Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 18: The Reverential Life > Chapter 3: Humility


The need

We complain that there is no response to our prayer for uplift or light. But that is because there is no propriety in our approach. The intellectually gifted comes with his arrogance and the artistically gifted with his vanity, while each man comes with his pride. The correct approach was described by Jesus: "Become as a little child"; for then we become humble, feel dependent, and begin to lay the ego aside. With that the door to the Overself opens and its grace begins to shine through.

The need of self-humbling before the Overself (which is not the same as self-humbling before other men) is greatest of all with the aspirant of an intellectual type. The veil of egotism must be lifted, and with his own hand pride must be humbled to the dust. So long as he believes he is wise and meritorious for entertaining spiritual aspiration, so long will the higher self withhold the final means for realizing that aspiration. As soon as he believes he is foolish and sinful the higher self will begin by its Grace to help him overcome these faults. Then, when his humility extends until it becomes a realization of utter helplessness, the moment has come to couple it with intense prayer and ardent yearning for Divine Grace. And this humility towards the higher self must become as abiding an attitude as firmness towards the lower one. It must persist partly because he must continually realize that he needs and will forever need its Grace, and partly because he must continuously acknowledge his ignorance, folly, and sinfulness. Thus the ego becomes convinced of its own unwisdom, and when it bends penitently before the feet of the Overself it begins to manifest the wisdom which hitherto it lacked. Instead of wasting its time criticizing others, it capitalizes its time in criticizing itself. In old-fashioned theological language, he must consider himself an unworthy sinner and then only does he become able to receive Grace. He should measure his spiritual stature not by the lower standards of the conventional multitude, but by the loftier standards of the Ideal. The one may make him feel smug, but the other will make him feel small.

Concentration is often a passport to spiritual attainment, but it needs the visa of Humility to make it an impeccable document.

We must be humble enough to recognize how imperfect we are, but instructed enough to recognize that the ego-covered part of us is shiningly divine. Thus both humility and dignity must be brought together in our make-up and reconciled and balanced.

Undue humility can be a fault, although not so repugnant a fault as undue arrogance. The first trait underestimates itself and thus refrains from what it clearly ought to attempt. The second overestimates itself and tries to do what it lacks the fitness for. Moreover, the first is too apt to depend on others until it becomes incapable of leading an independent life, while the second is too slow to seek expert advice which might save it from falling into failure or error.

What the ego's pride cannot do, the Overself's humility may. It is always worth trying this better way, even if it be a self-mortifying way.

Rare is the person who can witness his ego crushed to the ground and yet never forget his divine parentage, so that his mental equilibrium is not broken--who can be lifted up to the glorious heights of the Overself and yet remain humbly human.

Let us have enough courage to face life yet let us not forget the need of enough humility to face our creator.

"Thou standest not by thine own strength--from the invisible art thou sustained each moment."--Bustan of Sadi

If the need to communicate either in prayer or in meditation with that higher power is not felt by a man, his intellect may be too powerful or his pride too strong.

The last lesson to learn is an ancient one: be willing to be humble. For it was refined in pitiless fire and shaped by a holy communion.

There is no entry here for the proud, the conceited, the self-pedestalled. They must first be humbled, shorn, and shamed. They must drop to the ground on their knees, must become weeping beggars and wounded mendicants.

If he presents a firm assured face to the world, to protect his place in it, he presents a far humbler one to the Overself.

The proud heart of man must be humbled before the Overself will reveal itself to him.

There are certain times and certain experiences which a man must approach humbly and uncritically if he is to benefit by them.

Somewhere along this Quest humility and modesty become necessary acquisitions.

What is all our knowledge but trivial scratches in the sand?

When we come to know more fully and more really what we are, we have to bow, humbled, in heartfelt adoration of the Mind of the World.

Humility is needed, yes, but it should not be misplaced. It is not in self-effacement before other men nor in abasing oneself before them that we advance spiritually, as so many ignorantly think, but in self-effacement and self-abasement before the Divine.

The humility needed must be immensely deeper than what ordinarily passes for it. He must begin with the axiom that the ego is ceaselessly deceiving him, misleading him, ruling him. He must be prepared to find its sway just as powerful amid his spiritual interests as his worldly ones. He must realize that he has been going from illusion to illusion even when he seemed to progress.

