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Humility posted 31 January 2018

Humility is a practice of letting go pride and not putting oneself above anyone else.  It is a concept that New Zealanders seem to value.  On the one hand we want New Zealanders to be high achievers but on the other we do not want them to be in any way arrogant about their achievements.  The unsmiling giants of the All Blacks of yesteryear who got the job done, left the dirty work behind them on the paddock and went “aw shucks” at praise were a model for how we, as a nation, wanted our heroes to behave.

When we see “hot-dogging” or over-the-top celebrations in American football or basketball we sneer with contempt at the insufferable boastfulness and bluster of it all.

I encountered arrogance when I was a lawyer.  I encountered it in others and in myself and I did not like it wherever I encountered it.  In the early 1990s a new set of rules governing the District Courts were introduced with an increase in that court’s jurisdiction from $50,000 to $200,000.  A meeting was held of Christchurch practitioners to discuss the impact of the changes and the meeting was chaired by a District Court judge with two other judges on the panel.  Early in the piece a Queen’s counsel stood up to speak and said in opening that he would first like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that there were three or four members of the separate bar at the meeting.  His point was that such important lawyers as he and the other barristers thought themselves to be were making a rare foray into the area of the District Court when they normally operated in the rarefied air of the High Court.  The presiding District Court judge looked at him with incuriosity and said “We’re overwhelmed”.  I loved it!  I heard and despised the arrogance of the barrister.  I heard and loved the contempt of the judge.  A quarter of a century later I can still picture the scene and sense the atmosphere.

The New Zealand legal system is known as an adversarial legal system.  It is competitive.  As a lawyer I was drawn in to the competitiveness of the practice.  I became accustomed to giving legal advice and became attracted to the idea that I was right.  I liked to win in court. With a win came swagger.

At one point I had two cases running in close proximity to one another with the same lawyer on the other side.  In one, his client had the better case and in the other my client did. In the case that I lost, the first of the two to make it to court, I hated what I perceived to be the smugness of my opponent.  In the latter case, where I won, I remember taking out on the other party my annoyance at what I perceived to be arrogance on the part of my opposing counsel.  In negotiations I was hard-nosed and unrelenting in part because I took personally the apparent attitude of the other lawyer with respect to the first case.

 What of yoga then?  Notwithstanding the curious phenomenon of yoga competitions, yoga ought to be without competition and humility as a state of being rather than arrogance ought to be the ideal.

In an earlier piece for this magazine entitled Purism or Perfectionism (June 2016) I wrote about my experience of being competitive in my early years as a yoga practitioner and the cost of that.  As I learn more about this practice and about myself I discover ever more that humility serves me and arrogance does not.

Humility requires one to take stock of one’s limitations and flaws.  I am a flawed human being.  My flaws help make me who I am and awareness of my flaws helps me put myself in perspective.  There are two references in the Yoga Sutras to which I tie this idea of perspective.  One is how to “perfect” yoga asana.  The other is the final of the five niyamas among the eight limbs of yoga practice.

The Sutras assert (II.47) that yoga asana is perfected when one ceases the restlessness of their body and meditates upon the infinite.  In meditating upon the infinite I find great perspective.  Against the vastness of all of time and space, all that has been and all that ever will be, my life and concerns, my achievements and my shortcomings are so tiny and insubstantial that I find it easier to let go pride than when I am so absorbed in my own dramas that I cannot see any bigger picture.  The contemplation of the infinite gives me access to contentment and to a sense of critical distance from my worldly concerns.

The fifth of the niyamas is Ishvara Pranidhana.  This is routinely translated as “surrender to God” or “surrender to a higher power”.  I do not believe there is any need to be religious or to adopt a particular deity as a point of devotion in order to appreciate this niyama.

My understanding of the idea of Ishvara Pranidhana is that there are forces at play in the universe that are far greater and more powerful than anyone can imagine and that by acknowledging the awe-inspiring power of those forces one is left in a state of simplicity and humility that is refreshing and a source of gratitude.

It is ridiculous, is it not, to be born into this world for a tiny period in the whole history of the universe and yet to laud over anyone else one’s attributes, conferred by the good fortune of your birth.  Being smarter, taller, faster, prettier, slimmer than someone else is no cause for arrogance or pride.  Indeed, the Yoga Sutras, in speaking of the accomplishments or siddhis that flow from yoga practice, warn that taking pride in these accomplishments is an impediment to the attainment of the yogi’s highest state of being and all satisfaction in one’s accomplishments must ultimately be abandoned.

I experience a greater sense of connection with others when I am able to acknowledge their accomplishments without resentment envy or competition.  It is good just to admire their ability.  I had that experience at our recent teacher training.  I have never floated from downward facing dog to the front of my mat and into handstand.  One of the students on our training did just that in one of the sessions we held.  In that moment, as I saw this feat unfolding, I had an experience of joy for the person concerned with no sense of lack in me at all.  It was liberating for me to be in that state of humility that, even though I was leading the training, I did not need to out-do someone who I was training.

Gandhi had a morning ritual in which he used to declare “I shall not fear any one on Earth.  I shall fear only that which is sacred”.  In so doing he was asserting that no person was above any other person; no one was above him nor was he above anyone else.  The only basis for him to bear any concern for his wellbeing lay in the powers of the universe beyond knowing and comprehension.

In addition to acknowledging greater forces at play in the universe, Ishvara Pranidhana calls for our actions to be a sacrifice – to god or to humanity.  It is humbling to be of service.  The Bible speaks of the practice of washing another’s feet.  The punishment of community work in our legal system requires those who have transgressed against society to contribute back to society through service.  Our tax system recognises charitable payments as being tax deductible as putting one’s earnings towards the well-being of others is considered laudable.

Being of service to others is something I value even if it is just in the form of providing a compassionate ear to the concerns of another.  By being of service I have an experience of being a better person without doing anything to out-do anyone else and without putting anyone else down.  It works at the level of spirit rather than ego.  It uplifts my humanity without me needing to feel better than anyone else.

The word “humility” derives from an ancient Latin root word “humus” which means earth or ground.  Humility, therefore, connotes the idea of being grounded.  No matter how high I reach in a pose or how I may lift my feet off the floor in a hand balance I always end up back on the earth.  Remembering that and being at peace with the fact that I am of the earth and will return to the earth is humbling and a cause for the abandonment of ego and pride.

In the event that you should be caught up in the game of pride and arrogance, consider for a moment the following:

  • How do you come across to others when you are in this state?  Like the barrister who so valued himself?
  • Against the perspective of all of time and space, past, present and future, how significant are you really?
  • You have much to gain by appreciating others and valuing their accomplishments without needing to be better than them.
  • You may massage your ego at the expense of your soul.  By humbling yourself through service you will gain a greater sense of self than by comparing yourself in wealth, accomplishments or whatever to others who are less fortunate.
  • You always return to earth, ultimately in the return of your mortal remains to the earth, so be well-grounded in humility.

The process is not complete.  My work is to remember and recall myself to a better way over and over again.  Each act of humility brings me closer to humanity.

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