By Sally Kempton
Scott (a name I’ve given him because I can’t for the life of me remember his real one) had spent 20 years as a covert operative profiled for hyper-dangerous missions. He was a real-life version of a Nelson DeMille character–one of those guys who spent his life sneaking into Soviet embassies in places like Cambodia to steal secret papers. Then the Cold War ended, and he went home to someplace like Pennsylvania. There, he discovered that his formerly hard-drinking parents had gotten sober, joined AA, and wanted Scott to go to Al Anon, the 12-step program for relatives of alcoholics.
“What you have to realize,” he told me, “is that in all my years in the Special Forces, I’d never been physically afraid. I loved danger, and I was really good at it. Guys like me have what the Marine Corps psychologists call throwaway lives, meaning the person doesn’t really care whether they live or die. But when I walked into that meeting, I was so terrified that I couldn’t stay in the room.”
Scott hadn’t let it rest there, he told us. He had, in the language of the self-help movement, faced his fear and done it anyway, not only going back into the AlAnon meeting, but turning up a few months later at the ashram of my Indian guru—an act that for him was almost as brave as jumping off a cliff would be for me.
Scott’s story redefined my understanding about courage. I’d always thought of courage as synonomous with what hard-boiled novelists used to call ‘guts.’ In other words, I’d assumed that if you were unafraid of physical harm, you were basically, unafraid. Talking to him, I realized three things. First, that courage and fearlessness are not the same—in fact, without fear, we wouldn’t need courage. Courage implies moving through fear.
Secondly, that an act which for one person takes tremendous courage, might be someone else’s no big deal, or even their day job. For me, doing an unsupported handstand is an act of courage, yet I’m unfazed by stuff that terrifies others—speaking in front of a thousand people without notes, for instance, or facing into my own anger or discomfort.
Which brought up my third recognition: that each of us has a different edge. By edge, I mean the psychological demarcation point beyond which lies your personal precipice. Your edge may be the 500-foot drop that makes your knees shake when you face a mountain footbridge. It may be the fear of career suicide that keeps you from speaking out about corporate wrong-doing, or the fear of losing love that paralyzes you when you try to tell your partner that you need to spend more time alone. Your edge can be very subtle indeed—for instance, the moment when your boundaries dissolve in meditation. The point is that each of us, sometime, will be asked to step off the borders of the known world, and do something that really scares us. Courage is that quality of heart that lets us do it.
As you probably know, the English word courage comes from the French ‘cour’ or ‘heart.’ The Sanskrit word for courage is saurya, which has the same root as the Sanskrit word for ‘sun.’ (In fact, many ancient systems associate the sun—heart of the solar system—with the pulsing, radiant muscle that is the center of our circulatory system.) In Ayurveda, they say that the psychological quality of courage is related to the health of our mamsa dhatu—the muscular element in the body—a good argument for strength training, Outward Bound programs, and lots of standing poses. ( Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist famous for her risky, confrontive interviews with people like Fidel Castro and Ayatolleh Khomeini, noted in an interview that people who have physical courage usually have moral courage.) But I like the heart-image, with its implication that courage comes from the very center of being, the heart, the organ that most directly resounds with the pulsation of life.
Like the heart itself, courage is a lotus with many petals, all of them associated with qualities that even the most ironic of us celebrate. Here are a few of facets of courage: bravery, strength, steadiness, trust, self-reliance, faith, integritya , love. And also, lets be honest, recklessness. In my teens, when I thought the way to conquer fear was to plunge headlong into whatever you were scared to do, I often found myself in situations that a less extreme person would have thought twice about. Still, even though I shake my head at some of the decisions I made, I also see that the recklessness I cultivated in my teens and twenties really did have that heart-full quality that marks any form of truly courageous behavior. At the very least, it developed some courage muscles, some habits of acting in the face of fear that would later allow me to hold steady through some difficult life-choices.
Nonetheless, there’s a difference between that impulsive courage—the kind that leads people to charge into battle without a plan, have unprotected sex, or start undercapitalized dot-coms—and the courage of an Aung San Suu Kyi, or, for that matter, an ordinary person who lives daily with hard choices without flinching.
So, what does courage tempered with wisdom look like, as opposed to the kind of courage that prompts your friends to say ‘You’re so brave!” when what they’re actually thinking is, “You’re so out of your mind!”
Basically, we’re talking about the difference between the raw and the cooked, the green and the ripened. Between raw courage and the kind that’s ripe and seasoned lies a whole world of discipline, surrender, and experience.
Raw courage, for one thing, is based on emotion, fueled by anger and desire. It often acts out of noble motives, yet raw courage can also operate without morals or ethics, or in the service of aims that are unconscious, deluded, or even downright sleazy. The real mark of uncooked courage is the trail it leaves—often, a karmic minefield of misunderstanding, pain and enmity that really does come back to bite us if it isn’t cleared.
Cooked courage, ripe courage, on the other hand, contains discipline, wisdom and especially, a quality of presence. Skill has something to do with it, of course. It’s much easier to act bravely when you know how to do what you’re doing. Ultimately, though, ripened courage seems to rest on profound trust in something greater than your personal self-interest—trust in the Self, trust in love, trust in the divine, trust in the power of your own awareness, trust in the stability of your own Center. That level of trust only comes out of inner experience, a kind of spiritual maturity. Out of that trust, a person with ripe courage can often surrender both the fear of losing and the desire to win, and act for the sake of action, even for the sake of love, like the monk in the famous Zen story whose temple is invaded by an enemy warrior with a sword. “Do you know that I have the strength to kill you with this sword?” the warrior says. The monk replies, “Do you know that I have the strength to let you?”
