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Two Leashes: Narcissism or Humility

Two Leashes: Narcissism and or Humility by FLY 2018
Proviso. Most of the ideas in this essay come from ancient sages from different traditions. I function much like the moon, I reflect the Light in these teachings as the Moon reflects the Light of the Sun.  Fashi Lao Yue


Why is the Sea Called the King of a Hundred Streams?


The reason is, the sea lies below and is seen as the nature of virtue. In Confucian thought humility is compared to the sea and is the king of virtue; considered the virtue of “not striving [2]” as it runs beneath and between. Making lies below and flowing out two characteristics of humility.

Imagine entering every moment, every encounter with what comes into your life with a realization of not only not striving, not knowing but with the attitude of being ready and flowing out below the radar. The image of the sea, the King of a hundred streams in the ancient Chinese question might help us in not striving and not knowing. The sea lies below.Lie low!” An excellent caution, a burly mantra, a robust admonition. It streams out below meeting what it comes in contact with going on actualizing.

But say, what keeps us from practicing “Lie Low!”: a sturdy steady saying? How many of us practice the Keeper of Knowledge and the Mother of Virtue [3] known as humility? I wonder if it is because we don’t know what humility is — that it conjures up hair shirts and deprivations of all sort. That is no part of humility. For humility can’t be gained by force or pretense of any kind; it comes sudden, unexpected and washes away our interest in the seeking, know-it-all self. All traditions know this at the higher levels of seeking the Divine.

In Buddhism, we are encouraged to study the self to the degree that we forget the self. This practice is a kindred spirit of humility but does not in itself make us to be humble. There is a realization that the self, our tendencies of self-import are flushed away; swoosh out of the picture. Leaving us actualized right in the middle of the realization of impermanence. In other words, when we forget the self we stop taking things personally and know the true nature of a thing as we meet it. [4]

Sister Wendy Beckett, a modern mystic, offers us a similar teaching. She writes humility has nothing to do with having a low opinion of yourself, rather it has to do with not being interested in your opinions, not gazing long….at yourself. [5] This brilliant simple, brief explanation accords with the definition of emptiness (Love); the forgetting the self.

Most ancient teachers worth their salt suggest a spiritual adept realizes humility putting humility as a realization and not something to be toyed with at the beginning. It comes after much study of the self in the practice of forgetting the self.

Eckhart reflects a similar definition in his elucidating sermon # 87 on the beatitude, poor in spirit. This virtue appears to be the door keeper of not only the other virtues but of the interior kingdom of the Eternal. “Lie low!” appears to be an admonition to be the source of many streams that go unnoticed; streams that lead to the kingdom.

In my search and study on humility I read a simple definition from an unusual source for me these days; a psychoanalytic book on narcissism. The psychoanalytic definition rests on the personality disturbance of grandiosity and narcissism and is stated in terms of lack. When we are grandiose and narcissistic we lack something in our personality structure; so says the psychoanalytic material. More specifically the lack that unleashes grandiose and narcissistic ideation and behaviors is a lack of knowing the ego-limits of the functional self which results in an inability to ask for help. To be clear there are two basic functions of the self that are lacking that negates any hope of being struck by the sudden humble wings mentioned earlier; (1) not knowing our limits which results in the second lack (2) not being able to ask for help. It is a definition with two basic deficits.

If we tie the psychoanalytic definition together with the Confucian and mystical views, the narcissist is very interested in his or her opinions and gazes long at them. This epitomizes the know-it-all stance. These characteristic deficits inhibit the attitude of being poor in spirit. They overshadow possibility of realization by a blazing self-interest making even the earliest effort of “Lie Low!” unthinkable. In other words, “not striving” and “not knowing” are out of the question when we lack the ability to know our limits and ask for help.

What comes to mind is a quote I have framed on my desk from a book by Esther de Waal, Seeking God.


The reason we do not get anywhere is that we do not know our limits and we are not patient in carrying on the work we have done. But without any labour at all we want to gain possession of virtue.


