Lessons in mindfulness 2.10

Pain is the greatest

teacher, but no one

wants to go to his



What Can Injuries Teach Us?

When an adult begins the study of martial arts, they have

two primary questions. The first one is, “Can I do this without

getting hurt?” The second one is, “Can I do this without

looking stupid?”

Everyone knows that most kids are fearless and, with a few

exceptions, aren’t afraid to try anything that looks fun and

exciting. Adults, on the other hand, are usually self conscious,

and tend to gravitate toward things that they feel that

they are good at, or at least could be good at. While kids

instinctively see in martial arts the potential for having fun,

adults weigh the potential benefits against the potential

danger of injury.

Getting hurt while practicing martial arts is usually a taboo

topic. Certainly no school owner wants to discuss the

potential for injury at length with a student or prospective

student. Everyone insists that they run a very safe program

and, on the whole, the martial arts industry is much safer

than it was in the 1960’s and the 1970’s. That era was known

for bare knuckle fights and long, bloody workouts. Training

methods back then would make any modern exercise

physiologist cringe. There was no consideration of heart rate,

no warm up, no cool down, potentially dangerous ballistic

stretching, classes that when on for hours without hydrating

the body and routine hyper-extending of joints. These days,

personal safety really is a concern and, while no training

environment is completely risk-free, today’s schools and dojos

take the fundamentals of safe training very seriously.

That said, it’s still ridiculous to believe that you can practice

martial arts for years without experiencing an injury. Anyone,

in any style, that has practiced at a high level of intensity

for ten, fifteen, twenty years or more has experienced their

share of injuries. And it’s not just a matter of what goes

with the territory. I believe that experiencing injuries along

the way is a very important part of your practice, part of

your development as a martial artist. We have all heard that

a life without struggle is barely worth remembering, and

that what does not kill you makes you stronger. Indeed, it is

living through the bumps and bruises of practice that help

us live through the bumps and bruises of life. It is feeling

the locks — really applied — and the kicks and punches that

land squarely on their mark, that helps us gain respect for

our art. We realize that these techniques actually work, and

we begin to understand their effectiveness. We’ve all seen

countless films and TV shows where the hero and the villain

are engaged in a battle to the death and each are able to

withstand 5-10 minutes of the most powerful punches, kicks

and throws that the other can dish out! We start to become

desensitized to the power that a good technique possesses.

Getting hit with one good technique — even moderately

executed, helps to remind us that people don’t just bounce

back up, ready for more! In the real world, most fights, most

physical confrontations are over in seconds, not minutes.

If you didn’t feel

the power of

the technique

for yourself,

you may not

be convinced

how effective it

truly is.

Fighting through pain builds endurance;

Fear of pain builds focus

There are wide discrepancies in the way each individual feels

pain. Some people have very high pain thresholds, and are

able to withstand incredible amounts of physical discomfort,

while others complain and crumble under the slightest

twinge. It is precisely the intense physical nature of our

Pain to a large

degree is a

learned emotion.

In martial arts

pain is used

as a catalyst

to help the

student stay

in the moment.

Sometimes just

the thought of

pain is enough

to keep the

mind from being


practice that helps to strengthen the martial artist’s tolerance

for pain. Time and time again we see men and women begin

their practice with a fairly fragile constitution. But within

a couple of years, these same people become physically,

mentally and emotionally stronger. They can endure more.

The limit that they push themselves to gets higher and

higher. When they started, a mere bump might give them

pause but, a couple years later, there they are taking reverse

punches and throws in practice and just shaking it off.

In a very real sense, it’s the intensity and the perceived level

of danger that aid the martial artist’s sense of being in the

moment. It is your healthy respect for the techniques, and

what they could do to you, that help you to be here now!

Think of it this way; sometimes you have an absolutely

dreadful day, a dreadful week, when everything in your

world goes wrong. You’re under pressure at work, your

personal relationship is on the rocks, your finances are shot.

It’s not only raining, it’s pouring bad news. Yet you discover,

time and again, that one of the most helpful things that you

can do to clear your mind and shake off your troubles is to

go to practice. Why is this? Because practice pulls you out of

yourself, it removes you from the turmoil of what happened

before and what might happen next and what someone did

and what you’ll have to say to someone else later. You leave

all of that behind when you bow in. The world, and your

life, is still going on, and you’ll still have to settle all your

problems, but that’s later — tomorrow — next. For now, you

step onto the mats, get off the the daily rollercoaster and

find yourself squarely in the moment.

When you’re sparring at a very fast pace, there’s an

immanent danger of being hit, kicked or choked. In this

situation, your mind has to let go of all its thoughts, all its

stress; it has to relax and focus one pointedly in the moment.

Otherwise, you will get hit!

But it’s not the act of sparring that focuses your mind. It

is the understanding that you could be hurt if you don’t

concentrate. It’s the injuries that really strengthen your

respect for practice. You remember back to when you

didn’t concentrate on making a tight fist and you had to

live with a sprained finger for a week. You remember your

mind wandering and walking into a kick that bruised a

rib. You gain new respect for concentration, and you gain

tremendous confidence in the techniques themselves. You

will forever have greater respect for the sidekick that you

were hit with, and consequently greater respect for your own

sidekick, and for the art itself!

