Vincit qui se vincit
He conquers, who conquers himself.
What is true strength? What does it mean to be strong? How do we achieve strength? And when we have it, what are we meant to do with it? How should we use our strength?
On a physical level the answers to these questions are relatively easy. If we find we lack strength we can undergo a well-credentialled course of training and diet to build up our strength and stamina. This allows us to lift heavy things and to perform physical activities for longer, before we need to rest and rejuvenate. Another form of physical strength is resilience. This has a physical element, where we bounce back from injury or hard exertion. And it can also have a mental and emotional dimension, where we show strength of mind and in our emotions. It is this mental and emotional strength, including this all-important resilience, that we’ll consider in this article.
First let’s consider a real-life example of mental and emotional strength.
A young woman with a beautiful voice is asked to sing in front of a large audience. She has a great talent, a real gift, and she has persevered under expert teachers to develop her skills. But she is terrified at the prospect of performing in public. Despite this she is persuaded that she has a gift that should be shared. She agrees to perform. She overcomes her nerves and gives a bravura performance. The audience is transported by her voice.
What does this story tell us about true strength? Sanskrit as always, can give us guidance. So let’s find out what the timeless wisdom of Sanskrit tells us about the true nature of strength and power.
There are three relevant Sanskrit words that mean strength: balam, abhayam and abhyāsa.
Balam, the first of these words, carries the sense of strength, power, might and force. This on the face of it seems clear. Perhaps we have images of weightlifters and athletes, or mighty machinery, or dramatic weather events like tornadoes. Perhaps all these partake of the strength and energy of balam.
But when we delve into the deeper meaning of balam, we are told that this inner meaning will be discovered in prāna.
Prāna means breath or the life force. So the wisdom of Sanskrit tells us that the meaning of balam lies in controlling, enhancing and wielding life-giving powers. True strength lies with those who control and enhance the spirit of life, those who allow the life-spirit in everyone, themselves and others, to flourish and grow.
So what does this mean for us in practice?
During all our daily interactions with others, we could ask ourselves a simple question: Do we, in however small a way, enhance the lives of the people we meet? Are their lives improved or expanded? We are speaking here of saying a kind word, sharing a smile, giving a little help with a heavy parcel, taking the time to listen. In all these small ways we are allowing that powerful life force to flow, we are sharing it with others.
Another way is to use our talents to uplift others, like giving a beautiful singing recital that moves an audience with its power and beauty. Perhaps we haven’t considered these actions as forms of balam - strength and power. Perhaps it’s time we did.
Another beautiful Sanskrit word related to strength is abhayam, which means fearlessness. This kind of fearlessness is, of course, not headstrong bravado. While we may imagine abhayam to be the quality of the daredevil, it is more the quality of exceptional individuals - soldiers, policemen, firefighters and other first responders – who are called upon to act fearlessly to save others in dangerous situations.
Abhayam has another aspect. It is the strength and power to face one’s own fears and to do and say the right thing despite those fears. The Sanskrit word for fear is bhayam. And in Sanskrit the short sound ‘a’ stands for a measure of conscious awareness. So the word abhayam - literally ‘a’ + ‘bhayam’ - means to be protected from fear by a measure of pure conscious awareness.
There is so much precious and profound wisdom here. The very word contains the message that we all have fears, they are all different and very personal to us. Perhaps we are nervous in social situations where we can never find the right thing to say. Maybe we fear being called upon to speak in public. Perhaps we fear confrontation. Or we might suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ where we doubt our qualifications for our job and are terrified that we will be found out.
Whatever our fears, and everyone has them, we all have immediate and limitless access to simple consciousness. We can all make the effort to be awake and aware. And with the tiniest measure of this awareness we can step over our fears and move forward in life. That awareness can protect us from the paralysing effects of fear. This is the promise contained in the word abhayam.
Our singer overcame her fears to give her performance. She displayed abhayam.
So, for us the path is clear. If fear prevents us from saying or doing what is needed, then we can take a breath, come into the Now, lift ourselves into a higher level of awareness and step forward, passing through our fear. We can experience the strength of abhayam and then we speak and act courageously.
The third aspect of true strength is abhyāsa, which brings us back to the concept of resilience.
The usual meaning of abhyāsa is sustained disciplined practice. It also means resilience because such disciplined practice requires the trainee to experience failure, and to return again and again to the discipline, and to keep practising. Resilience is the ability to endure what life throws at us. In the dictionary it is defined as the ability to ‘bounce back, to return to our proper shape’.
Our singer even with her natural gifts, applied herself to the discipline of her training. She developed a great deal of resilience, the ability to return again and again to the task despite setbacks. Perhaps some future performance may not go as well as her first recital, perhaps sometimes her singing may not be perfect. Her preparation for such “failures” is to practice reengaging with her training despite glitches, setbacks and suboptimal performances. Having thus built up her resilience, her abhyāsa, she will have the strength to carry on regardless.
It is the same for us. Whatever pursuit or endeavour we engage in, whether it is a new career, learning a language, taking up a sport, or embarking on a long-term project, we all know that work is required. This work includes learning the details of the task, mastering the basics, and then building on those first steps to more sophisticated understanding of what to do.
And beyond this technical learning there is also the underlying approach with which we respond to inevitable setbacks. In the field of children’s education, with which I am most familiar, educationalists and psychologists called this “task commitment” – the ability to stick at a task and see it through to completion, often in the face of failure and difficulties.
So the message of abhyāsa – resilience - for us is quite simple: keep at any task that is worthwhile and stay the course through inevitable difficulties and setbacks. In this way we build up our inner strength and our resilience muscles grow. This resilience will lead us to higher levels of attainment than we would otherwise achieve.
Now, with the benefit of the wisdom of Sanskrit we can return to our initial questions: what is the nature of true strength? And how do we become strong?
First, Strength is balam, it is not just raw power and energy, but it is life-enhancing power and energy; next, it is abhayam, where we are protected from our fears by raising our awareness and acting despite them. And last it is abhyāsa, it is flexible, resilient, able to bounce back from whatever life throws at us and to keep going, to stay on course. In these three, lies true strength.
Our final question was: How should we use this strength?
The big hint is in balam, which tells us that true strength is life-enhancing. This life energy, or prāna, has its own special significance. In the Bhagavad Gita there is a beautiful reference to all creatures being strung together like pearls on a thread. This may sound like mere imagery or a poetic flight of fancy, but it holds a very practical message for those of us who want to attain true inner strength.
Here’s how: throughout your day, remember the simple fact that all living beings are like jewels joined together by the single unifying life energy that flows though everyone. This simple memory alone is transformative. Then life enhancing action – balam; the overcoming of fear – abhayam; and the power of resilience – abhyāsa – all become available to us.