Finding the Willpower To Transcend Pain And Discomfort Is The First Key to Excellence
There is a universal philosophy in martial arts, “train through the pain” (pain is just weakness leaving the body). I’ve trained in a number of martial arts, and this credo insinuated itself into my thinking before I ever noticed. I have trained and competed alongside judoka wearing dozens of yards of tape to support broken ribs and bones, fingers and toes. I have trained with karateka who competed, got cut badly and got bandaged or stitched up, and against advice stepped back into the competition. I have trained with a lady aikidoka who told a story of training until she had to throw up on the side of the mat, how she cleaned it up, and then chose to get right back on the mat. I’ve trained with martial artists of all ages and both sexes who insisted on training against the wishes of their doctors, with injuries that would make the average person cringe, wearing braces and casts and eyepatches. I have been those people. I have dozens of stories of my own determination to keep training past any boundary of common sense, and I often surprise myself when I (or my friends) remember more. Stubbornness and perseverance are hallmarks of a true martial artist, after all.
The “train through the pain” attitude has a lot of real martial value; it is an indescribable experience to realize that what you thought were your limitations were only the 50% mark, or less. This stoic training philosophy teaches us to not be distracted by discomfort, and to focus on striving toward our goals, and to persevere where others would give up. It teaches us that a fighter is no less dangerous for being injured, and teaches us to hone our willpower like another weapon. If you have never embraced this attitude at all, you probably have embraced a certain level of mediocrity in your training. The fruits of mastery do not come without personal sacrifice, and the obstacles to attainment appear constantly.
This attitude alone cannot guide a personal michi, spiritual path. To me, a michi (dō) is a lifelong path, which by definition is something which can be fully pursued one’s entire life, right through old age, senescence and death. The self-discipline to set aside discomfort and pain for a greater goal is a necessary attribute for a martial artist, but by itself it optimizes for short-term gain. When one makes a sacrifice of one’s body, there is eventually a price to pay, and those price tags add up. If a martial artist is not thoughtful, self-critical and careful, their short-term gains will result in a body permanently injured, weakened, and aged, well before its time. What I often see as admirable martial artists at the top of their career in their twenties and thirties, become not even as strong or fit as an average couch potato by their mid forties, and crippled by their fifties. When this has happened, perseverance has become willful self-blindness, discipline has become mulishness. Everybody at that stage had many opportunities to make the decision to heal rather than ignore their bodies.
Martial artists are the best and worst patients. They consistently surpass the most optimistic predictions of their doctors, and often recover faster and more completely than their doctors would ever think possible. But they also don’t know when to just stop and let their bodies heal, and often make a minor injury much worse or frustrate the efforts of caregivers entirely.
Nobody Chooses To Be A Martial Art Cripple, So How Does This Happen?
Based on various moments of unflattering self examination, I think there are four or five major reasons people go down the path of physical self-destruction in martial arts. I acknowledge and have sympathy for those who are permanently sidelined by a single monumental accident or injury; these reasons are my thoughts about those who let themselves become injured repeatedly and slowly over time.
Martial artists have a hard time admitting human frailty in front of their peers. There’s a lot of machismo in the arts, among both men and women. “Being tough” is part of the bonding act among martial artists, and showing how tough you are shows that you belong with core dojo community, that you have earned your way into everyone’s regard. When an injury happens (and they happen to everyone eventually), this feeling of belonging and having the respect of one’s peers is threatened, but only so long as the injury is acknowledged. As long as it is shrugged off, then we can feel confident that our position in the community is not called into question. It can be a scary decision to publicly acknowledge an injury, and that decision gets harder the higher ranked you become. At the start of this last ASU Summer Camp, I managed to crank my rotator cuff pretty significantly, and I had an internal battle as to whether it was OK to train a little easier, to take some classes off, and most especially ice it publicly. I am chagrined to admit it wasn’t an easy decision to make, and I know that a younger me would have made the wrong decision to “tough it out.” Part of me wanted very much to continue projecting an image of invulnerability. As it was, my decision to admit human weakness allowed me to keep training at a lower level the entire camp, and to quickly recover on my return; it also allowed me to receive some wonderful moments of training, support, and instruction that I would have otherwise missed.
