by Leatrice Evanne Asher
We think of a humble person as someone who is modest and lacks self-importance. A person of false humility may seem just as unpretentious because they are exhibiting similar characteristics. The difference is that these characteristics are contrived to satisfy an imagined ideal of how one is supposed to be. This desire to be perceived in a particular way is a form of spiritual avarice and is usually accompanied by a great deal of judgment. A judgmental person scrutinizes the moral behavior of others, and themselves, because they hold preconceived notions about what is acceptable conduct in the world. When others do not measure up to those dearly-held notions, a negative opinion is formed.
False humility is as far from humility as one could get because it is an imposed condition of self-involvement where one is always looking to see how they, or others, are performing. They may adopt a posture that downplays their own abilities but the intent, whether or not in the fore of their consciousness, is to be regarded highly by others. This affectation is often based on assumptions about what is virtuous. In contrast, a truly humble person isn’t reaching for anything nor do they hold a tight line on what is acceptable behavior. They recognize their own and others’ talents . . . and weaknesses, but no posturing is needed because they are not enamored or repulsed by them.
Spiritual vanity is one of the more elusive forms of self-deception—elusive because when we adjudge something to be “good” or praiseworthy it is more difficult to see how our ambition to be associated with that “goodness” has entrapped us in a bias. Likewise, if we feel strong opposition to someone or some thing then we are probably judging that person or thing, which is a reactive response. But we may not recognize it as such. The way to determine whether or not you’re speaking from a place of judgment is to note if a reaction is present. Judgments are usually accompanied by anger, outrage, indignation, and/or self-righteousness.
Positive thinking, which has almost now become a cliché, may be yet another entrapment of false humility. We frequently hear someone counseling others to “think positive” or the phrase, “I always try to think positive.” If this is a case of trying to move forward in one’s thinking and balance out negativity, such an intention is commendable. A person whose response to life’s challenges is always a big smiley face may actually be conveying an image of inauthenticity. If we wish to take a more positive position why is it necessary to announce this to anyone? If only the positive is acceptable to us then that which is deemed other than positive becomes the enemy—which in turn is to be feared, denied, or obliterated. We don’t need to strain for either the positive or negative; we only need to be present in whatever is before us. A gamut of emotions resides in each of us. Striving to be positive under any circumstance only recognizes one part of us. Sometimes we’re righteous, kind, successful—sometimes not. Wouldn’t it be better to recognize what is actually occurring and be able to describe it to ourselves without misconstruing it? All parts of our being are worthy of our attention, and all are capable of producing growth and self-understanding. If our intention is to disallow some aspects of our character then the loss is ours. When those parts that we do not like are denied we are missing opportunities to know the reality of them; how they came into being to begin with and how, through the nature of our thinking, we are keeping them alive.
If we continue to look out from our biases, those convictions act as a barrier to the Light. The stronger, more dearly held those prejudices, the less likely there is a path for the Light to reach our understanding. This makes it imperative that we begin to examine our convictions and beliefs. Even what we have come to know as “truth” should not be a closed door to further examination. Of course, our “truths” should certainly not be a standard used to judge anyone else.
Humility is virtuous when it is based in the truth of an individual. This is something we can readily observe in another’s demeanor. False humility can also be recognized; for instance, when a persona is adopted in certain circumstances to prove that one is holy or spiritual, that he or she has less ego than anyone else— just a monk in shabby clothing making their way through the world. This posture is narcissistic if it is playing a role of one’s choosing that is far from the reality of who and what that person is. This creates a disconnect between what we see and hear and what someone wants us to see and hear. This must also have a basis in insecurity. People who are secure in themselves have no need for others to see them in a certain way. There is a German Proverb: “Too much humility is pride.”
What seems to be a commonly held assumption, albeit a false one, is that a humble person doesn’t need to have a presence in the world. Gandhi was certainly a large presence in the world, but also exuded humility. Attributed to him is the suggestion that truth without humility becomes an arrogant characterture of truth. Helen Keller is another example of someone who embodied humility while on a large stage of the world.
The problem with false humility is that those who present themselves as such often do not think they are engaged in deception. If they did, would they continue the charade? But like any human frailty, this cannot be changed until it has become part of our awareness. This means that we finally discern the meaning of the patterns and the type of thinking we engage in that have been elusive, and likely have created problems for us in life. For something to be understood we have to penetrate to the core of the experience. Knowledge is the end product of that understanding. That knowledge becomes part of our repository of information available to us to bring about real changes in our lives.
It may be difficult to give up our story, what we continually tell ourselves we are, continually edit. Without our story our space within may seem so vast and empty that it becomes too fearful to explore. But it is this very emptiness where Light can enter. When we give up our hold on the story that we repeatedly tell ourselves, we may then have the opportunity to actually become more than those stories. This is what meditation can provide—a quiet, reflective environment to witness the constant chatter that goes on within. If you don’t think you engage in this internal dialogue, try this experiment. In the middle of any moment of any day―stop . . . completely . . . then listen to what your internal conversation was just prior. Do this often enough and you will have your own reality test.
What we give our attention to comes into being through the nature and constancy of our thinking on a particular subject. If we don’t start examining our underlying motives, kept alive through our interior chatter, they will become reality, although probably not in the way we might envision. As previously stated, we cannot change until we have the awareness of what needs to be changed. This requires vigilance and brutal honesty.
Wholeness comes from the acceptance of all our many parts rather than trying to prematurely rid ourselves of those we consider unacceptable. Yet, however wide the discrepancy may be between what we are and what we think we are, we can be confident that we will all learn the truth of ourselves living in the Eternal. The Light of Consciousness has nothing to do with worldly position or prestige. It is a power available to us no matter what our circumstances because it comes from our own resource, not something conferred on us by others. It emanates from the strength and beauty of our being, what we have become through our own work, our own intention.
When we allow our lives to unfold, without constant commentary and judgment, we come to a greater acceptance of the full spectrum of our presence in the material world. Since we are no longer rejecting any part of ourselves, the inauthentic pretense will naturally fall away, because once it is observed and understood it will no longer be needed. Now our outlook will be neither positive nor negative but a clear recognition of what is. With this understanding we will have humanistic values characterized by kindness and compassion, which will allow us, and all those with whom we interact, to have human frailties. This is the epitome of humility.
Published The Word Magazine/Winter 2013