While wrestling with the definition of courage, I arrived at this:
Courage is The Art of Listening to the Heart…, or
Doing What the Heart Says, Despite (Fill in the Blank) (fear, self-limiting beliefs, practicality, opinions of others, and so forth which may—and probably will— be present, contrasting with with your heart’s desires.)
I also found that the many other valid definitions of Courage out there still hold ground too, like:
Courage is bravery and heroism, such as rushing into a burning building to save a child.
Courage is being different, stepping up and expressing beliefs that might be contrary to the prevailing sentiment, i.e. saying that the emperor is not wearing any clothes or that some system of social injustice exists and needs to be eliminated.
Courage can simply be telling your story or bringing light upon that which has occurred.
Courage is admitting mistakes or turning back around when you are on the wrong path.
Courage is being okay with not always being liked or accepted by others. Courage is not altering one’s way of being as a matter of conforming to what others think you should be.
Courage is chugging along day-to-day in an oppressive situation because one wants to feed their children and give them better opportunity in life. Courage is sacrifice. Courage is Perseverance.
Courage is having difficult conversations, saying things we don’t want to say to loved ones but which our heart tells us need to be said.
Courage is getting past grief and loss, moving on with one’s life. Courage is acceptance.
Courage is feeling, i.e. having the Courage to feel and express one’s own emotions.
Much of how Courage is viewed as having to do with moving forward towards an action in the face of fear, danger and uncertainty.
Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it. — Mark Twain
Courage is moving forward within the context of fear. Courage negates, disables and/or overrides fear. Courage is what happens when fear cannot stop us from being who we are.
Yet, at the same time, many who have engaged in classic acts of heroism, risking their life to save someone else’s life for example, talk of not feeling afraid in the moment and going into an almost autopilot-mode instead.
Contemplating courage reminds me of the holy men of India─ the Sadhus─ who own nothing and face each day with the uncertainty of whether or not they may receive an offering of a bowl with rice. They exhibit no fear. Are they engaging in daily acts of Courage?
Furthermore, is it an act of Courage for an extreme sports enthusiast to push him or herself towards the edge in a death-defying feat or to purposefully create a situation of danger, then engage in it? Is this the same kind of Courage that the holy man or the hero may display?
Does it take Courage to rob a bank if the sole motivating factor is quick monetary gain for one’s own use? It must be scary to rob a bank, but I really don’t know if it takes Courage. Is the heart directing that action, or something else?
Does the heart always have to be involved in an act of Courage?
Not all acts of courage are as flashy as saving someone from a burning building or, if you think it counts, as robbing a bank. It also takes Courage to walk into a counselor’s office and say “I need help.” It takes Courage to do one’s personal work, to march towards Self-awareness and confront one’s traumas and self-limiting beliefs. It takes Courage to be honest with those around you about your life story and who you are, including such aspects of your identity as may be marginalized by society, or events for which one feels shame.
There is a human tendency to avoid personal work due to a threat of being overwhelmed by releasing a torrent of stored emotions. Yet while many will avoid inner work, many others choose to do it anyways. Those who do have “something” pushing them from the inside to keep going. Although the work will be painful to them, it will also be rewarding. They know this because the heart says so. They listen to it; they take action to reduce the noise that interferes with what the heart is saying. They have Courage.
“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” -Mary Anne Radmacher
Doing What the Heart Says
If Courage is doing what the heart says, fear leads the debate that could tell you to do something different. If we take some kind of action─ like making a speech in front of thousands─ but we have no fear, some people might say that Courage was not present or that it was not necessary. If we are fearful and make that exact same speech, many will say that it was Courage that pushed us through to do it.
My contention is that with either scenario, if we are making that same speech from the heart and are sharing something our heart tells us to share, then both situations involve the element of Courage.
The first way is just a heck of lot easier (and probably a lot more enjoyable!).
