Conquering Pain

By Jon Handy

Conquering Pain

The old version of Lawrence of Arabia recently was shown on television.  That particular Saturday night I didn’t have anything special to do so I decided to kick back and watch it.  

I was immediately engrossed by one of the first scenes.  Lawrence was making a point with a fellow British officer by holding a flame from his cigarette lighter to the palm of his hand while the officer looked on with horror.  Finally, Lawrence put the lighter back in his pocket and turned to leave.  The British officer called after him, “How do you do that?!”   Lawrence paused, turned to face the officer, and responded with an arrogant smile, “The trick is in not minding the pain.”

Lawrence was right.  But what magic did he conjure in his mind in order to accomplish this?  How could he detach himself so effectively from a pain that would make most of us jump and bark “OUCH!” or “DARN!” or “$@#^%!!” (Insert here your own favorite expletive.)

In Shorin Ryu Karate [1], we teach that you should never let your opponent know that you are hurt.  If you indicate to your opponent in any way that his technique was effective and caused you pain, it will encourage him and give him an edge.  He will likely keep hitting the injury as a way of demoralizing and defeating you, just as a boxer keeps pounding an opponent’s eye once he has injured it.  If, however, your attacker sees that his best shot didn’t even give you pause, he will likely discard that technique and try something new that is probably not in his inventory of “Favorite and Most Effective Techniques.”

Pain is a God-given sense.  It can keep you from serious harm and even save your life.  Imagine what would happen if you were leaning on a hot grill with a paralyzed arm that could experience no pain.  You would be unaware that you had a problem until you smelled yourself cooking or saw the smoke.  Or ask a paralyzed man in a wheel chair what it would be worth to him to be able once more to experience feeling in his legs.  At times, pain can be your best friend.

Pain can also be a ravaging enemy.  Some people experience a phenomenon called chronic pain. Soldiers are sometimes forced to undergo torture as prisoners-of-war and most of us have experienced an injury of some kind that makes us wish we could push a button and turn it off.  These are the kinds of pain that can be controlled to some extent by the mind.  Some people go through an expensive laboratory procedure commonly known as biofeedback in an attempt to learn how to take command over inexplicable pain.

Understanding the source of the pain and examining it with a clinical attitude often results in mastery over that pain.

 Pain is nothing more that a signal that the body transmits through the nervous system to the mind that it is having a problem and needs instructions from the brain.  The nervous system cannot analyze the pain; it can only inform the mind that a wire has been tripped.  The solution to the problem is now up to the mind.  It must interpret the message, decide upon a course of action, and relay instructions back through the same network to that part of the body that sent the alarm (it’s a little like pushing the reply button in your email).  This all takes place in microseconds.  The message might be something like “Get your hand off that hot grill, now!”  The point is that the response to the pain is a function of the mind.

Some people have elaborate burglar alarms in their homes and offices.  Most of these people have learned from experience that their alarm is sometimes tripped by something other than a burglar.  The alarm doesn’t know if the offense was committed by a dog, a bird, the wind, or a human intruder.  It just sounds the alarm and keeps sounding until action is taken to shut it off.  The property owner does not panic and immediately call out the National Guard.  He checks first to see if there is a real problem.  We should do the same when our pain alarm sounds.  We must decide if there is no real danger and then just panic or turn the alarm off.

Karate students sometimes have to stand in low stances for lengthy periods of time while they are learning and practicing various techniques.  Their legs begin to complain.  I can almost hear the chorus:

“Okay, it’s time to stand up now.”

“What do you think you’re doing?  This is unnatural.  You’ll fall over backwards.”

“If you don’t stand up now, we’ll give you such a charley horse!”

Good students have learned how to answer this type of complaining from their bodies.  They know that the body is a servomechanism of the mind.  The mind gives the instructions and the body executes the instructions so long as it is physically possible.  These people establish the limits with their minds, not their bodies.  They have overcome the fear of pain.

Not everyone is in charge of his own body like the karate-ka.  Some people succumb to the creature comforts.  They get overweight, out of shape, and find that they have little energy, a weak immune system, and reduced motivation.  They live the soft life and become old before their time.  Some become gluttons, couch potatoes, chain smokers, alcoholics and worse.  When your body is your master, you lose your pride, your health and the respect of your fellow man.

The karate-ka cannot advance until he stops making excuses, puts his body into submission to his mind, and conquers the pain that would hold him back and cause him to fail. Once he crosses this threshold someone, like the British officer, may well ask him, “How do you do that?”

[1] Shōrin-ryū

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