Embracing Humility


by Kevin Smith

One of my very best buddies once said to me, “it is impossible to live a deeply committed spiritual life—to walk the walk with our whole heart—without experiencing humiliation.” I have found this teaching to be profoundly true. In the past I have spoken about my gratitude for annoyance as a spiritual teacher.Now I’d like to extol the practical virtues of an occasional humiliation.

I spent some time this week digging through the etymology of humiliating vs. humbling. Both obviously related to humility, these two words have distinctly different flavors. If I ask you to identify an experience you found “humbling,” then contrast it with one you found “humiliating,” you might have somewhat different visceral reactions.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “humiliate” as “to reduce to a lower position in one’s own eyes or another’s eyes.” For example, when people intentionally inflict cruelty on each other and set out to do harm, a common goal is to humiliate the opponent. Somehow simply humbling the opposition isn’t sufficient. Humiliating experiences are often imposed on us without our consent; the “reduction” Merriam-Webster describes is involuntary. For me, humiliating experiences have a sharp quality, like a sting or a slap.

On the other hand, experiences which I perceive as humbling often seem to have have a beneficent, didactic quality to them—on some level, perhaps reluctantly at first, I eventually consent to my own downsizing. Both words imply a downward adjustment in personal pride or our estimation of our own merits. But for me, the key difference between the two involves willingness—my own willingness—to participate in that downward adjustment.

In my walk with Spirit, it is my refusal to allow my ego to be downsized (let’s say ‘adjusted’) that often flavors an experience as humiliating rather than simply humbling. When I am pliant, mindful and awake—when I am leaning into my experience—Spirit can often steer me with the equivalent of a light tap on the shoulder. When I’m obtuse, stubborn, rigid or mean—when I resist or ignore my experience—it takes more like a kick in the shins to get my attention.

My walk as what I call a “teacher-student” of spiritual practice is full of humbling moments. There is a beautiful inhale/exhale cycle around learning and teaching, a reciprocating, replenishing system like giving and receiving or listening and speaking that is, for me, very much a part of sacred practice. There is holiness about the relationship between teaching and learning because there is wholeness about it. And intentionally holding one’s self as a teacher-student, rather than one or the other, brings many humbling moments.

Once upon a time in my workplace, I found myself in a conflict where I became heated, and wrote a note to a colleague that I later came to regret. Because I am known as a teacher in the area of conflict resolution, my colleague later taunted me about the way I approached things, chiding sarcastically, “aren’t you Mr. Conflict Resolution? What happened? You fall off your horse?”

The taunt was well-deserved; I had behaved badly. I am both a student and teacher of conflict resolution, not a master. But the truth is we teach the things we most need to learn. Roethke said, “a teacher is one who conducts his education in public.” I was attracted to learn about conflict in the first place because I didn’t know what to do with it. Perhaps I know a little more about it now than many people do simply because I started off so far behind. (When you’re number two, you try harder!)

By teaching about conflict, I invited attention to myself around that topic and my colleague rightly held me to a higher standard. Teaching publicly in this area forces me to “walk the talk.” Teaching feeds my learning, and learning gives me something to teach about.

I used to feel that I had to know something well in order to teach about it. (Obvious, right?) I felt tremendous resistance at first to the idea of teaching or writing about Touch Practice, despite encouragement from others to “write a book” or “tell others about this.” I felt, “I don’t even know what this is. I’m not sure I know what I’m doing or how it works.” Hundreds of hours of practice later, I have taught many dozens of men in group and weekend workshop formats. But I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I “know” this. I just keep learning more and more about it.

Every week, my blog is an exercise in writing about things I barely know, things I have just learned. But in trying to express to others what I understand (that’s teaching!) I clarify for myself what it is, exactly, that I know (as well as what it is I don’t yet know) about what I’ve been learning.

I have come to believe that teaching from a place of “this is what I’m learning” rather than “this is what I know” is not only a feasible place from which to teach, but quite possibly the best place. On the level of being fully awake, it is the only place from which we can teach about spiritual practice, that place of “I don’t know.” And because we are teaching principles and ideals to which we aspire, not merely what we have managed to attain, when we are measured against what we proclaim, if our goals are lofty, we will come up short. And that is exactly as it should be!

I have had to learn to relax into my constant sense of coming up short, to lean into it in a yogic way, not to panic. That distance between what we aspire to and what we are actually able to manage, that is where we go next; it’s where tomorrow’s work begins, the way a little kid sometimes has to grow into his clothes when they’re a size bigger than he is. That distance is covered by something many writers have called “grace,” a kind of celestial slush fund which is constantly making up the difference between what I owe and what I’m currently able to pay.

Now: there’s one critical thing required for this to all hold together, and without it, the whole house falls down.

In all of this talk of coming up short, whether the experience be humbling or humiliating, my self-worth is off the table. My value or worth as a human being is not up for discussion here; that discussion is closed. That value does not fluctuate, is not negotiable, is not affected by my accomplishments, failures, or another person’s judgments of them.

I am valuable beyond description. My worth is beyond any price imaginable. I am part of Creation, infinitely connected on every level to all that is. I am a piece of that which was breathed into existence by the Beloved as an expression of love. And so are you. Our worth was established, fixed and finished. It doesn’t go up and down like the stock market.

Humiliation loses its power as a teacher if I think that somehow I am devalued when I screw up royally, in public, in a particularly embarrassing way. The ego is downsized, not me. My ego is imaginary (I’ve made mine up, literally.) My essence is not.

This life is about teaching, learning, growing, yearning, thirsting, aspiring. This life, for me, is the longing for holiness, the desire for the divine. We begin—at birth—from a place of infinite worth and then we have the opportunity to get bigger for the rest of our lives. How cool is that? What’s to sweat, exactly?

When my worth is not constantly up for a vote, I can experience not only humbling but even humiliation with gentle laughter at myself. My reaction is, “gosh, such a stupid thing I did!” rather than “gosh, I am such a stupid person!” I tend to use language like “I have not yet mastered….” rather than “I really suck at….” And instead of responding to that kick in the shins by beating myself up, I can laugh, shake my head, reach out to Spirit and say, “ok, you have my undivided attention. ‘Sup, Dude?”

The simultaneous sense of “wow, I really screwed that up, didn’t I?” and “I am infinitely worthwhile, as valuable as anything else in the universe and part of it” is a really interesting intersection. I experience joy and safety there, challenge and comfort. In longing to be holy, in thirsting to live a deeply spiritual life, the absolute guaranteed certainty that I will at times be a complete fuck-up and the equal certainty that this does not in any way diminish my infinite worth—well I’m running out of words. The experience defies words, but perhaps you see where I’m pointing. The idea is to have the ego take the kick in the shins, while remaining unflinching as a being of infinite beauty, value, and worth.

There is no way to lose. This life we are born into has been set up for us so that we start with infinite, and then have the option of getting bigger. There is nothing to be lost. There is only practice, only gain, only growth, only opportunities to expand. It’s the only way it can possibly work out. Every experience, every relationship points in that direction. All things teach us. All experiences can be profitable. Even annoyance. Even having my buttons pushed. Even humiliation. (Maybe especially humiliation!)


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