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Home > Columns > "The Grindstone" > February, 2006 - The Triangular Base of Training: Wisdom, Humility, and Self-doubt

The Triangular Base of Training: Wisdom, Humility, and Self-doubt by "The Grindstone"

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This column was written by David M. Valadez

Note from Mr. Valadez: The following came up on our dojo email list - which we use to promote discussion and/or self-refection, etc., for the sake of deepening our training. The piece is self-explanatory. For me, there is some overlap with what we ended up talking about here and what one can read in George Ledyard's article, Clarity and Self-Delusion in One's Training.

A while back, I sent out the following quote by Thomas Merton:

"The fruitfulness of our life depends in large measure on our ability to doubt our own words and to question the value of our own work. The man who completely trusts his own estimate of himself is doomed to (spiritual) sterility. All he asks of any act he performs is that it is his act. If it is performed by him, it must be good (so he thinks). All words spoken by him must be infallible (so he believes). The car he has just bought is the best for its price, for no other reason than that he is the one who has bought it. He seeks no other fruit than this, and therefore he generally gets no other. If we believe ourselves in part, we may be right about ourselves. If we are completely taken in by our own disguise, we cannot help being wrong."
I also included my own personal take on the quote when I sent it out. I wrote:

"For me the quote speaks about something that seems to come up quite often in the cultivation of the spirit. Often, in seeking spiritual maturity, we are told to practice various acts of self-reflection, of contemplation. However, at such times, many of us see this only as a request to ask ourselves what we are thinking and/or what we are feeling, etc. We wrongly see our own thoughts and our own feelings as answers and not as the questions that they truly are. Thus, there is no real depth to our self-investigations and so change or transformation of the self is hardly ever possible or achieved. We do not dig deeper to see why and how we are thinking or feeling, or why or how we are thinking "x" and not "y," etc. Moreover, we do not ever reflect at deep enough level to be able to determine if we should even be thinking or feeling what we are thinking or feeling.

In my opinion, all of this comes from an attachment to self, which is also a lack of faith in the greater aspect of which we are only a part of (be that God, or Nature, or the Universe, or the Truth - etc. - you pick the word). It is a type of egocentrism that pushes God, etc., out of the center of our existence and pushes our small self - with all of our ego failings - to the center of all things, all times, and all people, etc. The source of this egocentrism is a misplaced faith in one's sense of self - it is a kind of self-worshipping, which is a kind of idolatry. Spiritual maturity, or the practice of wisdom and compassion, is not found in positing the self as a golden statue to be worshipped - there is no insight in an idolatry of the small self. Spiritual maturity is first, last, and always, found in a kind of self-doubt. This is because spiritual maturity can only be born in humility. If we have faith in that which is greater than ourselves, we will solve this paradox, since the paradox of becoming wise by doubting the self is only one that exists for the self-idolater. For one that understands the relationship between wisdom, humility, and self-doubt, things not only make sense, there is no other way for things to be."

Since that time, I have received two replies that were quite alike in nature. Both raised some very good issues and made some very important requests for further clarity. I will provide one of them below. It read:

"The connection between self-doubt/self-reflection and spiritual maturity (i.e. practicing wisdom and compassion) is clear. However, does such practice necessarily require a self-doubt that abnegates one's own significance?

In Judaism, one is supposed to be self-reflective at times, but one is never supposed to check one's own thoughts at the door; one is always expected to remain conscious, questioning, and to never abandon a sense of oneself (even when trembling before God). This process necessarily involves one's ego, but is expected to bring one in conformity with God's law and is not generally thought to be a process that displaces God.

Merton's quote describes a movement towards self-reflection. It clearly indicates one must not idolize oneself. Yet, it does not seem to describe a particularly rigorous standard for self-reflection. How deep must the humility that you describe actually go? What, concretely does an avoidance of self-idolatry mean?"

