Fear, courage, and the contemplation of mortality


It’s been a while since my last post, so I figured I’d pop in to add some new (ancient) thoughts and discoveries.

I came across the quote below by the controversial genius G.K. Chesterton a few weeks ago. It’s from his book Orthodoxy, which serves as an attempt at explaining his relationship with the Christian faith. I haven’t had a chance yet to explore his work as fully as I’d like to. It’s on my to do list. (I did watch the entire Father Brown series on Netflix, which is based on one of Chesterton’s fictional characters. Unfortunately, I don’t think that counts as a serious look at his work.). 🙂

Anyway, what I have read of his work so far, and of him generally, reveals some deeply mystical understandings. He is known for his infinite capacity to savor the mundane in the present moment; an early twentieth century Power of Now type. He was a prolific writer, poet, theologian, journalist, and art critic. His later conversion to Catholicism and the wondrous belonging he finds there remind me a lot of my own explorations. (He was also vehemently anti-semitic, which is part of what makes him controversial. I’ve learned how to appreciate the good aspects of a person, while accepting that there are also less than desirable ones.).

The subject of this quote, the experiential cultivation of courage, like so many other virtues, is intensely interesting. This quote captures some of the complexity and subtlety of the process, and the difficulty of articulating it in such a way that it fits into a contextual framework. (True virtue has this sort of you-know-it-because-you-live-it-and-feel-it quality that defies explanations.).

“Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

Courage, like all virtues, is the natural default spiritual state. It is the inherent nature of all humans liberated from ego. It’s not something to be positively acquired. It’s not something you collect or build up, like muscles. Rather, like love, compassion, trust or integrity, it’s something that emerges when the barriers to it are removed. Namely, fear.

In truth, to really cultivate courage, one must focus on the undoing of fear. Then courage emerges on its own, without any effort or doing.

It would be absurd for me to try to address this topic adequately in a single blog post. But if you’ll forgive my hubris, I’m going to offer just a few thoughts. Here goes.

If you were to google images of “courage,” primarily you’d find renderings of people engaged in all sorts of life-threatening adventure sports – rock climbing, para-sailing, flinging themselves off of cliffs into bodies of water… This is what modern society believes courage looks like. But these are not accurate portraits. It is our cultural misunderstanding that drives these ideas. As with many other societal problems, we have all been taught to worship the wrong gods.

The prevailing myth is that throwing oneself, head-first, into a scary situation and surviving that situation, somehow means the fear has been conquered, and courage has been cultivated. This is not true. 

When a person forces himself to do something that terrifies him, he goes against himself. He locks himself in a battle with his own spirit. His body and soul are screaming “no,” while his mind is overpowering them with “yes.”

When this happens a whole bunch of stress responses become activated in the body. And depending on the strength of his will power, he may have the ability to push himself through them. Carried on an adrenaline high, the more he is able to dissociate from his body, from his feelings, the better he can endure the situation. The less he feels, the more courageous he is said to be. 

This is what modernity calls courage, and we idealize and emulate those people who feel the least. This is backwards, not to mention self-abusive.

Courage is the ability to feel the fear completely in the body; to work through the fear, undo it, and then move forward and take action in an embodied way, with integrity. Mind, body, and spirit all in alignment with each other. In order to conquer fear and be courageous, one must actually feel his feelings.

To move on adrenaline is not courage. To numb the fear, and the feelings, and the integrity is not courage. To desensitize oneself in order to complete an action is not courage; it’s self-abuse. (And it’s abusive to the spirit).

The truly courageous person is the one that feels his feelings completely, confronts them, and works through them, not the one that is able to silence or numb them.

A person who jumps into a scary situation, full of (numbed) fear, hasn’t actually conquered anything. The surge of intensity makes him think something has changed, but it hasn’t. This is where all the motivational stuff breaks down, because faced with the same situation again in the future, the physical experience of fear returns just as strongly. Nothing is actually changed at the level of consciousness. You can pump yourself up to get through it, but that’s all you’ve done – gotten through it. Endured it. But nothing internally, spiritually, has changed. No character has been built via the experience.

