The Path of Humility

This post is a kind of musing if you will.

I have written in previous posts that I’ve returned to graduate school.  I’m pursuing a medical Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  The Western and Eastern tracks are symmetrical in their instruction.  Currently, I’m immersed in Western medicine classes, and I’m well beyond saturated in terms of information overload.  I no longer care what hematopoiesis is and why it matters.  I dream about anatomy almost every night.  I woke up last night dreaming about the greater trochanter and linea aspera of the femur.  I have had nightmares that the quadriceps group formed a gang with the adductors in order to hunt me.  The vastus lateralis had a voice that was reminiscent of Patrick Stewart’s.  The metatarsals of the foot had teeth and tried to bite me.  They were taking orders from the sartorius muscle who had transformed into Russell Crowe.   I will not attempt to interpret this…

In the midst of all this, I have been observing the culture of my school environment.  My college is almost a duplicate of a medical school in China and is considered the sister school to this medical school.  All of the TCM instructors are physicians from China, and the Western medicine instructors are American physicians.  It is a very interesting duality–bouncing back and forth between the traditions.  I anticipated some of the differences–language barriers, socio-cultural differences, and different teaching styles.  Something else was very different as well and completely unexpected.  The Chinese instructors are extremely humble and socially gracious while the American physicians are, well, not.

I’ve met numerous teachers from China since January, and their humility is almost immediately evident.  They do not engage in self-promotion, bragging, telling war stories wherein they feature as the star physician who saved the day, general peacocking, active or passive namedropping, competition, or one-upmanship.  I found their subtle social footprint disconcerting.  I am so accustomed to blatant displays of self-promotion in people with any sort of academic and/or professional achievement that I didn’t know how to handle a complete lack of it.

There’s a reason people think this (and I’m a grad student!)

Then, I found a list of biographies featuring the professional achievements and training of the school’s instructors.  I was gobsmacked.  Our Chinese instructors were overqualified to teach us.  Our Asian physician teachers are scholars and masters of their respective specialties, but you would never know.  They do not behave as if they are unique or special.  They do not make us, the students, feel stupid or incompetent.  They don’t dress or speak in an intimidating manner or exploit our anxiety in order to make themselves feel better or bigger.  I have yet to be called an idiot. I was called an idiot frequently by my teachers in France, and my American university experiences were peppered with  professorial egotistical hit and runs that left me marinating in self-doubt and self-recrimination.

My Western instructors are brilliant, but I can’t really describe them as…humble  The game is afoot when I spend time in my Western medicine classes.  I know this game all too well, and I know how to jump through those hoops.  Fostering competition is how we are taught in the West.  It begins in preschool and continues throughout our mandatory schooling.  It motivates people to try harder.  Shame is a ruthless instructor.  Be the best, but the idea of “best” is put in the context of judging other people and their best.  Who knows more? Who runs the fastest? Who answers the questions with the most speed and precision? Who has the most expertise? Who writes the best? Memorizes the best? Retains the most and recalls the fastest? Who does what the best? Suddenly, your focus is on everyone else rather than learning, and your ego wakes up and readies for a fight.  Your peers become enemies, and your teachers are the gatekeepers.  Someone has to come out on top.  Who’s it going to be? Who is going to prove to be the best? The superlative? Who’s the winner? Your identity is at stake here! Not only is your cohort objectified but you are as well.


The difference between the two attitudes, if you will, has been stunning.  I have found myself very attracted to the East Asian attitude which I would ascribe to the virtue of humility.  The idea that the more you have studied the more you view yourself as knowing less rather than possessing expertise feels freeing to me.  I described this to a close friend whose family is from Asia, and he emphasized the virtue of humility in scholars.  In Asia, one of the primary virtues of a scholar is humility.  One never attempts to flaunt expertise or engage in self-promotion even after years of study.  This idea is highlighted in Taoism: “The more you learn, the more you realize there’s still so much more to learn. This tends to make you humble. Arrogance and egotism come from ignorance – knowing a little bit and assuming you know a lot.” (What is Tao)