First, I would like to say that what Merton describes is not something particular to the Catholic faith -- which he was a part of. He is speaking of a problem of our humanity (i.e. conscious and subconscious ego attachment) and of the only way of addressing that problem (i.e. the cultivation of humility and selflessness). He has targeted in on something that is central to all spiritual paths. To understand this, we must be sure to motivate ourselves beyond doctrinal issues -- this is a universal of humankind. This is why we see the same thing being said in many other spiritual traditions. In specific relation to Budo and/or to Aikido, this is why we see the same thing being said in the Buddhist tradition, particularly in Zen, Confucian thought, Taoist philosophy, Judaic and Christian mystic traditions, Omoto-kyo, and why we see it in the thinking and writing of Osensei (the founder of Aikido). For example, we can see this idea clearly when Osensei writes:

"Before God we must give up our ego, freeing our mind of all thoughts and endeavor to be able to execute divine deeds by calming our spirit and returning to God."

Before proceeding onward, I would like to offer up a common example, as a non-doctrinal reference point -- an example of how we often (especially early on in our training) doom ourselves to spiritual sterility by completely trusting our own estimate of ourselves. In this example, I would like to tie this response to one of the more practical matters of spiritual maturity as it pertains to our training. Namely, I would like to talk about the way we come to training confident that we are doing all we can in regards to our day-to-day practice. Perhaps this is not clear or not clearly experienced as an ego attachment, nor may it be clear that it is solved solely through tools like self-doubt and thus ultimately through humility. Nevertheless, it is an ego-attachment, and it is the most commonly experienced in my opinion. This type of ego attachment is often more visible through the type of resistance that often is adjoined to it. Therefore, let us begin speaking on it via the more common types of resistance that are usually present and much more noticeable.

Again, so that the reader is clear on what we are talking about: With the lack of self-doubt you often have a resistance toward training in general and in specific toward training more. Without self-doubt, there is often a sense that one is training all that one could or all that one would like to (i.e. that one's training routine is consistent with one's expectations), etc. This often comes with a feeling that one has no more time to give to training, that one could not possibly re-prioritize life differently (so as to train more), that one's current schedule is not being appreciated (particularly by those that may ask for more training time -- such as a sensei), that the things that you value are not being universally valued by all (by one's teachers, by one's seniors), etc.

If we have ever felt any of these types of resistances, and we all do when we first begin (and for a great many years), then we are lacking the self-doubt that Merton, and so many others, are speaking of. We are stuck generating a spiritual sterility that is the product of our incapacity to doubt ourselves -- to doubt that we are doing all we can; to doubt that we have no time; to doubt that we cannot re-prioritize our lives; to doubt that our schedule is not being appreciated and valued, etc. Rather, we are stuck presenting ourselves in a way that makes us resistant to the very reason for practicing the living Way -- we are making ourselves resistant to transformation. Thus, all of our energy goes into not seeing ourselves critically -- truthfully. All of our energy goes into feeling that to doubt ourselves is to destroy our Self. This is how a delusion of the spirit works. Delusions of the spirit must always be justifiable, and they can be thus only with or through the most ultimate of things. Hence, we are forced to see the world in "black and white," and we are sure to always place ourselves on the positive side of that dichotomy. We are left then only with questions like, "If I doubt myself, will I not negate myself into oblivion?" "If I forfeit X, will I not die or disappear altogether?" "If I sacrifice Y, will I not in the end have sacrificed everything?" Our ego makes us experience the world in this way. It makes us feel, especially when it comes to its own identity, that we must choose only between the status quo and total despair. Hence, to do more in terms of training is to lose our life; to give more in terms of training is to forfeit all else; to be more in terms of training is to not care about anyone else; etc.

As a teacher, I come to assist students with reconciling these delusions, or I lose students to the great mass of mediocrity and of quitters. I call them delusions because the plain and simple fact is that all of us can always do more than we are doing. This is true because there are no limits to the depths of the self, and thus there are no limits to how we may practice self-reflection, contemplation, and/or how we may cultivate spiritual maturity. This is a fact we cannot deny.

