We humans live on earth thanks to a wondrous combination of circumstances. First, the earth’s molten core creates the perfect gravitational pull so that we have an atmosphere. Without the core being exactly as it is, the atmosphere would sublimate into space (as it did on Mars, when that planet’s core cooled). The atmosphere also protects us from the wild violence of space: the flying debris, the solar flares. Humans are perfectly attuned to breathe here, as the plants are perfectly attuned to photosynthesize. We are bathed in the constant nourishment of the light and heat we receive in diurnal cycles from the sun. We are nested in a perfect soup of ecosystems, of field and ocean in perfect dynamic balance: a magical place where food literally grows on trees. When people speak of human dominion over the Earth, or assert that God gave man nature’s resources to use as he sees fit, I am incredulous: How can you not bow down? How can one think that humans are primary drivers, rather than treasured members of the family of life, existing completely in the planets’ grace, as part of an interdependent complex system?
The Fatal Frame
For me, humanity’s collective and willful destruction of our ecosystems derives from a fatal framing flaw—perhaps we can call it the tragedy of the anthropocentric frame. The frame that we are somehow outside of nature. We have objectified nature and made it exogenous. Even our language betrays us. Language often gives us a false sense of mastery over a subject: We can describe it, therefore we understand it. We call it “ecology” (study of home), or “environment” (that which encircles us). Even in this language we are separate, standing apart from the web of life.
How do we get to the spiritual heart of the matter and speak to “ecological self realization,” or the waking up to oneself as nature? “Deep Ecology,” a philosophy developed in the 1970s by Arne Naess, seeks to articulate the “difference in motivations between “shallow ecology,” which puts human welfare first, and “deep ecology,” which emphasizes the integrity of all life. Naess points to the need for an inner motivation and awareness of self as nature.
I’d like to see it go a step further. I’d like to see an internalization of a mystic understanding that we are each indivisibly part of an intermeshed reality, and that this is not just philosophy or poetry, but a scientific truth. We are part of the Earth and can’t exist without her. This is a critical step for sustaining the political and economic actions that are needed now. I propose an awakening in the west to a Vedantic understanding of an old word: humility.
Humility: Born of This Earth and Utterly Dependent on It
Humility is from the latin humilitas, alternately translated as “humble,” “grounded,” or “from the earth.” It has the same root as the word humus, or earth—and human. Humility has been much maligned in the western individualistic mind, interpreted mistakenly as obsequiousness. It sounds too close to humiliation: being brought low in the eyes of others.
Obsequious Humility and Slave Morality
Humility in the Greco-Roman world was tied to socio-economic status. The humble were equated with the lowly, and were looked down upon. In the Hebrew scriptures, being humble was tied to being disadvantaged and abused. The Christian church turned humility into a virtue. By the AD1100s, the Benedictine monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux parsed humility and pride into twelve stages, elevating the meek and submissive aspects of humbleness to an almost performative “laying low “of oneself. This conflation of humility with meekness denied the magnificence of humanity and all of creation- and eventually there was a backlash.
William Allen (1681), wrote “Humility is such a lowly habit of mind, as by which men are inclined to under-value rather than to over-value themselves, and always to demean themselves according to such an estimate.” Humility isn’t “impotency or feebleness,” but a recognition that one has “fortitude and courage.” Allen speaks of Christ as one who is humble, but models “a great mind not shaken by the little matters of life.”
Allen, and later philosopher Immanuel Kant, reclaim humility from obsequiousness. In Kant and The Ethics of Humility, Jeanine Grenberg writes that Kant’s view is that a “moral agent’s proper perspective on herself is as a dependent and corrupt but capable and dignified rational agent. ” Grenberg says that we need both the “awareness of limitation” and “awareness of one’s worth as an agent” to have proper humility. To paraphrase: If I believe I am worthless and nothing, then what good does it do to be humble, it’s not a willful act. I am de facto humble! But if I say “I am all this wonder” and yet I bow down, it’s a very different worldview. It is one of surrender
Then along comes Nietzsche, in the 19th century, who takes it even further. He says that humility is not a virtue at all. Nietzsche writes “When stepped on, a worm doubles up. That is clever. In that way he lessens the probability of being stepped on again. In the language of morality: humility.” In Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche excoriates humility as one of the Christian values that is the most visible sign of the “slave morality,” and points out that humility was never a chosen virtue, but rather one in which the qualities of being a good slave (a condition forced upon the many by the few) were twisted to be virtuous. Humility to Nietzsche is an essential hypocrisy. This line of thinking can only be drafted in response to the pre-existing Christian twisting of the concept of humility.
Immanent Miraculousness and Transcendent Humility
In Indian thought of the same era, Swami Vivekenanda writes:
“See God in every person — working through all hands, walking through all feet, and eating through every mouth….So long as there is one that breathes throughout the universe, I live in that one. I am not this limited little being, I am the universal. I am the life of all the sons of the past. I am the soul of Buddha, of Jesus, of Mohammed. I am the soul of all the teachers, and I am all the robbers that robbed, and all the murderers that were hanged, I am the universal. Stand up then ; this is the highest worship. You are one with the universe. That only is humility — not crawling upon all fours and calling yourself a sinner. That is the highest evolution when this veil of differentiation is torn off. The highest creed is Oneness. I am so-and-so is a limited idea, not true of the real ”I’. I am the universal; stand upon that and ever worship the Highest through the highest form, for God is Spirit and should be worshipped in spirit and in truth.”
