Part Seven: The Courage to Stay
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
Hello and welcome to part seven. This is the final week before our four-legged friends join the mix, so hang on in there!
Before we wrap up our final non-equestrian element, let’s have a quick recap.
Over the first three weeks we looked extensively at the origin and result of our unexamined belief that ‘the best way to live is to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable’ (1). We saw how it fuels disconnection from the present moment, leading to the illusion of separateness, and the ensuing external search for belonging (which underlies our aversion to surface differences in others).
In weeks four and five we looked further at the mechanics of how we disconnect and the route back to connection through returning to our ‘Beingness’ – the formless part of ourselves. Remember Eckhart Tolle’s example of the room? The formless aspect of ourselves is the part that witnesses the internal forms (emotions, thoughts and sensations), just like the space in the room is what allows us to witness the existence of the physical forms – the chair or the bed (2).
Last week we dispelled the myth that taking the time to practise ‘being’ makes you inactive, instead seeing how it actually enables your ‘doing’ to become more effective. We also looked at how tending to what we meet in our experience with compassion is key to creating an inner environment of acceptance from which our predicament becomes workable and possibilities arise.
By now you might be getting an inkling into how it is that learning to stay, with gentleness and kindness, is the route back to the connection we are neurobiologically wired for. But, as anyone who’s sat with themselves for long will know, learning to stay is so much easier said than done!
As I said in part one: We cannot do this work alone. The courage it takes to face what arises in your experience and not turn away is nothing short of heroic. It is no wonder that the term ‘Bodhisattva’ – meaning an individual seeking to wake up- is often extended to ‘Bodhisattva Warrior’. For the sheer strength of mind (awareness) and heart (compassion) it takes to channel the determination to choose courage over comfort and face the present moment fully is the very essence of bravery.
So, what really is courage? And how can we develop the courage required to stay with what arises in our present experience?
The courage to stay
I recently watched the brilliant Netflix documentary The Call to Courage in which research professor and author Dr Brené Brown draws on over two decades of research into vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame to share the facts about what courage is, what it takes to choose courage over comfort and the impact this choice has on our lives.
In a world that historically views vulnerability as weakness and courage as strength, it’s seemingly paradoxical to discover that vulnerability, rather than a weakness, is in fact our greatest measure of courage. But this is exactly what Dr Brown’s research has shown. Before we go on, let’s get clear on some definitions.
What is courage?
Dr Brown writes, ‘The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘to speak one's mind by telling all one's heart’. Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences -- good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as "ordinary courage”.’ (3)
The heart is hailed as the seat of the emotions. We tend to get incredibly uncomfortable talking about emotions, in fact, it’s not uncommon to hear one ridicule another for having the courage to share something from the heart. Clichés such as ‘follow your heart’ are sarcastically and disparagingly cast aside - ‘oh that’s just a cliché’ we say, but why is a cliché a cliché? It is their resonance with the reality of human experience that has enabled them to stand the test of time and solidify into the truisms we still hear today.
The late neuroscientist Dr Candace Pert, whose work I’ve referred to earlier in this series, describes the ability to access our emotions as ‘our natural biological right’. Drawing on a lifetime of scientific research into the biomolecular basis of emotion she summarises in her book, Molecules of Emotion, that ignoring our emotions is ‘old-think’. ‘By getting in touch with our emotions we gain access to the healing wisdom that is everyone’s natural biological right. We must acknowledge and claim all our feelings so they can be processed through the system and released. The more we deny them, the greater the ultimate toxicity’ (4).
Despite much of this being discovered over twenty-five years ago, the lingering tone of emotional repression hangs on in our society today. However, when we look back at the history of our unexamined habit to move away from discomfort and ‘just try to get comfortable’, it’s unsurprising. We really are up against a huge burden of conditioning. But when we come to see that avoiding the discomfort of the present moment is the root cause of our suffering, and our habits are none more than innocent misunderstandings, we have a choice. Are we going to choose courage or comfort?
So, courage: ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart’. How do you know what’s in your heart? By beginning to detach your sense of self from the idea of who you are and returning to the body - home of the heart. And where does your body live? The present moment.
So, what does it really take to step out of the idea of ourselves we cling to so dearly and feel the present moment through our bodies? In other words, what does it take to choose courage?
The answer is vulnerability.
Dr Brown’s research has revealed that vulnerability is our greatest measure of courage. She defines vulnerability as follows: ‘Vulnerability requires uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure’. ‘Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome’ (5). It is from touching this place that we develop the resilience born from knowing we are enough. Regardless of the outcome. To develop our courage, we must examine the very fundamentals of our relationship with vulnerability.
Contrary to popular but wholly unexamined belief - vulnerability is not weakness.
Vulnerability is the core of courage.
Whilst contemplating Dr Brown’s work, I realised that vulnerability is the very essence of living in the present moment. To fully meet your present experience as it arises is, on the microscopic level, showing up when you have no control over the outcome. Because, as we saw in part four, the reality of the present moment is unfixated and thus inherently uncertain. Therefore, meeting it fully requires uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.
