Dialogue

Profiles in Courage

By Garrison Institute

As part of our “Garrison Talks at the JCC” event series at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg recently spoke with author and teacher Frank Ostaseski, a leader in the field of end-of-life care, about courage.  

Frank Ostaseski: My dear friend Roshi Joan Halifax recently published her new book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Fear Where Freedom and Courage Meet. 

One of the ways I think about courage is how we normally think of as warrior courage. Someone being brave, whether it be a soldier, a fireman, or somebody working in healthcare, saving a life. This is one level of courage. It can be generated by loyalty and comradeship, and deep love and intention. And it can also have a shadow side to it. It can also be manipulated, and people can be coerced into all kinds of actions under the name of warrior courage.

When I was coming up in practice, Sharon, and I don’t know how it was for you, but we had a lot of talk, I remember, about spiritual warriorship. Lots of talk in the old Buddhist texts about the armies attacking you from all directions–and to train the mind, to tame the mind, is more difficult than defeating all those armies.

And to be honest, that imagery never worked for me. I wondered how it was for you?

Sharon Salzberg: I would say it did work for me to a certain extent. When I went to India, and I began practicing meditation, I had never dabbled in meditation before, so the structure and commitment were actually very good boundaries for me. But after a while, I felt like I was just generating fear, in a way. I thought that was not enough.

Frank Ostaseski: There is a need for some particular kind of strength, right? We need it in life, and we need it in meditation. Something, some steadfastness that allows us to stick with what we would otherwise like to run away from, right?

Sharon Salzberg: Yes, exactly.

Frank Ostaseski: And so, there is a kind of courage that’s really needed in that, you know.

Sharon Salzberg: In terms of meditation practice, after a lot of experience with different teachers and styles, I’ve come to feel that a lot of systems almost center around a particular virtue or quality, and they really strengthen that quality. And once that’s established, then they start working with the others. Because after all, in the end, it’s a balance. It’s like resolve and surrender. Energy and calm.

There are many qualities, and in the end, it’s all about a certain kind of balance–an exquisite kind of balance. One of my teachers, who was more like a free spirit, always setting us free, but my other teachers were very structured. That was a good balance. But many of my earliest teachers were really about resolve. Sit without moving and all of that, which I could never, ever, ever do, by the way.

Frank Ostaseski: I’m amazed by just everyday courage. I was speaking with a friend last week who had to facilitate a memorial service for his best friend’s daughter, who had fallen off a cliff. Another fellow called me a little while back, and he was trying to get up the courage to go into a maximum-security prison to meet the man who had murdered his mother. And not long ago, I was visiting with a woman who was sitting with her dying mother with her newborn baby. So, that all sounds pretty dramatic. And then, there’s just the courage that it takes some people to get out of bed in the morning.

So, I think it’s easy to think of courage as this highfalutin thing, or something that requires some high level of mastery. Warrior courage is something that gets raised up onto this pedestal.

I sometimes want to just talk about the courage it takes to just be a human being in our world today. That feels different than warrior courage to me. It’s like courage of heart. The ability to not so much fearlessly meet everything in our life, but to be fearlessly open to everything in our life.

There’s a guy—I just thought of him—his name is Julio. He’s a nurse’s assistant and works in a big metropolitan hospital. After there’s been a procedure, a code, when the person’s chest has been cracked open and there’s all this mess on the floor, and emergency services, and the person has died, Julio’s job is to go in and clean up the room. He’s so amazing to me.

He walks into the room, and the first thing he does is survey the whole room—he looks at everything. The chest of surgery instruments that’s been opened up, the clothes that are on the floor, and the person who was intubated on the gurney who’s now dead. After surveying the whole situation, he walks over to this person, he leans over them and says, “I’m going to try and wash away all the dust and confusion.”

Then, he goes about straightening the whole room. And after the room is in order, then he starts to bathe the man. The nursing supervisor comes in and says, “We need the room now. Hurry up.” But all the other nurses on the floor know that he’s doing sacred work, and somehow they protect him. They say, “That’s okay, we’ll cover for him.” I think it takes a certain kind of courage for Julio to do that.

Not only to do those particular set of tasks, but to have the courage to go slowly in a system which is going a million miles an hour. And the courage to bring the sacred into an environment that might feel otherwise mechanical or institutional.

