A few years ago, a friend asked me what I’d do if I had a million dollars. I didn’t have to think before answering – "I’d move to Okinawa, Japan to train under Grand Master, Morio Higaonna-Sensei". It was only later, that it dawned on me I didn't actually need a million dollars to pursue this dream...
So now here I am, living in a little apartment above a busy Japanese restaurant barely 2 minutes walk from Sensei's Honbu dojo. I've been training with him daily now for 6 months and decided it was finally time to start recording some of my experiences and "ah-haa!" moments.
Have you ever wondered what it'd be like to be impervious to pain? As a martial artist, it'd certainly have its perks. It's the sort of superhuman power that belongs in comic books. Amazingly for some people it is a reality.
Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis CIPA is a rare condition in which children are born without the ability to sense pain or extremes in temperature. They are normal in every other sense. They can still feel other sensations and touch from normal body-to-body contact. But these people simply can't feel pain and never will. They can hurt themselves in all ways imaginable and may not even know it. And while this might all sound great, I'd think twice before wishing for this kind of 'invincibility'.
Children born with CIPA have no protective reflexes and as a result, they don't learn to protect their bodies from injury. Fractures, dislocations and joint injuries are a common occurance, and in some cases children have been know to accidently chew through their own tongues, or poke their eyes out. Many fail to even live past their 20s. If the reality of this situation teaches us anything, it's that pain is clearly important. And, without our body's alarm system, we'd be in serious trouble.
In martial arts a lot of what we do is also about learning how to dampen, even ignore that little voice. We're all familiar with sayings like "no pain no gain" and "a little pain never hurts" - the take home message: no one likes a wuss and if you're tough you can take it.
In training, pushing through the pain barrier and increasing one's pain threshold seems to be a big part of conditioning in both traditional and sporting circles. It's generally regarded as a way of cultivating mental toughness and overcoming fear. Like Taekwon-do founder, Choi, Hong Hi once said,
"Pain is the best instructor, but no one wants to go to his classes"
If this were true I wonder what Pain really would have to teach us? After all, if learning to ignore pain is good, to what extent should we refuse to listen to that little voice? Pushing through pain might earn one respect inside the dojo, but there are clearly times where this could be quite dangerous. And, if training is about self-defense and self-preservation, shouldn't we also be trying to look after our bodies? In learning to protect ourselves, how does constantly (and sometimes even permanently) injuring ourselves make any sense?
I don't really have any answers to these questions. All I can think is that maybe the idea of pain endurance is a question of intensity – a scale running from mild discomfort to crying like a baby. Or perhaps it's about good and bad 'kinds' of pain – qualitatively different voices we should listen to. In either case, if we're going to ignore some kinds of pain and not others, how do we tell the difference between the two? And, does 'pain tolerance' really make any sense at all if you only prepare yourself for certain kinds?
From a neurological perspective, there is one rather drastic treatment for patients suffering from chronic pain disorders. And in these cases the objective is not preventing them from feeling pain but rather to changing the way they think about it. A Bilateral Cingulotomy is a form of psychosurgery and a last resort for patients suffering from chronic pain. The surgery involves making lesions to a part of the brain which is responsible for integrating feeling and emotion with the pain response. After surgery, these patients typically still feel pain but without the normal emotional reaction to it – in other words, they're simply no longer bothered by it.
Maybe this is the kind of relationship with pain we should be aiming for – to treat pain as a guiding voice, rather than one we simply obey or ignore. Rather than sticking our fingers in our ears when we hear it nagging, perhaps we should be trying to learn its language so we can listen objectively to what it has to say. I can't say that I really like those conversations. I guess for the most part, that little voice has my best interests at heart and for that at least I should be grateful.
Still, there are a lot of cases where pain doesn't really make much sense and at least in that regard it can be a difficult language to understand. I'd be really interested in other people's views on the topic – what lessons can be learnt through pain, and in cultivating mental toughness? When and to what extent should we listen when its got something to say?
I'm frequently told that we should aim for moderation in all things but when I look to those exceptional people – the people I find truly inspiring – moderation isn't exactly something they have in spades. To be honest, it's never been my strong suit either (and maybe its something in the genes). But, I wonder if martial arts addiction (compulsive training, obsession with details etc) is by definition unhealthy?
A friend in Naha would frequently call me and the other students of the honbu dojo crazy karate-kaholics. He found the amount of training we did down-right ridiculous and I can appreciate his point of view. In our club we sometime talk about the “martial arts-bug”– like it's a kind of virus from which there is no known cure.
U.S. Psychiatrist Bill Glasser (1976) talked about positive addiction (PA) which he believed could be beneficial for physical and psychological health as long as it fulfilled some of the seven following criteria:
it is something noncompetitive that you choose to do and you can devote approximately forty five minutes to an hour a day to;
it is possible for you to do it easily, in the sense of organizing to do it, and it doesn't take a great deal of mental effort to do it;
you can do it alone (more rarely with others) - but independently of others - not depending on their presence or encouragement to continue;
you believe it has some value (physical, mental, or spiritual) for you;
you believe that if you persist at it you will improve but this is completely subjective - you need to be the only one who measures that improvement;
the activity must be one you can perform without negatively criticizing yourself;
it must be undertaken several times a week until you reach "the PA state".
I'm not sure whether my relationship with martial arts would meet the criteria for "positive addiction" but it's nice to know I'm not alone in my obsessions. Other instructors (who can remain anonymous for now) have confided that they've on occasion, used gym equipment for fore-arm conditioning, practiced footwork in the isle of grocery stores, sanchin kata in the toilet on lunch breaks and even in the isle of planes at night when no-one's looking. Whatever the case may be, martial arts addiction certainly seem to bring out the child in some of us.