I took a look at the Old French origins of the word Courage. The rendering is: “of and from the heart; innermost feelings.” Interestingly, fear was omitted as a necessary ingredient.
We ultimately need to identify and remove what drives our fears. Often it is fear of rejection, fear of mockery, or the power of some self-limiting belief that we are somehow not worthy of manifesting our true self and doing what our heart says.
“Courage is the most important of the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” -Maya Angelou
A Crazy Internal Tug-O-War (Where We Hope the Heart Wins Out)
Our bodies are rigged to be fearful; when we are in fear, that good, ol’ fashioned survival mechanisms take hold. Our fight, flight or freeze system was designed to protect us from bodily harm in the days of old when bodily harm was statistically relevant on an on-going basis (think saber-toothed tigers). Then there is our human ego, which is designed to protect us from emotional harm (such as looking bad in front of others, rejection by family or romantic partners or the image that we have created of ourselves). True physical threats are less likely to be a factor in many developed cultures. Thus, the bodily survival systems that are still in place continue to jibe with our egoic protection systems to create a pretty potent cocktail of fear that is turned to full blast in most people most of the time. Yikes!
Dang if it doesn’t take a lot of Courage to just show up anywhere at all─ at work, at school, to family gatherings, to social events, etc.
To top it off, variations of unconscious statements such as: “If I do what my heart says, I might look bad, be rejected by others, fail and ‘not survive’” will serve to kick the full-on fear cocktail into motion.
A lot of the times when we are allegedly engaging in Courage, we are actually trying to push through various levels self-created fear to do what our heart wants to do. Our heart is telling us something. Then an opposing message or self-limiting belief takes hold outlining various reasons to not listen to the heart. When this happens, we are resisting and fighting against our own heart! It’s a crazy, internal tug-of-war. And we burn a lot of our precious Energy doing this.
When Courage/the heart wins out, we live our Truth. When the fear cocktail wins out, we veer away from our Truth, usually towards a route that seems safer in some manner. On an unconscious level, we will then construct a narrative to justify our act of avoiding Truth. It may not be evident to anyone that we have sidelined our Truth, since that Truth may have been stifled, shut down and/or avoided all together for many years.
An alternative to the tug-of-war is to remove the opponent. When we simply remove all the opposing messages and fight or flight survival dynamics, we can just let go of the rope and let fear fall backwards while we march forth, listening to our heart and living our Truth.
“By fully experiencing and going beyond an emotional block, through layers of doubt and fear, you experience the emotion of who you truly are.” -Stephen Richards
When we try to control all the outcomes in our life, our control-prone egos and fear-rigged bodies can get triggered by any kind of uncertainty that may present itself. These mechanisms within us want certainty as a method of assuring survival (i.e. non-failure). Anything with too much uncertainty, real or imagined, can set these ego and fear-based responses in motion.
For example, my heart may tell me to make a speech to a large audience because I have something to share that may be of value to others. My ego may wander through thoughts of doubt and uncertainty as to whether I will perform well or whether people will like or even understand my message. What if I freeze up or get laughed at? These scenarios and others are possibilities that I cannot totally control. They represent possibilities of failure or “not surviving” in a specific way.
One option I have is o not listen to my heart, avoid giving the speech altogether and stay on whatever status quo path I was on prior to the situation. By doing this, I control the uncertainties that may be present (or so I think). The same dynamic could apply to any number of other major life events that involve a “statement of the heart:’ leaving a relationship (“I won’t survive or I won’t find another love”), changing careers (“I won’t survive or people will think my new career is not practical”), or choosing an alternative health care route (“I may die or get sicker if I do this”).
The impulse to avoid uncertainties by maintaining the status quo is POWERFUL. I can’t emphasize this enough. Fear and lack of tolerance for uncertainty have knocked many off their True paths; they settled for what might be viewed as a safer, less uncertain status quo. We all know people who have stayed in unhappy relationships or jobs they don’t like because of the fear and uncertainty they will face if they leave.
