16. Courage: To accept responsibilities and challenges with determination and equanimity

What would you do?

Kayla Montgomery, a resident of North Carolina, USA, is an award-winning long distance runner. What made her different from other high school athletes is that at the age of 14, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). After 8 months with no sensation at all in her legs, she decided to return to her previous love of sports, and devote herself to running, competing and setting new records. 

As her body temperature rises during a run, Kayla gradually loses all feeling in her legs, and at the finish line she usually collapses. Why does she put herself through this? “Because it makes me feel normal and whole…as long as I’m running, everything’s fine…to make the most of it for as long as I can.” See Catching Kayla on youtube. 

The benefits of courage

Courage has the potential to:

  • Go beyond our own immediate needs and comforts
  • Develop the strength to respond constructively to whatever life throws at us
  • Discover who we really are, through confronting and learning from fears and challenges

A 16 Guidelines view on courage

Courage is about stretch. It’s about seeing, feeling or realizing that something more or different can be done, developing the determination to do it, and then carrying through despite all obstacles. We know in our bodies when we’ve been courageous. There is a glow of satisfaction and relief. Something has shifted, and we have grown in size.

Courage is not defined by what we do, but what we overcome within ourselves. It comes in many forms. It is found in a steady approach to everyday difficulties as well as in the single spontaneous gesture. It is happening quietly all around us as well as in the news.

Courage involves acknowledging our fears, but not being deterred from offering something that goes beyond our own immediate needs and comfort. Most courageous people have decided that the well-being of others is more important than their own, and have allowed this decision to drive their actions and the way they live. Invariably, they seem to find their own happiness in the process.

16 Guidelines resources and training for developing courage


Did you know?

A key principle of heroism is that heroes are most effective not alone but in a network. According to research by Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University and president of the Heroic Imagination Project, it’s through forming networks that people have the resources to bring their heroic impulses to life. 

A study at Weizman Institute of Science concluded that fear manifests itself in two ways – either you say: “I’m afraid,” or your body says it for you, with sweat. Scientists found that as long as these two disagree, you would act courageously. It is only when you scored high on both, sweat and fear, that you would be less likely to act courageously. 


Zimbardo, P., What Makes a Hero?,Greater Good the Science of a Meaningful life, University of California Berkeley, 2011.  

Shiller, D., What courage looks like in the brain--in real time, Scientific American, 2010.



We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk” said the Kenyan activist WangariMaathai. The Greenbelt Movement that she founded in 1977 is an outstanding example of her own perseverance and commitment to serving others. It has now planted over 51 million trees across Kenya and works at the grassroots, national, and international levels to promote environmental conservation, build climate resilience and empower communities, particularly women. 

WangariMaathai started life as a barefoot schoolgirl in a traditional Kikuyu homestead in the Kenyan highlands, and her achievements would have been impossible without an extraordinary degree of courage. She was frequently the target of media attacks and government raids; she suffered imprisonment; even her husband divorced her, saying she was too strong-minded. Maathai’s response was simply to dig deeper into herself. “None of us can control every situation we find ourselves in. What we can control is how we react when things turn against us. I have always seen failure as a challenge to pull myself up and keep going.” 

For more on WangariMaathai, see:

  1. www.greenbeltmovement.org
  2. Unbowed: One Woman’s Story by WangariMaathai, London, Heinemann, 2007
  3. Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World by WangariMaathai, 2010, New York: Doubleday Image


A short reflection on courage from '16 Guidelines: The Basics' book

Begin with a scan of your body. Start with the feet, which keep you balanced and allow you to stand upright on the ground. Move up through the calves and thighs, which give you the power to walk and perhaps to run. Let your attention pass over the belly and intestines, which process and digest the food that fuels you. Move upwards across your breasts and shoulders. Down your arms to your hands, with their capacity to offer service to you and to others. Feel the strength of your neck and spinal column, which hold you erect. 

Pass your attention across your face, with its endless capacity to smile and laugh, or to wince and cry. Notice the expressiveness of the muscles in your cheek and the flexibility of your mouth. Reflect on the technical sophistication of your eyes and ears. Even if your body is not as functional as you would like, it is still miraculous and extraordinary. 

Bring your attention back to the breath that passes lightly through your lips and nostrils. Watch how it comes and it goes, without any effort or interference on your part. What will happen when this fragile breath stops? However scary it feels, can you face the reality that one day your life will end?  

Now reflect on all the people and animals who have already died today. Consider how they woke up this morning, just as you did, but now they’re dead. Perhaps their death was completely unexpected, due to a heart attack, a car accident or a sudden sickness. Perhaps it was simply due to old age. They had plans for today, and plans for the future, just as you do, but now everything is over for them. 

How does it feel to be alive? What do you want to do with the opportunities that this brings? What is it that matters most to you? Can you find the courage to get on with it? 

Close with the wish “May all beings be happy!”


Quotes on courage

  • You may not be responsible for being down, but you must be responsible for getting up.—Jesse Jackson 
  • The world is a dangerous place; not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.—Albert Einstein
  • Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. – Reinhold Niebuhr
  • When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. – Victor Frankl
  • You have power over your mind, but not over outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. – Marcus Aurelius
  • It’s not the magnitude of the task that matters, it’s the magnitude of our courage - MatthieuRicard
  • Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage – Anais Nin
  • Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. –Gandhi
  • We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world. –  Helen Keller
  • It takes courage for a person to listen to his own goodness and act on it. - Casals


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