In truth, we can measure the depth of our practice by how well we have reconciled the whole of our lives with this fact (i.e. that we can always do more). The only boundaries that come to us in regards to spiritual development are the ones we set by ourselves, the ones we set out of fear, pride, or ignorance (all three being products of ego-attachment). Some students come to reconcile these matters quickly and fully; some come to make such reconciliation a life-long process that is in constant need of attention; or they quit. There are really no other options than this when it comes to Budo. In our practice, we must find a way to bravely face the infinity of spiritual practice and our distance from it. We must do this, or we must stop training -- eventually.

As a teacher, trying to fulfill my role, two things -- two interrelated things - always strike me. I am struck by how off the mark such a delusion truly is (i.e. how much the fact that we can always do more is denied). Additionally, I am struck by how powerful such a delusion truly is -- by how much it governs not only what a student can and cannot do but also what he/she will and/or will not attempt to do. (Of course, this is no different for teachers either -- remember we are talking about a human condition here.) Underneath, when adopting the view of the teacher, there lies the great punch line: I am here as teacher, but also as a student of the art myself, most times doing more than others, yet I am always aware that I could be doing more (much more), aware that I am not doing enough. However, when we are in the midst of these kinds of delusions, when we are blinded by our own ego attachment or by our own incapacity to doubt ourselves, when we are stuck placing ourselves at the center of all judgment, we cannot see what is around us. Alternately, if we can see what is around us, it is viewed only in a way that it offers no clarity toward ourselves -- we do not gain the benefits of observing the contrast of another. Hence, for example, often, deshi that feel that they are doing all they can in regards to their training, do not see what I am doing in truth, nor do they see how I feel about that as well. They do not see that with even less to doubt than they, that I doubt more. In other words, being unable to practice self-doubt is not only connected to a blindness of ourselves, it is also connected to a blindness of others.

I remember when I was a young man -- between 16 years old and 18 years old -- I got my first "wake up" call regarding these kinds of issues. At that time, I was training in both Speed Skating (inline) and Cycling. I was about to enter into the more senior divisions -- which traditionally had the more prominent athletes (ages 18 to 27). At 16, I did not yet have to compete against these athletes. However, my times were looked at next to theirs because in many cases my times were equal or better. Regardless of those times, when I became 18 and actually had to start racing against these men. How did I fare? My actual performance did not equal my expected potential. Quickly I learned that a whole lot goes into winning in the senior division -- much more than just having a fast time. For example, one needs race strategy and one needs an overall greater endurance, one that allows an athlete to remain efficient throughout the three to five days of some of the larger events. One also requires the kind of endurance that allows one to deal with the ins and outs of races that do not go quite as planned.

During my first year competing in the senior division, all I did was complain. I was still in my last year of high school. Most of the stars of the sport had graduated from high school and had postponed college for the sake of better dedicating themselves to training and to winning. For me, I was doing all I could do, and that was what I was supposed to do -- so I believed. However, it was not good enough -- obviously. Somehow, through my ego, I made it "their" entire fault. I said, "Well, if I wasn't doing anything all day either, I could train all day too - and then I'd really blow them all away." In that self-serving delusion, I took so much for granted. I took for granted all that they were doing and all that they had to suffer in order to do it. My ego had made it seem that it was just so easy to train all day long -- that it was only a matter of time scheduling, requiring nothing of commitment, discipline, faith, etc. For me, my training suffered not because I lacked what they had (e.g. commitment, discipline, faith, etc.), but because they were afforded what I was not (i.e. time to train).

