Modesty and Humility in the Kali Yuga
Reflections on Exile
In ten months I will be returning to the Bay Area after an absence of 12 years. During these years, I moved from Oakland to Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine.
This journey has been a kind of exile. For a variety of reasons, I never expected that exile would end.
Now, the surprising circumstance of its impending completion has given rise to many reflections. Particularly, I am reflecting on how my time “away” has radically deepened my desire to embody humility and modesty.
In 2007 when I left the Bay Area, these weren’t the words or conditions I experienced as governing the direction and substance of my spiritual practice.
I knew that pride was my major karmic impediment. I also recognized that pride is a prevalent cause of suffering here in the U.S. in this era.
But I hadn’t gotten so far as to become friendly with what might be freed once pride stopped barricading the gate.
So today I want to share with you what I’ve learned about humility and modesty.
I’ve found that many of us here in the U.S. aren’t really sure what these words mean.
And we certainly aren’t clear about how modesty and humility might relate to direct realization traditions, such as Trika Shaivism, that often valorize a more heroic stance.
Or maybe we just need to change our understanding of “heroic.”
So here’s my current state of understanding
In terms of our spiritual life, humility relates to the experience of the greatness and vastness of this alive, aware reality.
When we come into direct contact with the magnificence, the creative fecundity, the unspeakable intelligence, the brilliant clarity, and the unconditioned compassion of this reality, we recognize that nothing we do is important or meaningful.
More precisely, we recognize that “important” and “meaningful” are totally paltry measures of a life, of life. They simply do not apply.
Greatness has nothing to do with individuals.
Meaning is beside the point.
We recognize that we have real, intrinsic value that just exists and continues and that everyone and everything shares this value equally with us.
There is no way to “rise” above or beyond.
There is no position to struggle for or defend.
Life is not accomplishing anything but its real nature: creative play.
It’s fun to play the game with more awareness and skill. But our desire to do so was built in from the beginning. So we can’t even take credit for that!
Even having recognized this, our karmas still have momentum. We have to apply our practice if we want to interrupt this momentum and be able to play the game more fully.
The work of humility is to stop struggling for a position, especially a spiritual position as a “great” practitioner or “accomplished” teacher.
The work of humility is to stop defending a position.
The work of humility is to welcome failure and unfair attacks as gifts of mercy that bring our tensions and limitations, and also our courage and wisdom, into view.
The work of humility is to stop seeking praise and avoiding criticism and blame.
The work of humility is to live with the awareness of being an infinitesimal production of the immeasurable divine, having total equality of value with all else.
Humble as dirt. Humble as grass. Humble as stone.
In terms of our spiritual life, modesty relates to invisibility.
The direct realization traditions, such as Trika Shaivism and Dzogchen, regularly elevate a kind of deliberate invisibility as the appropriate form of life for the adept. Yet they cultivate an inner or secret language of superiority.
This is the immodest language of the (male) hero and the “highest” teaching.
Actual invisibility means:
- No measuring and comparing of accomplishments.
- No promotion that is not for the sake of others finding community and teachings.
- No self-fashioning and self-defining for the sake of pleasuring oneself and manipulating and magnetizing others.
- No lying or exaggerating or lying by omission.
- No solicitation of respect, approval, or admiration whether obviously or subtly.
- No demanding that others understand us as we wish to be understood or that others correct their misunderstandings of us.
- No spiritual ostentation in word, appearance, or deed.
- Being willing to work behind the scenes, when that is called for, without thanks or gratitude.
Obviously, I am still neck deep in this work. I am fortunate to be part of a community of folks who want to join me.
And while stripping oneself of pride is really hard, nitty gritty work, it’s also kind of thrilling. We are so mired in pride, traveling to modesty and humility is like entering into wild, unknown country.
Hope to meet you there.
Lots of love,