If the truth be told,

most people are

able to withstand

so much more than

they believe.

Deal with injury; Don’t run from it

Most physical injuries heal rather quickly, but emotional and

psychological scars can last a long time. An injury may not

be the direct fault of the partner you were working with

at the time, but you will probably find yourself avoiding

practicing with them for a while once the injury heals. Some

injuries can steal your practice completely if you allow it.

For example; a student practices for many years without any

serious injury. One day, he falls poorly and injures a shoulder.

As he waits out the healing process, he starts to believe that

practice is too dangerous; he’s too old to do be doing this.

He’s forgotten how many years up until now he’s practiced

without an injury! Human beings have very short memories.

When we’re confronted with sickness or injury, we are very

easily persuaded that we will be sick or hurt for the rest of

our lives.

To be a martial artist is to deal with injuries. The best advice

is not to miss class when you are hurt, but to learn how to

modify your practice. After all, this is more than punching,

Don’t seek injuries

out through poor

training methods,

but when they find

you, do not resent

them, learn from


Never let

practice gear

get in the

way of your


kicking and throwing. We’re also developing sensitivity,

awareness and creativity. If your arm or hands are hurt,

work on kicks, or just footwork. If your leg is injured, work

on hand techniques. If you can’t stand at all, work on your

grappling. Even if your injury is so severe that you cannot

practice at all, at least go and take notes. You will be amazed

at what you can learn from the edge of the mat.

Don’t allow safety gear to hinder

your technique or control

Pads, gloves, helmets and other safety gear are all beneficial

inventions and should be used most of the time, but they

have their drawbacks. Many people never learn good control

because they rely too heavily on their safety equipment.

Gloves can hinder the development of good technique,

making it difficult to make a good fist or strike with the

correct part of the hand. Students who have only practiced

with pads think nothing of hitting an elbow, knee, or

punching the back of the head. In real life, this is terrible

technique and should be avaoided. Practice gear can also

limit your ability to grab.

On the other hand, in striving for complete realism, some

people claim, “if practice isn’t full contact, it is not real.” Let’s

be honest — if you can practice full contact and still have a

partner to practice with tomorrow, then your techniques are

not effective enough. Practicing hard does not mean trying

to injure your partner before he or she injures you.

Fear of injury helps us to stay mentally focused. This is a good

thing. An actual injury teaches us respect for the practice and

for good control of its techniques. This is also a good thing.

Control helps us practice the most efficient techniques safely.

Control allows us to develop the sensitivity to know just how

much is enough and how much is too much. Injuries are best

kept to a minimum but, regardless, years from now, you will

not remember the injury. What you will remember is how

you got hurt, and the memories of the experience and the

stories that grow out of them will be something that both

you and others can learn from.

Practice hard, practice safe. But don’t run from injury. Learn

from it.

Mark began his martial arts practice in his

mid twenties. Always very athletic he was

in as good of shape as anyone you would meet. He was

strong and fast and the years of playing a variety of sports

helped to develop cat-like reflexes. He was unusually flexible

– perfectly suited to the practice of martial arts. Mark would

grasp techniques quickly and then rep them thousands of

times. He worked harder than anyone in the dojo and, as you

might imagine, in just a couple of years he became one of

the strongest students in both forms and sparring.

His success appeared to come from his constant hard work,

but really it was his passion for practice that was his strength.

After a long hard day, Mark couldn’t wait to get to the dojo

and start sweating. Physical practice was his sanctuary, his

way of recharging his battery. The sweat washed away the

stress of the day.

Mark continued his practice week in and week out, and

by his fifth anniversary of practice he couldn’t imagine life

without martial arts. Mark had taken many tests in the last

five years but his biggest test was yet to come.

Physical injuries

heal quickly, but

emotional scars

tend to linger. If

you get injured, get

back in class as

soon as possible

and battle your

demon while it is

relatively small.

Discipline and

control over the

body is the first

step to discipline

and control over

the mind.

It was Saturday afternoon and Mark and Craig were free

sparring at a very intense pace; a drill that both men

had done many times before. About 25 minutes into the

practice Mark attacked with a front punch/reverse punch

combination. Craig side stepped the first punch and

answered with a powerful sweep to Mark’s front leg, just

as Mark was shifting his weight for his reverse punch. The

sweep was executed with speed and power and Mark hit the

ground immediately. It only took a moment for everyone

in the school to realize that Mark was seriously hurt. The

technique that swept him off his feet damaged his ACL (the

supporting tendon). Mark would need rest, followed by

aggressive physical therapy. The whole process could take

2-4 months. The pain in his knee was bad enough, but the

thought of going 4 months without practice was unbearable.

Mark’s initial reaction was to deny the severity of the injury.

He insisted that it was not that bad and that he would be

healed in a couple of weeks. Then, once he admitted to

himself how badly injured he was, he thought that he would

never practice again, that his martial arts career was over. He

rationalized that practice was just too dangerous and it was

risky to continue with a compromised knee.