While it’s true that gentle graduated repeated exposure can be used to overcome certain types of phobia (because of the accumulation of personal evidence of a safe outcome), fear doesn’t generally respond to rational evidence that way. Fear has a way of outdoing any real efforts of the intellect or willpower to overcome it. Except for one – which is to confront it with awareness. In the exposure therapy, what’s happening is a lot more subtle than merely enduring the circumstances. In the gentle and graduated tempo fear is actually being confronted psychologically first and foremost.

The real work of conquering fear is a lot more stationary than adventure sports, and also a lot more interesting. In order to conquer fear, by which I mean to heal the source of it and stop the physical reaction in the emotional body, one has to actually confront the fear. Not by throwing himself into it, but merely by looking at it. (For most people, this is scarier than jumping off a cliff).

In the most rudimentary form, it means imagining the worst case scenario, and exploring what is so scary about it. By applying inquiry and doing a little investigation and acceptance work within, the fears (and their reaction components) cease. The emotional body actually stops reacting. As the source of the fear, and the false beliefs driving it, are brought into conscious awareness, the whole thing dissolves. It’s almost magical to watch as it happens within. (This works on small fears and big fears alike.).

This requires a turning toward fear, a turning into it, rather than away from it, which is counter-intuitive. The mind naturally runs from scary thoughts. Even when spiraling in a terrifying “what-if” scenario, it never stays with the scary thoughts, it just keeps pushing them away with new ones. It is like a child imagining monsters under the bed, who pulls the covers tighter over her head to keep safe. Instead, if we gently coax the child to look under the bed, she will see that there’s nothing there. The whole thing is an illusion. There is nothing to fear, meaning there is nothing inside of fear. It has no substance. It is a kind of trick of the mind that keeps us under the covers.

I came across a wonderful article recently that mentions a new innovative therapy for otherwise treatment-resistant mental illness. I won’t get into all the details here, you can read the article yourself if you wish, but the upshot (and the reason I mention it), is that it implements this very idea. Instead of trying to prevent triggers and fears, (hiding from them) it teaches the patient to turn towards fear, and confront it. In this case, it’s the mother of all fears, existential panic. And it works! (It also works with panic attacks, and anxiety, and even with persecutory delusions. The process is the same).

This “new” treatment approach is very exciting for many reasons, but it comes as no surprise to the spiritual practitioner. These are ancient teachings. Confronting fear with awareness is one of the greatest and most healing methodologies known to humanity. It is the very central focus of spirituality and evolution of consciousness.

There is a quote floating around somewhere, attributed to Buddha, that the point of life, the point of spiritual practice, is to learn how to live fearlessly. The transformation of fear is the central pillar of all the work. The transmutation of fear into love is also the central theme of all the alchemical and esoteric traditions. And as fear is transformed, courage emerges. When you remove the fear barrier, the natural default virtue arises.

As one gets deeper into practice, he approaches what Chesterton is getting at above. Having cleared out the surface level fears, bigger more fundamental fears arise. And in order to wrestle with them, the sober contemplation of mortality must be undertaken. The process is the same – it is a turning towards – but in this case the subject is death.

The contemplation of death is a really uncomfortable subject for many people. Depending on one’s belief system, thinking about death can be depressing. It can trigger unresolved grief and pain. And for some it can even induce a sort of existential panic. Big religious questions arise, and then there is discomfort over the doubts and the questioning itself. Some thoughts about death and dying are stigmatized as suicidal ideation, which makes it an oddly dangerous and taboo subject to even think about.