The Long Path seeks humility in order to abase and thin down the ego. But although pride is full of ego, even humility implies you are still thinking about it.

Let him not mistake mere timidity for true humility.

Do not confuse true humility with the false modesty which deprecates its own status.

Yet this repentance, this remorseful conviction of our personal unworthiness, ought not to paralyse our hopes for the future by stamping us with an inferiority complex.

It is so difficult to make a success of success. When the head is turned by it or swelled with it, danger appears and failure may follow.

He should not imagine that he is being humble when he is merely being servile.

There is a difference between the morbid and exaggerated self-abasement often found in ascetic circles and this true humbleness.

He will bow to nothing that is visible.

There are a number of people who call themselves "advanced" but the truth is that they have merely advanced into a cul-de-sac, whence they will one day have to return.

Let us be humble where it is right to be so but let us not forget that when humility becomes personal cowardice and disloyalty to truth, then its virtue is transformed into vice.

If he is over-sensitive to other persons to the point of always yielding to their wishes, always saying only what will please them, and that without emotional conflict or mental indecision, then his self-damaging condition is a false and futile egolessness.

No man need take himself so seriously that he thinks the world's happiness or understanding depends on him. The world found these things before he was born and can find them again.

If the spiritual preferment which grace seems to indicate inflates his vanity, then one day it will desert him.

It is an ironic truth that on every level of development, from the most primitive to the most cultivated, from the most materialistic to the most spiritual, every man says, "I know!" He says this either quite openly in discussion or quite unconsciously in attitude. Real humility is a rare quality. This amazing arrogance is generally self-justified by supporting experiences or vindicating feelings of the individual himself.

It is good to enrich intelligence but not at the cost of increasing spiritual pride. It is well to enjoy the glad uplifts of mystical presence but the afterglow ought to make him humbler still.

With the personal arrogance that credits all its powers to itself, he will surely lose them. With the personal humility that refers them to their true source, he will not.

"Convict our pride of its offense in all things, even penitence."--W.H. Auden

Too often the quester, after a certain number of years, wants to be admired for his magnificent spirituality. But too often, in another mood, he enters the confessional to be humiliated for his great egoism.

Spiritual pride has rightly been listed by the Christian saints as a source of deception, and as the last of the traps into which the would-be saint can fall. A man may be quite holy and well self-controlled, but if he notices these two attainments with self-complacency, or rather self-congratulation, he at once strengthens the ego--although he transfers his excellence from worldly to spiritual matters.

The simple recognition of one's own stature need not become a matter for pride or conceit.

It is a false humility and moral cowardice that lead a man to pretend he does not know how tall he is.

There are mystics who have developed a considerable depth of meditation. They come back from their session of practice feeling the peace they have touched, but at the same time they come back smugly satisfied with the experience and especially with the attainment it seems to point towards. This is not enough. Even if they go apparently to the apex of the stillness, the ego has travelled with them. They may be aware of where they have been, but they were aware that they were aware. Thus there was duality in what they thought was unity. Do not praise the ego for having found God. It was Grace which brought about the discovery. It was not the ego. It is true that the beginner needs humility but it is even more true that the advanced man needs even more humility.

The practice

Humility, sensitivity, and emotional refinement are essential qualities which must be developed. Even more necessary is the daily practice of humble worship, devotion, and prayer.

The cultivation of reverential, prayerful, humble worship is needed to attract Grace. The putting aside of pride, self-conceit, and complacency is indispensable in order to assume the correct attitude during such worship. At such a time the saying of Jesus "Except ye be as a little child . . ." is directly applicable. The shy reticence of the Overself cannot be overcome without utter humility on the practitioner's part. Of course, this is the attitude to be adopted during devotions, not during worldly activity.

Man naturally shrinks from acknowledging frankly his defects and mistakes, his weaknesses and vanities. Yet such acknowledgment is the beginning of his salvation.

