Strength, and Humility
An Interview with Thomas Keating
By Mary NurrieStearns
Thomas Keating, a wise 76-year-old Trappist monk, is known for making contemplative practice accessible to spiritual seekers outside of monastic walls. Father Keating refers to this contemplative practice, which is rooted in Christian tradition, as divine psychotherapy. He promises that this gentle practice can bring about profound spiritual and psychological growth, and his personal presence is evidence that it is so.
I was first introduced to Thomas Keating through a tape series on contemplative prayer. Hearing the clarity and love in his voice was as impactful as learning about centering prayer. His voice, coupled with his understanding of not only how the personality forms programs for happiness, but how centering prayer releases us from their grip and grounds us in the true source of happiness, drew me toward centering prayer as a practice.
In brief, centering prayer takes its practitioners beyond thoughts and feelings and into the presence of divine spirit, or God. Over time this growing relationship with the Divine draws up out of the unconscious and into awareness the components of our personalities. It shows us the core attitudes and behavioral patterns we unknowingly developed in childhood in order to get along in our families and communities, and to define ourselves. These patterns are what Keating refers to as our emotional programs for happiness. As we grow spiritually and reside more in relationship with God, we become more able to let the unconscious reveal its secrets to us. At the same time, as these secrets are released, we compensate less for them and make space for God to work in us and through us. Ultimately, and over time, this practice can lead to union with God.
Sensing that centering prayer is an alchemist for dissolving the pride associated with the false self as well as imbuing humility into our consciousness, we wanted to interview him on pride, strength, and humility. I spoke with him at his residence in Saint Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, by telephone. I was deeply moved by the depth of humility from which he spoke.
Personal Transformation: Let's talk first about strength. How do you define psychological strength?
Thomas Keating: Psychological strength involves a strong ego (as ego is understood in psychology) and a defined self-identity. Above all, psychological strength is based on self-acceptance of our weaknesses as well as a healthy self-esteem, which is the firm conviction in our own basic goodness. In the Christian perspective, strength is another word for virtue. Strength is the capacity to practice the fundamental human virtues prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance which characterize a human being. Growing in this capacity translates into a healthy self-esteem and the ability to accept our own weaknesses without covering them up, at least to ourselves.
PT: Is will-power an aspect of psychological strength?
Keating: All of the virtues are rooted in the will. Prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance are all acts of the will. They are choices, in other words, and sometimes choices that are quite difficult. Will-power has to be distinguished from an energy neurosis in which one thinks that by practicing or exercising will-power one can control everything. Virtue, true strength, is not controlling or dominating other people. It is moderating our own excesses and respecting the basic goodness of other people and their needs.
PT: What is the effect of having great psychological strength?
Keating: Psychological strength means the integration of our human capacities and the balance of our emotional life with an intellectual life. Psychological strength is the fruit of an integration of ourselves in which we accept the spiritual dimension of our being, without which psychological strength, to me, is not well-founded and is probably superficial.
PT: Does developing psychological strength lead to spiritual strength?
Keating: Yes, unless one has some bias against the spiritual dimension. Many psychologists, up until recent times, have denied the existence of a spiritual dimension and have considered psychological strength to be the capacity to live a more or less normal human life to be able to earn a living and to have normal relationships. But the fullest psychological strength is to integrate those capacities, which are good, into the further development of which the spiritual part of our nature is capable. This openness to the transcendent element of human life, both within ourselves and beyond, is a significant part of psychological health. Saint John of the Cross, a well-known Christian mystic of the 16th century, wrote, "Human health consists of having a conscious relationship with God."
PT: How do you define spiritual strength?
Keating: It is the capacity to act from the center of our being, rather than acting from our emotional reactions to events. Spiritual strength is the capacity to respond to events from the center of compassion and genuine concern, to relate to people where they are, and to accept ourselves and our weaknesses in the confidence that God will help us to sift through our weaknesses and let go of behaviors that are obstacles to relating to truth, to other people, ourselves, and ultimate reality.
PT: Can we develop spiritual strength or is it something that's given by grace?
