Tag Archives: courage

Courage

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Sometimes we don’t feel very brave.  We admire others who we consider to be much more courageous  than ourselves.  But we commonly confuse feeling scared with a lack of courage.  Whereas if you really think about it, we can only show true courage and act bravely if we do feel fear.

Growing up, and into my adult life, I was scared of spiders.  I would freeze if I saw one, and, if at all possible, I would ask  someone else to remove it for me.  I certainly wasn’t brave around a spider!  One day, many years ago now, a colleague removed a huge spider from my office, just letting it walk onto her hand and carrying it outside.  I considered her to be really brave!  But she disagreed, and explained that she really liked spiders, so for her to pick one up was no more  brave than it would be for me to stroke a cat.

So if we have no fear, then we do not need bravery.  When I first started to deal with spiders, removing them from my home because my family disliked them even more than me, I needed quite a lot of courage!  I had to steel myself to deal with them, whilst trying not to show my fear in front of my young son.  We lived at the time in a very old converted barn, with lots of nooks and crannies where the creatures crept in, and so I got plenty of practice!  One of them was so large that I could hear it walking down the curtain behind my head whilst I was holding my sleeping baby.  It took a fair amount of courage to walk slowly and calmly upstairs and lay my son down in his cot before coming back to deal with that one!

Over the years, I have learnt to deal with spiders pretty well.  I no longer feel so scared of them, and I have needed correspondingly less courage to remove them from my home.  As a result, my son now carefully removes all manner of  creepy-crawlies and places them carefully into the garden, with no sign of fear.  Because, of course, our fears can be learnt from others.

But there are very few of us who have no fear.  Even the most daredevil, thrill-seeking, extreme sports enthusiast (can you tell where my own fears still skulk?!) will at some point face a fear of their own.  For some of us, that fear may revolve around carrying on our daily lives when we really want to run and hide from the world,  nursing our hurts and pain.  We may be faced with challenges to our health, or to our relationships,  which appear to totally overwhelm us and yet we survive through small daily acts of courage. There won’t be any awards or medals given out for this type of bravery, and only we know what we have had to overcome in the small hours of the night, but overcome them  we somehow do. Without applause or recognition, but none- the -less important for it being a private and personal battle.

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Feeling the fear

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It’s been many years since I read the classic book by Susan Jeffers, ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’.  Over a decade.  But in all that time I have tried to remember to face my fears and so move life on rather than getting stuck in an all-too-comfortable rut.

Fear is a basic human emotion, one which underlies so many of our other feelings.  It is also a physiological response to dangers, which may be both very real and also can be imagined and magnified out of all proportion.  When we are presented with a very real danger, then our bodies initiate the ‘fight or flight’ response, conditioning us to deal with the danger by fighting or running away.  We experience familiar symptoms including sweaty palms, a pounding heart, accelerated breathing.  Our muscles get ready to take action. Our digestion slows down as blood and energy is diverted to our vital organs.  A very useful response if we actually need to run away or fight an enemy.  But if we are stuck in traffic and worried about being late, or worried about a situation which we cannot actually influence in any material way, then these same responses can be counterproductive, leading to all the many symptoms of fear in the chronic, persistent condition of stress.

So fear can be helpful, or unhelpful, depending on what is inducing the fear.  But fear never diminishes unless we face it head on, and really look at it.  We can then try to decide if the fear is helpful, if it’s rational and serves a purpose.  Or if our minds have blown the actual danger out of all proportion.

There is a story Pema Chodron tells in “When Things Fall Apart” about a man whose meditation teacher sent him to meditate overnight in a tiny hut.  He thought he saw a venomous snake in the hut with him, and once his candles had burnt out he spent the night in terror. He – and we – will never know whether the snake was real or imaginary. All we know is that it was not there when the dawn came.  When the cave was illuminated, and the man saw there was no snake, the fear was gone. But the night he had spent had given him a much deeper knowledge of himself.

We may like to run away from our fears, and pretend we are brave whilst staying firmly in our comfort zone.  We can cement our aversions around ourselves like a fortress against having to really look at those fears.  We can prevent ourselves ever having to experience the sensations of fear.

