Originally Posted on March 14, 2013 by Karri
Martial artists often deal with pain. It’s part of the human experience, but we learn to think of it differently than others. Probably just from repeated exposure. For most of us there are two very different things going on at the same time.

First is the nerve signal alerting the brain that there is some sort of either extreme contrast in pressure or temperature going on. It is a phone call to the landlord that the plumbing needs fixing, or that something is wrong with the heat. That’s it.

Second is the hard part. From years of conditioning through traumatic events, injuries, corporal punishment, etc. we latch on a whole trainload of emotion to these signals. We experience fear, anxiety, sadness,and a whole litany of negative feelings. It makes about as much sense as crying at a red light, but we do it.

The funny part is that this elevated emotional state sends our autonomic nervous system into a heightened state which then causes the signals about things like cuts and bruises to get more pronounced. So, now we have more to cry about. Crap. So on and so on, until suddenly we are reduced to a quivering pile over something that an animal would shrug off and go to sleep over.

The work comes in separating these two events and begins with recognizing that physical pain is completely OK and natural and so is emotional pain. However, linking the two is something that we create ourselves to make ourselves miserable. Miyamoto Musashi refers to the Body of Stone. It has nothing to do with conditioning the body to be rock hard, or impervious to harm, but rather conditioning the mind to accept anything and move on.

For example, if I am out in the wilderness fetching a Christmas tree, and accidentally chop off my foot, I am in trouble. However, no amount of crying, sobbing, pleading or pulling my hair out is going to put my foot back on. What I need to do is stop the bleeding, and get to en ER. I need to accept the fact that my foot has come off and get to work. Now, this is pretty extreme, but we see it on the mat all the time. Someone will stub a toe or slap themselves in the face and expect everything to come grinding to a halt while they sort it out.

Tragically, this will not be the case in real life.

In a situation where someone is trying to hurt you, succeeding in it is not likely to stop them. They are going to happily continue hurting you. You need to accept that you hurt, or are even seriously injured and get to work.

We train this new response by experiencing physical pain in a safe, controlled environment that is free of negative feelings and hostility. You experience pain that teaches you, and in many cases is physically beneficial. Receiving techniques correctly improves flexibility and range of motion. So, it hurts but it’s good for you. This is especially the case in partner stretching or body work. Pain is not bad, it’s just a message.

“Thank you for calling me with this vital information Mr. Foot. We will send someone out presently to address the issue. In the meantime, have a nice day.”

Accept the message, honor your body trying to help you, and then get on with what you need to do. Be patient with the process of learning. It took you years to develop your well honed sense of urgency at seeing your own blood, or feeling that finger bend backwards. It will take time to re-program your nervous system. You can no more change it with willpower than you can perform a software update on your computer by yelling at it to work better. It takes time, and work but is entirely possible. In the end, you will find that you are better able to remain yourself in situations where you would have otherwise lost your head. This will allow you to act as the human being you were meant to be instead of reacting like a very confused animal.

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