He decided to go in and talk to the master and say his

goodbyes. After listening to Mark, the master asked “How

long have you practiced?”

Mark responded, “Over five years sir.”

“And have you had any major injuries besides this?”

“No, just a couple of bumps and bangs but nothing serious.”

“So,” said the Master, “for five years you have practiced

without incident and one accident makes practice too risky?”

Mark saw his point and happily replied, “I really don’t want

to quit. I’ll be back as soon as I am better.”

The Master responded, “Why wait until your body heals? You

can come and watch classes and take notes.” Mark smiled

and agreed.

The next week he attended three classes and then stopped

coming. After two more weeks the Master called Mark to

inquire why he was not in class. Mark responded, “Sir, it is

just too painful to see everyone practicing and not to be able

to be out there. I am just the kind of person that likes to do it

100% or not at all.

Master responded, “I see. For the last five years have you

been practicing your breathing exercises and meditation

every day?

Mark said, “Excuse me?”

The master said again, in a gruff voice, “Have you been

practicing your breathing exercises and meditation since you

began practicing?”

Mark responded, “No sir I haven’t.”

“Well then, you never were practicing 100%, but I still

allowed you to physically practice. Maybe this injury is the

lesson you need to take your practice to the next level. Up

to this point, you have seen practice as a physical discipline,

naively overlooking the internal aspects. This injury affords

you time to practice at another level. I want you to begin

breathing and meditating every day and come to class

consistently 3 times a week. Bring pen and paper, take notes

on the lessons and record what you observe.”

Some things can

only be learned

from the outside

looking in. Every

now and then,

spend some time at

the edge of the mat.

Two and a half months later, Mark’s knee was completely

healed, stronger than ever. After his first class, the Master

asked, “So Mark, what did you learn from this test?”

Mark replied, “I learned how important practice is to me and

I learned that practice is much more than I initially thought it

was. There are subtleties in movements I was not seeing and

there were whole areas of my practice that I was completely

neglecting. Now I am able to see my practice extend into

every area of my life. It seems that without this injury I

would have continued to practice for years with a limited


And the master smiling said ,“Your injury was just one

example of good news bad news – who knows?”

   “Long ago, there was a farmer who lived in China. One day, several

  wild horses crashed through the gates of his farm, causing a great

deal of damage. “Oh no!” cried the neighbors, “This is terrible news!”

     The old farmer shrugged, “Good news, bad news—who knows?”

The next day, the horses came back and the farmer’s twenty-year-old-

son managed to capture one. All the neighbors ran over to admire it,

                 “Oh, how wonderful!” they cried, “What good news!”

         “Good news, bad news—who knows?” shrugged the farmer.

  Several days later, the farmer’s son, attempting to break the steed,

    was thrown and his leg badly broken. The neighbors rushed over,

peering at the young man in bed, “Oh, this is awful news!” they cried.

         The farmer shrugged, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

    A few weeks later, the Chinese army came by, taking

    all the area’s young men for war raging in the south.

They couldn’t take the young man with the broken leg… “


Write your own Eulogy

The topic this month is to take personal injury to the

extreme. Write your own eulogy. This is a common

assignment in many self-improvement courses and, because

of the focus it demands, is a very powerful exercise.

Remember, you must do the work to get the benefits.

Everyone is going to die someday and, at death, the tendency

is to remember one’s life. Sit down and pretend that that

that far-off day has arrived and that everyone is gathered to

reflect upon your time here.

Be both specific and all-encompassing. Address each area of

your life and its accomplishments. Stretch yourself and write

as if you reached your fullest potential. What did you do?

What did you leave that will carry on because of you?

Everyone is

compelled to

examine their life

as they approach

death. The truly

wise examine their

life while they are


To truly be

a martial

artist, the

mind and body

must work in



Distinguishing between Meditation and

Internal Techniques

Martial arts are based on the development of mind, body

and spirit. If the body is injured, we need to modify our

practice, not further aggravate the situation. Many people

feel that if they are injured, they are unable to practice. One

problem with this line of reasoning is that they’re separating

meditation from physical practice. It is as impossible to

separate meditation from practice as it is to separate your

mind from your body. Both are a part of the total You,

and in that relationship they transcend their uniqueness.

Similarly, meditation and physical technique are both a part

of the total art and, within that relationship transcend their


As a martial artist you should be meditating daily.

Remember that meditation is not a breathing exercise,

not an affirmation or visualization, not at all the same as

watching your thoughts or sharpening your senses. All these

are internal practices and should be used regularly, but all

are designed for specific results. Just as you wouldn’t confuse

a knife hand with a sidekick, understand that there are many

different internal techniques. Each has its purpose. You have

learned many of these techniques but always remember that

meditation is more than a mere technique. Meditation is the

foundation of all true martial arts.

To be a martial artist you must be meditating regularly.

Review Module One Lesson 12 for clarification.

Recommended Reading

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,

Malcolm Gladwell

The Greatest Minds and Ideas of all Time,

Will Durant