Apologies to my younger readers, this post is laced with profanity. Sometimes profanity has a special power to describe things in ways other words can’t.
The plastic stool underneath me is too far out from the actual corner and my body kind of tips backwards as my cornermen lift my legs into their hands and rub icy cold water on my thighs and shins. I try to balance myself on the ropes but it’s more awkward and I reposition my forearms to the tops of my thighs; the cold water is going over my head now, which feels nice because the spotlights they use in the corners in this stadium between rounds feel like a heat-lamp you’d put in an aquarium for a lizard; Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” is blaring over the loud speakers and my husband is shouting to get my attention, “Sylvie! Sylvie! Baby!”
I turn my head and see Kevin’s face, the monopod with both cell phone and camera perched at the top to record the fight, as well as stream the live-feed. He’s holding his empty hand with his fingers curled and the tips touching, making a “zero.” That’s how many fucks I give. And the bell sounds to start the next round.
There is always something to work on in Muay Thai. Sometimes it’s big things, like learning how to keep your balance on multiple kicks. Sometimes it’s small things like whether your foot is flexed or pointed when you block a kick. And sometimes it’s things that seem small but are actually huge, because they’re fundamental, like how to express a value. That’s what I’m working on for a few weeks now, in what can colloquially be called “not giving a fuck.” And yeah, it sounds a bit odd to say that I’m practicing not giving a fuck, but it turns out that’s a skill and like all skills, you have to practice it. To be clear, there are things I very naturally don’t care about at all, like what some guy I’ve never met and will never meet thinks I should do to change some technique I was doing in a video that’s already 5 years old in a YouTube comment. Zero fucks given. But then there are things that I find it really hard to not care about, like what my current trainer thinks I should do to change the technique I’m working on right now, or “Am I bringing my training into the ring?”. Obviously there are benefits to caring in situations where it’s going to help you learn, but what I’m learning (very slowly) is that being able to differentiate between what can actually help you and what can’t is really difficult. We’re talking really refined awareness, especially with regard to the opinions or views of someone who isn’t myself. I’ve got very little control over that, even in really good and close relationships. So, to say that I don’t give a fuck about what my trainer thinks doesn’t mean that I don’t care at all and plug my ears up when he’s talking; rather, it means that I recognize that whether or not I even understand his advice and input has entirely to do with myself, so if I decide to take his advice I’m actually only taking the advice as I’ve interpreted it from him… which is just me after all.
Now I know this is coming off as some solipsistic bullshit in which the “I” of my consciousness is the sole reality of my world, but that’s something I have to work on because I’m a people pleaser. I care too much about how my trainers or whoever else feel about my performance and so I end up not performing to my potential – to my actual abilities. There’s a beautiful phrase in Thai about how a bird will cling to a branch until it believes in its own wings – Rambaa M16 used this phrase a few months ago to describe to me where I have to get to. That’s what I’m talking about: believing in my own wings = not giving a fuck about the stability of that branch, which is external. And this practice of not giving a fuck is really hard for me, because it turns out I give a lot of fucks, generally speaking. By caring about too many things – or caring about them at a time when being free is the most important thing of all – is like carrying baggage. Remember the last scene in “The Jerk,” where Steve Martin is deciding to leave his mansion and on his way out he’s saying, “I don’t need anything… except this thermos… and this ashtray…. and this ping-pong paddle…” and on like this until he’s carrying a shit-ton of useless crap, all of which he declares is “all I need” in the world. All that crap he picks up is about as useful as the fucks I tend to give. The fucks I give aren’t functional, they’re sentimental; they’re emotional. Emotions are meaningful, but they’re not always significant and not giving them undue weight is a long process I’m undergoing now.
