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The Way of the Warrior: How to Cultivate Courage

It’s a common misconception that courage equates to fearlessness; that courageousness is staring into the heart of darkness and daring it to overcome you. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the spirit that urges you on, in spite of fear. It is the voice that compels you to get back up, trembling and unsure, ready or not to face what lies ahead.

Muay Thai gyms are notorious for weeding out the weak as early as possible and developing the remaining deemed ‘strong of heart’. Yet, it’s all too common that people are cast out too quickly, written off, when all they needed was some guidance, some examples, some lessons perhaps, on how to cultivate courage. Possibly, they had never seen examples growing up, or life had never demanded it of them.

We are all capable of being courageous, it’s just the difference in circumstances that call us. So too, it is something we can learn and develop like all innate human emotions. If we are not called to it, we can still cultivate it.

Rest assured, whoever you are, that you have courage built into your bones. We all have someone we would die to protect, even if that person is ourselves. That, my friends, is courage. Yet, there are many daily incidents where perhaps we wish we had said or done more. We know we have more to give, but fear interrupted us. We also have a choice, to build courage into our lives, and create habits that will develop the characteristic until it becomes an inherent part of our personality.

Here are 5 ways, curated from martial arts practices, to help you cultivate courage:

  1. Do one thing a day that scares you. This advice is everywhere thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt but it’s a cliche that holds a lot of merit. Start at a pace that is right for you. Some may want to kick start the habit with something dramatic, like skydiving, while for others it may be ordering a pizza over the phone instead of online. It can be as little or as big as you choose, but consistency is the magic pill here. We must build up a tolerance to the shakes, the negativity, the second guessing. We must teach ourselves that despite the voice that says we cant, we can still move forward, we can do these things.

  2. Spend time getting to know your fears. Last year ‘Science’ magazine published a study concluding that exposure to fear is a necessary component to overcoming it. Sitting with and learning to accept fears rather than resist them seems to be the key to learning to overcome them. Whether through self discovery, or more traditional methods like therapy, understanding what motivates and repels you will help across many facets of your life.

  3. Visualization. Multiple areas of research have found visualization to be a powerful tool in training the brain as effectively, if not more so, than the real physical action. This a very important technique fighters use in the run up to competition. They imagine everything they want to happen in the greatest of detail. They go through the fight, the strikes they want to land, and how they’ll react or counter to the other fighter depending on what they do. They’ll imagine their hand being raised and anchor it in emotion. Relief, joy, excitement. Emotions are a crucial part of visualization. They even think about who they will call after they’ve won and what they’ll eat at their celebratory meal. Get specific about the outcome you desire and don’t forget how you want to feel once you have conquered that fear.

  4. Play out the worst case scenario. This is a common risk management concept used to plan for disastrous scenarios. While this technique is not commonly used by combat athletes, it is an alternative strategy for anyone who has a habit of catastrophizing. Play it out. Take your imagination as far as you can in a negative situation. What is the absolute worst thing that can happen? Is it detrimental to you? Can you come back from it? Are there ways to solve that problem should it arise? This sequence allows you to more accurately judge if your fears are real or imagined and if taking a risk is worth it or not.

  5. Practice makes perfect. Keep at it. Yes, you will set yourself a task, psyche yourself up, and then fail miserably. That’s okay. Try again. Or try something else. The most important thing is to stay the course and to maintain a regular practice of choosing courage. The 10,000 hour rule is the best example of this. It doesn’t matter your starting point, your advantages or disadvantages, what is most important is your commitment to putting in dedicated work on a consistent basis.

The simplest advice towards cultivating courage is to get comfortable being uncomfortable. No matter how many times fighters enter the ring, they still feel nervous or afraid. What they have mastered is the ability to acknowledge those feelings and know that it has little to do with the result. It doesn’t mean failure to them. Not fighting, not trying does. Brene Brown, PhD, has researched courage extensively and defines courage by living authentically, even when it hurts; especially when it hurts. I can’t guarantee that your uncomfortable feelings will go away, but what I can tell you is that you will come to an understanding that fear does not determine an outcome. Your choices despite it do. I hope you choose Courage.

This is the Way of the Warrior. Osu.