All mystics consider humility to be one of the fundamental virtues underpinning spirituality. In Spiritual Perspectives Vol. III Maharaj Charan Singh states that humility, like love, is a precursor to developing other virtues: “When love comes, or humility comes, all other qualities come like cream on milk.” He further highlights the importance of this virtue in Quest for Light:
The one thing all of us on the path of Sant Mat have to understand is the value of humility. Meekness and humility are great virtues upon this path and unless we acquire them and do away with our ego and pride, progress is most difficult.
This article explores why humility is so important to our spiritual development, outlines its different facets and examines ways in which it can be nurtured.
Ego – The antithesis of humility
The Oxford Dictionary defines humility as having “a modest or low view of one’s importance”. From a spiritual perspective, this definition only takes us part-way to understanding the true nature of humility. A deeper insight can be gained by reflecting on the observations made above by Maharaj Charan Singh, in which he emphasizes the importance of eradicating our ego. Essentially, we can only come to understand what humility is by first acknowledging what it is that prevents us from developing this virtue – the ego.
So, what is the ego? The ego is that faculty of the mind which provides us with self-awareness and a consciousness of our separate existence. It is the feeling of “I” ness: “I’m me. I’m not you, or a tree or a dog or a chair. I’m this sex, this age, of this country”, and so on. Ego is our individuality, something we consciously try to cultivate; it comprises all the attributes and qualities that we feel define us. Whilst the ego is necessary for us to be able to function on the physical plane, a highly developed sense of the ego is detrimental to our spiritual development. In cultivating our individuality, we differentiate ourselves from others in the creation and from the Lord and this has significant consequences.
First, in emphasizing our individuality, we risk attributing our positive qualities and achievements directly to ourselves – we feel responsible for them, believing them to be the product of our strengths and effort. However, as the mystics explain, this is false pride because everything we have has actually been given to us by the Shabd. It is the ego which makes the mistake of thinking that ‘I’ have achieved this, ‘I’ am clever, ‘I’ am beautiful, ‘I’ am rich and so on. In reality, we are little more than custodians of ‘our’ qualities, achievements and possessions. Our role is to be grateful for what has been bestowed on us, to look after these gifts to the best of our ability and not become too distressed if they are taken away.
Yet, given our long history of viewing ourselves as individuals and with our limited vision of the workings of the Shabd, it is difficult to cultivate such an attitude. We see what appear to be the causes and effects of actions without always being able to see the big picture. For example, if we worked hard to qualify for a place at university, we may feel entitled to feel pleased with ourselves. And whilst it is all right to derive some degree of satisfaction, we should not forget who placed us in an environment to do that work or gave us the ability to do so. In Spiritual Perspectives Vol. III Maharaj Charan Singh reminds us to remember the Giver by saying, “We are no one … give credit to the Father and [do] not be egoistic about achievements.”
The second consequence of viewing ourselves as individual entities, separate from the world and from the Shabd, is that we mistake the true nature of our identity. We associate it with our mind, our likes and dislikes, our personality – in short, we have come to believe that our ego is our identity. But as explained very clearly in Living Meditation, our ego is a mask that we have created to cover our true self. It is a false, temporary identity that stops us from being receptive to the truth and realizing that our true nature is the Shabd. We have to eliminate the ego to achieve this level of understanding. Moreover, it is only when we eliminate the ego that we can be humble. Maharaj Charan Singh writes in Spiritual Perspectives Vol. III: “So long as the ego is there, we can never be humble; we can never be meek. When we are able to eliminate our ego and seek the Lord within ourselves and in the whole creation, naturally we will be humble. That is real humility.”