Keating: Everything, in a sense, is grace. Our natural gifts are designed to open us to grace. Spiritual strength comes through grace, but it also comes through our efforts to reduce in ourselves obstacles to grace that become obvious to us. Letting go of obstacles is the negative side of what we defined as positive strength; namely, the practice of the virtues which moderate the excesses of our human nature, balance our individual good with social good, balance our esteem for ourselves with our esteem for the rights and needs of others, and heighten our accountability to God.
PT: How do you define pride?
Keating: In spiritual literature, pride is defined as the tendency to make oneself the center of the universe. In other words, pride is an inordinate, unreasonable love of one's excellence or talents. It's the attitude that has contempt for authority and doesn't want to be accountable to anyone. From a practical point of view, pride makes us consider ourselves our own beginning and end.
PT: If we were raised in ways and under circumstances that resulted in us feeling shame if we were the wrong sex or the wrong race or experienced child abuse or sexual trauma is developing pride important?
Keating: Let's make a few distinctions here. Pride as you use the term is the same as developing self-respect or a strong ego. It's not the rejection of oneself or the despising of oneself, and it is certainly not self-hatred. These are mental illnesses. Pride is not a positive attitude toward oneself and one's talents. A good disposition recognizes talents and gifts as God-given and is grateful. Pride as I describe above is the separate self-sense gone wild, you might say. It's an apotheosis of ourselves as the center of the universe, or as little gods, when it is unrestrained by humility.
PT: When people say, "I am proud of myself, I finally spoke up for myself and didn't make excuses," or, "I was so proud of my son," they're talking about a different quality.
Keating: Exactly. They're not talking about pride as a defect; they're talking about the proud feeling associated with doing a good deed or an appreciation for the rightness of our attitude. On the contrary, that's a healthy attitude.
Pride is used in different senses. On the other hand, pride as an expression of our separate self is unhealthy because it makes it hard for us to accept the truth about our own weaknesses and difficult to relate to other people, because they have to fit into our plans or minister to our ego. Of course, ego is another term that has meanings that have to be distinguished. Psychologically, we speak of a healthy or strong ego, but the phrase "went on an ego trip" is a reference to a prideful attitude, which is the opposite of being proud of doing a good deed.
PT: Do you differentiate between pride and dignity?
Keating: Pride is separation from our deep self, other people, and God, whereas dignity is concerned with the truth about ourselves, our true relationship with others, and with God. Humility is often confused with self-deprecation or a low self-esteem, which is a lack of having developed a genuine self-identity in the adolescent period. Self-identity is an aspect of a strong ego, and a strong ego is extremely helpful for the spiritual life. To give oneself to God, one needs to have a self. In our culture, a self-identity is often not fully developed until people are in their late twenties or early thirties. Sometimes a healthy ego doesn't emerge in people who were deeply wounded in early childhood battered, as you mentioned earlier, by various forms of abuse which cause incredible emotional damage without prolonged psychotherapy. These people are not suffering from pride; they're suffering from emotional wounds that were inflicted on them. They need to be encouraged to have self-esteem and to develop their self-identities, to look upon themselves as good and to get rid of feelings of shame they might have brought with them from early childhood.
PT: Is there spiritual pride in the saying of Jesus, "I and my Father are one?"
Keating: That's not spiritual pride, but a statement of fact. It would be pride if it weren't true, then it would be presumption. Pride leads to the presumption of a separate self-sense. Humility is a delicate balance between presumption and despair. Thinking too much of our weakness or regarding ourselves as totally dependent upon others leads to depression and low self-esteem, which is not humility, but a mental illness, or at least a distortion of human development. On the other hand, people who attempt to do things clearly beyond their strength or who treat themselves as if they can do anything, anytime, anyplace, are equally distorted by their presumption. Humility is the balance between trust in God and the recognition of our weaknesses. When those two attitudes aren't present, there isn't true humility, which is an authentic, honest attitude toward ourselves recognizing our weaknesses and our basic goodness and an honest, authentic attitude about reality, other people, and of course, God.
PT: Let's further explore pride. "Pride goeth before the fall" is from one of the wisdom books of the Old Testament. What does this text mean?
