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How to Cultivate a Brave Heart

Find the courage to face your biggest fears.

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compassion meditation

Find the courage to face your biggest fears.

Scott, an ex-Special Forces guy I met in the late 1980s, had spent 20 years as a covert operative for hyperdangerous missions. He was one of those guys who would sneak 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 said, “is that in all my years in the Special Forces, I’d never been afraid. I loved danger, and I was really good at it. But when I walked into that meeting, I was so terrified that I couldn’t stay in the room.”

Scott had literally never spent a moment looking at himself or at the source of his pain. The world of feelings was a place of darkness for him and, like all unknown territory, profoundly scary. But he faced his fear and not only went back to that Al-Anon meeting but decided to journey further into himself by learning to meditate. For Scott, that was about as brave an act as, say, parachute jumping would be for me.

Scott’s story redefined my understanding of courage. I’d always thought of courage as synonymous with what hard-boiled novelists used to call “guts.” I’d assumed that if you were unafraid of physical harm, you were, basically, unafraid. Scott helped me realize, though, that courage and fearlessness are not the same-in fact, if we didn’t have fears, we wouldn’t need courage. Courage implies moving through fear.

An act that takes tremendous courage for one person 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 my own anger. And, of course, each of us has a different edge, a psychological precipice beyond which lies a personal abyss. Your edge could be the 500-foot drop below a mountain footbridge. It may be the fear of career suicide that keeps you from speaking out about corporate wrongdoing, or the fear of losing your partner’s love that paralyzes you when you try to convey certain truths about yourself. Your edge might be very subtle indeed-it might be, for instance, the moment your boundaries dissolve in meditation. The point is that each of us, sometime, will be asked to step past the borders of the known world and do something that scares us. Courage is that quality of heart that lets us do it.

Home of the Brave

Anyone who reads inspirational literature knows that the English word “courage” comes from the French coeur, meaning heart. One 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 at the center of our circulatory system. I like the heart image, with its implication that courage comes from the center of being, from 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 sardonic of us celebrate: bravery, strength, steadiness, trust, self—reliance, integrity, love. And also, let’s be honest, recklessness.
In my teens, when I thought the way to conquer fear was to plunge headlong into whatever I was scared to do, I often found myself in dicey situations. Now, though I shake my head at some of the decisions I made, I see that the recklessness I once indulged in had that heart—full quality that marks courageous behavior. At the very least, it developed some courage muscles, some habits of acting in the face of fear that would later enable 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 or to have unprotected sex with people who don’t love them—and the courage of a Martin Luther King Jr. or an Aung San Suu Kyi (the Burmese champion of democracy who has lived under house arrest for years). Or, for that matter, the courage of an ordinary person who lives with hard choices without flinching.

So, what does courage tempered by wisdom look like? How is it different from the kind of courage that prompts our friends to say “You’re so brave!” when what they’re really thinking is “You’re so out of your mind!”

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.

In What Do You Trust?

Sit quietly and contemplate your own style of courage. What do you think were your most courageous acts? Remember that they may not look like classic acts of heroism; any moment when you stand up to your own fear counts. Where was your edge in those moments? What did you gain from going beyond it?

Now, ask yourself, “At this time in my life, what is my edge? What’s the biggest thing I’m confronting? Where do I need to exercise courage?”

Now breathe in and out of the heart and imagine the presence of a radiant sun in the center of your chest. When you feel connected inwardly, ask your heart, “In what can I place my trust?” Then begin to write, without thought, whatever arises. After you’ve written everything that comes up, you may want to stop and ask again. You
can keep asking the question, with the intent to get deeper and deeper. Don’t worry if tears arise, or old memories. Keep asking the question until you get a sense of a deeper center. The answer may come immediately, or over the next few hours or days.

Sally Kempton, also known as Durgananda, is an author, a meditation teacher, and the founder of the Dharana Institute. For more information, visit

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