The signs of humility
So the ego is a barrier that prevents us from being humble. But what are the distinguishing features of true humility? To answer this, we need look no further than the Masters. They are a personification of true humility; it is an essential part of their nature, reflected in their every glance, thought, and action. The following incident, which was related about Maharaj Charan Singh in Treasure Beyond Measure, illustrates this more clearly than any lengthy exposition:
A sadhu who once came to meet Maharaj Ji, on seeing him bow to him before he could himself bow, felt so overwhelmed by Maharaj Ji’s humility that he asked him: “Whenever we go to saints or to religious leaders either for an interview or at a gathering, they expect us to bow to them. This is the usual custom. This is the only place where I have seen a Master bowing to the disciples first. Why is this so?” Maharaj Ji replied, “I am the servant of the Lord, and the Lord is in everyone.”
This shows us that the Masters see no separation; they see the Lord in everything and everyone and are conscious that he is the only one who exists. This is the basis of their profound humility. Again, this draws our attention to the importance of overcoming the ego. It is only when this occurs that we will be filled with the depth and intensity of love for the Lord. In Spiritual Perspectives Vol. III Maharaj Charan Singh states:
If there is love, automatically there is humility in it. There can be no love without humility. Love makes you humble. Love makes you meek. Love means you want to do that which pleases the other person, not what pleases yourself…. There’s more happiness in giving than taking.
This quotation draws attention to a further facet of humility – suppressing one’s own desires specifically to meet those of the beloved. In our case this means making the effort to think and act in ways which will please the Master. Of course we know that this means practising our meditation, but it also refers to being conscious throughout the day about making choices that will support tomorrow’s meditation. For example, repeating simran rather than indulging in the chatter of the mind, going to bed on time rather than partying till late. It means not reacting to any criticism or anger levied at us and not dwelling on it either. It means putting other people’s needs before ours, not just in the home and in our seva, but in the workplace and society at large. Essentially, it means changing the habit of countless lifetimes – where previously our actions have been determined by the senses, they now are to be determined by love for the Master. The very first step we take in doing so is a sign of humility because we are beginning to recognize our insignificance and are trying no longer to be motivated by what our ego wants us to do. By and by, our ego will be weakened and we will start to experience and reflect love and humility.
Real humility can only be learnt from a perfect living Master. He teaches us the method that will eradicate our ego – the barrier which stands between us and the Lord. Deep, sincere humility will emerge through meditation when we come into contact with the Shabd and are able to acknowledge fully his magnificence.
However, even before we reach such a high level of realization, there are other ways in which we can cultivate humility. By approaching the Master with modesty and meekness, we increase our receptivity to his grace. The emotional pull that this triggers creates a certain level of humility as we feel his greatness and, simultaneously, acknowledge our weaknesses. We can develop this further by using our intellect to engage with the teachings of the mystics. In so doing we will appreciate that within us lies the macrocosm, which contains billions and billions of universes. We may come to realize that our individual existence within this vast creation is as insignificant as a grain of sand. Hopefully, this understanding will help us to place a higher priority on our spiritual development than on our physical desires.
Finally, the way we approach meditation will also help us cultivate humility. Our feeble effort, by itself, will not take us home, even if we meditated for a hundred thousand years. The most we can hope to achieve is to invoke the Master’s grace – he, in his mercy, will eventually fulfil all our spiritual aspirations. Therefore, when our mind wanders during meditation, let’s try not to become frustrated, convincing ourself that we will never learn to meditate ‘properly’ or ‘effectively’. Such dissatisfaction is a reflection of the ego, the underlying implication being that it is we – the individual – who is responsible for all spiritual progress. By contrast, if we are humble, we accept that it is the nature of the mind to conjure up thought after thought and that our job is simply to begin our simran over again.
Further, whilst it is the ego that wants ‘achievement’, another part of ourself is meditating because we want to make the Master happy. If we focus on this and meditate to offer ourselves completely to him, eventually, we will come into contact with the Shabd, which will clean the mind of the ego and take the soul in and up. The Radiant Form of the Master will meet our real self – the soul – at the first stage and from there onwards, throughout the rest of our journey, there will be a continual merging of our smaller selves with the larger self – the Shabd. At each stage, we have to be humble enough to allow something to be discarded. Finally, there is no individual left, no separation, no you and I, only union. That is the ultimate result of humility.