Well, I graduated high school. My mom allowed me to postpone college for two years to pursue my sports. With the day free, I set out a schedule that had me training the 8 hours a day that the other more prominent athletes were doing. What happened? I could not do it -- not even close. Why? Because what they were doing was not merely a matter of afforded time. It was a matter of character -- of having cultivated things like discipline, commitment, dedication, sacrifice, psychological and emotional endurance, etc. Fortunately, because I was not a totally lost soul, I was eventually able to realize this -- able to admit this to myself. I was also able to realize that the little I was doing before was not a matter of having no time afforded -- it too was a character issue (i.e. a lack of certain virtues). I was not training more than I was when I was in high school because I did not have more time. I was not training more than I was in high school because I did not have the character to make use of all the time I did have -- period. The same ego that would not allow me to see what all the others were doing, of how and why, was the same ego that had me thinking that I could do no more than I was -- that I should not have to do more than I was. This same ego would not allow me to self-doubt. This incapacity at self-doubt would not allow me to self-reflect accurately. Without self-reflection, I could not transform myself from the high-school kid with a bunch of excuses to a man with a capacity for following the Way, for following a living practice.

Today, when I look at my teachers, the ones I can respect, I see men that have done and/or are doing more than I. Yet, I do not blame them for that, nor do I see my practice as doing the best I can. I see my practice as a thing that I can always improve upon -- a thing I can always dedicate more of myself to. Thus, I am not doing what I should be doing. Rather, I am continually striving to be doing more of what I should be doing. This is how I come to my training today. On the other hand, when we are trapped by our ego, and when we hear of all we can be doing, or of others that are doing more than us but that are saying that they are not doing enough, etc., we bounce back and forth between despair and being over-zealous. This works as follows: A teacher tells us we can always do more, and then we feel like we are not doing enough and that we will never be able to do enough -- and then we quit. Alternately, a teacher tells us we can always do more, and then we feel like we are not doing enough, and then we go on to sacrifice the whole of our lives, abandoning the more mature states of harmony and integration for the supposed sake of doing more. Then we quit when the effects of lacking harmony and integration come and hit us in the face.

Equally, a teacher explains we should be doing all we can, that we should accept what we are doing, as we strive to do more, and then our ego has us using the first part of that phrase to ignore the second part of that phrase. This we do even though it is obvious at nearly every level that the phrase is nothing more than an attempt to reject the status quo without rejecting the true self that underlies it. A man or woman that understands this phrase fully will always be more capable of the practicing the living Way than the man or woman that only hears, "You must accept where you are at (so there is no need to do more than you are doing or to be more than you are being)." For the man or woman that is plagued by ego-attachment the phrase presents an unsolvable paradox. They are plagued into paralysis by trying to ask and answer, "How do I change without rejecting myself?" It is like this with what Merton is telling us as well. Hence, why I wrote: "If we have faith in that which is greater than ourselves, we will solve this paradox, since the paradox of becoming wise by doubting the self is only one that exists for the self-idolater."

For the man or woman that is truly practicing the living Way, there is no unsolvable mystery to understanding how one practices self-doubt without abandoning the Self. For Merton, and for others, what one is doubting is not the Self that one thinks he/she is saving by not self-doubting. For Merton, and for others, what one saves by not self-doubting is only the ego -- which is not the Self but only that which refuses to be questioned. The ego that is protected by not self-doubting is nothing more than our fear, our pride, and our ignorance as these things are aggregated into our sense of material identity -- which cannot ever be anything but false. This is why Merton writes:

"If we are completely taken in by our own disguise, we cannot help being wrong."

Within any viable spiritual tradition, there will always be a relationship between awareness or wisdom and one's capacity to practice humility, selflessness, and/or to gain distance from one's own ego/material identity. This is why, especially initially, self-doubt is so important to one's ongoing practice. Self-doubt is not a rejection of Self. It is a suspension of our ego's habitual reactions, a devaluing of our material desires, a calming of our emotional fears. Moreover, in these things, it is actually a verification of Self, of our True Self.

