Humility without bullshit

Posted on 16 May 2013
Tags: self, zen

WARNING This blog post contains American levels of earnestness. Consult your local for advice on suppressing the gag reflex

I think one thing I like to aspire to is a sort of Humility without the Bullshit. It’s hard, something you can catch yourself failing at over and over again, and failing into two different ways.

The first form of failure is the bullshit part. What I would consider to be True Humility would have no traces of “humility theatre”, the professions, gestures, and outward behaviours that serve only to say “Hey look at me, I am Humble™”. And that you have to be on the guard for. Shit, did I really mean that? For example, when I weigh in on the Zen Reddit with my “just a dude that goes to dojo” disclaimer, is that genuinely meant to avoid accidentally conveying authority, or was I merely trying to cover my ass with a little Humility Theatre?

The second form is I think more subtle, which is that what I would consider to be True Humility is something that manifests NOT in what you say, but in the every way that you go about things. Your every action, your every decision, your every assessment of every situation. I imagine this True Humility to be a sort of Pervasive Ever Vigilant Sense of Not Knowing, and for it to be real, it has to be unstated. No theatre, just choices. Say you are programmer: what kinds of technical decisions do you make? How do you go about approaching a new skill or unknown language? How do you communicate your ideas to fellow programmers, or to your non-programmer colleagues? How sharp do you keep your awareness of the kinds of expertise they may have that you do not? How do you receive the criticism that is offered to you? True Humility is implicit in your every action.

And so you fail. You fall down over and over again. But hopefully with the aspiration in mind, you do better the next time. And when is this next time? Now. It’s a useful phrasing which I think comes out of contact with Zen communities: aspire to X. We do things without a discrete goal/endpoint in mind of some imagined better version of ourselves in some imagined future; yet we nevertheless aspire to X. In the Zen context, we might say that we aspire to be aware… which to me means that we strive to be awake and aware now, not as part of some hypothetical future enlightened self but as the person who is sitting on that cushion now, who is walking down the street now, who is designing a API for discourse structure processing now. I think the same sort of language of aspiration applies to other contexts. We aspire to be truly humble, we aspire to see things from others’ perspectives, we aspire to take better care of each other… Now.

It’s something that irritates me about Be Here Now language you might find in people conveying a sort of New Agey blend of generic vaguely Eastern spirituality. To my grumpy atheistic ears, this sort of language conveys a sort of vacant bliss… lalala not thinking about filing my taxes… lalala smell the flowers whoopsie daisy how carefree I am. Yeah shut up. Forgive my lack of humility here. As you can see, I know very little about Generic Vaguely Eastern New Age Spirituality (and yet! I permit myself to comment!). If my portrayal is right, fans of the Spiritual Curmudgeon could do well to take back the language of Here and Now. Here and Now isn’t some kind of spiritual high for you to enjoy, but also your place of responsibility. Here and Now, brush your teeth, make your bed, do what is needed. And Here and Now, approach the world with a little more humility.