Ripe courage arises from that stillness. In the Budo martial arts tradition, it’s said that the source of true courage is the willingness to die, to lose everything—not because we have ‘throwaway lives’, but because we’ve entered so fully into our own Center that we know it will hold through death. In such a state, they say, a samurai can pacify an enemy without picking up his sword, because the stillness is contagious. That samurai’s courage is based on practice—a continual emptying of the mind in meditation, a continual settling into inwardness, and finally a surrender into egoless awareness that is like literally dying to the small self.
There’s more than one way to get to the source of courage, of course. The grace-based path to inner courage comes from radically opening into love, through prayer as well as contemplation, and from trust in the power of your divine source. I think of one path as the masculine path—the path of fearlessness through reliance on self—and the other as the feminine path—the path of fearlessness through trust in love. One of my teachers used to say that the great question to contemplate in any situation is “In what do you place your trust?’ He would say that if your trust is in something truly great, your own sense of being will ultimately expand into that greatness. If your trust is in something small or limited, even in your own strength of body, mind or will, it eventually lets you down. Fear, after all, is based on the feeling of separation and smallness. Where there’s the intuition of your own deeper being, fear becomes beside the point.
Whether you approach that beingness through emptying of self, like the great martial artists and classical yogis or through devotional opening to grace, you always seem to go through the doors of stillness, centering, and surrender. The more we are in touch with the center and the source beyond it, the more we are able to touch that courage that doesn’t just rise to handle a crisis, but which can also allow us to keep getting up in the morning and facing our interior darkness or buried grief, hanging in through the mud-slogging grind of transformative practice, standing up for what is right again and again without bitterness—or at least only a little.
A young woman recently told me how she found that place of courage. She had volunteered to teach yoga in a probation program for teenage girls. She says now that she had expected them to get yoga and her own good intentions immediately. Instead, they made fun of the poses and of her. Soon, she was both dreading the classes, and at the same time, thinking of them as a test of her own strength.
“I felt that I had to win them over,” she said. “Of course, it was all ego. The more I tried, the worse it got. The girls would mimic me, laugh at me, roll their eyes at my increasingly lame attempts at humor.”
One day, the class got so out of control that she was literally screaming instructions into a sea of noise. All her fears seemed to rise up at the same time. Fear of inadequacy, the physical fear of violence, but especially fear of losing control, of having to reveal her complete inability to cope with the situation.
She felt paralyzed. For nearly five minutes she stood silently, looking at the chaotic scene around her. Finally, she began to ask internally, “What should I do?” Nothing arose. Then, it was as if time stopped. She heard a sound forming at the back of her mouth. She opened her mouth, and “Ahhhhhh” began to come out. She heard her voice getting louder and louder, until it was first an undertone, and then an overtone in the room. The girls began looking around for the source of the sound. Then she heard herself say, “Stop. Listen. Hear the echo of your own voices.”
She said that as she said that, for just a moment, she could feel herself standing in the heart of the universe. Nothing was outside her.
The girls stopped. They listened. Then, in tones of wonder, they began to share what they’d heard. Silence in between sounds. The sound of om. A bell-like ringing. A sound like the beating of a heart.
It wasn’t the last time this young woman lost control of her class. But by stopping and stepping into the unknown, she had somehow made contact with her own source, with inspiration. And, in connecting to her self, she’d connected with the girls in her class. She says she has never doubted since that if she will stop, turn inside, and wait, that a solution will present itself.
I believe that this state is what the Zen masters are talking about when they speak of dying into the ground of being. A text of tantra called the Stanzas on Vibration says in a famous verse that the heart of the universe, the pulsation of divine power, is fully present in moments of terror, intense anger, or absolute impasse, ‘while wondering what to do.’ The secret of discovering that power is to turn inward, towards the center of your fear or confusion, to let go of your thoughts and emotions about the situation, and allow the energy at the heart expand. That’s where superhuman strength comes from.
It just takes courage.
|Sally Kempton, formerly known as Swami Durgananda, is recognized as a powerful meditation guide and as a spiritual teacher who integrates yogic philosophy with daily life. She is the author of the best-selling book Meditation for the Love of It, and writes the popular Wisdom column for Yoga Journal. She is a teacher in the tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, conducts workshops and retreats on its applied philosophy, and is also a core founder and faculty of iEvolve: Center for World Spirituality. You can find Sally’s personal website at www.SallyKempton.com|
Millions of spiritual seekers today are confused. Some grew up in religions that they left and charted their own spiritual path. Others were raised without religion and found their way to spiritual practice. Still others practice in a particular religion yet do not feel that it holds the exclusive truth, and feel powerfully attracted to other systems of spirit that might deepen or compliment their native tradition. It is clear that the time for the emergence of Spirit’s next step is now, and that the emergence of a World Spirituality is an evolutionary step in human history.
That’s why we are delighted to invite you to World Spirituality Annual Practice Retreat of Love and Activism – Evolutionary Integral Relationships with Dr. Marc Gafni, Sally Kempton, Warren Farrell, Terry Patten, Mariana Caplan, Decker Cunov, Dustin DiPerna, & Marcy Baruch, July 17th – 24th in Berkeley, California.