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Brave Heart

Find the courage to face your biggest fears

By Sally Kempton

The Raw and the Cooked

Basically, we're talking about the difference between the raw and the cooked, the green and the ripened. Between the two lies a 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—the civil rights workers of the 1960s, who were my first models of courage, were driven by the most intense idealism. Yet raw courage can also operate without morals or ethics; it can work in the service of aims that are unconscious, deluded, or even sleazy. The real mark of uncooked courage is the trail it leaves—often, a karmic minefield of misunderstanding, pain, and enmity that can injure us if it isn't cleared.

Cooked or 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 we know how to do what we're doing, like the well-trained soldier who goes into battle with a clear strategy. Ultimately, though, ripened courage rests on a profound trust in something greater than your own abilities—it lies in trusting the Self, the Divine, the stability of one's own center.

That level of trust comes only from inner experience, from 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. A famous Zen story tells of a monk whose temple is invaded by an enemy warrior. "Do you know that I have the power to kill you with this sword?" the warrior says. The monk replies, "Do you know that I have the power to let you?"

Ripe courage arises from that stillness. In the budo martial arts tradition, it's said that the source of courage is a willingness to die, to lose everything—not because we don't value life 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 a sword, because the stillness is contagious. The samurai's courage is based on Zen practice—a continuous emptying of the mind in meditation, a settling into inwardness, and finally a surrender into egoless awareness that is, to the small self, like literally dying.

There's more than one way to get to the source of courage, of course. The grace-based path to inner courage comes from opening into love, through prayer as well as contemplation, and from trust in the power of a divine source. One of my teachers said 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 sense of being will expand into that greatness. If your trust is in something 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 an experience of your deeper being, there's also an experience of profound strength, because you sense your connection to everything and therefore find nothing to fear.

Whether we approach the truth of our being through the emptying of Self, like the great martial artists, or through a devotional opening to grace, like Gandhi or King, we 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 the courage that doesn't rise only during a crisis but also enables us to keep getting up in the morning and face our interior darkness or buried grief, to hang in through the slogging grind of transformative practice, to stand up for what is right again and again, without bitterness—or at least only a little.

Strength Training

A young woman recently told me how she found that place of courage. Joan (not her real name) had volunteered to teach yoga in a probation program for adolescent girls. She realizes now that she expected the teenagers to understand yoga and her own good intentions immediately. Instead, they made fun of the poses and of her. Soon she was dreading the classes and seeing them as a test of strength.

"I felt that I had to win them over," Joan said. "Not just so I'd know I was a real teacher but also out of this old high school need to be accepted. Of course, 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 found herself screaming instructions into a sea of noise. All her fears seemed to rise up at the same time: the fear of inadequacy, the physical fear of violence, but especially the fear of losing control, of having to reveal her complete inability to cope with the situation.

She felt paralyzed. For five minutes she stood silently, taking in the chaotic scene. Then, 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, 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."

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 Joan 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 with the simple beingness of the girls in her class.

I believe that this state is what the Zen masters are talking about when they speak of dying into the ground of being. A Tantric text 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. The secret of discovering that power is to turn inward, toward 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 to expand. That's where superhuman strength comes from. It just takes courage.

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Reader Comments

Joanne Gormley

please change my email address
to this one and delete Thanks


Sally you've done it again - such elegant prose. Stirring, beautiful words laden with deep meaning. Thank you for sharing your profound wisdom. All your articles lend grace to my life and everyone around me benefits!


Thank you for sharing your insights - I can see so many opportunities in my own life and the lives of those around me to ask the question "in what do I trust?" and to come to terms with what courage really is and how to find it within.

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