I decided to do an experiment in order to check the status of my ego.  Just where was I in this developmental process? Could I participate in a conversation wherein people were discussing a subject that I knew something about and say nothing? Could I merely listen for the purpose of listening? You know what? It’s hard, and being in an academic environment affords me countless opportunities to practice this.  I know a little bit about a lot of things, but what exactly am I an expert on? Truly an expert? I had to think about it.  I also had to assess the reasons why I was contributing.  Was it for the maintenance of my own ego? Suddenly, I was weighing my words and thoughts.  Did anyone need to hear that story? Did I really need to say that? Deliberately putting myself in the position of an apprentice while acknowledging that what I was about to say probably wasn’t nearly as important as I thought has been…interesting.

The side effects?

Well, you see where your ego is wounded very quickly and where you are looking to compensate for that through social behaviors like preening, peacocking, namedropping both passive and active, bragging, and recounting narratives that are merely attempts to show off one’s awesomeness or make one feel legitimate.  What is passive and active namedropping you might ask?

Active namedropping looks like this:

“I just picked up Paramour at the airport and their youth minister! Now we’re all friends on Facebook, and I might get together with the drummer…”

This actually happened to me once.  You know it’s ego-driven if you respond with, “Who’s Paramour?” and you’re suddenly on the receiving end of an apocalyptic eye-roll and some kind of insult indicating that you don’t get out much.

Passive namedropping looks like this:

“I was IMing this musician the other day that I’ve gotten to know online.  They are fairly well-known…but…uh…you wouldn’t know who they are.  Anyway…”

My family does this a lot.  You know it’s ego-driven because of the superfluous information describing the musician’s popularity and the additional ad hominem-esque attack.  The only information that would have been truly necessary was “I was talking to an acquaintance and…”

It is extremely easy and tempting to engage in self-promotion.  Our culture almost demands it.  Western culture does not readily value humility.  It isn’t a virtue.  It’s seen as almost being milquetoast or meek.  Our general culture seems to offer up the Teddy Roosevelt personality bursting forth with over-the-top self-reliance and inspirational, epic stories that can be tapped on Youtube via a TED talk.  We want to be moved, spoken into constantly, and perpetually validated as a wider culture.  It isn’t necessarily wrong.  Everyone needs an ‘atta boy’ or ‘atta girl’ from time to time.

Is cultivating an other-oriented mindset milquetoast? Is pursuing the virtue of humility worth it when humility is defined as “a disposition toward accurate self-assessment, other-orientedness, and the regulation of self-centered emotions”? (Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health) Believing in your own competence and ability to complete a task with excellence is humility.  Rubbing that belief in everyone else’s face is arrogance.  Believing that you are capable today but can always become more capable is humility.  Believing that you are intelligent but are often surrounded by more intelligent people and can, thusly, always learn from others is humility.  Being able to rely on yourself for validation is a very high form of humility because so often we look to others to tell us that we’re awesome, smart, capable, etc.  Believing that you no longer need external validation but instead need external constructive criticism and pointers to become better is a huge step towards attaining the virtue of humility.  Frankly, it’s a bit scary, and yet I witness it almost daily.  I find it to be so attractive and valuable.  It is the direction I need to take in terms of personal development.

I study for hours every day, and I truly feel like I now know less than I did when I started.  It is extremely uncomfortable, but, at the same time, I have discovered that there is a lot of emotional and intellectual energy invested in maintaining an ego that must “front” all the time.  If I no longer need to maintain or support my ego in this way, then I can divert more energy into other more worthwhile efforts like healing, learning, practicing, relating, loving, and serving others in ways that will actually make a meaningful difference.

I have not found this practice to be easy.  I have found it to be challenging.  I have found it to be vastly uncomfortable, but I have also found that I like myself more when I am not attempting to assert my impoverished experience of myself onto other people in hopes that they will complete it for me.  When I let it go and focus on simply being present to the moment in which I am occupying, it suddenly becomes easier.

