In Japan, we are taught that everyone lies on a hierarchy. People are above or beneath you. This is reflected in the language. You change your speech depending on how you perceive their status. To not use the correct form of language is seen as disrespectful and a massive faux pas.
When people meet each other in Japan, they quickly go through a process of trying to suss the other person out: How old is this person? What are their credentials? This is why business cards come out very quickly during interactions — so people can read their job titles. This way people can quickly work out where they lie in the spectrum of respect.
This was my reality until I was 21. Because we live in this box of being better or worse than other people, you need to consistently strive to be on top, so to speak.
And then I met a man who changed my world.
This person was a highly accomplished martial artist, with more than enough titles under his belt. Having won pretty much every fight that he has ever fought, this would mean he saw himself as being ‘above’ all other fighters right?
Far from it.
Let me put some context first. From experience, feeling like you are ‘above’ someone is a high. The embodied feeling is that you feel like you are looking down on others from a cliff. But like all highs, it’s not an expansive and peaceful sensation. It’s a drug. It’s a wall of energy that feels pleasurable but at the same time is hard and destructive. Physically you feel a fire throughout your body, tightness in the stomach with an overwhelming heaviness in your head (hence I presume the saying, “to be big-headed”).
Conversely, feeling ‘below’ someone can manifest as all sorts of emotions, depending on how you see the person ‘above’ you. If you respect the other person, then the emotional sensation can be quite tame. However, feeling ‘beneath’ other people can also make you feel sad, even depressed. And finally, if you feel low on the hierarchy and don’t agree with it, it can lead to feelings of anger and resentment.
It’s not just that you feel these sensations within yourself. You can intuitively pick up on what other people are feeling too – whether they are feeling ‘above’ or ‘below’ you. Over the years, a skill I’ve picked up having been brought up in Japan is to quickly pick up on these cues and to act accordingly. They think they’re above you? Ok, I’ll use my subservient language to please.
Having been very familiar with these sensations all my life, I was suddenly faced with a person who radiated neither of these energies. Here was a man who on paper had accomplished so much, yet he didn’t look down on others. At the same time, it didn’t feel like he felt like he saw himself as being beneath others either. He knew exactly what his skills were, and that was that. He just was.
Until then I used to think that to show humility was to downplay your achievements. It’s what the Japanese do masterfully. If someone compliments you, you immediately deny the comment, and proceed to put yourself down in some way. This I believed was what it meant to be humble. It was to secretly know how good you were, but to hide it on the surface.
However, this was not what I was feeling from this man. He wasn’t secretly hiding anything. As I mentioned, he just was. That was when I realised what humility was. It wasn’t to downplay your skills. Instead, it meant to not see yourself on a scale, whether it be better or worse, good or bad, high or low.
You just are.
Subjectively, his energy felt like nothing I had come across so far in my life. If you could put a sensation to transcending duality, it was that. You could call it an emptiness. You could call it a liberating sensation. It was the feeling of going beyond the box of hierarchies.Old habits die hard, and I am still trying to learn the art of humility. But as I do, I know it will bring me a freedom that I have never felt before. Freedom from the highs and lows that the illusion of hierarchy brings.