Being someone: humility and identity (part 1)

An acquaintance of mine who has a knack for explaining contemplative practice in fresh and new ways once posted about humility and identity on a dharma forum: ‘humility is having nothing invested in the self-image’.

This was new to me because the concept of humility often implies, to the individualistic modern person, some form of self-effacement that borders on self-punishment. I wasn’t sufficiently confident in who I was to lose any of what I was; I couldn’t risk being reduced, when I felt so vulnerable. But with a little more experience, I can see that it is (as usual) a paradox that takes in unconditional and conditional ways of looking at the self, and responding with different kinds of ‘humility’ that are, at base, completely harmless and beneficial.

From the conditional side, there is the humility that is tied to good conduct, born of grasping too much and so working on reducing that. Sila requires puñña because you can’t know what’s good conduct unless you have good awareness. Vipassana or other practices that improve moment to moment awareness are therefore good for this, because the processes around the fretful grasping to maintain conditional power, social standing, financial security, continuity of personality and so on that make up the sense of self become much more obvious. What’s more, the grasping that has no real usefulness in the modern world becomes obvious. My classic examples would be, for instance, the felt craving for a cigarette that seems to say ‘if you don’t have one, you won’t be able to function correctly’. If you can’t function correctly, the self is at risk, right? Asking the question ‘what will happen if I don’t function correctly?’ is great as a cognitive behavioural intervention for anxiety, pointing at the very ancient fear of basically not surviving that is expressed in the body in those feelings of anxiety. But more deeply, it asks, ‘what kinds of thoughts, feelings and behaviours am I trying to maintain in order to feel “correct”?’ It is obviously the case that ‘feeling ok’ and ‘being ok’ have been conflated here, and even lead one to ignoring much more important levels of ‘being ok’: such as objectively risking lung cancer in order to feel ‘ok for now’.

The irrational and circular nature of the fretful grasping becomes obviously maladaptive in a day to day way when you look at it like, but in a contemplative way, it becomes increasingly baseless, lacking any inherency: anatta. When I think about how far I’ve gone for a cigarette, for instance, it’s ridiculous. It’s far less effort to sit on a meditation cushion for fifteen minutes and wait for the cravings to go away than to hunt down somewhere that sells fags late at night. And yet I’ve done it. Whatever part of me that has been propped up, for whatever reasons (those reasons being the associations, drives, impulses, and actions that are linked to smoking, to use our example, leading to the causation of craving and the action of smoking) is not something that, if I lose it, will reduce me in some way that is damaging. I did not even accept the identity of ‘smoker’ for a long time, as with typical cognitive dissonance, I didn’t want to have the association with a habit I felt was bad. But the whole idea of giving up anything, to a fearful person who had started to experience impermanence more directly and was scared by it- that’s a ‘hard sell’. The prevalence of this is obvious in other behaviours: tell someone you dislike their taste in clothes, or their football team, or their mum, and they can often react as if you’re attacking them. It can become even more egocentric: I’ve met people (and been the person) who, if you compliment other people than them, feel like you’re calling them lesser or inadequate, and can react in fact quite angrily.

Therefore, the concept of humility in this conditional sense, looking at the self as a set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that can be adaptive or maladaptive, is the practice of reducing the delusions of egocentricity and false attachment. The specific practice is renunciation: sacrificing things of seemingly great value and realising that they were merely holding you back. Traditional examples include great restraint in speech, such as not correcting others if one is a bit of a know-it-all; giving up pleasures such as rich foods, or even the sex life entirely for a celibate monk; or giving up creature comforts (‘high and luxurious beds’, say the Buddhists, often.) Great care needs to be taken in this area because, for a neurotic bod like me, the self can always feel under attack at the best of times. The causes of this – including being part of an oppressed group, having had overly pessimistic parents, or facing a large number of setbacks in life – are not a bad thing to be aware of in order to know how to be correctly humble. A person who really hates who they are could use humility to beat themselves up even more, reinforcing a victim or hateful identity for the secondary gain of simply having an identity to hold onto. In this case, the humility needs to be applied to the delusion, the distortion, that sets you apart as especially deserving of contempt, punishment, mockery. It’s as egotistical to see yourself as the worst person alive as it is to see yourself as a saint, surely? Similarly, there is no point in encouraging a person who feels completely disconnected from others and lacking in self-reflection to ‘give up attachments’. People who feel like black sheep often need to own their identities and make that an anchor.

A number of people have talked about the need to have a healthy self-image before it can be deconstructed, which explains why enlightenment isn’t about going backwards into the kind of wide-eyed ignorance and lack of awareness of a child that some mislabel it as: you have to know the rules before you can break them, really, though some people have been taught a particularly vindictive and nasty version of them (to extend the metaphor) while others have been taught a flexible and nuanced interpretation. I’m currently of the opinion that hardcore vipassana really is for those who are very adaptive personalities, able to accept the massive changes that it can wreak on the sense of self with a positivity and bravery that many of us basically just don’t have. If you read this and feel jealous or sad, then I’d say that I also believe very much that people can develop those kind of personalities. In any case, gentler practices and a huge focus on sila seem more important than doing so much vipassana that impermanence looms large over your life. I say this as a person who did too much, too inconsistently, too early, rather than focusing on the foundation, but also feels that things are generally getting better in life and practice.

Part two will discuss the unconditional side of humility: never mind reducing negative elements of an identity- is an identity necessary at all?

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