are the first answers that come to my mind if I ask myself this question: I am so-and-so. Here is my body, more or less beautiful, more or less healthy, young or old. I have a certain position within society: I have such-and-such job, I am rich or poor, educated or illiterate, more or less intelligent. I am single or in a relationship, with or without children. I am born in such-and-such country during such-and-such times. My history, my disposition, my education, my culture, all these elements, combined in a unique way, make me who I am. These first answers refer to a specific mode of the self, which I would call the psychosocial self.

There is however another way to answer this question—a simpler but less immediate answer, which comes to me from a rich philosophical tradition: what am I? I am nothing, or hardly anything. I am nothing because I am mortal; because nothing I have actually comes from me; because most of the causes that determine my existence are beyond my reach and hang upon chance or Providence, depending on how I see things. Assuming I do not accept this idea, assuming I do feel that I “built myself” by the sweat of my brow, I still can’t deny that I have no real power upon what I possess or think I possess. I can’t deny that I could lose everything from one day to the other. I can’t do anything about what can’t be undone, I can’t stop myself from aging and things and people that are dearest to me can disappear in an instant, no matter what I do.

It is a massive fact and so patently obvious that we end up not seeing it anymore. What am I? Wise men and philosophers from all traditions agree in describing human beings as precarious beings, floating for a while in the midst of a reality they don’t really control, until they die. There is a whole body of literature on the topic. It is thus useful to further reflect, if only individually, as part of an internal meditation intended to better apprehend and assimilate this truth.

This mode of existence or dimension of the self that draws it closer to “nothing”, because it is part of the human condition whatever its position in the world, introduces us to what may be called the metaphysical self.

As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all. (Pascal)

In practice, we do not very often think about our metaphysical self, which appears to us not so much as a matter of “real life” as one of philosophy: “I’ll get back to it when I have time; I have too many things to care about for now” is what we tell ourselves. We may even tend to cultivate a slightly ironic distance towards all these grave philosophical reflections that try to refer human beings back to their nothingness. Upon second look though, this irony is clearly nothing but a denial strategy. I know very well that I am mortal and insignificant—I can’t deny it because it’s obvious. But this obvious fact, which appears to me as a negation of my self (death and insignificance), makes me anxious. Since I can’t negate it, I will do everything I can to deny it. I will live with this fact, but act as if it did not exist and I won’t let it have any impact on the way I live.

As a result of this repression we gladly live our daily life on “psychosocial self mode” and we neglect our metaphysical self. Yet this metaphysical dimension is truly part of us, just as much as our psychosocial dimension. It won’t go away just because we try not to think about it: I won’t become immortal just because I repress the idea of my death. This reality is part of me. If I deny it, I amputate myself from a part of me, I am incomplete, there is something missing.

Our premise here will be that this internal divide or divorce between my two selves has negative effects on me. This is, in fact, a basic principle of modern psychology. I may only live in happiness if I try to reconcile myself with myself, even if it has to be with a part of my being that does not seem to be favourable to me. Some truths are better left unsaid: perhaps, when they affect others. But never is it in my interest to close my eyes to a truth that affects me, however unpleasant that truth might appear at first.

So I am a mortal and insignificant being. I know it. Now all I have to do is internally and profoundly recognise this fact. The aim of this series of articles is to explore a few avenues that may enable us to make some room for this metaphysical self in our daily life and to reconcile ourselves with it. The ethical concept or tool that will enable us to implement this project is that of humility.

Do not hesitate to suggest avenues to explore in your comments. The idea is to reflect together on the following questions:

  • How can we integrate the awareness of the true place we hold in the world to our daily life? How can I live while keeping in mind that I am nothing?
  • Is there really some benefit to trying to see oneself in one’s true place (as “nothing”), and if so, what kind of benefit? Isn’t it dangerous to perceive oneself as “nothing”?

