Monday, February 28, 2005


Last year i saw a bumper sticker that said "May all beings be free of suffering". Although i think i agree with the sentiment, at that particular moment i was about 2/3 of the way through a particularly grueling 20 mile run, and i was by some measure suffering. I realize that there's a difference between self-inflicted suffering and externally-inflicted suffering, but i've also come to realize that the difference is less clear than i originally thought.

The obvious difference between voluntary pain and involuntary pain is that you can choose to stop the former. That's such a significant difference that it's reasonable to ask if self-imposed suffering is really suffering at all. To endure pain is to not know when it will end, or even to expect that it will never end. This is also crucial because most research on pain indicates that knowing what to expect is essential to controlling pain; some pain researchers think that this is why acupuncture and self-hypnosis work for anaesthesia.

My personal mid-life crisis did not result in the most predictable outcomes (no Porsche, no young women, no surgery or wardrobe changes) although i did pursue one of the more cliched options: getting in shape. For me this began as relatively straightforward attempt to lose weight and get a little stronger, but somewhere along the line it took a strange turn. Both in endurance events (biking and especially running) and in the martial arts, i began to crave the challenges of more difficult (and by extension, painful) activities. This is not (i hope) simple masochism; in other words, it's not the suffering that i enjoy. And while it's always a relief to finish a hard activity and rest, it's not only the cessation of suffering that appeals to me. What i think does attract me to these activities (and i apologize for this turn of phrase) is that they take me into unexplored, potentially dangerous territory.

So far i haven't ventured so far into that territory that my return was in any question. But the ends of the marathons that i've run have taken me into realms of pain and suffering that i hadn't previously experienced. For me, at about 22 miles my body stops functioning normally and i have to run the last 4 miles in a state that's something like delirium, but accompanied by an acute awareness of every physical pain: cramped quads, blisters, nausea, burning chest. But i was never in serious physical jeopardy. There is plenty of water available and i can always stop if things get too uncertain.

Martial arts training has several different types of potential pain involved. There is of course the pain of being hit, and ocassionally the pain of hitting if you do it incorrectly. There's the aerobic burn of finishing a sparring round or doing a long form. But the worst type of pain comes from stance training or flexibility training. This is where things start to get interesting. It's hard to describe stance training, but if you've ever done the exercise where you press your back against the wall and then lower yourself until you're in a sitting position (sometimes called "electric chairs"), you'll sort of get the idea. Picture that same thing, but without the wall, and there you have stance training. Stance training hurts, particularly when you begin, and for most people a couple of minutes is hard.

What's interesting to me about this type of pain is that is doesn't come from any injury or pathology, and yet it undeniably hurts. This type of pain is familiar to anyone who's ever trained seriously for any athletic endeavor, so familiar that there's an entire cottage industry for not-so-clever aphorisms about it. "No pain, no gain". "It's pain leaving your body". "More pain now means less pain later". And so on. The reason why it interests me is that you can know intellectually that you are not incurring injury, but you will frequently succumb to the pain well before your body actually reaches the point where it can't support the activity.

What also amazes me is the extent to which you can train yourself to endure this pain. To some extent this is just a side effect of improving strength and conditioning. But there's a psychological aspect that's undeniable (which is not to say that the pain is "in your head", it's definitely real). For example, i've personally found that it's easier to endure stance training or flexibility training if you're doing it with a group of people rather than alone. Most runners find that they run much faster than would normally be comfortable when they're racing. You can also develop an ability to focus away from the pain by finding the muscles that can relax and by concentrating on your breathing.

If you train long enough at something, the gap between where the pain becomes unendurable and where your body is truly incapable of doing any more narrows, though it only rarely closes completely (you can find plenty of stories about people who have died while attempting some remarkable feat of endurance). The gap doesn't narrow linearly though; the further you extend your pain threshold, the harder it becomes to push further. This is the gray area of suffering that interests me. If you can continue when your mind tells you that you want to stop, you are temporarily in the same mental state that comes from externally inflicted suffering. And in the same way as externally inflicted suffering, you experience something- i don't know what the word for it is-- by overcoming this state.

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