Wherever I am, I am just trying to be there.

Practicing humility.  See what you think.

Further Reading:

Humility as a Psychotherapeutic Virtue: Spiritual, Philosophical, and Psychological Foundations

5 Comments on “The Path of Humility

  1. You are giving voice to something I’ve been thinking about for the last few months. Thank you for your insight! I found in grad school the more I learned the more I realized the deep ocean of information that exists outside of my learning. More recently I’ve been thinking about the role of the expert and what that means and how can one share knowledge and learning in a way that graces others instead of shining light on oneself. It’s an uncomfortable time, but that’s a good thing.

    And I really want to read that article, and I will when I am able to find a copy I can get via the library. I love academic journals, they are rich in information and with questions yet to be answered.

  2. Hey!
    About 30 years ago, I studied 3 years full time in Traditional Chinese Medicine and practiced for 2.5 years as a licensed Acupuncturist here in Montréal (Québec). The schooling turned mostly around acupuncture from the teachings of Chinese masters (Lee Tin Yuen, Leung Kok Yuan , Wang Zhan Xi) and the very French Dr. Gerard Gervais.
    I was dissatisfied with my ability to make a living from it though. I would never be able to sell a freezer to an Eskimo… I had to talk with 10 to 20 people before getting one as a paying patient… in 1990, this wasn’t as popular as it is now! I didn’t want to lie and sell them a dream. My incapacity to tell them exact binary, yes and no answers and garanties of success – seems to have turned a few away… Maybe that was also linked with humility…

    So I went back to school to become an Electrical and Computer Engineer…

    I’m thinking of going back (re-learning everything) to practice TCM part time in my retirement.
    The thing is, (beside issues with working memory) I can’t go with the “superstition” and “belief” system as my scientific mind and desire for integrity prevent me from simply applying “recipes” based on faith or dogma, as the Chinese often do – they put a lot of value in the traditional transfer of knowledge by simply observing and repeating – without asking too many questions…

    I am very interested in combining the old and the new. I love what we are learning about the 4th phase of water through Gerald Pollack who studied muscles for a very long time.
    The application of infrared laser to acupuncture points seems to be producing very interesting results (but I know nothing on that yet).

    Anyway, congrats on your project!
    Long live HUMILITY!!!
    Marcel from Montreal

    • Wow! Marcel, your story is amazing. I suspect that the study of TCM has evolved. My education is very evidence-based. If you like, I can send you some of the latest evidence-based research that we are studying. Some of the latest research into the mechanisms of acupuncture indicate that, in terms of pain control, acupuncture activates the endogenous opioid system. It’s VERY interesting. In fact, the opioids present in the body during and after EAF are high enough to respond to antinarcotic agents. It is very helpful for those of us who want to bridge the gap between biomedicine and alternative medical models. There are also studies done on herbal patents and their mechanisms of action. Excellent results. If it interests you, I can send them your way. Thanks so much for your comment.

      Best, MJ

      • Thanks MJ,
        I’m thinking that I need to spend a few years rebuilding myself so I can get to the point where I will be able to use my memory to re-learn all those points, meridians, treatments… We need a license to practice Acupuncture in Québec and I know from when I had such a license that the exams are hard…
        I guess that one thing that is helping me procrastinate on this is the fact that I keep getting my Business Analyst contract renewed – and that pays better than Acupuncture…
        I figure that at some point, I’ll be closer to a retirement age and my kids will become autonomous… then, finding time and having money won’t be such a big deal…
        Have a nice, calm and happy 2018 !

        • Oh gosh, yes, the points! That is no easy thing for sure. I’m in the middle of it all right now. Whatever path you choose, I hope that it brings you great joy in life. Life isn’t linear really. I think we can change direction at any point. It makes great sense to me to revisit TCM later on. I bet it will be easier to recall than you think. Happy New Year!

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