This is very much in line with Judaic thought -- particularly within the Kabbalic tradition. For those that are not familiar with this tradition, in brief, Kabbalah is a religious mystical system of Judaism. Kabbalah is a doctrine of esoteric knowledge concerning God, God's creation of the universe and the laws of nature, and the path by which adult religious Jews can learn these secrets. It is considered part of the Jewish Oral Law. In this tradition, there is an equivalency taught to exist between wisdom and humility. The two virtues are understood to exist in complete co-dependency. Talmudic commentators explain this to mean that a person cannot attain one without the other. Alternately, things like self-gratification and self-praise -- things that take our habits, our desires, and our fears as ending points - are considered the subtle roots of sin (i.e. a turning from wisdom). These commentators go on to teach that wisdom requires humility as humility requires self-criticism. According to this tradition, we are to regularly reflect upon our behavior with a critical eye. It is through that critical eye -- through the means that we manage to distance ourselves from the trappings of our own ego -- that we guard against lapsing into complacency and self-justifications -- what Merton would call "spiritual sterility."

Of course, when we hear the call for self-doubt, for self-criticism, we are able to understand it intellectually. However, because we are more attached to our ego than we are to our practice, we are plagued by images of despair, of depression, of no self-worth, etc., and we thus will not put our faith into practice. Instead, we want some sort of guarantee that these age-old techniques will again work for us in exactly the way they are being described. We want to know that we will be okay before we proceed. Thus, we want things before they happen -- we do not want to be dependent upon our faith. We want the wisdom, then we will risk the humility; we want the humility, then we will risk the self-doubt. We are stuck in this material reality even at the level of our identity and hence we remain dominated by our small self -- by our fear, our pride, and by our ignorance. We want to fly, but we do not want to let go of the ground! Rather, we want flying to become a matter of remaining on the ground; we want to progress, to mature, and to transform ourselves by remaining exactly how we are. This is how the ego maintains its dominance over us, and this is why self-doubt is such a powerful tool of the spirit. Self-doubt allows us to look deeply enough to see the oxymoronic nature of our spiritual immaturity.

When you look to ancient teachings, our ego trappings are challenged even more. Merton's caveat seems mellow by comparison. For example, in Judaic-Christian thought, with an almost mathematical co-dependency existing between wisdom and humility, the only way to total wisdom then is through total humility. This would mean that one could only be fully of the Way by fully abandoning the ego. Self-doubt, self-criticism, etc., must therefore have no limitations set upon them. They must remain the tools of the trade that they are and we must not be afraid to use them. The justification for this use is that only the small self is in danger from such tools. Alternately, the true Self, that which is of God, of Nature, of the Universe (again, you pick the word), experiences self-doubt and self-criticism only in positive terms. This occurs because humility is cultivated through such actions -- humility is what allows us to realize wisdom (e.g. That all is One; That all is God; etc.) This is indeed echoed in the following verse from the Pirkei Avos -- a section of the Mishna. One can also note how closely the following quote is echoed in the one by Osensei provided above. In the Pirkei Avos it reads:

"Give to him what is His, because you and what is yours are His!"

The Pirkei Avos does not read, "Give part of yourself, the rest of you is for you and not of Him." In the same way, Osensei did not write, "Before God we must give up part of our ego, freeing part of our mind of some thoughts and endeavor to be able to execute some divine deeds by calming part of our spirit and returning to God in part." In other words, what do the sages say when you ask them, "How much self-doubt?" They answer, "All that you can muster." In summary, self-doubt/self-criticism, as prescribed above, is not an end in itself. It is a spiritual means toward wisdom and compassion. The purpose of self-doubt/self-criticism is to dissolve the ego rather than strengthen it. Self-doubt/self-criticism thus remains a vital part of self-reflection -- a tool we all recognize as a valid element in cultivating the spirit. However, self-reflection is only productive in proportion to our ability to dissolve our ego (through things like self-doubt/self-criticism). Here is the clincher: Those who seek to practice self-reflection without an equal amount of self-doubt will only end up increasing the spiritually neurotic tendencies of their small self. As wisdom is co-dependent with humility, self-reflection is co-dependent with self-doubt. Hence, quoting again, why Merton writes: "If we are completely taken in by our own disguise, we cannot help being wrong."

-- David M. Valadez

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