What is humility?
Humility is often described as a virtue, and the Buddha considered it an important part of spiritual practice and daily life. It is however is a tricky thing to pin down. It’s often confused with self-deprecation, either the fine art of self-effacing modesty or the destructive process of running ourselves down. Here are a few ideas about the confusion we can experience: Can you recall feeling uncomfortable in the face of a meaningful compliment or is it straightforward to accept the gift in the moment? Or perhaps you have an inner commentary about not being experienced or skilled enough for a task that is within your capability or reasonable potential? What about a covert desire for affirmation for yourself whilst overtly praising others? Or presenting something one way when actually you feel about it another – an elaborate meal as taking not much effort, something expensive as a sale bargain, a beautiful photo of you as being all down to the photographer? Some of these ways of communicating with ourselves and at times with others can become so ingrained that we don’t see them as they are happening and so misinterpret the presence of humility when in fact there is a different back story in our subconscious running the experience.
How can we become more aware of how to have humility?
All this suggests that humility is something we can grow into but how might we do this? Changing our perspective about confidence is really helpful here. Sometimes there are things we do well whilst acting from the best place within ourselves and then there are other times where we could do better. Understanding this cultivates a particular sort of confidence: the confidence that it’s ok to be imperfect – one that acknowledges our capacity and ability but also recognizes that we are not complete and there’s more work to be done and that this is absolutely natural and fine. This is an awareness we can feel secure in, because we are seeing things clearly for what they are and then can grow in confidence to be in a dynamic place of learning.
The Buddha praised this clear-sightedness and how it reveals what is wholesome and what is less so because it gives us the energy to change. He taught a practice to see the inner workings of our mind without getting caught up in unhelpful patterns of thinking, beliefs and others opinions. As we practice meditation, it’s not long before we begin to see our motivations, beliefs, opinions, our attitudes and capacities. Such simple, direct and straightforward feedback about our strengths and weaknesses helps us identify the growth we need and gives us the capacity to learn effectively.
In this way, humility is a good friend, freeing us from the reflex to hide away from areas for growth whilst maintaining a balanced self-regard.