Mark Twain once wrote, “Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but its mastery.” All of us strive to act with courage, with honor, and with integrity. Yet we often judge ourselves harshly for those moments when we needed courage and found it lacking.
In the world most of us grew up in courage, like other virtues, was a quality we were either born with or not. We were lucky or not so lucky, but either way we couldn’t change who we were.
The truth is that courage is a skill like any other skill. It is a conditioned response to an environmental stimulus: perceived danger. It is our nervous system being able to tolerate the stress and fear we feel, and still allow us to perceive what is happening accurately, and respond appropriately.
So how do we learn the skill of courage? The first step is to realize that fear is a constant and natural response to changing conditions in the environment. Our nervous systems are “wired” to perceive change as threatening. It’s how our species survived. Fear is immediate feedback about danger: either the danger that is actually present, or the danger that was present in the past.
The second step is to become acquainted with what we fear and why. All of our fears have a story. We must know these stories to gauge how they are impacting our behavior in ways that don’t serve us. As we say in the martial arts, “Awareness must precede control.”
Thirdly, we have to learn to breathe and become acquainted with how we experience the feeling of fear in our body without needing or trying to change it. It’s not a problem. It’s there for a reason. Normalizing fear and understanding its’ appearance allows it to become an ally that serves you, not an enemy bent on defeating you.
Every warrior culture understood the essential truth of courage: that without fear, there can be no courage. So to learn courage, make friends with fear.
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