My aunt just forwarded me an email about cultivating a spiritual practice rooted in the heart. The quote above is an excerpt from that email. The word ‘courage’ is derived from the French ‘coeur’ which means, heart (and in Latin, ‘cor’). I love that she sent me this message because ‘courage’ is my guiding word for 2010 (and I didn’t even know it was the Year of the Tiger when I chose this word!). Reoooow — purrrrfect!
I think it’s puuuurfect that The Wizard of Oz had the cowardly lion as the character that desired courage. Here we have the king of the beasts who has mistaken fearlessness with courage. The cowardly lion is riddled with fear throughout the film:
You’re right, I am a coward! I haven’t any courage at all. I even scare myself.
However, in every instance that he is challenged, he acts nobly in the face of fear. The message that The Wizard of Oz tells us is that courage is not being without fear, it is the ability to act nobly in the face of fear. And, that’s how the cowardly lion wins his badge of courage, by doing honorable things in the face of fear.
This is similar to the teachings of the great Indian epic, Baghivad Gita. Krishna mentors Arjuna in the art of courage — living with great heart amidst many difficulties in life. He reminds Arjuna that:
Action imprisons the world
unless it is done in sacrifice;
freed from attachment, Arjuna,
perform action as sacrifice!
Krishna is teaching Arjuna about courage; the courage to stand in the center of the battlefield of his life to witness and face his own fears. To meet each life incidence with right action; this action offered to Krishna (who is infinity, all time, the source of everything, etc.).
The word sacrifice has always carried a strange flavor for me. Maybe because in my childhood I was told that Jesus died for my sins; that he was sacrificed for me. That always made me feel weird because I didn’t know who he was yet every Sunday, I was reminded of him. I didn’t even know what sins were or that I had committed any! Unfortunately, the true teachings of Jesus have been completely overlooked and largely corrupted; this has resulted is the story of our “stained birth” and that accepting Jesus into your heart can only correct this. To me, this story is a manipulation of his healing work on this planet. Jesus was a bodhisattva and a shaman all rolled into one.
I believe the true teachings of Jesus are very similar to what Krishna is telling Arjuna. Krishna’s teachings on sacrifice do not equate to the martyr story. The martyr story is about not feeling worthy enough. Yuk. Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna are about embodying himself, facing his fears, and releasing attachment to actions. So, none of this “good job Arjuna” or “bad job Arjuna” — it doesn’t matter. If Arjuna’s heart is anchored with Krishna (or Great Spirit, God, Allah, Inanna, or whatever you want to call it), his actions will be based on his truth, their outcomes offered up to the great, sustaining spirit. And, I believe these to be the true teachings of Jesus (they’ve just been corrupted by ill-meaning entities).
Difficult Times Can also Polish Our Hearts
“Courage: the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” ― Maya Angelou
Courage is about being connected with the heart, and being true to that tender heart when a challenge arises. I feel that it’s all about being so attuned to the beauty of this tender heart, that one would know when they have stepped away from it or corrupted it. They say that the best way to see a person is to witness them in a time of great difficulty — how do they handle it? Do they lose sight of their heart? Do they lose sight of the greater good?
And, I ask myself these same questions. What am I like when shit hits the fan? Do I keep my heart open and stay connected to myself, or do I lose contact and shut down…collapse? With myself, I have noticed that deep, intimate relationships are the most challenging in terms of courage; so they have been my best teachers in a lot of ways. Relationships constantly challenge me to be true to myself (which means to be true to my tender heart) and teach me to honor the space needed for another person to be true to themselves. Relationships require an everyday kind of courage. And for that reason, they are brilliant!
I think these words sum things up nicely:
“Love begets courage, moderation creates abundance and humility generates power. Courage with out love is brutish. Abundance without moderation leads to over-indulgence and decay. Power without humility breeds arrogance and tyrrany.” ~ BKS Iyengar
Building Blocks for Courage: Dignity and Worth
On that note, I don’t feel that our culture really teaches us to be true to ourselves. I think both men and women have been greatly affected by some internal, cultural be-heading of an inner independence, an understanding of our birth-right of dignity and nobility, and a deep, abiding worthiness. These are the building blocks needed for exercisable courage. If we don’t have these qualities, courage is hard to cultivate on your own.