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  1. Elements May 07, 2012 1:39 pm 1

    Whilst we can understand our relative ‘nothingness’, everything considered I still seem to have a problem with this word, as I usually find myself and others suffer from a lack self esteem and confidence, and need motivation to believe that they have the power to be better. I would be hesitant to profess that I am ‘nothing’, in conversation at least, although understanding the principle does relieve anxiety and increases your confidence and reliance on the Source.

  2. Pam May 08, 2012 7:36 am 2

    @ Elements, I totally understand why it would not be wise to bring up your “nothingness” in a regular conversation, because I feel that it takes only certain philosophically-minded and deep people to be able to understand what you actually mean by this term. Many people in today’s society would think you are demeaning yourself, but this is perhaps because our society seems to become more and more self-centered (it almost promotes self-centeredness and egotism). You are considered “cool” if you think you are the ‘best thing since sliced bread.’

    But, as an internal matter (and not externally conversing about it with shallow people), it seems that considering myself as “nothing” actually helps me. I had an experience today in which I just took a big graduate school exam that I studied long and hard for. I knew the material and really think that I spared no efforts in studying it. But something happened during the exam that made me lose track of time, and I couldn’t finish it in time. I am sure that I will be at the bottom of my class on this curved exam. This made me upset for a few hours. But then I read this article and thought: Who do I think I am (that I HAVE to be the person to get top grades all the time)? I did so well in school in the past, but this program has really given me a run for my money, because everyone I am competing with is ten times more intelligent than those I have competed with in the past. I have truly becomes humbled by this experience.

    I still think that I am somewhat intelligent (so I am not demeaning myself), but now I understand that it actually helps me to think that I am nothing, in the sense that I don’t expect to always have to be on top of the material world (in terms of grades, job, status, etc). This “nothingness” has freed me in a sense. I can now focus on being an ethical person and making a contribution to society, instead of thinking I have to be the smartest person in it.

  3. A. May 08, 2012 8:19 am 3

    Thank-you for this article. To answer the question asked by the author « HOW CAN I LIVE WHILE KEEPING IN MIND THAT I AM NOTHING?» I would like to stress that the best way to become aware of the true place we hold in the world is to practice, practice and still practice ethics with a good intention. The more we practice, the more we fail and the more we realize we are no better than others. Otherwise, if we just fill our minds/brains with principles without practicing them we believe we are better than those who do not know those same principles because we think we know more than them, whereas out knowledge is only based on theory.

    To answer the question : «IS THERE REALLY SOME BENEFIT IN TRYING TO SEE ONESELF IN ONE’S TRUE PLACE (AS “NOTHING”), AND IF SO, WHAT KIND OF BENEFIT ? » I would like to say that it is a grace to become aware of one’s nothingness and that corresponds to very advanced stages in the spiritual path. For the rest of us, simple mortals, work should consist in fighting against our pride, our inborn feeling of superiority, in telling ourselves that we are no better than others, in trying not be haughty. This can be done by fighting against negative thoughts we harbour toward others, where we tend to criticize them, focus on their flaws … It is thus not so much a work around one’s « nothingness » but rather basic work around one’s superiority complex. This work is extremely useful because ultimately, when we no longer feel superior to others, our relationships (with others) become very natural and we become more human. Also we do not get easily vexed, we accept their criticisms, we correct our flaws .. etc..

    In my experience though, it is extremely difficult to become fully aware of the extent of one’s superiority complex (let alone of one’s nothingness!!) without help from the Source. For instance, I myself suffered from this superiority complex for at least 15 or so years, without realizing it, until something happened at work… I was demoted from an executive position to salesman level and since I could not find another job, I had to endure the humiliation. At the same time, some people I felt superior to, got promoted and I endend up reporting into them. This humiliation was actually very beneficial from a spiritual point of view since it allowed me to gain better self knowledge (since I became aware of my superiority flaw) and also served as a therapy (for my flaw).