Martial artists tend to cling to an image of a younger self, at their peak. As an artist strives, they gain abilities (to kick high, to punch fast, to breakfall, to execute technique with strength and speed, to exert power and force against the strongest opponents). They gain an inner sense that “I can do this thing.” and they measure their level of attainment by their ability to perform that “thing.” However, they tend never to let that memory of ability go; their body remembers that it can perform. As they get older, or their bodies start accumulating chronic injuries or permanent limitations, they refuse to adapt their performance of techniques and skills to match their bodies, and more importantly, refuse to adjust their definitions of skill, ability and attainment to something more subtle and appropriate. Part of them, in essence, is refusing to admit they are not 25 years old any longer. As a result, (1) they insist on doing things they know they shouldn’t, (2) they pay the price and are hurt with increasing severity every time they try, (3) spend increasing time out of the dojo recovering and refusing to come face-to-face with their limitations, until (4) they stop coming to the dojo or make some other maladaptive change that doesn’t really address the issue, like becoming really grouchy and giving advice all the time. Often, busted-up martial artists then resort to romanticizing the path that got them to where they are, denigrating the efforts of younger martial artists to train any differently than they did, or exaggerating the now-and-forever-unattainable value of experiencing how severe the training was in the good old days. For many martial artists, the accretion of chronic injury is just the dance of putting off looking in the mirror for as long as possible. At 47, I’m still at the stage where I can compensate for lost youth with increased conditioning, but I’m not looking forward to the inevitable day when even that will not be enough.
Many martial artists never develop an alternate model of excellence. The previous reason was about our inability to let go of the past; this reason is about our inability to find a constructive role model to grow toward. This fault of this really falls on all of us; we celebrate most the instructors and students that do the most visibly large, expansive, explosive, athletic, and acrobatic techniques. We let ourselves be impressed by external displays. Granted, subtlety is hard to see, and isn’t really entertaining to watch in movie fight scenes. But the implication is that a clear message is given to all students, at all levels and ages, that to excel in your martial art you must look like “this”, and “this” looks like a 25-year old athlete. Sure, we can all say how much we admire this high-level Shihan or Sensei with profound finess in their technique, but we don’t apply those examples as role models for our personal training. Often, we still reserve an inner “I want to look like him/her” for the ukes (training partners) of those Shihan, and applaud louder when those Shihan make the bigger, more cinematic throws. We do not examine and embrace how these Shihan have changed their technique to adapt for physical limitations, age, or weakness. We have a hard time appreciating subtlety, and have difficulty perceiving effectiveness without struggle or big, visual impacts.
We are prewired to not question our teachers. The first steps we take as students is to mimic our teachers and elders to the best of our ability, until we build our own insights and abilities. However, this means we accumulate a lot of “dross” along with the “gems,” and that we have very little ability to differentiate the kernels of what is important in the instruction from what is not. There are many humorous stories across the arts how entire dojos, even entire generations of students in large associations unconsciously internalize and mimic various affectations of their teachers (hair flips, idiosyncratic flourishes, compensations to injury) and defend them as important canon parts of their techniques. We often learn to move our whole body a certain way as a teacher tries to communicate an important concept or motion, but we end up mimicking and retaining things that the teacher did not mean to convey. If we are lucky, as we cross-train and self-examine, eventually we can “cut away” more and more of the unnecessary detritus we absorbed along with the necessary insights. However, nobody will ever tell you to criticize everything your teachers say; some of that detritus can be decisions and actions that led the wrecked bodies our teachers have built. No teacher will ever say, “practicing the technique this way will give you an advantage over your attacker, but it will also give you arthritis in 15 years.” While there may be real truth in what a teacher is saying, it is up to the individual student to ask themselves if they are willing to pay the same price their teacher paid for that knowledge, and if there is not another way to approach attaining that same wisdom. I am not advocating that you dismiss your sensei’s teachings; I am simply suggesting that every student take a hard look at their teachers, and ask themselves if that is how they want to look and feel at that age. It may take some investigation – “Sensei, why do you have a bad back?” – in order to make wise decisions about what instruction to accept uncritically, and what instruction requires careful consideration.
