Humility: A Supreme Virtue
“Humility is the solid foundation of all the virtues.”
“Spirituality automatically leads to humility.
When a flower develops into a fruit,
the petals drop off on its own.
When one becomes spiritual,
the ego vanishes gradually on its own.
A tree laden with fruits always bends low.
Humility is a sign of greatness.”
~ Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
“Holy humility confounds pride
and all the men of this world
and all things that are in the world.”
~ St. Francis of Assisi
“Humility grows as ego goes.”
~ Ron Rattner, Sutra Sayings
“Humility is next to godliness.
No one enters the highest heaven
believing s/he belongs there.”
~ Ron Rattner, Sutra Sayings
Introduction to “Humility: A Supreme Virtue”
The following Q and A essay defines “humility” and explains why it is perennially considered a great spiritual virtue inversely associated with “ego”. (Previous posted related articles include collections of quotations and Sutra Sayings.)
Humility: A Supreme Virtue
Q. What is “humility”?
A. Authentic humility is a core virtue and a sign of spiritual evolution.
It is a state of modesty, free from pretension, pride and arrogance;
a state that intuitively recognizes the Divine equality of all beings as blessed with the same Eternal Essence, and their Oneness with Nature; a state which opens us to learning by allowing us to acknowledge our limitations and fallibilities, and to experience with awe and wonder how little we know about the miraculous magnificence of this Creation.
Yet, humility is not a state of powerlessness or of low self esteem, but of powerful inner security, inner knowing, and inner-directedness.
Q. How does humility happen?
A. Humility grows as ego goes. As we ever more realize that we are part a vast universe and not separate from it, we gradually become less and less egoistic and self centered and more and more compassionate and humble. As Einstein says, this is a process of “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Q. Why is humility considered a virtue, especially in prominent people?
A. Prominent people are subject to great flattery, praise and adulation which can entice and inflate ego, the enemy of compassion and humility. Those who have resisted such ego temptations have been lauded as truly great beings. Eg. Gandhi was called “Mahatma” a Sanskrit word meaning “great soul”.
Throughout history, “humility” has been recognized and appreciated as a supreme virtue manifested by great beings from every tradition and culture, who chose to lead non-pretentious, simple lives dedicated to helping others, and who have thereby inspired countless others. Today, for example, H.H. the Dalai Lama who is revered by millions worldwide as a great sage and religious leader, often describes himself as a “simple monk”, and sometimes publicly responds to questions with “I don’t know.” *
[*According to Buddhism, ego and “enlightenment” cannot coexist. No “enlightened” Buddhist can acknowledge “enlightenment” because any such acknowledgment would necessarily imply an ego-identity, a personality, a being, a separated individuality. ~ Diamond Sutra, Chapter 9]
Enduring scriptures affirm importance of “humility”. For example, the Bhagavad Gita [13:8-12], perhaps the most important Hindu scripture, recognizes humility and lack of pride as virtues essential to Self Realization.
In the Tao Te Ching the great Taoist sage Lao Tzu states that
the Master’s “constant practice is humility.”; and that: “Humility means trusting the Tao, thus never needing to be defensive.”
Various bible passages attest to the humility of Jesus. Jesus once said of Himself,
“I am meek and humble of heart”
~ Matthew 11:29.
And in the Sermon on the Mount,
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
~ Matthew 5.5.
Jesus claimed no special powers but attributed all to God. eg.
“I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doth the works.”
~ John 14:10;
“..I can of mine own self do nothing…I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.”
~ John 5:30.
And Jesus counseled humility:
“Yea, all of you gird yourselves with humility, to serve one another: for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.”
~ 1 Peter 5.5.
Of Moses the bible says:
“Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.”
~ Numbers 12:3.
Modern humble heroes included Albert Einstein. He remained simple and self-effacing despite the world’s “genius” label and immense flattery, using his great prestige to advocate for social justice and controversial causes, like pacifism.
Einstein was a very humble man who regarded himself as just an ordinary person, with certain abilities in theoretical physics. [eg. see Synchronicity story: Analyzing Einstein’s Autograph]
For example, he disclaimed the ‘genius’ label, saying:
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
“It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
Einstein explained his humility, thus:
“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”
In eulogizing Mahatma Gandhi’s virtuous life, Einstein said:
“Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
The great Gandhi, whose example of non-violent relentless pursuit of Truth and selfless service to humanity continues to inspire countless others, remained a humble man despite his immensely important accomplishments. His humility was evidenced by these Gandhi statements:
“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” . . . .
“I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.”
Humility and Ego
Spiritually, the supreme virtue of “humility” is inversely associated with “ego”. Thus prominent humble people are often regarded as great beings, because they are not egotistic.
From childhood we are acculturated to identify only with a limited and disempowering self-image. We are taught to believe that we are born into Nature as limited and separate mortal beings; but not that Nature is our nature, or that essentially we are Beings of Light, sharing limitless immortal Cosmic consciousness with all life-forms.
Such restrictive self-image is what spiritual teachings call “ego” – as distinguished from Freud’s salutary psychological definition of “ego”.
Spiritually, “ego” refers to fundamentally mistaken human mental self-identity as personalities separate from eternal Infinite potentiality;
our restrictive self-identity which causes us endless karmic suffering from unskillful thoughts, words and deeds.
Thus the ancient Rig Veda called “ego”:
“the biggest enemy of humans.”
And Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa told us that:
“All troubles come to an end when the ego dies”
~ Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa
Since “ego” arises from mental activity – from thoughts and beliefs – it cannot continue without persistently mistaken thoughts about who or what we are. Through an evolutionary process of conscious psychological self-transformation, we can transcend mistaken egoic ideas of who we think we are, and gradually realize and remember that ultimately we truly are ONE with Universal Intelligence – with Eternal Spirit.
As gradually we transcend our illusory ego identities as merely separate mortals, and increasingly self identify as Eternal Spirit, we inevitably become ever more humble. Our Humility grows as ego goes. The smaller the ego, the greater the being.
Authentic humility is a supreme virtue which ever expands as we become less and less egoistic and self centered and more and more compassionate, thereby “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Dedication and Invocation
In these critical times of immense suffering and jeopardy, yet unprecedented opportunity, let us join together with utmost love and humility in envisioning our precious planet democratically ruled bottom-up by humble, peaceful and compassionate citizens, rather than top-down by selfishly plutocratic and egotistic purported “leaders”.
May these biblical passages prove prescient:
Pride goes before destruction,
a haughty spirit before a fall.
~ Proverbs 16:18
God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.
~ James 4:6
And so may it be.
“Our Humility grows as ego goes.”
Thanks for this pithy mnemonic, Ron. Happy new year!