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Being Open to Learn Through Humility: Part 1

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[reposted from 04-02-2014]
I had the good fortune Sunday to spend time with a devotee friend and neighbor, along with her two visiting daughters—one out of college and looking for work, the other, soon to finish high school and already accepted at a college of her choice. I love to share my experiences and what I have found is valuable with others—anyone who is interested to hear and discuss—but especially to devotee young adults and teens. In my life growing up, and later as a devotee, I suffered for want of wise elder guidance, and basically had to wing it by trail and err.

Though my life has worked out well in many ways, I feel I could have had more skills to help others and be further along spiritually had I had help. Admittedly, we all have our personal journey and ways we are given to learn our own lessons (even with guidance) through personal experience and trying various endeavors. Never the less, I know that having supportive, kind, and experienced mentors can make one’s path more fruitful, one’s decisions better informed—if one is willing to listen. Remembering my own lack of guidance I feel inspired to share what I have learned in life, both my mistakes and successes. This is one reason I write, and in this case, enjoyed speaking to our guests.

I found the young ladies to be very open-hearted and humble. This caused me to think about the importance of humility on our lives. I have written a fair bit about this, as has my wife, but today I am looking at humility as a means of being open and grateful, and how there is real, and shadow humility. I shared with my two young friends that my behavior as a young devotee appeared to many to be humble, or unassuming, and I was willing to do almost anything. However, as I learned in my thirties, my so-called “humble” attitude was more a result of being beaten down by agents of the material energy as well as feeling bad about myself than arising from any spiritual understanding.

I have considered that true humility comes from spiritual realization about the greatness of Krishna, and how we are only a tiny part of him. Genuine insight into Krishna’s glories and experiencing both our insignificance and spiritual beauty, enlivens one to serve, whereas false or shadow humility, while it may foster devotional actions temporarily, will eventually breed resentment, depression, and inaction. To avoid this negative consequence the devotee must mature as a person and heal from his past. At least this is my experience and with a number of devotees I know. Along with spiritual advancement, one of the most important qualities in my life is being real and authentic. Though it isn’t always easy, its practice is a requirement for our long term practice of Krishna consciousness and being balanced human beings. Or, as I have shared before, merely looking good, doesn’t equate being good, or being able to remain enthusiastically on the bhakti path for one’s whole life.

Humility is valued in all faith traditions and spiritual disciplines. I love to find confirmation of the Krishna conscious philosophy and those practices I have found helpful in the world’s religious and spiritual literature. Thus I’m reminded of two of the books which originally inspired my spiritual quest, the “Tao te Ching,” and I Ching. Genuine humility allows us to appreciate what we have and to be grateful. In the morning we appreciate having another day for service and taking shelter of Krishna, and at night we take stock of our spiritual thoughts and actions, praying to improve, go deeper, and share our good fortune. In this spirit, throughout the day, meditating on ourselves as a tiny spark of Divinity, we can give thanks for the opportunity to give of our heart and make spiritual advancement.

From Wikipedia we learn that “the term ‘humility’ comes from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as ‘humble’, but also as ‘grounded’, ‘from the earth’, or "low", since it derives in turn from humus (earth)." We can extract an analogy from this, that if something is planted in the earth then it has the possibility to grow. A seed in the air is only a potential plant or tree. It must be in the earth to realize its gifts. While we are thinking about the ground, we can remember Shri Chaitanya’s 3rd verse outlining the decorum of a Gaudiya Vaishnava. In this verse we are recommended to consider ourselves lower than the grass or straw in the street, more tolerant than a tree. In order to avoid the desire for praise, we can look for the good qualities in others, and understand that we are merely instruments in anything we accomplish or have, and we live by mercy.

Imagine the grass. When stepped on, it doesn’t resist, but bends before returning to its natural position in growing toward the light—and even lower is the straw, which is neutral and blows in the wind, or lies on the ground. In regard to the tree, it never protests, but tolerates the heat of summer or freezing temperature of winter, or even being chopped down, and yet, from another perspective, it is simply playing out its karma and doesn’t have a choice. In our life as a devotee of Krishna we potentially have a more difficult challenge because we may meet all kinds of opposing elements and temptations but are advised to tolerate and resist them. While we can’t imitate this spiritual level of humility, we can nonetheless keep this as our ideal, while praying to begin our humility journey by lessening our material enjoying spirit, (Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur defines humility as the absence of the enjoying spirit). Decreasing our enjoying spirit or our conditioned nature to be an exploiter of the world can be partially obtained by being absorbed in devotional service, taking advantage of saintly association, and praying to make spiritual advancement.

In the I Ching’s 15th Hexagram, called Modesty, we have some very appropriate and helpful images to ponder in our brief introduction to humility. Here the earth is above the towering mountain, teaching us that though we may have a great position in society, we need to be humble by seeing our favorable position as a blessing from above. “When a man holds a high position and is never the less modest, he shines with the light of wisdom; if he is in a lowly position and is modest, he cannot be passed by. Thus the superior man can carry out his work to the end without boasting of what he has achieved.”

I am reminded of Rupa and Sanatana Goswamis, who were ministers in the Muslim government, but who, for the sake of serving Lord Chaitanya renounced their government position. They became humble mendicants with no possessions, yet had a secret treasure in their heart where they kept their devotion to Krishna. By the empowerment and blessings of Shri Chaitanya they shared their realizations by writing and speaking for our benefit so we can obtain this same eternal treasure. [Continued in part 2 where I share some favorite stories illustrating these points: ]