With practicing the Courageous art of listening to the heart, we can recognize uncertainty within us. This lone act helps to silence the cacophony of fear-based chatter in our minds and we can set our intention of what we want to do in concert with our own heart. We recognize that we cannot necessarily control all uncertainties and outcomes. Alchemizing with the element of Faith, we learn to be okay with wherever we end up, even if it is different than our original place of intention.
We say that speech we were afraid to say. We may stumble through it. Someone may not quite get what we are saying. Someone else, on the other hand, may get it. Either way, we do it. And we learn from the experience in any way we can.
We make major changes in our lives. We change careers. We struggle for a while. Others may question it. Still we make the change.
We leave a relationship that is not quite right. We may feel fear. We may feel alone. Still, we leave.
We are not foolhardy. We know that uncertainties will come and we allow for them. We may prepare for the speech, the career or the relationship change beforehand. This is Courage. This is the art of listening to the heart despite uncertainties.
Listening to the heart becomes a skill. Embracing uncertainty becomes a skill. Courage then becomes a skill and once you have some muscle behind, then Courage becomes a habit. We hone and exercise this skill. We continually recognize that the heart is the mouthpiece for the soul.
So we listen to it.
For me, having everyday Courage means listening to my heart at all times and remaining true to what it says. We will often receive pushback form society, family and convention. It is a constant battle, but it doesn’t have to be. We can relieve the pressure by simply not being concerned with what others think. We can value the opinions and feedback of those we respect, but the bottom line is that we have to live with ourselves and the heart that we have, either honored or denied in our lives. The opinion of others, no matter how well-meaning, will not be all that relevant when all is accounted for. We often regret having taken the practical advice of others rather than having listened to our own hearts. Courage.
“Sometimes it is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain and the work of every day; the slow walk toward a better life.” -Veronica Roth
One of the most practical applications of everyday Courage is the ability to communicate one’s Truth with others despite the fear of hurting them or the fear of rejection. Conversations such as these may entail enforcing our boundaries and saying “No.”
It is toughest to tell our Truth when we feel like it will cause those we love to reject us. It is equally tough to tell a loved one something that may make them feel rejected.
There is usually no easy way around a difficult conversation. Yet your heart tells you that the conversation needs to occur. We usually hem and haw a bit and then either listen to our heart or avoid the conversation altogether.
With Courage, we have that conversation. When we do, many times things work out for the better, with at least better understanding occurring overall. When we avoid these conversations, conflicts tend to fester and get worse.
In my counseling practice, I have taught skills that help facilitate effective communication, but there is nothing like making a habit of speaking one’s Truth with kindness. When you do this, you can say to another: “There is a really difficult conversation that I need to have with you, something really important that I think we need to talk about.” We choose our battles and recognize the sensitivities of the recipient. Then we talk.
P.S. Sometimes the most difficult conversations are the ones we have with ourselves.
It is easy to say that the contrasting Energy to Courage is fear. Yet Courage is mostly recognized when fear is present. I contend that one can do what are considered difficult or scary things with no fear present, which for me is still Courage. For me, the more dangerous, sneakiest contrasting Energy to watch out for is denial. Denial can often be how fear manifests itself─ through stifling or muting what the heart is saying, or purposefully avoiding its call. Denial is the Energy that simply says, “Don’t Even Go There.” When in denial, one can go as far as to construct a narrative that is in direct opposition to what the heart may be saying and that maintains the status quo. Denial can work with the Energy of shame to tell you to just “lay low”, don’t take any chances and don’t “expose” yourself in any way.
Shame contrasts with Courage as well. Shame is an underlying belief that one is somehow less than others, somehow deficient. Shame is not of the Divine. Its message will contradict with what the heart is saying. With shame comes fear of exposure, that we are somehow less than the image we portray. With the “noise” of shame, we may not be able to discern what the heart is saying. Shame will direct one towards not being bold. When we are bold, we expose ourselves and our faults may be seen.
