“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” The quote, attributed to Plato, reminds us that to varying degrees fear is with each of us from childhood. Ordinary people feel fear. Great leaders sometimes fear. So do great warriors, great artists, great men and women who are leaders in other fields. For the higher man and the higher woman, I believe, the question is not so much can we overcome fear? but what is worth fearing? If we can answer that then we will live a life worth living. Let me explain.
Last week, in my Kung-Fu class, I was asked to spar with a new female student. I went very light on her. Then my instructor told me to me go harder. He was concerned that, if I went light, she might get a false sense of security in facing an attacker on the street, who of course wouldn’t hold back.
After he told me to go harder on her, I could see that the girl became afraid. But she immediately put all her effort into sparing with me, and landed some punches and kicks on me.
A few months ago I was asked to show a new, male student around the temple, and to talk to him about the school, how we train, and so on. I told him that one of the foundational principles of the school was “humility.” He responded that, of course, you need humility to learn from people more advanced. But I pointed out to him that, with humility, we can learn from those less advanced than us.
When I see a martial arts student who has less skill than me putting in more effort — even if it is their first lesson ever — I learn from them and their good attitude, reminding myself that I need to put a hundred percent effort in as well.
The female student I sparred with last week was that she didn’t need to be there. (Most people run from such situations.) But — of course, like every martial arts student in whichever school and style — she had chosen to put herself in a situation that was fearful.
Most people see fear as a negative thing. But that depends on what we chose to be afraid of. Fear seems to grip us, to terrorize us, sometimes making small things into mountainous obstacles.
There are several reasons why most martial artists have a healthy outlook on life. We know that exercise causes the body to release endorphins, which makes us feel positive. We’ve all experienced feeling stressed or low before exercising, and then realizing that this has evaporated after just ten minutes or so of exercise.
But I think the major reason is that martial artists have chosen to fear something greater. They’re not the only ones of course.
Just as initiates of esoteric and martial systems have been encouraged to reflect on mortality as a way of cultivating a clear understanding of what is important in life and how to live, so if we chose to fear something greater does it overpower and destroy the ordinary fears that overwhelm the majority.
I’m not a Christian, but I always remember Proverbs 9:10: “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It is undoubtedly offensive to the modern world that wants everyone to feel safe and unchallenged. This is a great trap, and a great loss to anyone who falls for it. From a certain perspective — perhaps an esoteric perspective — “fear of the Lord” is one of the most important insights in the Bible.
Yes, we can all understand how it can be, and undoubtedly has been, abused by religious authorities to make people afraid of them. But that is not how it should be understood by us.
Whether conceived as the Christian God, or Krishna, Kali, Buddha, as a pagan European deity, or as the Tao, or as Truth, etc. — if you fear God — “the Lord” — then you will not fear man. This is the essential lesson that we must take on board.
It is, in a certain sense, the lesson of Krishna, who urges his disciple Arjuna to fight the enemy gathered before him on the battlefield, even though he is horrified by the thought of killing and death. It is reflected, too, in the horrific forms of the Wrathful Deities of Vajrayana Buddhism, and in the form of Kali — with her garland of severed heads and skirt of human limbs — and perhaps even in the forms of the Norse gods Odin, with his one eye, and Tyr, with his one arm with the hand severed from it.
Fear is inevitable. But the higher man and woman must choose to fear higher and higher things. Yes, it is difficult, but we must choose not to fear the opinions of others, but to fear not telling the truth. We must not fear making a mistake, but not trying. We must not fear failing, but not pushing, developing, and elevating — as far as possible — our understanding, our spiritual practice, character, body, skills, martial art, fine art, writing, poetry, our friendships and love, and our Ways of life that unveil the awesome Nature of the Divine to us.