A lot of people who call themselves spiritual teachers talk about humility as a virtue to aspire to. In my experience, it seems that humility gets talked about often in this way but remains a vague and abstract concept. I think that most of us are pretty confident when we’re witnessing a lack of humility; it tends to show up as a kind of arrogance, entitlement, a sense of uniqueness and specialness. But I think most of us, spiritual teachers included, have very little idea of what humility actually is.
Cindy and I visited the Palace of Versailles in the past week, where we saw a building and grounds that cost around 300 billion dollars in today’s money to create. Around sixty percent of the taxes taken from the people of France over generations was used to fund this project. The purpose of the project was to create a display of opulence and power that, ostensibly, Louis XIV (the fourteenth) could use to intimidate and cow his potential military adversities. He was apparently very successful at this, since even though there are many paintings and sculptures of him as a great military leader, he didn’t actually engage in a single battle in his life.
Our guide described the typical day of Louis XIV. His awakening with the sun, being the “Sun King,” was witnessed by his court. He intentionally had all of the most powerful and noble people in France spend all of their days staring at him, watching his every move. They also watched him fall asleep. Although on some level this behavior was intended to keep these people occupied so that they could not usurp his power, it was also probably food for a narcissistic need for continual adoration.
What stood out to me during this visit was the depth and breadth of psychological suffering that must have been occurring for this king. Every interaction must have been deeply transactional and oriented towards power and control. I can’t imagine that he had friends or anyone that he could really trust. He spent his life effectively stealing the wealth of the nation to construct deeply meaningless and profoundly unfulfilling gardens containing tall hedges and marble busts.
He could have been a true king and lead the nation to greatness and peace by taking his role seriously. Instead of narcissistically proclaiming himself as reincarnation of a greek god and spending his time designing impressive gardens and fountains, he could have focused on making the political and logistical infrastructure of the country operate more effectively.
But focusing on lack of humility doesn’t seem to help to clarify what humility is. I didn’t know what humility really was until a few years ago when I did my first ten-day Vipassana retreat. My understanding of humility has increased on every ten-day retreat I have attended since then. During that retreat, while sitting for up to eleven hours per day, in silence, without interacting with anyone else, I had to face the truth.
The truth is that this body is just a standard human being. It has pains. It struggles. It’s suffers. It is essentially powerless. It can cease to function at any moment. The human body is just a machine that reacts automatically to what happens; there is nobody in control of those reactions.
This is the terrifying truth that we’re continually trying to avoid. We want to think that we have some meaningful destiny, that we are unique and special, and that our lives have purpose. In reality, we are just meat machines that are born to eat and reproduce and then die. Once this is recognized, there is relief. What is happening is completely normal, yet also marvelous. Life is actually amazing and perfect exactly as it is occurring.
The fears, the arguments, the loss, the sadness, the betrayal, and the failures are just as rich and fulfilling as the successes, the joys, and the confidence. It’s all perfectly how it’s supposed to be and there is no other way it could be. There is no sense of entitlement to anything; if something is given then it is also received; if something is withheld then it is also not wanted.
Cindy lost something in our Airbnb and she started ranting about it. I remember feeling like this. I too have felt angry at “the universe” for things not being the way I wanted them to be. There was a kind of arrogance, an entitlement. I felt that I was entitled to things being different. Right now, it’s clear that there is no other way things could be, so what would be the purpose of arguing with reality. Why would I want something other than reality when reality is already so fulfilling. In five minutes, things might be different. In five minutes, I might be wrestling with reality again.
This kind of arrogance and entitlement, this idea that there is something separate from what is happening that could have things another way, this is what is at the root of suffering.
Humility is very simple and mundane, even though the word has connotations that make it seem like some kind of achievement or effortful state. Humility is essentially just a lack of a sense of entitlement, and it comes and goes like changes in the weather.
Even so, it’s possible to see that there is only humility. Louis XIV could not have behaved any other way than he did. He couldn’t have thought, felt, decided, or acted any differently. So he was implicitly surrendered to his humanity, to his obsessive gardening and his continual showboating. He had no control over his anxiety of losing the control he didn’t really have.
Those who felt entitled to Louis XIV not behaving the way he did were also implicitly and perfectly surrendered to their reactive need. And those of us who seek to become more humble are implicitly complying with a desire and a drive that was not instigated by us.