It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.
Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.
Most of us think Courage is synonymous with bravery. In fact, dictionaries often use bravery as the very definition of courage. Historically however, courage derives from the Latin word Cor which means heart. It was the twelfth century French who first coined the term Courage extrapolating it from their word for heart, Couer. They defined Courage as heart focus, innermost feelings. Over the course of time, the definition of courage morphed to be defined as we know it today, as bravery….“the ability to do something that frightens one”, “strength in the face of pain or grief” and “overcoming fear”.
In my life, I see examples of when I was courageous and times when I was not by both definitions of the word. Telling my mom “the cat did it” to avoid getting into trouble is an example of when I was not courageous. Leaving my first husband because I knew my heart wasn’t aligned with his, is an example of when I was courageous.
I was also courageous when I took up whitewater kayaking but not for the reasons most would think. To adopt a sport, that by it’s very nature is an adrenaline rush might seem courageous for sure. Consciously putting yourself in an “oxygen deprived situation” (which automatically evokes the “fight, flight or freeze” response even in the most intrepid) is part of the lure for some. This was not true for me. I was far from an adrenaline junkie but rather part of a group who were. So I practiced and got decent at running pretty difficult runs. I persisted even though each time I faced a significant rapid, I battled fear as well as the rapid. Though I wanted to spin my boat to the refuge of the eddy, each trip I gathered my mental and physical strength and dove into battle. This battle was not with just the water, but my own inner voice crying “I don’t want to be here!”. Off river, the mental struggle continued. I knew I could conquer my fear and I knew I had the skills to do the runs and this gave me pride. Although I wondered, is conquering fear for the prize of pride really being courageous? Am I following my innermost truth? Or was I “uncourageously” telling another “white lie” like when I blamed the cat?
After too many years, I finally gathered up true courage and put down my paddle. From the outside it looked like I was acquiescing to fear, but I knew inside how difficult this decision was for me. I really did have an investment in my “identity” as FEMALE KAYAKER. There aren’t a lot of us out there and it was a label I wore with pride. To honestly follow my heart and admit, “this is not in line with my heart” took courage in the original sense of the word. Courage to look inside, trust myself and proceed from there.
Erich Schiffmann talks about this kind of courage in his Freedom Yoga. My first Level 2/3 classes with him were physically challenging and yes, it took some courage for me to attend. Over the years I found that his Level 2/3 classes asked for a deeper level of courage. Before we began, he would ask us to “sit quietly and listen inwardly for guidance” and then “dare to trust and follow”. We practice this on the mat in our asanas he would say, so that we can take it off the mat, into our everyday lives. There, he suggested we begin with small steps, like choosing which shirt to put on, before we take it to deeper levels of self-trust. This practice might have been what helped me put down my paddle.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown says “Courage is not just about putting our life on the line… courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line.” She goes on to say that Courage might involve saying ‘no’ and taking care of ourselves. It most certainly involves trusting and following your heart.
The Hindu Deity Humanuman is the Yogic Poster Child for following your heart. His story is so full and rich that it deserves a post in and of itself. The original Ramayana epic, where he is introduced, is a 24,000 couplet-long poem full of his adventures. In a nutshell, Humanuman follows his heart. He takes a literal leap of faith from the southern tip of India to the island of Sri Lanka to save his beloved queen, Sita. The Ramayana reports, “It was the greatest leap ever taken. The speed of Hanuman’s jump pulled blossoms and flowers into the air after him and they fell like little stars on the waving treetops. The animals on the beach had never seen such a thing; they cheered Hanuman, then the air burned from his passage, and red clouds flamed over the sky . . .” (Ramayana, retold by William Buck).
This is just the beginning, even in mid-leap, the Ramayana describes the monsters and temptations Humanuman must overcome. Once on Sri Lanka, Humanuman continues to face obstacles. Armed with resourcefulness and cunning, powered by his devotion, Humanuman prevails and carries Sita home.
It is there that he most clearly illustrates his devotion. At the ceremony to honor and thank Humanuman, Sita presents him with a beautiful micro jesus piece necklace of precious gems. The crowd breaks out in laughter as Humanuman receives the necklace with a questioning gaze and begins biting and visibly inspecting each stone. Even Sita and Rama are taken aback and ask why such weird behavior. He replies that he is looking for his beloved Sita and Rama in each stone. If they are not there, the necklace is worthless. Of course this comment elicits even more jeers from the crowd. They accuse him of being ungrateful and even worse, insincere. His devotion couldn’t possibly be as deep as he was saying, they shout. In a dramatic response, Hanuman tears open his chest where all can see Sita and Ram inside his heart. That hushed the crowd.
This story might seem preposterous and irrelevant to our daily lives, but if you think about it, we all face challenges to our heart’s intent each day. Little things and big things pop up as we leap across our day towards our heart’s intent. It’s so easy to get pulled down by all the usual monsters, dangers and temptations. Time, fear, lack of trust, pride, greed, inertia, grief and disappointment all threaten to pull us down. As Humanuman demonstrated, following your heart isn’t easy but it is courageous and it takes practice and patience.
So today, do as Erich Schiffmann advises, whether on your mat, in front of your closet choosing what to wear or in the grocery store selecting which type of apple to buy. Stop for a moment, pause and look inside your heart…..and dare to follow what you feel. Practice on these little things so when you really need to open up your heart, it’s in sync with your life.