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Lord, it’s hard to be humble

Perhaps not exactly what's meant by humility.

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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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eve Grzybowski February 7, 2012, 2:38 am

    I’m stopping right now and feeling into the quality of humility in this very moment. It’s a feeling of emptiness, not-knowing and innocence. Someone said “attention”, yes, uncluttered presence, that’s it.

    • Eve February 9, 2012, 12:06 pm

      Thank you for that. “Uncluttered presence” is a lovely definition.

  • YogaSpy February 3, 2012, 5:46 pm

    I’m soon to post on “intelligence” so I read your post with great interest, Eve. Another facet of yoga to contemplate…

    In Japanese culture, humility is definitely considered a virtue. People go out of their way to play down their victories; to show off is considered crass.

    But, while most people (of all cultures) try to be humble, I wonder who is TRULY humble. It’s one thing to act humble, and it’s another truly to be free of pride (and the distinction between success and failure).

    As a writer (and word fiend), I appreciate your explication of the word “humility.” That is classic Eve–and one of the reasons I loved your book Eating My Words. I’ve got to meet this fellow writer-yogi, I thought to myself;-)

    • Eve February 3, 2012, 7:03 pm

      Hey Yoga Spy,
      I’ll be reading that post on intelligence – looking forward to it. Funny, isn’t it, how you look at a word you know of the meaning of, sort of, and then how it changes as you engage with it. Perhaps that wouldn’t happen if the word were “button,” or “vase,” but I’m guessing it probably would. Worlds upon worlds, and even more so when it’s a human quality.
      The tricky thing about humility, of course, is that as soon as you think you have it, you don’t.

  • Traci February 3, 2012, 3:13 pm

    I love the etymology. And that is such a delicious one. Humility is basically like composting… ;)

    • Eve February 3, 2012, 7:05 pm

      Hey Traci,
      Lovely to hear from you.
      I was so delighted when I found that wonderful connection between humility and humus.
      Such a calming thought, somehow, to be of the earth.

  • Sarah February 3, 2012, 6:52 am

    I just wanted to thank you for writing your blogs each week. Your advice and tips have definitely helped me in my own practise. Much appreciated.

    • Eve February 3, 2012, 10:38 am

      Thanks Sarah!

  • Ann Toelle February 2, 2012, 8:01 pm

    Great article Eve, thanks so much. I especially like the definition from Simone Weil…..humility is attentive patience.

    • Eve February 2, 2012, 11:06 pm

      Hey Ann,
      Lovely to hear from you. Yes, there’s something so true about that quote. Something to do with being able to be still and wait, and pay attention, all at the same time.