    With hindsight, I have the impression that the basic work I described above (of fighting against one’s negative thoughts, ..) is preparatory and probably also attracts help from the Source. This help then comes in form of spiritually beneficial humiliations

  4. A. May 08, 2012 8:33 am 4

    Thank-you for your comment. You raise quite an interesting point/question. Is there a relationship between -self-confidence/lack of self confidence- and humility/pride ? I personally do not think there is one. I personally think they are different flaws/virtues altogether

    I have lacked self-confidence for many years and at the same time suffered from a superiority complex. Every time feedback from reality pointed to my shortcomings in the material world (for example failure to get promoted at work), I would always react saying I was spiritually superior to others (because I was so knowledgeable) but my self confidence to succeed in the material world, remained low. I do not know whether anyone could comment on this and the difference between -lack of self confidence/self confidence- and pride/humility (?)

  5. Ilana May 08, 2012 9:02 am 5

    I understand the necessity to integrate the notion of one’s insignificance and the importance of humility. My problem is that I easily slide into a perhaps other form of the ego, which is apathy. I am struggling to find the balance between the energetic and creative child-like ego centered on my own importance and feeling of being special, and the me that pretends to understand my insignificance and retreats into isolation and even neglect. I feel that I need to use the positive side of my pride to push forward but to somehow keep it in check. I don’t know how to do this. I just swing from one extreme to another, both having disastrous effects at times.
    Then I see people who practice meditation for example (I have one friend who does this) and who seems to stay in control and to not get upset or have an ego problem…but I can’t help feeling that his practice is also a form of pride, as he cultivates his satisfaction of being unflappable by the events of life and in harmony through his meditation and release/willful mindfulness. I have considered that maybe I am just envious of his self-control, but I have also considered the fact that he is in another form of pride and ego.
    This question of humility seems very mysterious to me and I really don’t know how to tackle it at my level. Just comparing my relative lack of material success is also not the right approach…I know. And when I do feel in harmony with my spiritual goals and in a sense humble within my love of God and the Source I am aware of a surge of pride welling in me again.

  6. Ilana May 09, 2012 1:30 am 6

    Thanks Pam. I think in a way your comments to Elements have also shed light on my problem. I have been getting some negative feedback at work and while I know that in the past the very same aspect of my work that now was a problem was my strength and was appreciated by other clients. So I have the perspective to know that I am not “bad” altogether. This target group did not fit what I had to offer. It made me very upset and judgmental toward them and then I also felt very insecure and on the defensive. I realize though that I am not perfect. Why should everyone be interested in my approach to things? Who am I to judge others? However, I often feel that I did not work hard enough, that my setbacks are just the result of my insufficient input. But sometimes everything works out miraculously…and other times things just don’t click. Maybe I need to accept that I am not a rocket scientist, but that I do contribute to the community and to those for whom I am responsible. Maybe I need to learn to trust that I am in God’s hands and I need to do my best, but that my best is maybe not the same as another person’s best. I’m not sure.

  7. tata May 09, 2012 5:46 am 7

    Feeling and admitting that I am insignificant doesn’t mean there is no purpose in bringing me to life. Quoting from the movie Hugo: “I’d imagine the world as one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts. They always come with exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part! I had to be here for a reason.” So to answer “how can i live with that” it actually makes my problems and pains seem smaller. If I am insignificant so is my problem! and that to me is the benefit. Is it dangerous? of course, but for a healthy mind it could lead to solving the mystery of: who is behind all this!

  8. Peter Windsor May 10, 2012 10:41 pm 8

    In answer to question 1, I think that altruism is important. The more we are genuinely happy for others – or genuinely sympathise with them – the less we place “me” or “I” in the foreground. I have yet even to scratch the surface of true altruism but I do find it easier, I think, to be altruistic rather than to think constantly that “I am nothing”. Re question 2, I think the benefit is in the logic it implies. If we are “nothing” on this earth then we must be “something” in the next life; and focusing on the next life – on the spiritual path of perfection – is what our existence is all about.

