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What is True Humility?

What is humility? The first point to understand is that humility is not self-abasement. To lower oneself is an indication, not of ego-transcendence, but of preoccupation with the little self.

One who bows to the ground and throws dust on his head concentrates on dust and on his own head. Implicit in this attitude is a distorted kind of self-involvement: ego-centeredness. Self-involvement is, in fact, simply the negative aspect of egotism, or arrogance.

True humility is self-forgetfulness, leading to self-transcendence. By self-forgetfulness, therefore, I don’t mean stumbling about, bumping into tables or other objects because one is insufficiently aware of his body!

Nor do I mean other symptoms of lessened perception, such as absent-mindedness or carelessness… All I mean is not to refer back to oneself anything that happens: for example, not to say such things as, “I did that. I didn’t get the attention I deserved. Why did this happen to me?”

Some devotees practice humility by self-effacement. This is a valid, though not a universally desirable, method. Not everyone who strives for self-transcendence can achieve this end by that route.

Others who aspire to the same goal may be naturally more expansive, and perhaps more creative. There is no need to equate an expansive outlook with egotism. For expansive people, self-effacement would entail, rather, a negative use of their energy. In focusing on self-denial, they might only expend energy uselessly in suppression of their natural ebullience.

People are uniquely themselves. What is right for one person might be wrong for another. A mistake often made in traditional monasteries is to try to fit all their members into the same mold. Humility defined in such ways as a downward gaze is negative. It might be spiritually helpful for some people, but others might find it merely suppressive.

There are many spiritual seekers for whom it would be useless to try to suppress their natural expansiveness and creativity. What they need, rather, is simply to release their energy in expansion.

As the Bhagavad Gita states, “Of what avail is suppression?” People who are expansive by nature find it more relaxing to let their energy expand than by attempting to bottle it up. Introvertive types, on the other hand, become tense at the very thought of extroversion.

In expansion, however, one must always hold the thought, “God is the Doer.” One will not gain spiritually if what he tries to expand is his ego.

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