The spiritual meaning of namaste is The Divine in me bows to the Divine in you. When a yogi bows with hands pressed together, this is a physical expression of respect that transcends the ego. This is what all bows can be.
When I first heard this explanation of a bow, I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever. Before that, I of course understood that a bow was about showing respect. Yet respect to me had this connotation of fear; if you don’t respect someone or something more dangerous than you (a senior student, your Sifu, a tiger in the jungle) then something terrible might happen to you. If you don’t show respect, you deserve that terrible thing.
True respect isn’t about fear. Fear is a function of the ego. While the ego can conceive of respect, it cannot show or experience it on the deepest level. In contrast the divine, our highest self, that which is beyond ego and attachment, knows only respect and love for another person. It doesn’t connect with the ego of another person, it connects with the highest self of another. In truth, there is no separation between our divinity and that of any other. The divine recognizes this oneness, while the ego can only experience the delusion of separation. So the bow is one of the truest expressions of the highest self.
Respect is always very clear in the dojo. We say “Yes Sir”, we bow to each other and the mats, and we treat each other in the best way possible. When we bow in the dojo, we are humbling ourselves. We literally make ourselves lower. This doesn’t mean we think we are worse than anyone else. Being humble is being grounded. We practice this in the dojo so that outside we are naturally respectful.
Accepting respect from someone else can be difficult. When I first became a Sifu and began teaching, I felt uncomfortable sitting in seiza while students bowed to me. I thought “Why do I deserve this? There’s nothing special about me.” The way I was able to wrap my mind around it was to understand that rather than bowing to me, the students were bowing to the whole line of Sifus, Senseis and other martial artists who had given their lives to practice and perfecting martial arts. When I thought of myself as a channel for that wisdom and experience, it made total sense.
This is just another way of saying that when I connect to my highest self, I can easily accept respect. We are unable to truly accept another’s respect while in the ego mind. Accepting respect from the ego sounds like, “Yes, I deserve this. I’m better than someone else.” Yet there is always a nagging doubt. The highest self has no doubt and doesn’t even bring concepts like “better” or “worse” into it.
Just as smiling even if we don’t feel like it can make us happier, bowing and showing genuine respect is a great way for us to connect to our highest self and makes us feel respectful and respected. Practice giving and accepting respect whenever you can and see the difference it makes in your life and for those around you.