  9. mt May 12, 2012 4:54 pm 9

    While reflecting on these questions, I thought of my ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenarios. ‘Before’, is the period of my life in total ignorance about “what is the purpose of life?”; when I could not reach nor find a heartfelt and convincing answer. The period when I knew I had limitations (materially, socially) and hardly knew what spirituality meant; but also thought I was God’s gift to humanity. I expected smooth sailing in life (mentally and materially) and when faced with pressure/opposition from stronger personalities (boss, manager a friend a peer a relative) I could only grin and bear it while building up milder or stronger grudges inside. I was generally unhappy in a relatively comfortable material life. A state of suffering I could do nothing about because it had become an involuntary habitual way and invisible.

    ‘After’ is the period that followed my embracing a spiritual approach to life. During this period the confusion about the purpose of life and why we are here were the very first things which were resolved for me. It broke the preliminary chains which were keeping me down. As my outlook changed, I became happy (actually ecstatic at times), while my daily life continued its apparent normal course, containing life’s usual ups and downs. This positive internal transition or swing helped me see I was nothing and in control of pretty much nothing.

    In my experience, arriving at the point of truth of being nothing was accompanied by a liberating feeling. A clear demonstration of an available knowledge from the one with ability to help save the helpless in me from my inner most problems. It was a gracious delivery that came as an internal attitude adjustment. Meanwhile I have to be careful not to confuse being ‘nothing’ with a naive attempt to now project myself to others as an incompetent or useless individual, for I believe this would be one of the destructive tricks of my imperious self.

  10. MS May 14, 2012 5:13 pm 10

    Thank you for a very interesting and helpful article!
    In answer to the author’s second question about whether there really is some benefit to trying to see oneself in one’s true place (as “nothing”), and if so, what kind of benefit?
    I believe the benefit is huge, although I do find it very difficult to be truly humble. Seeing myself in my true place helps me to see many other things in their true places. It makes me see (at least a bit clearer) His role in my life and existence and helps me realize that without Him I am nothing, it brings me closer to the Truth. Pride, with its many ugly faces, sometimes even disguised as shyness or a lack of self-confidence, serves as a dark veil covering my eyes. This dark veil keeps me from seeing my weaknesses, but also from seeing my true value and potential (that are also coming from Him).

    “The instruments for the quest of truth are as simple as they are difficult. They may appear quite impossible to an arrogant person, and quite possible to an innocent child. The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth” (quote by Gandhi in his book “An Autobiography or The Story of my Experiments with Truth”, p. xiv).

  11. Ilana May 16, 2012 11:18 pm 11

    Sheikh Jâni says: “In front of God, the humbler one is and the more insignificant one considers oneself, the better. One should by all means not boast. What is there to boast of anyway? Our thought is like a septic tank. What could we boast about? When a human being knows himself, one can no longer stand oneself. One would prefer to hide under a dunghill. Everything good comes from Him, and it is He who sometimes gives us the opportunity to do good. When facing His power and His trials, we must feel deep within our heart our weakness and our insignificance.” – Translated from Leili Anvar (2007) Malek Jân Ne’Mati, p. 132

  12. Saga May 27, 2012 4:59 pm 12

    Since we see everything from our subjective perspective, where we see ourselves playing the leadrole in our own life and others as side-kicks, it is easy to forget that from an objective perspective we are so small. How great if we could try to step outside ourselves and see things from the outside. Ive noticed that by telling my problems to a friend, I put my problems a bit outside of myself and then I hear that they are much smaller than what they seemed inside of me. Imagine if we could put our problems far away and look at them. Wouldnt most things seem silly? What if we could imagine ourselves being in the interworld and that we are looking down at our problems on earth. Wouldnt we see things in a totally diffirent way? Wouldnt we come up with great solutions? How great if we wont let the causal pole pull us down and instead let the metacausal pole pull us up. Instead of seeing everything like children from a frogs perspective, we’d have a birds perspective. One step closer to the perspective of the One.