The words getting anywhere must refer to getting anywhere spiritually as she ends by saying this fellow who does not know his limits desires to be seen as virtuous (a pretense) without doing the work. Her words suggest that if we don’t know our limits we lose out on virtue; which I define as excellence in character. Esther de Waal suggests there is a lack associated with not knowing our limits. The same tune shows up yet again.

Marguerite Porete, a historical Christian mystic, expresses the same sentiment but from the side of humility itself. Virtue is lacking. We might conclude that if virtue is lacking that the person is unable to ask for help because he thinketh he does not recognize his limits which might tell him he is off balance.


Humility, the keeper of the treasury of Knowledge

And the Mother of the other virtues,

Must overtake you. [6]


When we suffer from grandiosity and narcissism we are locked out of the treasures of Knowledge and are very susceptible to fault and failures of a high level. Porete sees humility in terms of a guardian of the treasury of spiritual knowledge and virtue and a force or power of some sort that must overtake you. It’s not something to pretend to be or do. It comes upon us unexpected.

The best we can do is to correct our tendencies of not knowing our limits and ask for help. We practice “Lie Low!” by stopping the tendency to strive and stopping the gazing at our opinions and enter patience. Patience being an ally to all of efforts. We wait to be swept away by the power of humility.

I think another admonition that is helpful is “Be Careful!” By this I mean study your life in such a way that you learn how to create the conditions to practice your spiritual path. In other words, what do you need to avoid and what do you need to encourage for humility to come a knocking on the door of the interior kingdom.

I can only speak for myself which I mention only as an example and not as a directive. Living a contemplative life is my way to “Lie Low!” and “Be Careful!” To pull off from the world is to be a bystander, a small trickle that goes along disentangled.

When we suffer in grandiosity and narcissism we have not yet studied our life in such a way that we know the conditions that might benefit us spiritually. All of these definitions, Buddhism, Beckett, Eckhart, Porete, de Waal, bring to mind an image of a person who heads out in life and disregards the obvious and inevitable cliffs in front of them because they are staring at themselves. The self-gazing disregard caution. “Lookout, Danger Ahead!” goes unheeded.

The analytic definition, from the negative, depicts a reckless tendency that has no bounds. It suffers in ignorance and arrogance. If we turn the definition to the affirmative, we continue to see two failures in the constructed fiction self which lead to major disturbances in function. The individual is self-sufficient to the point that self-sufficiency hinders a capacity to see the dangers ahead. In other words, the person does not see or cannot even imagine that there is an edge to the self. Nothing stands in the way. Counsel is never sought or if it is, it is blown off by a sense of self that thinks it knows better than any counsel given. When others warn of the danger ahead the grandiose structure has no sense of an inner signal of danger; the limitless view overshadows the signal. Help is unwanted and demeaned making the self-gazer incapable of knowing when to pause and ask for help.

The odd trait that accompanies grandiosity and narcissism is the person who suffers so is very willing to admit to being self-involved and self-centered. It is usually said in a rather fixed way, as in “This is who I am.” Or “I know better.” When we set our self in such a way we tend not to be teachable and when we are not open to hearing, listening and taking in teachings we remain in the ignorance of our constructed created shell.

Now we might think this particular definition does not apply to us; for we do not fit such a tight definition as a lack of knowing our limits which results in an inability to ask for help. We may even think we know we have limits and that we have asked for help and then feel relief that we are not such a grandiose and narcissistic sufferer. I beg for each of us to take another look.

 In my capacity as both a student and a teacher of the Dharma I have seen this definition play out over and over again making me aware of my own deficiency in this area as well as the deficiency in others. I have not met anyone who does not suffer to some degree from this ignorance. We think we know and we think we don’t need help. Dare I say it is the nature of the constructed, creative self?

Here is how this delusion often works. See for yourself.