So, it’s my experience that there are these extraordinary people who are walking around on the planet we never notice, really, in a way. They are doing courageous acts all the time. And, often, it feels like this courage of heart I’m speaking of.

Sharon Salzberg: I think that’s very true; for many people, even to get through a day or just show up is an act of courage. When people tell me they’re in AA or NA, they are sometimes embarrassed. And I think, “Hey, you are doing something hard every single day. Look at that!” I have tremendous admiration for that courage and steadfastness.

Roshi Joan Halifax uses a phrase in her new book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Fear Where Freedom and Courage Meet, that reminded me that sometimes it takes courage to say no, to have a boundary, or to realize I can’t do this in precisely this way anymore. Some balance has to shift. Her phrase is “pathological altruism,” which I think is an amazing statement because it illustrates that there are these states that we admire, yearn for, and work toward, and sometimes they have a shadow side when it’s out of balance or when it’s extreme.

So, altruism, which is this tremendous sense of connection and redemption, a holistic way of living, has a shadow side, which is this pathological altruism. This inability to have a boundary, find some balance, or consider ourselves in some equation, and it’s too much. So, I think courage takes so many forms, beyond the stereotypes of a warrior courage.

Frank Ostaseski: Well, you just brought up a really good point, which is that it takes clarity, right? It takes the ability to discern what the appropriate action is in any given situation. What’s the skillful action in this particular case? In the case of pathological altruism, it’s this feeling of getting merged with people, or feeling like I’ve got to do it. Codependency is an example of pathological altruism. Like it’s all on me. I’ve got to do it.

Sharon Salzberg: Sometimes—and you are vastly more experienced in this realm than I—when I meet people who work in hospice, I get the sense that they tend to be happier than a lot of people I know who work on the edge of suffering in some way. Maybe it’s because there’s not that sneaky feeling of I’ve got to make it okay because something is not going to be as planned.

I wonder if there’s something about working in an environment where you don’t ultimately feel you’re going to be able to fix it that actually releases us in some way?

Frank Ostaseski: I think there is something about just letting the suffering be in the room, no matter what the shape of that suffering is.

Today, I was talking to someone about a woman I work with. Hospice is a beautiful experience; it’s almost missionary work, in a way. And there are lots of romantic stories about how well it all turns out. And it does, often. You know, dying is messy. Roshi, whose book you mentioned, and I talk about this all the time when we teach together. It also can be transformative and beautiful, but most of all, it’s ordinary. Everybody is going to die. Nobody gets out of here alive. I mean, maybe tonight you will, but I don’t even guarantee that really.

There’s a woman who I remember working with. She and her mom were very estranged. And this young woman, who was in her 30s and dying, hadn’t spoken to her mother in quite a while. Her mother had been very abusive to her in many ways.

And so, this young woman went into a kind of state, where she was somnolent. Sleeping most of the day, not responding, not eating or drinking anymore. Her mother who had come from across the country showed up to sit by her bedside. She sat at her daughter’s bedside and quite sincerely apologized for everything she’d done, all the hurt she’d caused, and really asked for forgiveness. And it was touching to see this.

But then, a remarkable thing happened. This young woman sat up in bed like a rocket, straight as a board, looked straight at her mother said, “I hate you. I’ve always hated you.” And then, she died.

So, how do we keep our heart open in that kind of hell? I think when fear speaks, courage is often the answer. All of us were suffering: those of us witnessing it, the mom.

It’s our worst nightmare, right, those of us who are parents? But there was something also about it that was extraordinary and truthful. While it was a harsh truth and told in a harsh way, it was actually really important to this mom. I worked with her for six months afterwards, and that experience really helped the mom to deal with just how tough their life had been, and what had led to that abuse and discord between them. It was actually an important part of that mother’s healing. So, sometimes courage requires us saying something that doesn’t go over well. Or, as Roshi was saying in her book, to say no.

Where does that courage come from in us, to meet what is challenging, or to open our hearts fearlessly to what we would rather run in the other direction from? What’s your experience? Where does it come from?

Sharon Salzberg: Heartfulness, right? Isn’t it the same word?

Frank Ostaseski: Yes.

