"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

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Episode 50 -- October 5, 2020

Look to the Stars: Practicing Humility

Humility helps us approach what we do with an open and curious mind, and no time is better to practice humility than during today. Beverly Conyers, author of Find Your Light: Practicing Mindfulness to Recover from Anything, explains how humility will only serve us in our recovery. It helps us shed our need to be "perfect," it helps us shed our own self-judgement. And, humility opens us up to a great many possibilities--which are what we need now more than ever. Then, in her exercise, she asks us to get outside and gaze at the stars. That is a humbling thing. A welcome practice.

This excerpt is from Find Your Light by Beverly Conyers and has been edited for brevity.

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," wrote Sir Isaac Newton, one of the world's greatest scientists, in 1675. Nearly three hundred years later, Albert Einstein made an equally humble remark in a letter to a friend: "People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live... [We] never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born."

It may seem surprising that two men of such spectacular intellect held a lifelong attitude of humility. But in reality, humility was key to their success--for it was humility that allowed them to approach their work with an open and curious mind. That same humble attitude of openness and curiosity is required of us if we are to fully realize the vast potential of our own life.

I once heard a man in a Twelve Step meeting say that he never admits he is wrong and never backs down. "You have to stand up for yourself," he explained. He stopped coming to the meetings not long after that, but I sometimes wonder about him and how he is doing. If he's like a lot of us, it probably took him a while to sort out the vital role that humility plays in our personal growth.

Humility has nothing to do with being meek or submissive or thinking of ourselves as less than anybody else. It also has nothing to do with having high or low self-esteem. Simply put, humility is about letting go of the belief that we know all we need to know. When we practice humility, we learn to question our own certainties, to admit that we don't have all the answers, and to ask for help when we need it. We accept that we, like all people, have flaws and limitations. And because humility opens our heart and mind to new ways of seeing things, it allows us to learn from our mistakes. Paradoxically, humility is an expression of confidence in our own worth because we don't have to pretend to be perfect in order to feel worthwhile.

Humility is widely recognized as an important quality in effective leadership. An article in the Harvard Business Review titled "The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders" noted that "without humility you are unable to learn." That's because when we think we know best, we close our mind to new, possibly better ideas. What's more, leaders who model the ability to admit mistakes, learn from criticism, and listen to others' point of view make it okay for subordinates to do the same, creating an environment of teamwork rather than one-upmanship.

The same qualities of humility that enhance leadership also improve personal relationships. I once overheard a woman say to a friend, "If my kid was acting that way, I know what I'd do"--the implication being that she knew how to handle the situation and her friend needed to hear it. The urge to tell others what to do may spring from an earnest desire to be of help. But we can never know for sure what is best for someone else. What we do know is that being able to listen with an open mind goes a long way toward promoting understanding and mutual respect.

Perhaps surprisingly, humility can also help to improve the relationship we have with our self.

It's easy to confuse humility with low self-esteem, something many of us in recovery struggle with. "I already think poorly of myself. I don't need to practice humility," you may be thinking. But an exaggerated sense of low self-worth is as much an obstacle to humility as an overblown sense of importance. For when we cling stubbornly to a negative self-image, we close our mind to other, more enlightened perspectives.

Humility opens our mind to the reality that mistakes and confusion are part of the human condition--for us and for everyone. It frees us from the harmful belief that we have to be "perfect" in order to be worthy of love and respect. And it allows us to value our self as we value others, not ranked in some merit-based hierarchy, but as equally flawed and vulnerable sojourners on this journey called life.

When we practice humility, we learn to drop our pretenses and explore the mystery of our own existence. As the writer Rainer Maria Rilke advised: "Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue... Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

As an exercise, I want you to put this into practice with stargazing.
In the poem at the beginning of this chapter, Walt Whitman captures the difference between thinking and awareness when he leaves the lecture hall to look up "in perfect silence at the stars." Try this yourself.

Sit or stand comfortably outside or near a window through which you can see the night sky. Breathe normally. Take a moment to settle your thoughts. Then, pick an object in the sky--the moon or star or even a constellation. Observe it with your senses fully engaged for as long as you like. Don't analyze it. Don't try to figure it out. Simply listen to the silence, feel the texture of the distance, and see the clear, bright light that has come from so far away. What does the mystery of the universe feel like to you?

Find more about mindfulness in recovery by Beverly Conyers in the book Find Your Light.

About the Author:
Author Beverly Conyers--one of the most respected voices in wellness and recovery--has guided hundreds of thousands of readers through the process of recognizing family roles in addiction, healing shame, building healthy relationships, releasing trauma, focusing on emotional sobriety, as well as acknowledging self-sabotaging behaviors, addictive tendencies, and substance use patterns. With her newest work, Conyers shows us how the practice of mindfulness can be a game-changing part of recovering from any- and everything. She is the author of Find Your Light: Practicing Mindfulness to Recover from Anything (Nov. 2019), Follow Your Light: A Guided Journal to Recover from Anything (Aug. 2020) as well as Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope, and Recovery (2003), Everything Changes: Help for Families of Newly Recovering Addicts (2009), The Recovering Heart: Emotional Sobriety for Women (2013).

© 2019 by Beverly Conyers
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