Emotions are part of the equation of our lives, but not the entire equation. Just because something feels good doesn’t mean it is good. Just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad. Emotions are merely signposts, suggestions that our neurobiology gives us, not commandments. (Manson, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”)
How is this helping me? It’s giving me freedom. Not giving a fuck whether my elbow lands or not allows me to throw more elbows; just throw it! Not giving a fuck whether a mistake I just made makes me look bad or is disappointing to my trainers or cornermen or my husband allows me to recover from that mistake because I’m not still holding it. Not giving a fuck allows me to be in the moment far more than any other mental practice I’ve ever attempted. And, realistically, it’s the same mental practice I’ve always attempted but it’s presented in a way that I can actually apply when I call it “not giving a fuck.” It feels good in many ways, this freedom. It feels good to not care so much about things which are out of my control because it feels bad to care about those things and feeling bad sucks; so it feels good in the sense of the absence of feeling bad. But it’s also kind of freaky. I struggle with it because I automatically give a fuck about tons of things that I then have to purposefully let go of, and that’s difficult. It’s like taking training wheels off of a bike when you’ve learned how to ride with them on – you may not need them, you may be balancing on your own and not realize it, but the thought of letting go of them is like that bird letting go of the branch before it’s sure of its wings. You have to believe before you have evidence that makes you sure, and that’s scary. I also argue with myself over letting go of some things because my mind simultaneously understands what I mean by not giving a fuck, but also doesn’t fully understand what that means and so I feel guilty, or hesitant, because not caring about things seems selfish and immature and – I don’t know – careless. I worry about the consequences because I’m characteristically a responsible person. But in those cases I can play the “if/then” game my brother John taught me. In short, you actually play out the possibilities. To pick an everyday training example, not something that is a particular or personal issue, but a realistic one: say I’m afraid to not give a fuck about Pi Nu’s opinion of my fight. Pi Nu is someone who I respect a great deal, but my urge to please him (and others) often gets in the way of actually fighting freely. So how would not giving a fuck and moving on play out:
If I don’t care what he thinks of my fight, then what? Then the outcome doesn’t become something relevant to our relationship. If the outcome isn’t relevant, then what? Then the responsibilities, both inside the ring and outside the ring, fall to me. And then? Then I have freedom of choice and movement and decisions, the ability to steer myself to becoming what I want to be.
All of this is pretty sweet. What if I have a more dire line of thinking? What if I don’t care about Pi Nu’s views on my fight?…
Then I’m a bad student who doesn’t respect my teacher. Then what? Then that’s some bullshit because I know that not to be true.
So in the second line of thinking, when I hit something very negative which doesn’t jive with my values, I move into a secondary mental game, which is “why does that seem true?”
So, “I’m a bad student who doesn’t respect my teacher,” goes into “why does that seem true?” Because a student should care what the teacher thinks. Why does that seem true? Because a student defers to the teacher in order to learn. Am I purposefully and actively disrespecting my trainers? No, so by my thoughtful definition of respect, I’m in line. By digging into my lazy definition of how a student should be, I’m able to not give a fuck about that one.
It’s important to note, the reason why I’m exploring this very seriously is that I’ve come to believe that “giving a fuck” has been a powerful and tension-producing habit that has produced a low ceiling on my fighting in the ring. I’m not saying that this is the case for most other people, some people need to give a lot more fucks to get better. But for me it has become the opposite. The difference between all the techniques I know and demonstrate in training, sparring, pad work, etc, and what I actually DO in the ring has been stark. I’ve come to see that if I’m going to break through that ceiling in the ring I’m going to have to do away with some very ingrained habits of mine, habits that really have worked to make up a significant part of my personality. It’s taken me about 170 fights to get to this point, the realization that if I want to get better I’m going to have to become a different and more free person. Not just in the ring, or in the gym, but all of me. This is one of the beautiful things about fighting so much. I would not have discovered this if I had fought 45 times, or 136 times, or even 160 times and stopped. Each fight pressures you to bring something out of you that could not be otherwise be seen, and some things are buried quite deep. I use the illustration of caring about what my trainer thinks, but it’s only the tip of a very large iceberg and one that has been carried as baggage with me regardless of my trainers and their very different approaches and personalities. It’s about where I take my direction from, especially in the ring. What is it that I’m caring about when I put those gloves on? And in a certain sense at this point everything feels like discovery. It isn’t just discovery though, many fears come with this. I’ve learned all these techniques, gone through all these battles…but now it feels that I’m just starting to fight. Which is an incredible reality.
People Pleasing and The Fighter
Above I used the example of caring what Pi Nu thinks of my fights, which is something I do consider but it’s not a particular issue between the two of us at all. It’s just an example, theoretical and kind of mundane. More important than anything as particular as caring what this or that person thinks about me is that I’m a people pleaser. I have a persistent fear of letting people down, which admittedly is a very broadly defined consequence in my mind. And I’m really lazy about which people really matter as well. So here’s a more direct example: a gambler comes up to me before a fight and tells me to take it easy in the first two rounds and not really start fighting until the third. This is general advice on how to fight for gambling purposes – he could say exactly this to literally any person who is going into the ring at all. I don’t fight like this, it’s not my game and it’s not a skill I’m particularly good at or interested in getting good at. So even though this guy doesn’t mean anything to me on a personal level, in exactly the same way that I don’t mean anything to him on a personal level except that he plans to put money on my fight, I find myself giving a fuck about what he just said to me. I start having this argument in my mind over whether I should do what he said simply because he said it to me, or whether I can forget what he said immediately because who the fuck is he?
