One of the most common responses I get to my book, a memoir about the time I spent living and working as a human rights monitor in Afghanistan, is: “You must be very brave!”
It’s true, moving to Afghanistan to investigate human rights violations is a brave thing to do. But so too is having a difficult conversation with someone you love, or—as I know very well—sharing the story of your life without hiding the parts you feel secretly ashamed about.
Life takes courage. Love takes courage. Vulnerability takes courage. Any kind of risk, anything at all that really matters, takes courage. Even falling takes courage.
One of the things I learned in Afghanistan is that, sometimes, what looks like a brave leap may in reality be an unexpected fall.
My book, Zen Under Fire, begins when I was left in charge of the United Nations mission office in Western Afghanistan, the very same day that a local tribal leader was assassinated, sparking revenge attacks leading to the deaths of more than 40 people, including 20 children. I was out of my depth, and terrified that my lack of experience might mean that more innocent lives would be lost.
People ask me where I found the courage to handle that situation. The truth is I wasn’t thinking much about being brave. I was thinking “Holy crap, I’m falling!”
And the fall didn’t end when that crisis ended. Throughout my time in Afghanistan I was repeatedly thrown into situations for which I felt unprepared and inadequate. It was easy to see the ways in which I was unqualified to be doing the work I was trying to do, and even easier to criticize myself when I fell short of my own expectations.
When I look back on those times and remember how afraid I was of failing, I feel most proud of myself for staying in the arena. I think of the words of Theodore Roosevelt—words I first heard spoken by Dr. Brene Brown:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, but who does actually strive to do the deeds…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
So what does it take to avoid ending up with “those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat?”
It takes, above all else, the willingness to fail. It takes willingness to be vulnerable—which means cultivating the capacity to hold your ground even when you feel like you are in free fall. And that is where yoga comes into the picture, for me.
In my experience, the bravest thing I could do when I was in free fall was to sit still and breathe and pay attention. Which meant being aware of what was going on around me. There was certainly a part of me that didn’t want to see with that kind of clarity. Alcohol, sleeping pills, the distraction of bad television—all appealed.
But eventually I realized I needed to see what was really going on. So I summoned up all my courage and sat still.
Every morning for 10 minutes, I sat on a cushion with a timer and paid attention to my breath. Every few seconds I would notice that my attention had wandered off with a thought or a plan or a worry or a distraction (they are all just distractions really) so I would gently nudge my attention back to my breath and keep sitting. That pattern repeated every few seconds, which often made 10 minutes seem like a long time.
I was training my mind and, like a puppy, it needs gentleness and incredible patience. Which is why one of my tips for practicing courage is a simple daily practice of mindfulness.
5 STEPS TO CULTIVATE COURAGE
If you have never done any breath work before, start simple. Just try inhaling through your nose deeply, and then exhaling either through your nose or your mouth as you relax your body. Over time, you’ll want to build the capacity to breathe deeply, using the full diaphragm so that you see your belly rise and fall as you breathe, rather than just your chest. But for today just try five deep breaths. They may be the first deep breaths you’ve had all day.
2. Focus & soften
Find a comfortable place to sit. Eyes are closed or half open, gaze soft. Bring your attention to your breath. For the next five minutes, every time you notice that your attention has wandered away from your breath, gently bring it back. The moment of noticing that you have wandered is the moment of awareness; it’s the heart of the practice—which is to come back, over and over again. Tip: set a timer or you’ll be checking the time every few seconds.
3. Feel fear in your body
Sometimes we think that courage means having no fear. In reality, courage means becoming very familiar with our fear and learning to act even though we are afraid. Fear is not just an idea, we experience fear in our body and yoga helps us start to recognize that. Try this: Take a fear you a familiar with, a fear that shows up in your life regularly. Now, feel where your fear is in your body. It might feel like a tightness or a contraction. It might feel like you’re holding something in, or back, or up. Take a few minutes to inhale deeply and send deep exhales of softness and release into that contracted place.
4. Study your fear
Studying our fear may seem counter-intuitive. But yoga teaches us to study our own habits and patterns. So pay attention to the fear that shows up in your life, listen to it, see if you recognize it. There might be an old familiar pattern in this fear, and recognizing the pattern may help you find the exact words needed to reassure it and move through and past it. This is especially useful with fears that come up over and over again—maybe even in different guises.
5. Meet fear with kindness
The very first principle and practice of yoga is ahimsa—which means being compassionate and kind, even towards ourselves. The meditation practice outlined above is, ultimately, a practice in looking ourselves in the eyes with kindness, which gives us a pathway to reconnect with our own great big courageous hearts. Love melts fear. And our meditation practice is a path back to our own original, loving selves.