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