This example is good for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s very common. Secondly, it illustrates how to refine what “not giving a fuck” actually means. Even if I do care what this guy just said to me – and I may keep caring about it even when I get in the ring – I don’t have to act on that concern; the consequences of listening to him or not listening to him are one to me. And that’s a key component of how I’m going about not giving a fuck. I can’t actually just stop caring about things which do, sometimes, still matter to me. But I can choose to override that concern in order to have greater freedom. It’s like having physical pain, and not really caring that you do. You can still feel the pain, vaguely, but with the right mental approach it doesn’t matter. Another example, which is pretty much the same example: I don’t like hurting people’s feelings, I’m very sensitive to this usually. There are, however, times when you have to not give a fuck about someone else’s feelings, that cannot be your over-riding concern. Those times are defined by whether or not the consequence of someone feeling hurt because of me is in line with or goes against a core value.
A moment of digression to fine tune what I’m saying here. As part of my mental project I’m reading this book by Mark Manson, aptly titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I was several weeks into my Zero Fucks project when I stumbled into this book which provides some very helpful concepts. Manson points out that you have to give a fuck about something, but you basically have a limited number of fucks to give, so spend them wisely. Instead of “I don’t care about anything,” you refine your concerns to only care about the important things. Which things are important is determined by your core values. So, getting back to not hurting someone’s feelings, that’s something that’s important to me but it’s not a value. Rather, it’s just not wanting to be uncomfortable. In contrast, honesty is a core value to me. So sometimes I have to say something that I know will hurt someone’s feelings because honesty, as a value, is more important. It’s super awkward to confront someone in public, but that discomfort can be overriden by any number of people who decide, “I don’t give a fuck, someone’s got to tell that guy to quit intimidating his girlfriend in aisle 5.” In the case of wanting to please my trainers, or some random gambler who has the gall to come command something of me before my fight, “obedience” is not one of my core values. But respect is. So I can respect what is being offered to me as advice, and I can value in particular what Pi Nu is telling me because I respect his opinion and thoughts, but I can still respect them without taking them on as my own or even acting on them. So, I don’t give a fuck about those first two rounds that the gambler wants me to sandbag, but I can give a fuck about smiling politely and not being a jerk to him….part of the process of not giving a fuck is identifying what your core values really are.
So what does not giving a fuck look like? It looks pretty relaxed. Sometimes I get bent out of shape because I’m clinching with a guy at the gym who is doing better than I am, but the trainer is only offering him advice. Feeling shitty about that feels shitty. It hinders me to feel that way and I go down this spiral about how unfair it is. But if I don’t give a fuck, I’m free to just keep trying and adapting and adjusting. Sometimes I don’t want to get cut in a fight because I have another one coming up soon, so I think to myself, “don’t get cut, don’t get cut.” It limits me because I’m focusing on something that’s a negative, that I can’t fully control, and which will feel super shitty if I do get cut because I was thinking so much about how I shouldn’t. Not giving a fuck about getting cut means I can think about other things, which are more important, like feeling that my block is badass and offensive, rather than my last line of defense against catastrophe. I can focus on my value of confidence, rather than my preference of “doing well.”
A particular obstacle in practicing not giving a fuck has been coming to understand the actual method of putting it to practice. At first, I thought of it like picking up a new habit: just trying to think a certain way and not care too much at every chance I could. But there’s a flaw in this approach. There’s a difference between picking up a new habit and dropping an old one; not giving a fuck is a combination of the two. Say you want to start writing in a journal every day – that’s a new habit. So basically it takes 21 days for a new activity to become a habit, so as long as you pick up a pen and put it against the paper in your journal at least once every day, you’ve accomplished your goal. But say you want to quit smoking. It’s not the same thing to just not smoke every day because you have to confront your addiction and cravings way more often, and you have to not smoke every time you have a craving, not just “every day.” Learning to think a different way, whether it’s to be more confident or to be less critical, or to not give a fuck – it’s both quitting an old habit (all those things just listed) and building a new one (replacing those thoughts with the thoughts you want instead). It’s really hard! So while I’ve been quitting all the fucks I’ve been giving, I’ve had to become aware of all the times I’m giving them when I’d rather not be – it’s not as recognizable as a craving for your addiction, but it’s fundamentally the same. And you can learn to be aware of it. Once you can recognize the fucks you don’t want to be giving, you have to make it a habit to not give them. This is hard because sometimes you still believe you care, and sometimes you continue to care but you accomplish the new habit of not giving a fuck by not allowing the fact that you care to ultimately decide how you act. An example: I care about losing. It just sucks. But I don’t want to care, so I allow my core values to make the decisions instead of my superficial desire to avoid feeling shitty and being embarrassed. If I’m not afraid to lose and I’m not afraid to fail, then far more of my techniques and skills and training practices are available – and accessible – to me in the ring. And ultimately I’m happier and more free because I’m not holding on to all those fucks, or giving them out like street coupons which will just be thrown in the next trash bin by whomever I handed them to – because if you hand out fucks with no meaning, they don’t mean anything to the people you’re handing them to either.