We cannot control what arises in our internal weather systems just as we cannot control what arises in the external weather system. We can become curious- observing, investigating and learning about what contributes to certain states, such as what contributes to peace and what contributes to war, but the idea we can control is an illusion. One which, if you observe, leads to an internal battle. This doesn’t mean we cannot respond to and care for this life. It merely points to the reality that the outcome is never 100% certain.
Meditation teacher and clinical psychologist Jack Kornfield writes, ‘We can plan, we can care for, tend and respond. But we cannot control’ (6). To live fully in the face of that truth is to live in vulnerability - the creative flow of life. The very premise of life is that it’s uncertain. Can we trust that we belong to it? If so, the inherent uncertainty of a non-static reality is not an issue, but an invitation to dance.
Resyncing with Reality
By learning to hold this space of vulnerability we begin to resync with the reality of life and instead of trying to control it from the perspective of a separate idea of self, we gradually build the ability to lean into it, knowing that this dynamic flow of life is actually within our very bones. In this way, we realise we don’t need to hold on so tightly and we’re free to fully experience the ‘ten thousand joys’ along with the ‘ten thousand sorrows’ (7), not investing who we are in any of them, but fully experiencing what it is to be human.
Dr Brown’s research and own life stories show us that vulnerability is scary, it is the centre of fear, shame and anxiety. But it’s also the birthplace of joy, love and belonging (8). When we disconnect from the present moment, not only do we cut off from feeling and processing the pain of shame and fear, we also cut ourselves off from the road home to joy, love and belonging.
To live courageously, we must become aware of our habits of moving away from the uncertainty of the present moment, contact and process the back log of unfelt emotion we each carry and connect to our hearts in order to find out for ourselves the truth of who we really are. Only then will we be able to ‘speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart’.
Dr Brown tells us that ‘belonging is belonging to yourself first’ and that ‘the opposite of belonging is fitting in’. To find who we are we must connect to ourselves. To our experience. Right here. No one else can find out for you. Dr Brown continues, ‘True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are. It requires you to be who you are’ (8). In being we find our belonging.
This is not easy work, but it is the only way back to ourselves, each other and our world. In another strange and mind-bending paradox, nobody can do this work for us, yet none of us can do it alone. Whilst you are the only one capable of meeting the reality of your own experience, support from trusted friends, family, caring professionals and colleagues is a gift we are designed to receive. It is essential in reminding us of our own goodness, which can be hard to feel at times, and that we are not alone. The poet Mark Nepo writes, ‘Perhaps the work of love is to help each other clean our minds and hearts so that we don’t keep seeing a dirty world. Perhaps the work of friendship is to help each other break the habits of mind that prevent us from seeing it all’ (9).
Inherent in all of us is the ability to begin to develop ‘a much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life’ (1). And right here is the place to start. Once we see the choice that we have we can begin to ask ourselves, am I going to choose courage or comfort? Maybe we can only choose courage once a month, but that is enough. With the tools of awareness, compassion and curiosity, slowly and gently we begin to incline ourselves in the direction of ‘a more passionate, full and delightful life’ (1).
But we cannot will ourselves. The Irish poet John O’ Donohue writes this, ‘It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself and you can spend years lost in the wilderness of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making.
If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to yourself. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more importantly, it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey.’ (10).
Every time we return to the vulnerability of our present experience, we begin to resynchronise with the unique rhythm of our own lives. Can we trust this rhythm to carry us? Author Jamie Sams writes, ‘Perhaps the Great Mystery’s intent was to confound the human mind so we could learn to trust – instead of trying to reason and figure it out!’ (11).
1. Chödrön P. Awakening Loving-Kindness. 3rd edition. Colorado: Shambhala Publications Inc; 2017. pp. 1-2.
2. YouTubeGB. Talks at Google. Eckhart Tolle in conversation with Bradley Horowitz: Living with Meaning, Purpose and Wisdom in the Digital Age. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qE1dWwoJPU0. Accessed September 20, 2019. [Example found at 46 min 22 sec].
3. Brown B. I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t). NY: Gotham; 2007.
4. Pert CB. Molecules of Emotion. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd; 1998. pp. 273-274.
5. Brown B. Rising Strong. London: Penguin Random House; 2015. p. 4.
6. Kornfield J. The Wise Heart. London: Rider; 2008.
7. From the teaching of Taoist sage Chuang Tzu: “When you open your heart, you get life’s ten thousand sorrows, and ten thousand joys”.
8. Brown B. The Call to Courage. [TV Documentary]. CA: Netflix; 2019.
9. Nepo M. As Far As The Heart Can See. [Audiobook]. FL: Heath Communications Inc; 2011.
10. O’Donohue J. Anam Cara. London: Bantam Books; 1999. pp. 83-84.
11. Sams J. Earth Medicine. NY: HarperCollins Publishers; 1994. p 172.