Try telling someone that you’re sitting at home, alone, in contemplation of death, and you can be sure that the men in the white coats aren’t far behind. I’m be facetious of course, but not entirely. Reading accounts of people who have had dealings with the mental health system reveals a dystopian absurdity surrounding this question – thinking about death is considered very very bad, end of story. And telling a mental health practitioner (the very person charged with helping and healing you) about those thoughts, ensures that you will be confined and treated against your will, for your own safety, of course.

But the contemplation of death is taught, as a practice, in all spiritual traditions. There’s nothing inherently pathological about it. And as Chesterton tells us, it’s the fundamental acceptance of death, the welcoming of death, the drinking-it-like-wine perspective, that allows us to live fully and courageously.

I understand, of course, that there’s a difference between choosing to consciously contemplate death versus having unwelcome uncontrolled suicidal thoughts. But the first step to healing those thoughts is to accept them, without stigma, without panic, without fear of confinement.

Socrates taught:

To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?

To ignore death, or fear it, or hold it as bad or scary is a mistake. It keeps us stuck in the pursuit of things (fear-based things) that have no actual intrinsic value to us. Avoidance of death, ironically, keeps us from living. The key is to turn towards the concept of death, and to learn how to live and how to die without fear or resistance.

Jung spoke and wrote at length about death. Here are two snipets:

What happens after death is so unspeakably glorious that our imagination and our feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it. The dissolution of our time-bound form in eternity brings no loss of meaning.

Shrinking away from death is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose.

The Stoics taught that remembering death allows us to live each day in gratitude for what is – which is not a depressing thing, but a joyous one. By keeping death close, without fear of it, we savor the present moment as it is. We are grateful for the present experience, appreciating its transitory nature, knowing and accepting that it will change, as all things do, without clinging to it.

We see this non-clinging impermanence echoed in the intricate sand mandalas of Buddhist monks. They passionately and intently work on these exquisite creations, knowing that as soon as they are finished the creation will be destroyed. There is no sadness about that, because it’s about savoring the process not about clinging to the outcome. It’s a metaphor for living and dying.

In The Ladder of Divine Ascent, an important monastic treatise for Eastern Christianity, written at the start of the seventh century, St. John Climacus wrote: “A monk is a mourning soul that both asleep and awake is unceasingly occupied with the remembrance of death.” Regardless of religion or tradition, death is a monk’s greatest companion.  

In the medieval Latin Christian tradition of Memento mori (literally “remember death”) the practice of reflecting on mortality is a means of breaking attachments, and counter-acting the vanity of earthly life. By remembering that we are going to die, and welcoming that idea, things lose their ego-assigned value, (because what’s really going to matter when you’re gone?). Thus we become more free to live fearlessly and passionately. By keeping death close in this way, we find the courage to do what we otherwise fear to do, and pursue things we actually care about.

Kundalini is another powerful example. Many people report that at one time or another, with varying degrees of severity, the kundalini process can evoke suicidal thoughts, or feelings that death is imminent. This is so important in the evolutionary and transformational process. It’s not something to fear or panic about, but rather something to work through. The experience is intended to illuminate (via emotional triggers) the person’s ideas and beliefs (and attachments) about death and dying; to evolve their consciousness into a more spiritually aligned place. As with all the other symptoms, the sooner the person deals with these questions in his mind, the sooner the thoughts subside.

It’s a delicate and powerful contemplation, with truly profound effect on the emotional body. A proper untangling of the conditioned knots within (and questioning a lot of the false beliefs in the process) unleashes passion and courage like nothing else can. The shifts are permanent and profound. It’s something that can only be felt and experienced subjectively, not something that can be explained in words. It’s not just a philosophical perspective, but an internal liberation from the somatic experience of fear. As Chesterton captures, it’s difficult to articulate the magnitude of the resulting sensation of “furious indifference” to life. When fear is grappled with and dissolved, and courage takes its place, all of life becomes possible. There are no barriers and nothing standing in the way. It is a joyous savoring of all that is, as it is, while it is.

No motivational speeches or rock-climbing equipment required. 🙂