Keating: Pride, as presumption, goes before a fall. In other words, assuming strength or virtues that you don't have or thinking that you're not subject to sin or to the weaknesses of other people is presumption. Not having a healthy recognition of one's limitations is asking for trouble. People with that attitude are likely to fall on their noses.
PT: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted," Luke 18:14. What is the meaning of this scripture?
Keating: That's a beautiful text and it puts the issue into a nutshell. Anyone who exalts himself or herself puts too much confidence in his or her own power. They do the opposite of those who have a low self-esteem. They have such a high self-esteem that they think they can practice any virtue or do anything. Therefore, they think people owe them something. When they make unjust demands on other people and manifest their own selfish programs for happiness, they are going to be humbled. Most of us have basically the same limitations, the same separate self-sense, the same tendency to pride. If we exalt our own programs for happiness or place demands on society that disregard other people's rights and needs, the text is warning us that for our own true good, we'll get into trouble. At the very least, we'll be in competition with all of the other egos on the planet who are trying to follow the same mistaken path. This happens unless people grasp the spiritual dimension within that calls us to move beyond the superficial purposes of ordinary life and to see ourselves in the light of our true goodness and capacity to share the divine life. For those who humble themselves, those who acknowledge the truth about themselves, even painful truths they would prefer to cover up so that nobody knows, especially themselves; once they accept the truth, even if acknowledging the truth is painful, they experience the inner freedom that the truth always brings. We had a classic example of this in the press recently. If we acknowledge the truth, most people will forgive us; if we do not, then people are not so sympathetic.
PT: How is humility different from shame or false modesty?
Keating: False modesty is not based on the truth and it can't be humility, because humility is the truth, basically. Another distinction might be helpful here. I'd like to juxtapose shame and guilt first because they are very different. Guilt is about a particular act that our conscience disapproves of, and hence, as soon as one regrets the behavior or tries to change it, guilt has no more effect on us. Guilt that doesn't last beyond the time it takes to recognize, be sorry and want to amend our particular misbehavior is healthy. It becomes unhealthy when it's protracted, say, beyond 30 seconds, in which case it really manifests our pride, because now what is hurt is that we haven't measured up to our idealized self-image, which is the fruit of pride. Shame, on the other hand, is a pervasive feeling, due, usually, to the deprivation of emotional needs during early childhood. It doesn't just say that I did something wrong, but that I am a mistake. Shame is more serious and much more difficult than guilt.
The fruit of great damage in early childhood, shame causes us to identify with our limitations in such a way that we don't recognize our basic goodness or the possibilities we have to manifest the creative potential of the human spirit. With that in mind, the relationship between shame and humility is that shame is a false attitude toward ourselves. Humility is the true acceptance of ourselves, with our faults, along with the firm confidence that with God's help we can not only correct them, but fulfill the transcendent potential within us to become sharers in the divine life in the fullest sense of that term.
PT: What is the power and strength within humility?
Keating: Humility is the greatest strength there is. It's not blown away by praise or exaggerated by the approval others give us. It is not ambitious; it's content to be whatever we are. Humility accepts all of the damage that has been done to us in early childhood, knowingly or unknowingly by others, and all of the means we took to protect ourselves from that woundedness. At the same time, humility rests in the peace that comes from not being afraid of the truth. Humility is not afraid to acknowledge whatever has happened in our lives, including our own sins or faults. Because of this great trust in God rather than in ourselves, it participates in the strength of God. It participates in God's power because there's no tendency in us to attribute it to ourselves. We know that God is helping us and this is the true security. The programs for happiness that we had to hold ourselves together or to achieve a certain public esteem, at least acceptance in our community, is not the ultimate value anymore. Acceptance is appreciated as a support, but it's not necessary to our happiness. If the approval of others is taken away, the confidence that we have in God remains and the sense of loss is moderated by trust in God's power to help us. Humility taps into God's own strength that is the bottom line. It involves great sensitivity to our motivation in daily life. Many of the world religions emphasize daily life as the battlefield in which we come to know ourselves and our spiritual potential for union with God.
PT: In the truest sense, is humility the basis of personal power?