What are the attributes of a little child? A child has a flexible mind. It has not become mentally set or prejudiced by a collection of conceptions about life. It is fresh. Its head is not stuffed with a lot of so-called education. It is ready to learn--in fact, it is learning all the time. And the child has also a simplicity of spirit. It does not become complicated, tied up with all sorts of conjectures imposed by societies or families or newspapers. It has not become prejudiced by caste or environment. Moreover the child has not yet developed the strong sense of personality which adults have. Above all, the child is humble, it is teachable, it is willing to learn. This is what we need too. Humility is the first step on this path. We should realize how little we really know when confronted by the great mysteries of life. And even what we believe we do know, we cannot be too sure of in an age when the doctrine of relativity has undermined our bases. We must understand that what seems true today may seem false tomorrow. Many of the most widespread truths of last century have now been thrown overboard. Don't hold any doctrine too tightly.

Some seekers seize the goddess Truth by the throat and would fain strangle her in their efforts to embrace; I would suggest to them that to yield the hand to her like a child and to be led may compass their designs more quickly and surely.

To be humble is to be willing to admit the galling fact that one's own shortcomings of character or intelligence (and not other people's) were mostly responsible for most of one's troubles.

The higher he climbs, the humbler he becomes. Only he will not make an exhibition of his humility to the world, for it is not needed there and might even harm him and others. He will be humble deep down in his heart where it is needed, in that sacred place where he faces the Overself.

The practice of humility, especially in the form of obedience in monastic systems, is intended to subjugate the personal will and lessen self-love.

He has to kneel before his higher self and confess how weak, how ignorant, and how foolish a being he is. And then he has to pray for grace, to ask like a beggar for a little strength light and peace. Such daily recurring prayer is only a beginning of what he has to do but it is a necessary part of that beginning.

These great truths require great humility in a man to receive them. The bigoted and the prejudiced lack it.

He must be humble enough to admit errors in thought and conduct, never hesitating to retrace his steps when on the wrong road.

Let him not cover his weaknesses nor pretend to be what he is not.

Only so far as he is willing to confess his failings and shortcomings is there hope to remedy them. Herein lies the true esoteric importance and value of the exoteric practice of "confession of sins." (But this is no justification of the particular forms and historical abuses which such a practice has assumed in certain religions.)

The chief value of such confession lies in the ego giving up its habitual self-justification, the everlasting alibi-finding, its complacent and smug acceptance of itself. Such confession gives a jolt to the ego's vanity and self-righteousness by exposing its own weakness.

Such confession of sinfulness, wrong thinking, bad character, and mistaken deeds is valuable not only because it brings these defects to the surface and exposes them to the full light of conscious attention, but also because its effects upon the penitent himself are so humbling.

The days when he could speak glibly and assuredly on the most recondite phases of spirituality gradually go. A new humility comes to him.

It is safer to plead guilty than to give ourself the benefit of the doubt about our weaknesses. Let us confess them and tread on the ego's pride, even if they are not clear or strong.

Humility: See all men and women according to the Holy Ghost that is within them; always remember that the outer picture is still being worked on.

By maintaining the humility of the learner and the questing spirit of a seeker, he improves his own usefulness as a channel to help other people.

At first this humbling sense of his own sorry insufficiency will overwhelm him. He sees himself at his worst. Remorse for the past, anguish over the present, hopelessness for the future will momentarily blacken his outlook. This is a necessary step in the purificatory movement of his quest.

We must first acknowledge our guilt, we must have the courage to confess our errors and cast out our self-righteousness, before we can hope to start the new life aright.

With the onset of this overpowering sense of sin and in the hypercritical examination of conscience which it induces, he will react gloomily against, and condemn severely, his whole past.

His attitude need not be utterly pessimistic. He may say to himself, "If I have made a mistake, very well; I am undergoing a process of spiritual trial and error. Some errors are inevitable, but I shall catch up with them, study them, understand their results, and wring their meaning and their lessons out of them. In that way they will become steps which I shall mount towards Truth. If I suffer calamities of my own making, I will stand aside, calm, impersonal, and detached, and take the sting out of them by this ego-free attitude. In the long-range point of view it is not what I want but what I need that matters; and if I need the correction of adversity or calamity it is better that I have it."

The nearer his understanding comes to this higher Self, the humbler he becomes and the less likely is he to boast about this uncommon condition.