Continuing in the Hindu tradition, we see Mahatma Gandhi calling humility as essential virtue:
“True humility means most strenuous and constant endeavour entirely directed to the service of humanity. God is performing continuous action without resting for a single moment. If we would serve Him or become one with Him, our activity must be as unwearied as His. There may be rest in store for the drop which is separated from the ocean, but not for the drop in the ocean, which knows no rest. The same is the case with ourselves. As soon as we become one with the ocean in the shape of God, there is no more rest for us, nor indeed do we need rest any longer. Our very sleep is action. For we sleep with the thought of God in our hearts. This restlessness constitutes true rest. This never-ceasing agitation holds the key to peace ineffable. This supreme state of total surrender is difficult to describe, but not beyond the bounds of human experience.”
We are now getting at the heart of the thing: humility as the spiritual practice of bowing down, not in fear, but in wonder and gratitude, to the infinite complexity and surprise of the manifest world. Devotion, surrender, willingness to not know, standing in wonder and awe, willingness to be wrong, willingness to be nested as part of nature. The willingness to see all the world as holy. The papal encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, states, “It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.”
To act from an internalized reality that everything deserves reverence is the foundation of an ecophilic humility, and provides the fuel for sustainable action.
Willingness to Not Know
“What I see in Nature is a grand design that we can understand only imperfectly, one with which a responsible person must look at with humility…I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” – Albert Einstein
What would it mean to acknowledge that at our scale of being size, length of life, processing power- we are likely to misperceive complex systems? We are often wrong. We try to solve a point problem, thinking we can have mastery over a nuanced and intertwined world, usually with unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are themselves the end point of lack of humility.
Here’s an example of unintended consequences that was relayed at the SAND conference in 2019: the damming of rivers for power. To a point solution thinker, it’s a simple thing: catch the force of the water on its way to the ocean. Yet, the limited understanding of how building a dam impacts local salmon fisheries created a cascade of unintended consequences. The lack of salmon for bears and birds of prey to feed upon (and subsequently eliminate into the forests) lowers the amount of sea minerals getting into the ecosystem of upstream soil, which in turn degrades the soil and dessicates trees, which leads to more intense forest fires. We must begin with the assumption that natural systems are perfect in their design, which we might not yet understand, and go as far down as we can in anticipating potential consequences before we act.
So the question is: Are we willing to think in systems? And when all the information has been gathered, to devise a (potentially more costly) way to generate power from rivers without impeding the salmon? We must trust that nature is so intelligent that any man made deviation must be done with great care. We must slow down.
Economist and social pioneer Charles Eisenstein, speaking at the Science and Nonduality conference, said, “I would like to see a little bit of humility in our culture, which comes from humiliation, which comes from failure, and that moment of ‘I don’t know.’ Underneath the ‘I don’t know’ is knowledge, that can only grow when we allow ourselves not to know. And then things become possible…”
Eisenstein echoes the Catholic Church writing in Laudato Si: “Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment.”
The idea that humility is a necessary element for innovation and insight is also expressed by author Barnaby Marsh, writing for edge.org:
“Scientific humility is the key that opens a whole new possibility space—a space where being unsure is the norm; where facts and logic are intertwined with imagination, intuition, and play. It is a dangerous and bewildering place where all sorts of untested and unjustified ideas lurk… Go there and one can see quickly why, when faced with uncertainty, most of us would rather quickly retreat. Don’t. This is the space where amazing things happen. The clearest and most compelling message from the history of science is that old ideas, even very good old ideas, are regularly augmented or even replaced altogether with new ideas.”
Are We Humble Enough to Ask the Plants?
Here’s another level of humility and trust: We can stop assuming we are the only conscious actors on earth. In 2016, I attended a conference on sacred plants at Synergia Ranch in Santa Fe, NM, at which Dennis McKenna was speaking. He was addressing the climate crisis, and the other ecological crises (such as species loss) that are impacting the planet and our survivability. He made the point that not only are sacred plants here to awaken human consciousness—as messengers from the plant world speaking to our unconscious minds—but that we can in fact actively ask the plants, the trees, and even the mycelium to collaborate with us in returning our eclogues to stasis. He expressed the opinion that all of humanity should serve the plants, as they are the only reason we have life on Earth; that we should see ourselves as servant leaders, not masters. Could we imagine being this humble? Humble enough to see the whole of creation as an agent in dynamic stasis? For example, mycologist Paul Stamets says that if we stop emitting carbon, the mycelium would clean the atmosphere in five years. The entire biosphere wants to live. If we lean into this, we might have more hope of real cures emerging. Just stop doing harmful things, or do fewer harmful things, and the earth itself will move to healing.
The Movement is in the Heart
In Myth and Metaphysics, George Gusdorf writes: [Romanticism changed] religious truth, scientific truth, human truth, meaning and values. A complete revolution touched the interior space, the spiritual heart of each human being.
This is what might be needed: a complete revolution in the interior space of the individual. To say I am this Earth, it is me, is to say I am no better, not above it, rather utterly and completely dependent on it. When I stop trying to be in mastery, I can allow for mystery, for not knowing, and return to the deep listening that will allow me to live better as part of the community of all beings.
The worldview that supports this was articulated by Albert Einstein, in a letter to a grieving father named Robert S. Marcus:
“A person is a space and time delimited piece of the whole, of that which we call ‘Universe.’ He experiences himself and his feelings as estranged/separated as it relates to the rest, an optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
This ecological self-realization, seeing ourselves as nature, gradually changes the way we act as individuals. With enough individuals waking up to this, we will shift economically and politically in deep ways.
I feel that humility is in fact necessary to become an agent of change. We are each of us, at the same time, nothing and everything. Totally unimportant as part of the grand parade of divinity and human lives, and of ultimate importance as the only instantiation that will ever exist in this human form: a unique movement in the mind of creation.