“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
During her TED talk entitled, ‘The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage.’
There’s a problem with ‘modern’ gym training: you’re expected to leave your brain at the door. In reality, whether this is a good or bad thing is irrelevant; it’s not actually possible. Your mind has a habit of following you everywhere and demands to be involved in everything.
The practise of yoga and the discipline of the martial arts have acquired a cloud of suspicion amongst the secular community as being preoccupied with things like ‘spirit’, which seem a bit ‘woo woo’. However, if you can put that to one side for a moment, it’ll bring us closer to the point.
When you go into a gym, just as when you enter a dojo or shala, you’re entering a space whose use is governed by rules and procedures. You have to wear a certain kind of attire and music is also used to provide privacy and invoke a particular mood. These things, dress, sound and rules, are the basic elements of ritual.
Even in the most rudimentary sense, these elements conspire to create focus. That focus induces pleasure in work.
Having a background in art, I’m comfortable with the ‘woo woo’, although I like to keep it personal, and to a minimum. Poetry is, by its essential nature, woo woo. It’s about bringing disparate things together to summon something beyond intellect, and oftentimes beyond the science of expression.
Ironically, physical practice brings us into contact with the facts of life, whether it’s the interface with gravity through weight training, the physical limitations of flexibility, bodyweight and leverage or the literal obstacle of an opponent who embodies all these adversaries, as well as summoning everything we fear.
I loved to fight. I was terrified of it, sometimes so much I was physically sick in the days leading up. By the time I had arrived at the venue, the adrenalin made it so intense that time fell away and I felt super-present, like in a dream.
I’d walk into the venue and there were all these strangers thrilled to see me, as if it was a birthday party. They had all waiting for this; waiting for me to arrive. Then, I’d go into the rooms and wrap my hands.
I wrapped my own hands after my trainer had taught me to do it before my first fight; that way, it would be exactly how I liked it. The sensation, the actual fit and feeling, was the same as it had been thousands of times before.
Then I’d skip. The rhythmic clicking of the rope on the floor would set an earth under all the sounds, people, lights and distractions. I’d begin skipping slowly to bring my heartbeat into sync with it, like a celestial metronome.
Once I’d established that governing rhythm, and coordinated my breath, I felt myself sink into the center of the experience to become the heaviest thing in the venue. I was ready to climb into that canvas square, filled with nothing but light and bend every line in toward me.
The last feature of preparation was the gloves laced up and taped. This was the only time I wore lace-up gloves; at training, it was always Velcro for convenience. But once those gloves were laced up, I couldn’t cook, drive, write a letter or even go to the bathroom. I was purified toward a single purpose.
By that time, I was no longer afraid. And winning and losing were the last things on my mind.
Your master muscle is your imagination. Before you pick up a weight or seek to establish your balance, you need to bring yourself into the space emotionally and psychologically. Music helps to do this.
Any formal structure, even something as basic as warm up and cool down, the weights you choose, the feeling of the particular knurling on the bar, even where you position your water bottle in relation to your mat, block and strap, will serve you.
Forget about your weight and body fat percentage or how much you can bench or how many chin ups you did last session. There is an essential paradox within all modes of practise.
Discomfort, whether it’s bought by gravity, the implement or the opponent, will take you where you need to be. These are the stewards of your experience.
Shantih shantih shantih.
The above is the final line from T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land.’ Itself a quotation from the Sanskrit epic ‘The Upanishads’. Eliot translated it to mean, “May yours be the peace which passes understanding.”