He needs to cultivate some degree of inward humility. There may be a tendency in his disposition to be somewhat strongly self-centered, proud, and overconfident. The best way and the quickest way in which he could begin to cultivate such humility would be through becoming a child again in the act of prayer.

There is much that we must let stand as inexplicable, must accept as a mystery, and thus avoid falling into the trap of smooth intellectual theories. We ought not demand what the human mind, because it is finite, has no right to demand.

For the man who has a strong ego, the religious approach with its cultivation of humility, its confession of sinfulness, and its redirection of emotion away from personality is the best to be recommended, if accompanied by some of the Philosophical Discipline's restrictions of the ego. However, such a person usually refuses to drink the medicines he most needs and therefore continues to remain involved in troubles of his own creation.

He must accept the chagrin of humbled pride, the bitter taste of self-accusing truth.

At such a time he feels that his entire past was a horrible series of self-deceptions.

To confess sins of conduct and shortcomings of character as a part of regular devotional practice possesses a psychological value quite apart from any other that may be claimed for it. It develops humility, exposes self-deceit, and increases self-knowledge. It decreases vanity every time it forces the penitent to face his faults. It opens a pathway first for the mercy and ultimately for the Grace of the higher Self.

He has emotionally to crawl on hands and knees before the higher power in the deepest humility. This kills pride, that terrible obstacle between man and the Soul's presence.

The ego must acknowledge its own transiency, confess its own instability, and thus become truly humble.

Humbly to accept our limitations, after long experience and repeated test, is also a form of wisdom. The innate tendencies that make us what we are from birth may prove too strong for our will to oppose successfully. Yet even if the leopard cannot change his spots, time may mellow their hard black to soft grey.

The Abbé Saint-Cyran's advice to a nun may be pertinent here: "It is against humility to want to do extraordinary things. We are not saints to do as the saints have done. One must hold oneself humbly in mediocrity and live in a certain disguise, so that people will see only ordinary things in you."

They are still frail and fallible mortals even though they are seeking and sometimes even glimpsing a state beyond all weakness and error.

He must come to see that his own strength is too limited, his capacity to help himself too small for a total self-reliance to be able to bring him through this quest successfully. Association with someone more advanced or, failing that, constant petition for the Soul's grace, will then be seen as indispensable.

Only when his ego's pride has been shattered, only when he has become depressed by future prospects and humiliated by present failure, is a man more likely to listen to the truth about himself.

Most of us are on the lowest slopes of the mountain; some of us have climbed to the middle slopes; very, very few have reached the peak.

It is not abject cringing humility but utter dependence which is called for by the Higher Power.

When affliction seems too hard to be borne any longer, when man has come to the end of his endurance, what other recourse has he than to fall on his knees or to cry out in humility?

The poignant feeling of hopeless aridity and helpless dependence on Grace brings one's ego very low.

When, with the arrogance beaten out of him by events which are stronger than himself, a man turns in humility to the higher power, he obeys a natural instinct.

When he sees how feeble are his resources and how formidable are his problems, he may see also the need of receiving help from outside or beyond himself.

To call himself a philosopher might be presumptuous when he is really a would-be philosopher, a student of the theory and the practice, a candidate trying for the philosophic goal.

To the wandering Indian sadhu or the cloistered Christian recluse of medieval times, Machiavelli's scorn for the person who has no social position in life is meaningless. For the holy man help must come from the higher power, not from other men.

Too often man has to have his ego crushed, has to be pushed into sorrow and even despair, before he is willing to turn his head upward or to bend his knees in prayer to the unseen power.

The more he is humbled by his failures, the more is he likely to find a way out of them.

A sharply critical, dryly intellectual aspirant who has had many troubles in his worldly life and physical health has had the opportunity of working out a lot of hard destiny. But it will not be without compensation if out of his suffering he develops a more religious attitude towards life, a fuller acceptance of the insufficiency of earthly things and human intellect, a greater throwing of himself into self-humbling prayer and upon the Grace. He is the type and temperament which must emphasize the religious, devotional approach to Truth and confess his helplessness. In this way he will begin to rely less on his own ego, which is his real enemy and hindrance to his true welfare.

When life seems to lose its meaning, when action seems in vain and ambition futile, when depression besets one like a dark cloud, the ego begins to feel its helplessness, its dependence on forces outside itself.

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