Keating: It depends on the motivation. If personal power is an ego trip or comes from creative talents within us which we attribute to ourselves, the basis is pride and presumption. Then we're headed for a fall because the power is not real, not authentic. Personal power that is authentic doesn't come from ourselves, but through the movement of the Holy Spirit in us, prompting us to work for God or for the needs of others, and out of love of others. We attribute any good that we do to Spirit. Attributing spiritual power to ourselves is the most dangerous kind of pride. No one does more harm in the world than one with spiritual powers that are not rooted in a profound sense of humility. To reach that level of humility requires the purification of what psychology calls the unconscious. Daily life shows us the dynamics of the unconscious as it appears in our emotional reactions to everyday activities, warning us of what we haven't quite faced. We're not humble until we face our emotional reactions and recognize their source in our unconscious.
PT: What do you mean by programs for happiness?
Keating: The instinctual needs that we have when we enter into the world are focused on survival and security, power and control, and affection and esteem. When any of these instinctual needs, which are basically good, are experienced by the child as unfulfilled or withdrawn through abuse and neglect, especially when it is habitual, the child, for survival purposes, may repress those painful, traumatic, emotional experiences in the unconscious. The child may also develop compensatory systems in which he or she tries to find happiness in the gratification of one of those three instinctual needs. All of us grow up without the experience of true security, which is God's presence. Programs for happiness are temperamentally greatly complexified by the socialization period from ages four to eight when we unquestionably absorb the values of the culture the environment, peer group, parents, religion and ethnic background. At that young age, there's no full human ability yet to evaluate some of those values, so we absorb them all. Our emotional programs for happiness are also attracted to what is acceptable in the culture. The emotional programs for happiness can't possibly work. They're not moderated by the virtues. Fantastic demands for power lead to terrible harm in society when egos are collectified. National interests that know no bounds and which trample on the rights of others even to the point of war, violence, torture, and all of the other unspeakable barbaric activities, are, unfortunately, still with us, in spite of our supposed evolutionary progress.
PT: As adults, our ordinary lives are the battlefields for us to grow in humility. How do we do that?
Keating: First, we have to get to know and then moderate the demands we make on life. We have to stop acting as if the world owes us a living. Sometimes the stages of human growth are normal, but become abnormal when we get stuck in our developmental phases. Teachings on the archetypes are interesting. For instance, the archetype of the orphan is normal at a certain age when you need to be dependent on parents or nurses. When you're an adult, the feeling that everyone should continue to take care of you becomes unreasonable and unattainable, and gives way to the afflictive emotions, such as grief and anger, that follow whenever our programs for happiness are frustrated. Virtues, the fruit of humility, are the result of human development in the right direction. Pride is the result of human development in the wrong direction. Sometimes the human faculties develop, but the spiritual ones do not. Prideful people are suffering from infantile motivation that they need to grow out of to find true happiness.
PT: What practices would help us to grow in humility?
Keating: The first one is prayer. Ask God for humility. The second practice is to spend time every day in silence, to be with yourself at a deep level, without thinking. Allow yourself to feel what you feel, noticing what events upset you and cause the feelings of grief, anger, and discouragement to arise. Doing so helps bring to your awareness some emotional program, of which you're not fully conscious, that is trying to come to consciousness through events. Let go of the excesses of that program. For example, although you may desperately want people to love you, does that mean that if one or two people dislike you, it's the end of the world? For someone who has pushed that program to such an extreme the least criticism or look that's interpreted as a rejection sends them into a tizzy for hours.
Other people have to control everything to feel happy and may even insist on ordering your food in a restaurant. They are still under the influence of a childish need to compensate for some kind of deprivation in their early childhood. They need to grow out of the desire to control. The practice of virtue and the growth of psychological strength lead to the moderation of those childish attitudes. We have great education in this country, but not in emotional development and in the practice of moderation, what used to be called the virtue of temperance. Temperance means to moderate our appetites. When we do not moderate our emotional programs for happiness, they lead to all kinds of complications interior turmoil, emotional binges, broken relationships. Humility enables us to relate to other people as people, rather than from our little universe of expectations and emotional programs for happiness.
PT: In a sense, those programs for happiness have to be humbled in order to access humility.