Once you’ve committed to a path, it’s hard to admit the need to change directions. Specifically, it is hard to admit to one’s self that all the time spent doing something could have been spent more wisely; it’s too much like admitting you made (and kept making) a mistake. Worse, since martial art training is so closely connected with our very self-perception, admitting to ourselves that we need to train differently can be like calling into question who we are and the value of what we have attained. For martial artists, threats to our health and ability are also, very much, threats to our identities. Sometimes it’s easier to continue down a self-destructive path than to admit it’s time to become a different type of person. For me, the best wisdom I have ever encountered on this topic came from the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche, who urges us to look upon our paths and pasts as being absolutely necessary to bring us to our current point of growth and change. Instead of condemning the training you did that has beaten up your body so much, I believe his lesson is that instead we should be grateful that it brought you to this point of realization, and to cultivate appreciation of an opportunity for transformation and moment of self-clarity.
Training Smart Means Considering The Rest Of Your Life
I think that the number one training goal for a martial artist is to cultivate long-term health and fitness. I believe if you are truly training your martial art as a michi, then almost every morning after you train you should be waking up feeling stronger than the day before, and itching to get back into the dojo. That in some way, you can find a consistent thread throughout your life and tell yourself, “in this way, I am becoming stronger and deeper than I was the day before, every day.” Superior muscular strength and athleticism are not sufficient to last even into middle age, and it is up to the individual martial artist to discover and define what strength and excellence means to them in a way that can “go the distance.” It may mean changing how you train, and it may mean applying your hard-won self-discipline and perseverance to a different diet, to outside forms of exercise, to yoga, or applying a complementary, additional path of health and healing.
As a martial artist, you do not have to embrace this philosophy. You can embrace a definition of martial attainment that is measures advantage in mass and muscle, or in technique that requires overwhelming opponents with power and force. Don’t get me wrong – if strength and mass weren’t factors, there wouldn’t be weight classes; I’m a big individual who used to spend summers on a farm, and I’ve always enjoyed some of the benefits of above-average mass and strength. However, if you reject that there is another path, that subtlety and insight and embodiment have true value, then you are de facto also claiming that you will stop being an effective martial artist as soon as you stop being young; you are by definition asserting that it is a matter of time before you change from being dangerous to becoming increasingly defenseless.
Michi training means training for the long run. It means cultivating a path that makes you feel stronger and deeper than the day before, every day of your life, until you die.
Walking On The Razor Blade, Finding The Balance
It’s easy to preach. My only goal with this article is share that despite being very thoughtful and introspective on this topic throughout my martial career due to some major early injuries and hereditary health issues, I still fight with it. I have students who struggle with these issues, and their struggles challenge me deeply. I am still exploring answers. However, I can report that after 37 years of training and despite a lot of poor judgment, abuse, and really serious injuries, I’m currently pain-free and in many ways as fit and strong as I have ever been. I have changed my training and my attitude regarding my personal training many times, and I can see how as I enter the next decades of my life I will have to change my attitudes an order of magnitude more in order to keep my integrity and continuity of growth.
I know that I’m lucky; I had many, many close calls that could have easily been very serious (or more serious) injuries. It’s one thing to talk about “training smart” when one is uninjured, and another thing entirely when one already has a permanent injury and the only choice is to take a risk or never train again. The time will come in my life when I will have to face all five of the “reasons” I’ve listed, and either make difficult changes in my attitude to head down an unhealthy road, becoming a poor example to my students in the process. I hope I will keep in mind the self-awareness to question the motivations for my decisions – am I pushing through because of ego, or because of a measured and careful decision to accept the price tag, and work hard to mitigate the cost in other ways?
I hope you train safely in your path. What lessons have you learned from the injuries you gave yourself through stubbornness and pride? What prices have you paid? Please share!