Right off the bat, I’ll admit that I don’t know much about humility.
It’s not a virtue I’ve ever cultivated. In fact, I only started thinking about it on Monday, while I was reading a piece called Yoga, Our Mirror, by Montreal Iyengar teacher Carla Ramirez. (It’s in French online. I was lucky enough to be reading a good English translation.)
The gist is that the three qualities we need for our practice are willpower, intelligence and humility.
The first two I get. But humility?
Personally, I’ve never felt the need to cultivate humility in my practice, because humility thrives there all by itself. Every time I fail to kick up into arm balance, wobble in a standing pose, or lose my core and flop in Chaturanga, my practice humbles me, no further effort required.
But on Monday, I thought: “What does humility mean, anyway?” and Googled the Online Etymology Dictionary.
Imagine my surprise to read that humble, and hence humility, comes from the Latin humus, earth.
Every gardener will share my thrill. Humus is not dirt, gravel or rocks. Humus is the life-filled, life-giving layer of soil that supports us all.
Then I realized that all along I’d had a mistaken idea of what humility might be.
This is not entirely my fault. Humility has a bad name.
We take it as false humility, exemplified by the unctuous Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield.
Or we confuse it with self-hatred. The branching tree of horrors provided by Roget’s Thesaurus includes: abasement, self-abasement; submission, sense of shame, sense of disgrace; humiliation, mortification.
But by the root definition, on the earth, or of the earth, we are all humble, all rising from, sustained by, and returning to the earth. We are so “of the earth” that we would not live without micro-organisms in the soil that come into our bodies through the plants and plant-fed animals we eat. They constantly cycle through our bodies, in this giant life transfer in which we’re engaged.
The question isn’t “are you humble?” You are.
The question is: “do you recognize it and see the implications?”
I think now that humility means recognizing our earth roots, and the earth roots of everyone else, knowing that we are not, in essence, greater than, lesser than, or even separate from, the rest of life.
So as part of my continuing yogic assignment of self-study, I plan to spend some time thinking about it.
For example, is what I’ve called “humility” in my practice really just the hyper-critical voice of self-abasement? What would real humility look like?
One answer, from French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil: “Humility is attentive patience.”
Maybe I’ll work with that for a while.
What do you think? Is humility a virtue you strive for? And do you have a good definition, or a favorite quotation? Please share.
Photo credit: Brett Jordan, via Flickr.
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