Keating: Exactly. We have to humble our biases and prejudices contained in the unquestioned values that we absorbed in childhood, sometimes because they were the condition of our acceptance or approval from important others. We need to let go of our over-identification with our group and family. It's not that we're not grateful for what we receive, but a naive loyalty leads to hiding the truth things that should be addressed because they are real problems or injustices. Humility is freedom to say what should be said at the right time or to keep quiet when it's not appropriate to speak. This inner freedom is the sign that our daily life is beginning to be penetrated by the transcendent potentialities of our spiritual center. It is grace that enables us to do that, and that's why prayer is so valuable. Prayer reminds us that what we can't do, with God's help, we can do, if we ask and if we let go of those things in us that are obstacles to God's love. There's also a distinction between humility and humiliation. Humiliation is when you're put down when you don't want to be, or you resist when pride is humbled. Humility is the willingness to accept criticism and the defects that people point out to us.
PT: Without having to defend against.
Keating: Yes. We take criticisms into account, to see if what others say is true, but at the same time, if we feel it's not true, we're at peace. We want to recognize the gifts that God has given us, and recognize the gifts we don't have, which somebody else was given. We recognize those facts without falling into jealousy or envy. Humility is humble in the sense of not being offended by the truth. But humiliation, according to Saint Bernard, is the path to humility. Saint Bernard means the humiliation that one uses well, that one accepts willingly insofar as it is true, but does not attribute to oneself if it is not true. Humility is never a put-down, but the willingness to acknowledge the truth about ourselves. Humility welcomes humiliation. Although it's painful at times, it realizes that, precisely because I feel humiliated, I'm attached to my happiness seeking programs in some way that needs correction if I'm going to be really happy and at peace in daily life.
PT: Let's close the interview with a little more discussion about prayer.
Keating: I'd like to emphasize prayer as a seeking of a true relationship with God or the Ultimate Reality. Take time each day to be with yourself, out of respect for yourself. In this tumultuous, noisy and active world you need to keep in touch with your deeper self, beyond the ordinary psychological awareness that preoccupies you. In this way you can cultivate this awareness of the dynamics of your unconscious, of the quality of your relationships with others, and of the damage done to you in early childhood that you have to take into account in your activities. Above all, prayer helps you to identify the affection and esteem, power and control, and security needs that seem to predominate.
PT: During prayer, or relationship with God time, how do you recommend that we relate to this information as it comes into our consciousness?
Keating: There are different ways of relating, all of them good. I suggest talking to God, friend to friend. Be open to God's inspirations; ask for God's help. Then, prayer as relationship, hanging out with God every day, moves from a kind of clumsiness in the beginning to ever-increasing ease in conversing with God. This moves toward friendship, which is a commitment to prayer and to being accountable to God in our daily lives. This is how love grows. Love is the ultimate meaning of the universe and to possess love is to be truly happy. This love can grow from friendship to the point of union and even unity.
PT: Are you saying that prayer time is simply "hanging out with," not petitioning something, but just being with?
Keating: You can ask, too, but like any acquaintanceship, sometimes you ask for a cup of coffee and sometimes you give one. Other times, you just sit and hold hands. Some people might be turned off by that kind of personal relationship with God, because it's not in their tradition or upbringing. Contemplative prayer, which is the fullness of this relationship, opens us completely to the transcendent dimension, not unlike the way a human relationship deepens and grows. That means you have to get to know each other. Give some time to this relationship. What you do in that time is totally up to you. To sit there and say nothing is fine or to ask for God's help is fine. The relationship itself gradually suggests new ways of relating, such as just being with God, waiting on God. Prayer becomes a face-to-face relationship, sitting and sharing the experience of being together, like a couple who are deeply in love and don't need to talk all the time. The total gift of their presence to each other is deeper than conversation; it might be called communion. The movement of prayer is from conversation that is a little formal, into ease, and then into the capacity to be silent and just enjoy the gift of each other's presence. That requires some time to develop.
PT: No short paths.
Keating: It's a lifetime practice, one that can always grow deeper. Any effort to know God is success, even though we feel it is a flop, because God appreciates even the smallest consideration or thought much more than we can imagine.