March 16, 2014
Pain comes in many forms. There is of course physical pain, which comes in the form of sore muscles, stomach aches, and stiff joints. But emotional pain is common as well: sadness that accompanies loss; fear that shows up when facing a dark, unknown path; or guilt that rears its head when we accidentally harm the ones we love. To separate the two seems a bit misleading, as “emotional” pain is often felt in our very physical bodies. Any teenager who’s been dumped can attest to the very real pain felt in their chest. While watching a horror flick, muscles tighten as the killer closes in on the protagonist. And every over-worked, stressed and anxious New Yorker I know has felt their blood pressure rise as deadlines have closed in.
Yesterday, Sensei mentioned that pain is unavoidable. Continuing that thought, I believe that not only is pain unavoidable, but that we can also find value in pain.
To begin with, pain can be a useful learning tool. Pain can let us know when to move, to get out of the way. There are times when I’m practicing Aikido that I don’t move, that I try to use brute strength to accomplish a goal. When I’ve done that with a more senior student, I’ve ended up with screaming pain in my wrists, or hands, or stomach. And so I’ve learned to move, to study the techniques more closely, and to become more sensitive to what is happening around me and to me.
Pain can also be a valuable aid in overcoming obstacles. At one point in our evolutionary history, the surge of adrenaline that accompanied fear may have meant the difference between outrunning a predator and becoming a meal. As the over-worked office worker’s deadline approaches and stress levels increase, the body releases cortisol, which serves to divert energy from low-priority systems (like immune response) to higher-priority systems (like brain function). The re-routing of energy may give that worker the boost he needs to finish his proposal and spare him the wrath of his boss. (He may not be spared the wrath of a sedentary, high-stress lifestyle, however.)
For much of my life, like many people, I have worked to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. There’s a certain, irrefutable logic in this. Given the choice of a banquet or a torture chamber, humans seem built to prefer the former. However, over the last few months I’ve begun to re-evaluate my opinion.
I came to Aikido at a time in my life when my short term pursuit of pleasure over pain was starting to catch up with me. I’d just turned 30 and I realized that I was considerably healthier at 20 than at 30, and that if I continued the trend I would be even worse off at 40 and less healthier still at 50. Not the trajectory I wanted. For the past decade, I’ve been slowly watching t.v. more and exercising less. Reaching for the frozen burrito over making a healthy lunch out of fresh ingredients. Buying bread more instead of making it. Reaching for substances that are pleasing to my senses instead of getting a good night’s rest. And though I was not an overweight, depressed sloth, I was noticing that I was certainly moodier, I was slowly putting on weight, and I had less energy for the things I wanted to do in life. Over time, small choices add up.
And so I began training Aikido.
I made a commitment to myself that I would be healthier at 40 than I was at 20. Which meant I had to face the pain. The pain of making time in my schedule. The pain of say no to staying in and watching netflix and instead getting out the door and to the dojo. The pain in my wrists, my hands, and my legs that accompanies a martial dialogue with someone far more capable than myself. The pain of not knowing, of being unsure of myself when everyone around me seems to know what to do, how to do it, and why. Some of my friends look at me strangely and ask why I’m doing this. Why would anyone choose to get beat up day after day? It’s not like I face a lot of violent threats in my day to day, so martial arts seems superfluous to my lifestyle. What they are asking is why would I go through the pain.
To me, the answer is becoming more and more obvious. In just a few short months I have become stronger, more limber, and my energy levels are skyrocketing. The layer of fat that was slowly building up around my belly started shrinking. That sluggish, low-energy feeling that was becoming more and more common is dissipating. I’m happier. I feel more prepared to face the world, the challenges of my day to day...even if they are just finishing an edit or vacuuming my apartment. In facing the pain, I have learned, and I have gained.
There are times when it is harder to face the pain. When getting out the door to the dojo means I will have to work harder when I get home. When I’m sore and tired and the last thing in the world I want to do is get tossed around by someone almost 10 years my junior like I’m a toy. However, on those days when I’ve resisted coming and still packed my gi into my bag, I walk out of dojo feeling more alive than ever.
And so lately, I’ve been coming around to the idea of embracing pain, or at the very least facing it head on. Because I’m realizing a few things about pain. For one, pain is often ephemeral. The discomfort of saying no to the comfort of a book on my couch in favor of training is minimal and forgotten quickly. The aches and pains in my muscles subside in a week or so. And though they are more often than not replaced by other pains (why does the top of my foot hurt?), those too will fade. But more importantly, I’m learning that I can often gain more when I push through. The pleasure I feel having more energy, breathing deeper, and being able to run for longer with my dogs far outweighs the pain I experienced getting here. The embarrassment of not knowing how it is that someone 10 years my senior could so thoroughly destroy me on the mat is trumped by the satisfaction of learning something new. And I look to the future with more hope and optimism, knowing that the pain I push through today makes me stronger, healthier, and more resilient.