Fearlessness and courage: a need to distinguish?

warrior not worrierI’ve shared on this blog a number of times my journey with anxiety: once out of my awareness (covered up with strategies and false appearance of strength), uncovered and fought against (like a foe), and now something of a companion (from whom I get to learn and grow). Many of us will have experienced emotions through this pandemic lockdown – as well as witnessing the tragic and unjust events in America. And maybe also will have tasted a sense that even the most reliable and trustworthy companions can become too much “company”: the claustrophobia of the situation “cooks and stews” process. I continue to feel drained, and I know its related to the energy of my process.

On Monday morning, having completed my Ngondro practices and several rounds of prostrations, I sat in meditation on my cushion. Looking straight out, I allowed myself to rest: no particular focus, just an open awareness that allows anything to play out and to be recognised. In that stillness, I felt the movement and energy, the intensity of sensations racing around my body. Athletes will experience a similar feeling after a hard training session – how the muscles seem to “pulse and ping” even at rest. It was a bit like that, but there was also a shaking kinda tremor. My friend anxiety, but as experienced in the body without any particular object to be anxious about or fearful of. This is what I know to be ‘terror’; and I must confess this is an experience difficult to find companionship with.


One of the hardest things I find with such experiences is that nothing in my immediate environment is telling me I should be scared / frightened / worried. Essentially, if I look around, there is NO threat. Thankfully through therapy, through my path of practice as a Buddhist, and my understanding as a psychotherapist, I understand this feeling to be an echo; something living on in my nervous system. As I shared with my meditation teacher recently, its being scared of something that has already happened. At times, I wish ‘it’ would hurry up and go. I “know” where it comes from, so therefore why can’t it just leave me alone? “Enough already”! When my clients express something similar, my heart aches for them because I know how hard it is to be gentle and patient with what needs time to unfold and evolve.

You don’t need me to explain how much anxiety can be triggered in these times of pandemic and unrest – in writing that, I know it doesn’t even begin to address or articulate the depth and breadth of pain being experienced by so many: please forgive me. The rug has been pulled from under our feet on a huge scale – no ground wherever we look. As someone who knows anxiety on a near daily basis, this feels a little like a “bootcamp”, or as I heard Buddhist teacher Andrew Holecek call it recently, now is “reality concentrate”. The Buddhist teachings point very clearly to the uncertitude of life; and this situation means our current strategies of distraction aren’t cutting it – we have to look and see, to feel and experience the pain of our human existence.

We are all getting used to an online life: work, leisure, socialising. I’ve been quite overwhelmed by the number of dharma offerings available, and I’ve had to be selective given how much time I spend with screen time each day: clients, teaching and now marking of trainee therapists’ assignments. However, I have found sanctuary in a couple of courses and workshop. Powerful and insighful teachings helping me navigate the tests of the pandemic and lockdown: one titled “The co-emergence of Fear and Fearlessness: teachings for unsettled times” facilitated by Peter Conradi and the London Shambhala Meditation Centre; the second “Fear and Courage: rising to the challenge of wakefulness” with Judy Lief and the Ocean Buddhist community. I have a “past” with both teachers which brought special meaning in studying with them; in fact, before the pandemic cancelled everything I was due to be out in the US on retreat with Judy right now.

Tillich courage

If you look at conventional definitions of “fearlessness”, they tend to emphasise “being without fear”; to not be afraid, with synonyms including intrepid, confident, brave and daring. “Courage” is defined as a quality shown by someone who decides to do something difficult even though they might be afraid.It would take a number of posts to present the teachings of these two courses. What I wanted to do in this week’s post was to focus in on thewords of the course titles: you will notice ‘fear’ is in both, but then we have ‘fearlessness’ and ‘courage’. Are these two words simply interchangeable? Or do they differ in ways that might help to tease out practical approach to work with our fear and anxiety? That is certainly the hope for any ‘warrior’ on the path – a way to make everything in our life workable and as fuel for waking-up. Or in alchemical terms, taking the lead and transmuting this to gold.

In contemplating this, I turned to the wisdom traditions that inform my path, namely: the Buddhist tradition which is my ‘mothership’ and secure base; the philosophy of existentialism that underpins my work as a therapist; and the enneagram, a more recent addition but one that has really helped my understanding of who I am and how I am in relationship to others. In turn, a quote from each that give you a flavour of where I am working right now

courageous reads“True fearlessness is not the reduction of fear, but going beyond fear.”
― Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

“It is the expression of the anxiety of meaninglessness and of the attempt to take this anxiety into the courage to be as oneself.” And also, “Doubt is the necessary tool of knowledge.”
― Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

“The personality’s attempts to find refuge from fear, uncertainty, anxiety and doubt is always looking outside of itself. The resolution is to be found within ourselves. Courage [she quotes Ichazo, a teacher of the enneagram] comes from the recognition of the individual’s responsibility for [their] own existence, [when] the body moves naturally to preserve itself’
– Sandra Maitri, The Enneagram of passions and virtues

And one more from write Brene Brown, expressing here a sentiment I have written about before:

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

So, how IS fearlessness different to courage? This is how I am reading the above together and how I am integrating my own experiences. I am holding how fear is the ‘ground’ from which I enter my personal path. As I stand in this ground, fearlessness is like the view, or the attitude I hold – fearlessness is like the resolve. I commit to work with my fear. In meditation, this is akin to the posture instruction to take a ‘strong back’. With this intent set, there is then the courage to turn toward my experience, to be with my vulnerability. Chögyam Trungpa describes the key to warriorship as not being afraid of who we are; to have courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently. When I feel the terror in my body, the task is to open, to dare to be vulnerable. In meditation instruction, with ‘strong back’ there is also the invitation for a ‘soft front’. Courage therefore takes on a path like quality, it is the ‘active’ or ‘method’ of warriorship. Consistent with Buddhism’s presentation of threefold logic, ground and path lead to ‘fruition’. As we turn toward the bodily sense of our experiencing, the ‘lead’ of our pain transmutes to gold. The gold is compassion, found as we touch our heartbreak and the genuine heart of sadness.

For me, there is also a sense of the 3 yana journey here. Fearlessness and its implied ‘resolve’ carries resemblance to the work in the Hinayana – the path of individual liberation. Courage, and the quality of heart could be associated with the Mahayana – the path of the Bodhisattva and opening up to the world. And finally, the teachings of the Vajrayana explain that it is by turning toward our pain, the confusion contained within ‘self-liberates’ to its wisdom aspect. As jungian psychologist and spiritual teacher David Richo says “Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful part of us”.

mugs to motivate

I realise in writing this how important the time spent on connecting to and contemplating my experience is so important for me on my path. I’ve not had much energy for my writing recently, and it took some effort (and coffee – in one of my “mugs to motivate”) to rouse myself to my Mac! I am grateful that I did; and yet I know I need to go easy on myself right now. Having come to the end of the academic year and its requirements of me, it is time to take a break. The easing of the lockdown, and an acceptance of quarantine measures, is allowing me to get to my beloved France for a holiday. Time away for a depth re-charge is what this aspiring Bodhisattva warrior needs – it has been a tough year since taking the Vow a year ago (pretty much to the day). Who would have known all of this was ahead for us.

I leave you for a while, in the meantime I wish you “Bon courage”.

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