Civility and Humility

What happened to civility?

One could of course argue that the world has always been a very uncivil place – particularly for people outside the dominant power structure – but I think most of us would agree that rampant public incivility has become the new normal. Perhaps it’s because this behavior is socially contagious; if not confronted by corrective feedback or consequences, incivility tends to be repeated and spread to others. It’s a constant upping of the ante on who can be first or get the last word.

So what’s driving this mess? While I don’t always see eye to eye with New York Times columnist David Brooks, I do appreciate a comment he made about this topic:

“Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are.”

Is David Brooks a yogi? Perhaps… because that’s pretty much what yoga philosophy says as well.

Coming back down to Earth

Civility is the natural state for one who is humble, and humility is the natural state of a person who sees things as they are.

When we see that the universe is very big and we are very small, that the universe does not revolve around our desires, and that our lifespans are insignificant relative to the lifespan of the universe, our egos come back down to earth from whatever part of the stratosphere they may have drifted off to.

While our lifespans occupy an insignificant stretch of time, our lives themselves remain significant. And when we see things as they are we see that every living being is spiritually significant no matter how insignificant that being may appear to be.

Humility means being in touch with reality as opposed to being stupefied by delusions of grandeur. The essential indicator of humility is an inclination to offer respect to others while maintaining a healthy disinterest in being admired by others.

So, we can assess the quality of our yoga practice by asking ourselves a simple question: ‘is my yoga practice helping me to develop and attitude of humility?’

How to cultivate empowered humility

Yoga philosophy tells us that one of the best ways to develop authentic humility is to cultivate an attitude of service and seek out opportunities to serve others without any expectation of recognition for our efforts. Service to something or someone greater than our selves is the key to cultivating a mood of service and, with it, real humility.

Real humility empowers us to act boldly and confidently. A humble yogi can rise to any occasion and perform any task fearlessly when the situation calls for it because they have confidence in the greatness of the cause that they’re serving.

Cultivating a mood of humility through acts of selfless service for the sake of a cause that’s greater than our selves also attracts the mind of the Supreme Being. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna tells Arjuna:

“One who is free from envy, who is a kind friend to all living beings, who is not controlled by illusory conceptions of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, who is equipoised in both happiness and distress, who is quick to forgive and remains always satisfied, who offers service to me with determination and devotion, whose mind and intelligence are fully invested in me – such a devotee is very dear to me.” – Bg 12.13-14

As we advance on the path of yoga it becomes progressively easier to remain undisturbed by the arguments and actions of those with whom we disagree. Even when firmly standing in opposition to an adversary’s position, an advanced yogi does not become their enemy’s enemy. On the contrary, one who pursues the path of devotional yoga is always kind to everyone, even to his or her enemies.

As this verse from the Gita indicates, such equanimity and unconditional kindness attracts the favor of the Supreme Person, who thus becomes pre-disposed to reveal himself to us. As our awareness of the omnipresence of the Supreme Person rises, we start to see Krishna everywhere, even in the hearts of our enemies.

Thus, devotion is the key element for achieving this high standard of equanimity in yoga. And equanimity, born of humility, is the key to being able to maintain a commitment to civil discourse even in the face of unabashed hostility.

There is no defense against humility

Of course, we’d like the Paramatma – the Lord who resides within the hearts of all beings – to convince our opponents to see things our way. Because, obviously, we are right and they are wrong and God knows the world would be a much better place if everyone would do things the way we think they ought to be done.

However, the Lord within all does not interfere with the free will of even the most foolish among us. It may be that our misfortune in the face of foolishness is just be a matter of karma that we’ll have to tolerate for some time. Fortunately, all karma is temporary.

In the meantime we can encourage civility in social discourse by maintaining our own civility irrespective of provocations to the contrary. And we can anchor our determination to be kind and respectful to our enemies with a humility born of broad vision that’s grounded by proximity to reality.

How we engage in discourse is as important, if not more so, than the substance of what we have to say. I hope you’ll try to engage with your adversaries with respect and humility, however much they may infuriate you. By doing so you may come to find that humility itself is a potent conversational weapon against which there is no defense.

Feel free to offer an opinion

How do you feel about the tone of social discourse? How do you maintain your equanimity when engaging in an adversarial debate? Do you avoid such conversations, tip-toe through them, or take them head on? Please contribute to the conversation by leaving a comment or suggestion about how our yoga practice can help us overcome the acrimony that’s become so prevalent amidst our social divisions.