It begins with a willingness to self-examine but the result of the self-study falls short and a conclusion is drawn. The conclusion being, “This is who I am!” It’s a declarative made up of a series of declarations of what I like and what I don’t like. Those of us who know the Zen Dharma we may in some small way recognize the danger of such a view of self. It leads to all sorts of suffering (dukkha). In this self-exam phase we may come away with a further delusion of our capacity and capability declared in either the negative or affirmative, i.e., “I can’t and/or I can.” Declarations such as these cement the self around these internal mental formations leaving very little space for the King of the sea to flow out and to lie low. This appears to be a limit but in reality it is a fixed position in the self. Here is an example.

One of my teachers was asked by her teacher, who I might add was a power packed teacher, to do something she had never done and did not know how to do. My teacher stated her inability as most of us might. Indignant, she responded to the request by saying, “I don’t know how to do that!” Lucky for her, the teacher saw the response for what it was and said to her, “That doesn’t matter. Do it anyway.” The sudden shift was a poke from humility. Feeling the poke, my teacher did as her teacher requested wobbly and unprepared as she was. The self was blown out of the way.

The second phase that comes after self-examination is an apparent willingness to seek help. It shows up in an admission of sorts such as “I know this is how I am. AND I could use some help.” This request carries a similar risk of falling short. It can and often does come as a request from the self-gazing self that wants verification and validation of all sorts of wily aspects of the ego. “Look at me. See how good I am. Or I am not as bad as I thought, am I? Or give me some credit. Or let me show you how much I understand.” On and on goes the list. The self-exam turns into self polishing. It is not to polish the ego it is to forget the tendencies of our conditioned mind in order to get free of the conditions. When self-examination goes sour it usually is seen in turning away from the Dharma; a giving up which can either be haughty such as slamming the door or giving up with declarations of ‘there is something else, somewhere else.’

The third phase is the most telling and perhaps the most important. This step comes after some help is offered.  The response to the help offered is some form of brush off of the offering. Such as, “I already know that.” Or “I don’t believe that.” Or “I know better.” All sorts of “I” declarations against the teachings start to come up. A long self assured litany of knowing and brushing away or contradicting comes up. What is needed is a willingness to be taught.

Two words open the flow and require some tiny trickle of humility. The two words are:“Teach me.” Give this a try. Adults and perhaps especially American adults find it difficult to make a sincere request, “Teach Me.” I can give you an example from my work with my teacher.

I struggled, especially at first, with her insistent approach to the Dharma especially when she entered into the psychological realm. My stupidity and ignorance and narcissism raised hackles since I have a doctorate in psychology and she had nothing of the sort. “Who was she to speak to me like that when I am a doctor and she is not.” UGH! How ignorant I was. It didn’t last long, thank God. I stopped myself from thinking I knew more than she did. She continued on offering the Dharma in all sorts of ways and what I learned to do was to say, “Yes.” To actualize meeting what came into my life with “Yes. Teach Me.” After all I sought her out because I knew she knew something I did not know. I asked her to teach me. This turn to her with a sincere request to teach me made it possible to be actualized by the myriad things; made it possible for the distinctions of body/mind to drop away.

Now you might misconstrue this to think I said “Yes” to a person, but that would be wrong. I said “YES” to the Truth; to the Dharma which included a person wiser than my small stupid self. Believe me she suggested some pretty wild things….but I was devoted to the teachings, to being open, to listen, to learn all I could from her. Was it easy? No. It wasn’t. But I hit the jackpot.

Consider these three steps for yourself and see where you land. Do you “Lie Low!” Are you free of striving? Do you sit in “not knowing?”

The proof is in the eating; eating the teachings in such a way as to be overtaken by the power of humility.

Just to wrap it up. When we suffer from big ideas without limit and are unable to ask for help, we must be able to recognize these traits, know firsthand the suffering they cause us and be open to learning. In other words, we must be overtaken by our willingness to “Lie low!” “Be careful!” Do not strive or think you know what will be if you do, you will be further away from the True Self.

Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:


[1] Tao Te Ching

[2] Tao Te Ching

[3] M. Porete

[4] Genjokoan Dogen

[5] Sister Wendy on Prayer

[6] M. Porete

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