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Humility is the Absence of Ego

Inspirations for Living / September 09, 2017


All the scriptures extol growing humility as the only way to succeed in true devotion to God. 500 years ago, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu instructed us to be humbler than a blade of grass. The Bible has more than twenty verses about humility saying the same while the Quran has more than a dozen. But what exactly is humility? How do we recognize it and practice it?

Very simply put, humility is the absence of ego. Some hilariously believe EGO is an acronym for Edging God Out but in all seriousness, humility is only allowed to shine through as the ego diminishes.

Selfishness has its origins in the ego

When we are selfish and seek our happiness with little regard for others’ needs, understand that the origin of this selfishness lies in the ego. We seek self-happiness to satisfy the never-ending desires of the ego. This is why there are disputes in the family, disagreements at work, and difficulties in personal relationships. As our selflessness grows and selfishness declines, it paves the way for humility to shine through thereby making our relationships smoother and less stressful.

Fault-finding stems from the ego

Each time we point out others’ shortcomings or mistakes, it is our ego in the form of fault-finding or a superiority or inferiority complex stepping up. If we truly believe that God resides in all of us, then there is no reason to believe one is better than another. Yes, we are different but different does not mean better. Just as no two petals of a flower are the same, no two children of a mother are the same. Similarly, we all, while different in our own way, are children of the same mother. Just as a mother understands the unique strengths and weaknesses of all her children, so does our divine mother.

Being Unforgiving and Resentful stem from the ego

Humility does not mean we belittle ourselves or our God given strengths and talents for that is false humility. What He bestows, He can just as easily take away as well. Thus, humility also manifests as gratitude for everything we have—the material possessions, people in our life, our skills and talents, etc. To demean them in any way is to disrespect these gifts so generously granted to us.

On the flip side, to be angry, bitter, resentful, unforgiving, etc. is also disrespecting these gifts because the underlying thought behind these sentiments tends to be “If left to my choices and talents, I can do better” or “If it were not for these limitations in my life, I would have done better.” Either way, both the sentiments mentioned above show ingratitude towards the divine, and that is not humility.

Attitude of Gratitude leads to Humility

Related to the above example is the attitude of gratitude. This means we are grateful for the gifts that are conferred upon us and we continue to maintain that gratefulness should they be taken away as well. If we have the talent for singing, not only should it be used to sing His glories but we should also not be heartbroken if it is taken away from us. If we truly believe it to be a gift bestowed upon us, then it is His decision as to what He does with it and when. So there is no room for anger or resentment. We simply accept it as His grace and do not question ‘why’ or fight it. This is the art of surrender to the divine which is enabled by maintaining a humble attitude.

Desire for material happiness stems from the ego

The ego makes us believe we are the body and all the possessions we have belong to us i.e. they are ours. Because we identify with the body, we are running for bodily happiness. Thus, we believe that our happiness lies in accumulating more wealth, fame, social standing, respect, etc. but this is not true. When we are humble, we do not seek external appreciation, confirmations, and validations. It comes from within, and that alone is sufficient to give us the confidence to move forward. When that happens, all the externals such as respect, fame, etc. immediately follow suit. We only have to look back at time to see the lives of great Saints such as Valmiki, Meerabi, Soordas, etc. to understand this.

Valmiki was a robber who had complete faith in his teacher, the great Sage Narad. This faith enabled him to become such a great sage himself that he is remembered for thousands of years after his death! Not only that, but his rendition of the Ramayan has led many to the lotus feet of the Lord. Meerabai was a queen and hers was a riches-to-rags story. She was thrown out of the palace and then asked to drink poison after being told that it was nectar, amrit. So great was her faith in her beloved Krishna that when she heard this nectar was from Him, she immediately drank it. This was not surprising. The astonishing thing was that she was unharmed after drinking the poison! Soordas was a blind poet during the 16th century. But if one reads his poems, one would never know he was blind. How could he describe the beauty, grace, and pastimes of the Supreme Lord so vividly without ever witnessing them?

True Leadership is a manifestation of Humility

When placed in a leadership position, it is humility manifested as wisdom that enables us to support and serve the team instead of trying to command respect and follow our orders. This is the underlying principle behind Servant Leadership. The illustration below is a summary of the qualities of a good leader.

All these qualities indicate that one is (emotionally) secure from within. This happens when we understand and realize that these qualities are a gift from the Lord. And the purpose of our life is to serve Him.

Sacrifice is a manifestation of Humility

All the Godlike virtues such as sacrifice, forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, truthfulness, etc. are also a manifestation of humility. The repeated sincere exhibition of these traits enables improved relationships in life. Sacrifice is the other trait held in such high-esteem by the Almighty Himself that when we sacrifice our happiness, it enslaves Him. If sacrifice can result in such wonders with Him, ponder over the impact of it on our daily relationships!

This brings back to the concept we started with—that humility is the absence of ego. Just like clouds cover the sun so that its light can only shine from the periphery, our ignorance and misidentification with the body prevent our true nature from exhibiting itself. As we increasingly realize the grace of God in everything and His presence in all, we truly start to become humble.