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Friday, October 19, 2007

“Smash Him With It!”

Several years ago, one of my fellow trainers fought in Thailand. During the fight, he split his shin open—he swears that he could actually see the bone. This being a fight in Thailand, the fight was not stopped, but rather, was set to continue.

Sitting in the corner, bleeding and in pain, my friend asked Kru Toy, “Kru…what should I do?”

Kru’s answer? “Smash him with it!”

That story runs through my head while I’m lying on my back on the mats in the Tohoku Judo Club, smashing my palms into the ground, over, and over again.

The first ten slaps are easy. Chin tucked against my chest, I slam my hands into the mats with a satisfyingly loud SLAP. It sounds impressive, when it’s right next to my ears.

After fifteen slaps, a stinging sensation has started creeping into my fire-engine red palms. By twenty-five, they’ve shifted to an angry reddish-purple, as though I’ve been mashing grapes instead of practicing Judo. Lactic acid has begun to build up in my shoulder muscles, sending a light burning sensation down my arms. Various parts of my body have switched their messaging from “this is mildly unpleasant” to “please stop this.”

These sorts of mind-body conversations are not uncommon in martial arts practice; practicing how to hurt other human beings eventually necessitates that you are going to experience something that hurts. Occasionally, it will hurt a lot. The question then becomes, how do you deal with it?

Having met Kru Toy, it’s not hard for me to envision him saying “smash HIM with it.” For the last twenty-five slaps, that becomes my mantra. Never mind that there is no “him” to smash, only a thick mat that will never break under the force of my blows. I hit harder anyway. Each time the pain shoots up my hands, I give the mat a mental “fuck you”, and smash it harder. Twenty-five slaps later, my hands are numb, my chest is heaving, and Sensei is smiling approvingly.

There is a certain benefit to learning this mentality. You are not just learning to inure yourself to pain. You are learning that pain is a challenge, that your mind can override your body. That you can survive past mild, or even severe discomfort and emerge victorious. It’s a thought process that can translate into other areas of your life—an ability to just accept things that are unpleasant, but must be done, and go do them. I’ve been complimented by various coworkers on my willingness to just step up and go do whatever needs doing, regardless of how much it sucks. I do believe that at least some part of my ability to do that comes from years of doing something that hurts, and learning to use that as an impetus to try harder.

Which is not to say that this mentality is entirely healthy. On the contrary, it can be dangerous. I’ve learned to ignore the signals my body is sending me about problems it’s experiencing. That ignorance has lead to multiple physical injuries that could have been prevented if I had just had the good sense to stop what I was doing five minutes earlier. In the worst example, it lead to me spending four months in a deep depression, constantly sick to my stomach but unable (unwilling) to recognize the signals that my body was sending me. It actually took an outside observer to point out to me the correlation between my physical symptoms and the larger emotional issues I was dealing with.

At the heart of this, of course, is one of the dichotomies of martial arts practice. It can be very helpful. It can also be very harmful. The goal, presumably, is to strike a balance.

But sometimes, when it really hurts, you just have to smash the other guy.


ProfessorMortis said...

I'm actually really glad I read this-not just because it was interesting to get your thoughts on that exercise, but because my thoughts were "Okay, so Sensei says the dude who has done martial arts all his life slaps hard enough and that my slaps were "so-so", so lets see if I can slap the mat as hard as I can and keep up". I feel slightly better about the fact that several of my finger tips were black and blue the next day now.

PhotoJen said...

The best part of martial arting is knowing I can set myself up for pain and feel good about it afterward - whether in class or in something else (dentistry, for example). And, in class, when you are competing with someone, in conditioning or anything else, knowing they will stop or ask to stop before you will. Yes, martial arts have made me enjoy sado-masochism...

Andrea said...

Wow, talk about mind over matter. I'm going to Thailand for Christmas to visit my sister, and from what I know of Thai culture, it seems that mental control, control of the self, is huge there. Really interesting to see you practicing it.

Jake said...

I'm extremely jealous. I've been wanting to go to Thailand for years now, but financing and scheduling have repeatedly conspired against me.

Thai culture, from the little bit I know about it, is really fascinating. In some ways, it seems incredibly laid back and relaxed, but in other ways, it's incredibly formal. Kru Toy gave a really interesting impromptu lecture on how he needed to sit when talking to various people, including his own father, last time he was in town. Fascinating stuff.