Or we can try to stretch ourselves, to knock down the fortress of our fears, and face our challenges head on.  We might be terrified the first time we do something, but we may come to know ourselves more truly by ‘doing it anyway’.  We may discover qualities and gifts we would never have known we had, and grow into more rounded individuals. As Pema Chodron writes in “The Places That Scare You”:

Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well”

Of course, fear can also be a healthy response to real dangers. It may be sensible not to do something which is well beyond our current capabilities, but to  learn more slowly.  We all have our intuition which can help us if we tune into it.   We can spend a lifetime discovering the difference between the fears that protect us, and those that hold us back.  And then we can keep pushing our boundaries just a little bit each day, so that we can look back at our lives and see just how far we have come.

Exchanging ourselves for another

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Everyone has heard, at some point in their lives, the advice that they should  ‘think of someone worse off than themselves’.  It’s not always welcome, and it’s not always that easy to do.  Our own pain, whether physical or emotional, can be so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine anything worse.  Unintentionally, we are frequently rendered more selfish, more self-absorbed, by our own suffering.

But if we can, for one moment, put that pain aside, we will be able to see that, yes, indeed, there are many others who are in worse pain, who are suffering more than we are.  So we have a choice. We can allow our own suffering to shut us off from others, or we can use it to connect more deeply with the trials of those around us.  To acknowledge our common humanity.  To realise that even those who we feel ‘have it all’, will be struggling with their own private demons.

And so the first step is to not run away from our pain, but to look straight at it. To really see it for what it is.  To truly feel our emotions and to stay with them.  If we are sad, to really be sad, not to shut it away and numb ourselves with something else.  If we are angry, to experience how that anger makes us feel, without acting it out – yes, it’s hard!

And then we can start to think of others who are feeling the same thing – in their own way, and their own circumstances, yes, but just to acknowledge that there are others who we know, as well as millions who we don’t know, who are suffering  the same despair, fear, anger – whatever it is.  Millions of people experiencing their own pain.

And this is not just a logical, mental acknowledgement, it is an emotional process.  We feel our own pain, and we feel that of everyone else.  And, ironically, this can help to strengthen us in our own time of need.  We are not alone in our suffering any longer.  We no longer feel so helpless.  We are more able to extend ourselves to help others.

Because strength isn’t all about solidity, it’s about softness.  In Dru yoga, we soften the joints, even in ‘strong’ postures, so that we don’t block energy from flowing freely around the body.  Whilst we move from a strong core, we maintain a fluidity of movement through the body, learning where to soften and let go.  True strength comes from flowing through our lives with courage and determination, not from standing still and building up the walls between ourselves and those around us. Knowing when to accept help from others, and when to offer it. It can be wonderful to feel the effects of a beautiful yoga posture or sequence – but even more wonderful to send those benefits to someone who is in need of them –  whether or  not they are capable of accessing them for themselves.  When I teach Energy Block Release 3 in my class, a profound heart-opening sequence, we always pause at the end, hands in Namaste, to experience the peace generated by the movements, and each of us is then able to ‘send out’ that peace to anyone who comes to mind in that moment.

The Buddhist practice of tonglen is the exchange of ourselves for another. It reverses our natural tendency to run away from what we perceive as bad (suffering) and instead encourages us to embrace it.  It turns our natural tendency to shield ourselves from hurt on its head.  It gives us courage and strength, by allowing us to truly experience our weakness.  As Pema Chodron writes,

‘It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts’

~ Pema Chodron,’When Things Fall Apart’

We start by identifying our pain, and we breathe it in. On our outbreath, we breathe out softness, relief, and send it out.  This is a very powerful practice – instead of saying ‘no’ to what we see as ‘bad’, we say ‘yes, OK, this is how things are’.  We are accepting what is. Then we can think of someone else who is in similar pain – physical or emotional – and we breathe in their pain, too. We allow all this pain to open us, to free us, and we breathe out, softening and sending out this softness to them as well.  We can then move on to everyone who is sad,  angry, has a headache – whatever it may be – and  on our outbreath, send out that relief to them all.

When we have had a disagreement with someone, instead of isolating ourselves and allowing ourselves to make ourselves right and them wrong, we can instead try to breathe in their anger, opening ourselves to their viewpoint, and breathe out the softness, the spaciousness that we find. When we are anxious and troubled about someone, we identify with their pain, making it bigger than our own feelings about them.  We breathe in their pain and send out relief on our outbreath. There really are no limitations to this practise.  Whenever we feel good, we send it out.  Whenever we feel bad, we breathe it in. We can use it in formal meditation practice, or on the spot, whenever we remember.

If you have experience of working with tonglen, I’d love to hear about it.  If you haven’t and decide to give it a try, let me know how you get on.