Courage and the Path of Love
Stepping out on the spiritual path takes the heart of a warrior.
It takes tremendous courage to live with an open heart, to become more gentle, trusting, and compassionate when so much of the world around us tells us we need to be hard and uncaring to survive.
Look deep enough within yourself, and you will find a seed of courage that has nothing to do with being strong or in control. This is the courage of surrender: when you have seen the light, all fears melt away.
Into the Unknown
From a soul’s eye view, the spiritual path is a journey home, from a world of otherness and estrangement back to a wholeness that we have always known. There is nothing new to be discovered, only truth to be remembered.
However, for a human being, it is a journey from the known to the unknown, from the familiar confines of personal life to the terrifying openness of existence beyond name and form.
Yet this fearlessness is not blind. It grows out of intimacy with a deeper reality.
It’s one thing to stumble off a cliff. Something altogether different is to line your toes up to the edge, stare into the unfathomable depth below, and let yourself fall.
In the words of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang onto, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.”
Is Fear Part of the Path?
In many contemporary spiritual environments, where positive thinking is held sacred, it’s common to find a kind of escapism that seeks to avoid any expression of fear or other “negativities.”
The mind works by grasping or rejecting. When a potential threat arises, many people will either go into panic or minimize the sense of danger, trying to avoid experiencing fear for what it is. Both of these reactions can be seen so clearly in common discourses around the world’s most pressing issues.
Yet if we can walk the middle path, neither losing ourselves in fear nor denying it, even fear itself can be a powerful teacher.
Courage on the Battlefield of Life
Meeting life with eyes and heart open, we must be as brave as Arjuna, the great hero who receives teachings from Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
This foundational yogic text takes place in an unusual setting: in the middle of a battlefield, where Arjuna and his brothers were set to wage war on their cousins, the Kauravas. Few of us are called to battle against our relatives, but we will all face challenges where it seems like there’s no right answer.
Often even our inner domain can feel like a battlefield, with our best intentions clashing against powerful unconscious tendencies, forces moving in the darkness where we have not yet shone the light of awareness.
Why did Krishna offer his profound wisdom to Arjuna, and under such dire circumstances?
Arjuna was not the only warrior faced with an impossible choice that day—his four brothers were also there on the battlefield, caught in the same moral quandary—but he was the only one desperate enough to ask for guidance.
Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava brother, already believed he was on the side of the dharma and didn’t need guidance.
Bhima, the second-born brother, was a warlike character who did not need an explanation or justification to enter into battle.
Only Arjuna, confused and afraid, threw himself at Krishna’s lotus feet. And only from his total surrender was he made ready for the teachings. All that fear and doubt was not a weakness or a sign of spiritual failure, but a catalyst for deeper inquiry, leading him to seek an answer beyond conventional morality and his own understanding.
Fear teaches us humility. It shows where we are still caught, what we are still holding onto, and where we have placed limits upon ourselves.
Without fear, we would not know courage. Without passing through fear, we could not learn to truly love.
Embracing the Pain of Love
“Love is best when mixed with anguish.
In our town,
we won’t call you a Lover
if you escape the pain.
Look for Love in this way,
welcome it to your soul,
and watch your spirit fly away in ecstasy.”
Rumi’s evocation of the pain of love points to the courage involved in true love, which opens us to a depth and breadth of experience beyond what is comfortable for the ego.
Love that seeks only pleasant sensations is not real love.
Real love will tear you open, turn you inside out and upside down. It embraces the possibility of disappointment and the inevitability of loss. It accepts that in human life, there is no “happily ever after,” but only the fullness of the present moment. However fleeting and imperfect it may be, it is always deeper and more fulfilling than any static figment of our imagination.
Fear tells us to hold tight to the things we love, lest they fly away from us. Love holds its object of affection in an open hand. There is no pretending or demanding that they will be ours forever.
It takes courage to open your heart again after being hurt, when all of your conventional sense pushes you to close off and protect yourself. This is a completely natural response: as sentient beings, our most basic impulse is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
What we don’t realize is that the greatest pain of all, far worse than any betrayal or loss, is caused by closing ourselves to love.
Avoiding pain, we avoid life itself.
A deep trust in life allows us to recognize love as the inner reality of pain and everything else. In this trust, you can always put your heart on the line when life calls for it, even with full knowledge that it might be smashed yet again.
In the words of another Sufi master, Attar of Nishapur: “Reason cannot live with the folly of love; love has nothing to do with human reason. […] He who understands this journey should have a thousand hearts so that he can sacrifice one at every moment.”
Beyond Hope and Fear
It takes a special kind of courage not to lose heart when you see no way for things to turn out well. From even a brief look at the news, it’s easy to get the impression that humanity might soon run its course.
The world appears more hostile than ever, and the possibility that one person could make a meaningful change seems like a fool’s dream. What can we do when things seem so bleak?
There’s only one option: keep going. “Stand up, Arjuna, and leave your faintheartedness behind!”
Life continues to unfold one moment at a time, whether it brings about the apocalypse or a new coming of Satya Yuga. As conscious human beings, our role is not to singlehandedly direct the course of history. Rather, it is to choose, in every given moment, to be more open, more present, and more loving.
The choice is there no matter what happens in the world around you.
When you center your life around that choice, you will find the strength to show up with all you have, even in the most impossible situations. The outcome of your actions is beyond your control—what matters is the love you put into them.
This courage doesn’t depend on any circumstance or hope of success. This is the courage of Karma Yoga: giving your heart and expecting nothing in return, regardless of the outcome. It is the courage to try, fail, and try again.
It is the courage to open your heart even when you have been terribly hurt before, and to remain open even when you know it will hurt again.
Living from this love is an expression of trust in something greater than individuality, beyond your perspective or idea of how things should be. It comes from trust in a reality so deep, that all possible outcomes can be encompassed and transcended.
Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.
Image copyright Julien André Megoz, 2022