Thursday, January 3, 2013

Know Peacefulness by Becoming the Smallest Person in the Room

I vow to be he smallest person in the room.

Humility and modesty are two on the short list of wholesome mindstates observed by Asanga, the 1st century monk who watched his mind in meditation and then codified the workings into a book, the Abhidharma Samuccaya. Put another way, if you want to be peaceful, simply “make yourself the smallest person in the room,” as my teacher Master Ji Ru says.

This month, I will be blogging about three vows for the new year. “I vow to be the smallest person in the room” is the first vow; it is a vow to make humility and modesty our baseline. For a vow to be effective, we need to consider its implications intellectually, frequently chant it so it just comes to mind spontaneously to remind us of our intention to be this way, and to make a concerted effort to practice it, especially under difficult circumstances.

Let’s start with some basic definitions, then consider a few short exerpts about humility and modesty, and then let’s look at how to apply and practice these in our everyday lives. First, the definitions:

Humility is to depart from a position of gentle, non-assertiveness. It is a behavior or attitude or spirit that wholly lacks arrogance and conceit or any sense of self-centeredness or self-cherishing. It is being unassuming without being proud or feeling inferior. It applies to all that we do, say and think.

Modesty is to depart from a disinclination to call attention to ourself. Modesty involves observing proprieties, especially in speech, dress and comportment. It is avoid extremes through understatement in everything one has and does materially and spiritually.

Now some quotes:


Do not find fault with others. If they behave wrongly, there is no need to make yourself suffer.
–Ajahn Chah (20th-Century Thai monk)

Humility and Patience

I think that there is a very close connection between humility and patience. Humility involves having the capacity to take a more confrontational stance, having the capacity to retaliate if you wish, yet deliberately deciding not to do so. That is what I would call genuine humility.

I think that true patience has a component or element of self-discipline and restraint--the realization that you could have acted otherwise, you could have adopted a more aggressive approach, but decided not to do so.

On the other hand, being forced to adopt a certain passive response out of a feeling of helplessness or incapacitation--that I wouldn't call genuine humility. That may be a kind of meekness, but it isn't genuine patience or humility.

–His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Real Humility Is Genuineness

Humility, very simply, is the absence of arrogance. Where there is no arrogance, you relate with your world as an eye-level situation, without one-upmanship. Because of that, there can be a genuine interchange. Nobody is using their message to put anybody else down, and nobody has to come down or up to the other person’s level. Everything is eye-level.

Humility in the Shambala tradition also involves some kind of playfulness, which is a sense of hum…. In most religious traditions, you feel humble because of a fear of punishment, pain, and sin. In the Shambala world you feel full of it. You feel healthy and good. In fact, you feel proud. Therefore, you feel humility. That’s one of the Shambala contradictions or, we could say, dichotomies. Real humility is genuineness.
–Chogyam Trungpa

And finally, practicing with humility and modesty, practicing being the smallest person in the room, requires thinking about these wholesome mindstates and then acting from them.

·       Behave without arrogance, conceit and other self-centered tendencies such as jealousy, envy and an impulse to show off. Behave in ways that reduce one’s sense of self-importance and that give no-fear by their very nature. (The giving of no-fear is one of the most important practices of generosity.)

Remember and Watch Out for The Three Conceits: I am better than you; I am equal to you; I am less than you.

Conceit is prone to arise when one is praised for some particular work or mental quality, usually by others but sometimes by self. Within limits praise from a knowledgeable person can be encouraging without becoming a defilement. The trouble is that too much praise, particularly if it borders on flattery, makes us proud and arrogant. The ego sticks out its chest and feels two inches taller; it has a delicious feeling of security and believes itself to be invulnerable!

This is the nasty sort of pride that the ancient Greeks called hubris; it was looked upon as an insult to the gods, and when the Olympians found a man suffering from it they unloosed Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, who brought him to death or destruction. I am not suggesting we kill everyone who feels proud, but just that we watch ourselves carefully so we can stay humble and modest without pride overriding those wholesome mindstates, which is pride’s tendency.

·       Respect others by having a compassionate interest in them, without a desire to please or to impress. This allows us to do what is appropriate without distortion or suffering. It also allows us to see that right speech, which is grounded in compassion, often leads us to be silent.

·       Relate to others without the need to make your understandings and opinions right and heard, protected or defended. Listen without the need to express and without the need to assert or protect and defend your understandings or opinions. The point of listening is not to express what we already know; that’s conceit. Ultimately, humility and modesty are teaching us not to process everything from a position of I-me-my-mine.

Modesty and humility allow us to walk through life calmly and peacefully, doing what is needed, reasonable and appropriate with discomfort or stress.

To make these virtues, these positive mindstates, into our default setting so they arise naturally without us having to activate them in the face of pride or conceit, in the face of self-deprecation or self-aggrandizement, we need to flood our mind with a commitment to humility and modesty. The easiest way to initiate this is through recitation, or chanting.

Set a timer for 10 minutes. Sit quietly for a minute or two, relaxing your body and mindfully watching your breath. Take long slow deep breaths. Then repeat, over and over, either out loud to yourself:  In each and every moment, I vow to be the smallest person in the room.

Do this once or twice a day, for several weeks, until you sense that humility and modesty are arising naturally in you at times when you might otherwise have become angry or arrogant or wanting your way.

Then make this an occasional practice. Perhaps chant it in the car for a couple of minutes to keep it fresh in your mind, or when you’re showering or brushing your teeth; anytime you are alone and not doing anything that requires much attention, just recite “I vow to be the smallest person in the room” a few times.