I suppose at the end of the day, moderation in life is nice, but maybe there should also be moderation in moderation – an excuse to reserve some obsessive behaviour for those occasional passionate pursuits.
Rather than "moderation in all things" I find myself drawn to a quote by Tempu Nakamura – a popular 18th century philosopher and Yogi:
"Do not try and cut off all your passions. Passions give birth to heroic activity. Fulfill your passions and that will bring bliss".
Well, it's been a little quiet around here of late and one of my recent commentors pointed out that “writing is a discipline too" and one that “shouldn’t be neglected”. This is true. But, when life gets busy I think we sometimes have to choose between training and writing and for me training tends to come out on top.
The comment did make me stop and think though about 'staying power' and what it is that enables us to stick to the things we set out to do.
In Naha we had a dojo diary – a daily training log where students would record their names. "Dojo history" as Sensei calls it. This little book did have a funny way of talking to me. On the odd occasion when I'd miss a session, the blank line would have a peculiar way of making me feel guilty. But for the most part, the book and I were on good terms.
Sometimes I'd flip through the pages examining the handwriting and names – the ink sometimes smeared from dripping foreheads and sweaty hands. I wonder how many hours of training that book has seen?
Malcom Gladwell in his book 'Outliers: The Story of Success' talks about the 10,000 hour rule as one of the secrets of greatness. It's no surprise that mastery requires an enormous amount of time and practice. But, according to Gladwell, this may be even more important than natural talent. True mastery and success may be as simple as applying yourself to practice 20hrs a week for a period of 10 years.
I wonder though if sheer quantity of practice is really enough? Surely, the people who are able to undertake that degree of practice exhibit other qualities – not least, a love and passion for what they do that ensures their practice is motivated and meaningful. In the context of martial arts, it's just too easy to 'tune out' and go through the motions. I find it hard to believe 10,000 hours of 'poor practice' is really all it takes. After all, mistakes patterned in are all the harder to erase.
Regularity and quantity of training is clearly important but the quality of training must be there too. Maybe as Randy Borum points out, it's "perfect practice that makes perfect" - 10,000 of deliberate, focused and systematic attention to training and a willingness to persist even when it's not fun. And, I wonder if this isn't what Sensei's getting at with the dojo diary – a personal record of our own hours and a challenge to ourselves to make each hour of our practice 'perfect'.
Building a chiishi is one of the first things I set about doing when I got back to Aus and since then I've had a few additional requests. Lukily, like most traditional hojo undo equipment, the chiishi is relatively inexpensive and easy to make. For those interested, I've put together a simple little step-by-step guide with pics:
1. Get your hands on the following ingredients:
A bag of white cement (you can mix it with some gravel to add strength)
Some dowel (Tasmanian Oak's nice, but even a broom handle will do)
Two large bolts and,
A bucket (approx 27cm in diameter)
2. Decide on the length of your chiishi. The handle
length should be approximately the same as the distance from the ground to the knee joint.
3. Drill two holes in one end of the handle and twist the screws through so that they form a cross
4. Create your concrete/cement mixture in a separate bucket (I used a 50-50 mix) to help prevent cracking and crumbling
5. Put your chiishi handle in the bucket and gradually pack the cement mixture in. Aim for an even distribution. It's important to get the handle straight in the very center of the bucket and for the mix to be spread evenly (lop-sided chiishi are harder to work with).
6. Once you're happy with the position and mix is even, smooth it out and let it set (leaving it for at least 24-48hrs is probably a good idea).
7. And voila, pop it out of the bucket and you've got a shiny new chiishi to play with. Just be kind to it for the first month since it can take this long for it to fully dry and harden.
The chiishi (pictured above) is one of my favourite hojo undo training tools. It may not look like much, but don't let that fool you - you can do more with this little cement stick than half a dozen pieces of training equipment at the gym.
Like many of the hojo undo and kata of Goju Ryu, the chiishi is believed to have originated from China. It's said that Kanryo Higaonna Sensei (the founding father of modern-day karate) practiced daily with the chiishi and other hojo undo implements during his 14 years of martial arts study in Fuzhou, before returning to Okinawa.
Today, the chiishi has become a relatively common training aid in Okinawa and in the honbu dojo we'd usually train with the chiishi as part of our general hojo undo sessions at least 2 - 3 times a week. As with all hojo undo, the chiishi has a standard series of techniques to work through (the chiishi kata), as well as an infinite number of variations. On average the exercises take approximately 15-20 minutes, however with variations you could easily spend hours working through techniques.
The chiishi is generally described as a tool for conditioning and strengthening the wrists and arms but it's also excellent for training blocking and striking techniques as well as the importance of synchronizing breathing with whole-body power. We were often told that it's important to practice hojo undo with the intent of improving techniques and kata. In this sense, chiishi and its focus on upper body and breathing seem to compliment sanchin kata well - which is probably why we would frequently begin sanchin training in this way.
For those that are interested in the chiishi kata, there's an excellent series of instructional pics (with the Japanese) on Sensei Helmut Leitner's website. There's also a good black and white YouTube video of Higaonna Sensei with a section on the chiishi kata (3:24-6:35).
And, if you're interested in some of the other applications and variations I've included a video of Alessandro Sensei demonstrating some advanced chiishi techniques in the honbu dojo.