Sharon Salzberg: Heartfulness, I think, is an ability. It’s like how I describe faith. In the Buddhist tradition, faith means to offer one’s heart, to give over one’s heart. It doesn’t have to do with belief or doctrine, or being a true believer. It’s not like a commodity that you either have or you don’t have, and if you don’t have, you’re condemned in some way. It’s a process of giving over your heart and realizing that it’s a very precious gift. That your heart is not to be given over lightly or unthinkingly to someone or something.

It’s sometimes very easy to be bystander in your own life. I think our culture really promotes that—it’s so easy to become removed from the lived experience of something, and we can feel like we’re watching our life on TV.

Heartfulness is that ability to move off the sidelines and to really make that offering to try something, to move into the center of possibility. To take a risk and be vulnerable.

Frank Ostaseski: Risking, really risking to live our life. To step into our life. What gives rise to that? I think it comes out of some experience that went well or didn’t go so well, either one of those. And that becomes the motivation, right? Because you’re trying to either cultivate, as your teacher was saying, virtue, and/or you’re trying to heal an old pain. And in my case, in starting the Zen Hospice Project, it was both of those.

So, could you speak about this vulnerability? How does that show up as courage?

Sharon Salzberg: Well, I think of vulnerability as honesty. It’s like truth telling. It’s acknowledging how things are. That’s not always easy because we have such tremendous conditioning, even just cultural conditioning, of distortion, and hiding, or calling something something else. Nowhere may be more prevalent than in the realm of dying. And so, I was thinking of that also when you were talking about acts of courage. I thought if we went around this room, probably everyone, upon some reflection, could think of a time they really went beyond their personal conditioning.

Frank Ostaseski: You know, there’s a beautiful story in Roshi’s book about Lt. Chris Hughes. Do you know the story? So, we’ve been talking about the different kinds of courage, of warrior courage, of heart, a vulnerability. And so, there’s this man who’s a lieutenant and he’s on duty in Iraq, outside of Baghdad. Young lieutenant, kind of a surfer guy who now finds himself now in Iraq.

He’s supposed to try and find this particular imam in a small village outside of Baghdad. When he arrives with his small group of eight or ten men, people pour out of the mosque that’s there, and they start raging and screaming and yelling and moving toward them. They were furious.

And this lieutenant did the most remarkable thing. He said to his men, “Take a knee. Take one knee, and kneel down.” This crowd is rushing toward them. “Take a knee,” he says. There’s a reporter who’s with this group, and he’s sure that the next My Lai massacre is about to occur. Someone’s going to shoot somebody, and all kinds of nonsense, horrible things will happen.

So, this lieutenant says, “Take a knee,” and the crowd is still rushing toward them.

Then, he does this thing that’s almost a biblical kind of gesture. He takes his rifle, lifts it over his head, and then points the muzzle of the rifle toward the ground, which is something you would never do. His men look at him like he’s out of his mind. “What are you getting us into?”

Suddenly, the crowd stopped at this gesture. And then he said to his men, “Smile.” They are all these guys with heavy armor and tattoos. And he said, “Smile. And now, get up slowly, and withdraw.” So they slowly got back in their Humvees and drove away.

The reporter who was with them later tracked down Lt. Chris Hughes because he wanted to know how he had learned to do this.

When he finally tracked him down the reporter asked, “Did you get this in your Army training?” Chris Hughes says, “No, I didn’t get anything like that in my Army training.” The reporter then asks, “Well, what did they teach you to do?” He said, “Well, they taught us to shoot a round of bullets into the air. The problem is, when you do that, the next thing you have to do is shoot someone in the chest.” And he said, “We were there to try and meet this imam, and I thought that what was needed was a gesture of respect.” I thought that was a beautiful thing from this man. He said, “That’s all I knew how to do.”

I think this guy, this young lieutenant, manifested these three kinds of courage that we’ve been talking about. Tremendous warrior courage, actually. True warrior courage. That kind of spiritual warriorship we were talking about, the steadfastness. And then, this incredible heart. And also, this vulnerability.

You know that the Army actually changed their protocols and manuals based on this one man’s activity? Yeah. They went back, and they realized that their methods for crowd control were not effective because of this one man taking this courageous act. He was just an ordinary guy, trying to meet the circumstance in the best way he knew how.


Sharon Salzberg will be leading a retreat on Real Change at the Garrison Institute with Ethan Nichtern on December 14-16, 2018. For more information, click here

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

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