Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.Matthew 11:29
Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 18:4
These three short texts taken from Matthew’s account of the gospel offer us a window into the nature of humility. It’s one of those misunderstood qualities that seems to evoke either deep resentment or too eager assimilation.
As you ponder these three texts let your attention be drawn to one and settle in to chew over the phrase and its associations for you…
Digging in the dirt…
Humility is linked with the earth by its etymology – humus is the organic component of soil formed by the decomposition of plant material.
Generally, the association with the earth has negative overtones for us – poor as dirt, dirt cheap, soil yourself, dirty mind/mouth – and to be humble appears to require us to accept our essential unworthiness. We are dust. Our value is borrowed at best, illusory at worst.
Conventional wisdom says if we want to be worthy, we’ll need to hustle for it, grasp after it and prove it over and over. This ‘wisdom’ is also validated by the wound of our childhood where, one way or another, we learned that just as we are, we are not good enough, lovable enough, smart enough, nice enough….
But when we are brought up short by unworthiness, when we experience the shame of our perceived lack of value this is not an experience of humility – it is humiliation.
We have all been there – when or how have you experienced the sting of humiliation? How have you tended to that wound? What happens to you when the shame shit storm hits, and what helps you find your way out?
Smelling the roses…
But the earth is rich and creative, generative, sustaining life and immense diversity.
And the earth is made of stardust. Which is not too shabby.
Humility is not a denial of worth but a clear eyed recognition of essential truth – that your worthiness is a given. Given by the God who loves and delights in your very being, in the simple fact of your existence, which is joy.
So to embrace this truth sets us free from the grasping, proving, keeping up appearances of worthiness that we spend so much energy on, and allows us to see beyond the fear of exposure and to the beauty of being here.
There are positive associations with the earth for us to recognise in humility too….Gentleness, a slow, courageous strength, enduring and patient, cherishing and generous. Where have you encountered these aspects of humility, either in yourself or in another?
When lack of worth is assumed, and kindness or generosity offered from this hollow place of want, we recognise it as ‘false’ humility. What does ‘false’ humility feel like for you? What does it evoke in you when you encounter it?
When humility is embraced, opportunities and obligations to give, care and serve become mutually enriching. Giving and receiving both require us to embrace humility if there is to be any hope of equality in our relationships.
What do you notice about your experience or expectation of finding dignity and recognition of worth through mutuality and reciprocity?
As your inner conversation around humility begins to rise in response to these reflections, simply observe with compassion whatever you find is evoked, and then take some time to engage with what is present in the ways that best help you process.
There’s a wealth of possibility in what clay can become, especially if you start out with no clear intention for it and just let your hands form it and reform it while you sing, pray out loud, have a conversation with your shamed self…
Perhaps the clay might show you a way to express some of the elements you noticed in reflecting on humility, shame and worth? Perhaps you can shape the way you would like to hold a sense of your worth?
You may prefer to work with the earth in your garden which offers opportunities for reflecting on what grows in the garden of your soul, what is welcome and what is not, what is helpful and what is essential to growth… You may like to write something in response to this – a poem, a letter, a memory of humiliation – and plant it with some seeds or daffodil bulbs.
Bow down to the ground
There is a story from the Russian church of a young monk who was beginning to doubt his faith. He went to see his mentor expecting him to ask many questions and offer many answers. Instead his mentor told him: bow down in full prostrations fifty times every day and then come to see me in a month. The young monk was very disappointed with his mentor’s response, but having taken a vow of obedience, he proceeded to prostrate himself fifty times every day.
When he went back a month later, he found his body and the earth together had taught him the truth of his faith.
You can try the full prostration, lying face down with arms outstretched to each side in a cross shape, or you might prefer child’s pose, which brings the head below the heart.
Move into either pose each time from standing to get the full benefit of bowing down, stay there for a slow breath or two as you sense the feel of the earth and your body, and repeat at least ten times each day.
This is another daily practice. Sitting in a comfortable position on the floor is preferable; this can be on a prayer cushion in the lotus style, with legs crossed in front, or in saddle style, sitting back on heels but with the cushion raising the hips.
Once you are settled, tilt your pelvis back and forth to find a natural neutral, lift your ribs away from your hips while gently drawing your shoulder blades back and down, lightly opening the chest. Soften your elbows away from your ribs and let your hands rest palms down on your thighs. Release any holding tension in your neck with a soft waggle of your head and then lengthen through the back of the neck, letting the crown of your head lift toward the sky.
Now bring your attention to your breath, mindfully lengthening the inhale and exhale, breathing into lower lungs, mid lungs and upper lungs. As you inhale you will feel your belly rise, ribs rise and then sternum lift, exhaling slowly let all the air flow out and draw your navel back towards your spine at the bottom of each breath.
Once you have a mindful rhythm, as you inhale silently say the word “I”, engaging with all your I-ness, and as you exhale, silently say the word “AM”, engaging with all your is-ness.
You may find it helpful to sense the I-ness and the is-ness in some part of your body – this may happen without your conscious prompting. If you lose focus, whenever you notice your attention has wandered, simply come back to the breath, the sense and the words.
Continue this breath prayer for 20 minutes each day.
One more thing…
While it’s hard to avoid feeling shame, it is possible to develop shame resilience so that, when the self talk of unworthiness begins, we have ways to unhitch from the spiralling nose dive and find ourselves back on the level.
Here are a few of my most effective levellers:
Call a good friend who will give you what you need (empathy is usually spot on) to remind you of who you really are and re-orient yourself in your own story. Brene Brown says that shame pushes us in one of three directions – withdraw and hide away from others, creep and crawl to appease and please or up and at ’em to fight back. Work through your first reaction with whoever you call, and then you can choose how you want to respond from the level place.
Change the mantra
Instead of ‘unworthy, unworthy, unworthy‘, try this:
I am safe; I am loved; I can let things unfold.
Claim your courage
Shame backs us into a corner and disconnects us from resourcefulness, creativity and agency. It takes courage to reach out. It takes courage to admit what is happening inside you. It takes courage to tell the story of humiliation but here’s the miracle – telling the story is the path back to the level. Choose carefully who you reach out to – not everyone has earned the right to hear your story, but not everyone needs to. If you have one or two people who will listen and be a companion as you find your way, that’s enough.