  13. Ilana Jun 02, 2012 8:58 pm 13

    I like your comparison to a “frog’s perspective”! Very funny yet very clear : )
    (No offense to frogs of course. )

  14. jk Jun 04, 2012 7:51 pm 14

    Related to both questions, I confess that I only get glimpses of humility every once in awhile when the inflated ego inside of me is thankfully put in its proper place! This is like a cycle that seems to repeat itself in one form or another. On the rare occasion when my life is running smoothly, I say to myself: “Look at how spiritual you are; look at how gracefully you handle everything; look at how much you understand in compare to only a few years ago; look at how wise you have become,” among other self-congratulatory comments, and then BOOM! The smallest thing that throws my life out of balance, I get to see how insignificant I really am, and how, if not for the grace of some higher power, I would not be able to tend to even the simplest tasks in my life. Somehow, perhaps as part of the tricks of the imperious self, my memory fades eventually, and I am back in the arms of my ego…

  15. mat Jul 05, 2012 10:25 pm 15

    Thinking of the first question by the author “How can we integrate the awareness of the true place we hold in the world to our daily life? How can I live while keeping in mind that I am nothing?” I would say by keeping our attention on the presence of the “Source”; only with His aid will one be able to integrate this awareness. Another fact is that perceiving oneself as “nothing” in every situation could be harmful to the soul. Humility should be tailored based on the situations, and we can develop it through trials and practice. Thanks for this article.

  16. 12 Aug 24, 2012 5:38 pm 16

    I applied for a management position at work. Somehow I was convinced that I would get the job. I went to talk to my current supervisor and find out, when I would get the good news. My supervisor told me I didn’t get the job, and he gave me the list of flaws that he saw in me. My first reaction was as usual defensive. Very quickly this article came to my mind. I stopped myself. I still was upset. But it wasn’t comparable to the way I used to get upset over promotion.
    This time, I kept telling my self, remember you are nothing. It hurts, but I know it is good for me spiritually. And now I am even happy that this happened to me, because I can see many of my weaknesses that I couldn’t see before.

    Thank you so much for this article. I feel I am a different person even from a few months ago, by just reading this article and reading everyones experiences.

  17. ad. Sep 14, 2012 11:58 pm 17

    I am wondering if a humble attitude results in greater affection.

  18. mr Sep 17, 2012 3:57 am 18

    There is a big difference between lack of confidence and humility /pride. You should be on top of your life and have control over it. Do your best, like you are going to live in the material world forever; meanwhile, after you have done everything, be comfortable with any result, positive or negative. The philosophy of “being nothing” appears well when you put an effort to achieve something good and get nothing. It should not upset you and throw you off.

  19. Bee Dec 26, 2012 10:39 pm 19

    In response to “A”. When I read the following part of your comment I felt fear:
    “With hindsight, I have the impression that the basic work I described above (of fighting against one’s negative thoughts, ..) is preparatory and probably also attracts help from the Source. This help then comes in form of spiritually beneficial humiliations.”
    I was ready to ask for Gods help but then I saw that he may respond by creating situations where I would feel spiritually beneficial humiliation. Even though the word humiliations is prefaced with “spiritually beneficial” it is still unpalatable for me. Thus I have realized another component to this struggle to obtain humility… we have to let go of our material baggage. Here I am so afraid of being hypothetically humiliated I am not sure I want to ask for God’s help in obtaining humility. At least the recognition of how far off the scale I am is humbling.

  20. 7 Jan 27, 2013 1:42 pm 20


    As far as I can remember, whenever I had any improvement to a higher level (material and spiritual situation) I FELT FEAR. I think we feel the fear and anxiety, because we are moving out from our comfort zone.

    IT IS OK, to feel fear, the point is just to be brave and be ready! And tell the fear: come, I like to challenge you. So what? I may fear for a short time, but it will pass anyway. Instead, think about the benefit of the lesson. Let’s wait for God’s different scenarios.

    Remember, we do not have much time left on earth, our time is limited. I think the most scary (real fear) thing is that we do not know HOW MUCH MORE TIME WE HAVE HERE. This thought motivates me to be brave in dealing with the fear that is actually so precious, because it comes in order to take me one step higher and get me closer to God.

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