In the face of pain

Our bodies and minds face a barrage of painful stimulation, and a good fighter has to endure through all of them.  But it can be tricky, learning the balance.  The ability to ignore pain invites a pathway to feeling nothing, to lack of compassion.  The seductive call of invincibility, to endure extreme physical discomfort, to protect yourself from emotional turmoil, can cut us off from the richness of life experience.


In martial arts, our fists and forearms, muscles and joints all face a hefty amount of trauma and pain.  We stretch muscles, nearly tearing them, punch and kick each other, and fly through the air, only to crumple onto our necks (personally experienced multiple times.)


How do we learn to shut out the pain?  Firstly, it is important to know how pain works.  Interestingly, we can only sense certain types of physical sensations with our limited neural network.  We can detect the position of our nerves using A-alpha nerve fibers, pressure with A-beta, sharp pain with A-delta, and dull pains and itches with C.  Each fiber conveys these sensations at different speeds to our thalamus (with the exception of one sensation.)  The thalamus in our brain routes the signals to our somatosensory cortex, the frontal cortex, and the limbic system.  In the case of sharp fast pain, our neurons communicate all of this, but also get overridden by our spinal cord, sending an emergency order to the limb that felt the pain to MOVE!

Oddly, in the case of a sudden burn, or sharp prick, our ability to FEEL the pain and make a conscious decision to move our hand is slower than our nervous system.  So we actually feel the pain just a fraction of a second before we move, which is much faster than our brain would be able to process alone.  They do this by activating our fast twitch muscles, which we can consciously utilize to make fast action.  That is another story for another day.

For all of the other pain, believe it or not, we can control how we experience it.  Some of the largest factors in pain and its intensity are…believe it or not… emotions, memories, expectations, attitude, beliefs, and even cultural influences.

Isn’t that interesting…  Though we can’t always control the source and intensity of pain…we certainly can control all the other stuff.

Most of you students do it already.  When we stretch, don’t you experience pain?  Yet some of you purposely push harder to experience MORE pain.  Why?  Is it because you’ve heard me say thousands of times that “pain is good, you want pain.”  Or “if it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t trying.”  Or maybe some of you have stretched well for a long time and equate that pain of stretching to success.  Now it isn’t something to avoid…it is just part of the experience.

What about bleeding?  By now, the Panda group has heard of the “blood club.”  Only a few select students have had the privilege of bleeding during a martial arts practice.  But now, the pain associated with the wound is superficial…not important.  The blood is important, and the prestige of bleeding in martial arts practice.

Controlling our attitude…welcoming pain…welcoming adversaries…can determine how we feel about our experience.


But here is where balance comes in.  If we continually practice the acceptance, invulnerability, and even enjoyment of pain…we could lose empathy.  Some have not had our training or experiences and feel pain in a very different way.  We can not consolidate our training and give it to them in a few words of comfort.  We have to instead remember how it felt for us, before we had training.  Never sacrifice empathy and compassion for the sake of invincibility.  Because a life devoid of pain is not worth the isolation.


Wait, didn’t I forget the fast pain?  The one that bypasses our brain and goes right to our muscles?


I’ll be preparing a demonstration on pain, coming up.  How to endure it, what factors mitigate it.  Unfortunately I need a few supplies, and those won’t be in for a week or two!  But we can consciously prevent ourselves from reacting too strongly to pain by changing how our nerves respond to fast sharp pain.


We can change how we react to all other pain by controlling our attitude about it!


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