From my own life experience to many other oral histories I’ve collected in my memory, there is an overarching theme of struggle; mainly a struggle between transitions in life. In traditional cultures, there have always been rites of passage. There are too many to name, but they all honor a significant stage in life: first time the feet touch the ground to walk (Bali), the first time a child has solid food beyond mother’s milk (India), letting go of biological mother to embrace Earth mother (Mayan culture), and the day a woman starts to bleed (ancestral Europe). There is something powerful about a community witnessing the next step in a person’s life. Sometimes these moments provide the basis of some of the deepest memories we hold. What fragments of these rituals we have still retained and carry on here in the US are what give us security and connection. Rituals and rites of passage offer a person meaning and allows them to come fully into adulthood.
From a young age, we need to learn tools for inner independence. Children can still cultivate inner independence while retaining the deep, emotional and physical connection with the parents (from umbilical cord, to breast-milk, to emotional connection). It’s not about making them independent before they are ready to be. It’s about giving them the tools they need to cultivate a sense of dignity. I feel this is done by seeing them as sacred and intelligent, and allowing them to exercise their senses in the world. By exercising their senses, they craft an inner trust, an inner knowing that will be indispensable to them throughout life. I know this is hard because the many times I’ve been around children, I find myself cutting off their learning experience by giving them answers instead of allowing them to discover on their own…or by telling them to be careful (don’t do this or do that) when they simply want a safe space to explore. Parenting is a fine art — a great teacher for cultivating courage!
Where is the heart?
In a book on Traditional Tibetan Medicine, I read that Tibetans actually believe that the mind is in the heart. It made me think, why do Westerners think that the brain is the seat of the mind? Going back to the quote at the beginning of this blog, the heart is our physiological virtue system. Without our heart, we would lose all our ability to live…and without courage all of our actions are simply rote exercises of virtue.
To me, the best spiritual practices evoke a heart-felt devotion. From this place of devotion, the heart grows. When the heart grows, courage grows. And, when courage grows — well — then, we would actually have a democracy in this country.
(Side note: It doesn’t surprise me that crooked politicians or greedy corporate goons are called ‘heartless.’ And, in China they call cheap commercial foods, “Black Heart” foods. They are called black heart foods because the producers of these foods value profit and quantity over people and quality. I find it promising that at least the Chinese have a name for this. We in America still have no solidified awareness around some of the toxic food we eat — however, the awareness of food quality growing.)
Lastly, just one or two days after I wrote this blog, I found this excerpt and comment in Jessica Prentice’s book ‘Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection.’ First, she quotes Martin Prechtel and then weaves his words into her narrative:
Jessica quotes Martin who says:“‘Over the last two or three centuries, a heartless culture-crushing mentality has incremented its progress on the earth, devouring all peoples, nature, imagination, and spiritual knowledge. Like a big mechanized slug, it has left behind a flat, homogenized streak of civilization wherever it passed. Every human on this earth — African, Asian, European, Islanders, or from the Americas — has ancestors who at some point in their history had their stories, rituals, ingenuity, language, and lifeways taken away, enslaved, banned, exploited, twisted, or destroyed by this force.
Now what is indigenous, natural, subtle, hard to explain, generous, gradual, and village-oriented in each of us is being banished into the ghettos of our hearts, or hidden away from view onto reservations inside the spiritual landscape of the Earth body…
Meanwhile, our natural souls, which are like Bushmen or rare waterbirds, know that our minds and our souls should be working together to maintain or replaster the crumbling hut of life. Instead, our indigenous souls are being utterly overlooked and pushed aside in the bustle of the minds’ competitive activity, until our true beings feel just like tribesman in a big, trafficky city: unwelcome, lost, and homeless.'”
Jessica continues:“Everything we do on a daily basis — from what we eat to how we treat a stranger in the checkout line to how we get to work — is an opportunity to reverse this trend, to salvage our true beings from their sense of homelessness and alienation. When we buy eggs from a local rancher who lets his chickens range freely, we build a relationship and a community, a place where we belong, a home. When we soak our grains or brew our own herbal ale, we are doing something that is indigenous, natural, subtle, and hard to explain. When we ride a bike to the local farmer’s market to do our shopping, we are making a change that is generous, gradual, and village-oriented. Not only do such activities help heal our hearts, but they create networks of support, ingenuity, and cooperation that will help us solve the problems we may soon be facing. Our survival may depend upon re-creating the village.“
My wish for my life and for your life…is to tap into that great heart throne and find the lion or lioness courage that waits for you…and to be connected to that place so deeply, so that you and I can share that courage in the precious, everyday moments of our lives — where it matters.
Breathe in fear (into the heart), breathe out courage (out from the heart) — repeat as needed.