There is a dynamic called “The Impostor Syndrome” whereby one feels a constant state of fear being found out to be unworthy of title, role or position, regardless of merit or credentials. This is a dynamic of some internalized shame.
Ironically, it takes Courage to ferret out shame. We shine light on it. We learn to feel, process and let it go.
“The opposite of fear in our society is not cowardice, its conformity.” -Rollo May
The Courage to Feel; the Courage to Heal
Courage is honed by learning to feel our feelings on a daily basis─ to feel, recognize and process our feelings exactly as they are and as close to when they arise as possible. This process removes the “noise” which clutters our ability to hear what our heart is saying. Along the way, we may have learned that it is not okay to feel and to emote (i.e. express emotions). We may have learned to contain our feelings. If so, then we have to unlearn these habits and start to feel again. This is the only way to hear what our heart is saying.
When we start to feel our emotions, we begin to learn what emotions and beliefs no longer serve us, which ones we simply need to let go of. Our hearts will tell us where we need to heal, and if we need help in doing so. This is an example of Courage in action.
“Tears are not a sign of weakness but of courage.” -Washington Irving
With the premise that Courage is doing what the heart says, there is normally alchemical work to be done in order to be better able to hear the heart and reduce fear (and other chatter). All elements that quiet the mind therefore lends itself to engaging Courage. Elements that do this may include: Breath, Meditation, Mindfulness, Prayer, Mantra, Stillness, Solitude and Nature.
The Body has much to offer in learning to quiet the noise that emanates from the fear triggers rigged into our internal self-preservation systems. We also hope to achieve some level of Equanimity to best hear and detect what our heart is saying, separate from external influences.
Healing may serve to identify and remove self-limiting beliefs, which in turn may have limited Courage.
When we reduce the noise and begin to hear what our heart has to say, we are starting to hear our Truth. Intuition can be said to be the conversation taking place within that lets our Truth be known, in alignment with our Divinity. Freewill and Faith are then engaged in order to implement our Truth. Freewill pushes us forward. Faith assists in the understanding that we will be okay wherever we end up. Infinitude may also result, which can be said to be a full expression of the feeling of Courage.
- Practice Mindfulness in a manner that focuses on identifying fears which prevent you from expressing who you are and accomplishing some goal. Notice how the fear might manifest itself in your Body. Sit and breathe through fear with an intention of shining light on its source such as fear of rejection or a self-limiting belief that you are not worthy of success. Examine how your fears or self-limiting beliefs may be inaccurate or out of perspective. Seek professional assistance if necessary with this process.
- Practice Body postures that relay confidence. Learn the yoga postures Warrior I & II.
- Start to engage in Courageous conversation. Practice expressing your views and opinions, particularly around those who you know disagree or don’t approve.
- Enforce boundaries by managing commitments and saying “No” when applicable.
- Disengage from groups, organizations and relationships that do not reflect who you are and/or your belief systems.
- Find your tribe. Engage with groups, organizations, and relationships that reflect who you are.
- Join a social movement of some type that fits with your Truth and your Service on the planet.
- Take an inventory of “Difficult Conversations” that need to be had and are hovering over your life. Develop a strategy to carry through with these, possibly engaging the services of a counselor or mediator to assist.
- Identify areas in your life whereby you engage in behaviors/activities with the aim of pleasing others and meeting their expectations. Look at how you may better serve your needs in lieu of pleasing others.
- Try new things that you have always wanted to try by first removing any excuses that have enabled resistance to them in the past.
- Answer the question: “What would you be doing if money were not an issue?” Identify fears, obstacles and excuses for not pursuing that path. Develop a plan to pursue that Truth, including plans on how to pay bills in the meantime.
I am Courage. I am the Courage that Resides Inside Me.
I am pure energy; I am peace at this moment, Courageous and willfully present.
Let me hear my Truth.
Though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)