The first few months I trained with Master K I learned quickly. Going from “nothing” to “anything” is actually a much bigger difference to the eye than it is in the abstract. I remember how excited Master K got when I would do something well after only a few tries, how he kept looking over at Kevin (who sat in the chair by the door and filmed the sessions for YouTube) and tell him, “she’s strong!” I felt like a natural.
Then the progress kind of plateaued. I’m notoriously terrible at practicing anything. I started playing violin at the age of two and continued on until I moved away for college and just abandoned my poor violin out of some kind of vindictive gesture toward personal choice. Through the 20-something years I played the violin I never practiced consistently or with great purpose. I “got by” on a mixture of my very good memory (allowing me to learn songs quickly and fake it when I never learned how to read sheet music very well) and a bit of talent that allowed me to progress despite my refusal to make an effort toward doing so. I know that my plateau in Muay Thai with Master K was a similar problem: I didn’t practice what he taught me. I remembered it and I’m athletic so I was able to advance in little increments, but I could have been something else if I’d really worked on getting my 10,000 hours.
I did get better, gradually. I knew that moving to Thailand and just training repetitively for 6-7 hours a day would do wonders for my Muay Thai and it has, but that’s not the biggest difference. In the past few months I’ve seemingly been beamed to another level. It appears to have come out of nowhere because I wasn’t watching for it, but it happened because of two things: 1) I make a concerted effort to get better, to correct myself nearly 100% of the time that I am at the gym, 7 hours per day, 6 days per week; and 2) I let go.
That first part makes sense. Practicing is bogus unless it’s with concentration and effort toward improvement, correcting mistakes and just dogging out repetition to wear grooves into correct movement. But that second part isn’t something you just decide – it’s not even something you can practice unless you’ve figured it out already. “Letting go” is not a concept, it’s a precept.
So what does that even mean? What does it feel like? And how the hell did I arrive at this commandment? I think more than anything it was out of exhaustion. I’d tensed and taxed myself to the point of fatigue and then continued training through it. My muscles had to keep going because my mind was willing them to, but my mind had checked out of the operation so far as conscious thought goes. But it’s not an any-given-training-session type of thing, it’s a maxim, a way of learning. So it has to be sustained and that’s the hard part. In truth, what I let go of was needing to look good or having to be comfortable in what I’m doing and the way I let go was becoming aware of the fact that there is no time limit to any of this. I stopped paying attention to what I assumed I should be able to do already and just focused on what I actually could do, which meant actually doing it. That doesn’t mean resigning oneself to poor form, but it does mean paying less attention to the failure and more attention to the repeating of the action.
I’m not even fully aware of how much progress I’ve made in these past 7 months since moving to Thailand. I am aware that the bulk of my growth is in the past 2-3 months and I know for a fact that it’s because Den decided to turn up the intensity and danger for me in the ring. Adapt or die, kind of thing. But if I were still clinging to the need to be a certain way, look a certain way or have a particular set of abilities that I deem to follow in line with my experience, I don’t think I would have advanced the way I have.
“Comparison is the thief of joy,” Theodore Roosevelt said and I’ve written this quote on my heart. I have great joy in my training. Just today I did something really stupid by not wearing a shin-pad on my bashed left shin during padwork and, even though I wasn’t using the leg, I cross-blocked a kick to my right side with naked shin against shin and set the healing of that leg back by days. But I was also really proud of myself because I didn’t stop for more than a split second, the momentary wince and stumble from the pain was not enough to upset my focus from trying to destroy Den. I’m able to continue because of joy, not toughness – “there is no tough, only trained and untrained.” By not practicing and beating myself up for not being as good as I thought I should be for all those years, I was actually practicing defeat, tenseness and robbing myself of joy by comparing myself to what I “should” be. And now, by letting go and just accepting the discomfort, lack of balance, feeling of stagnation in progress and pushing forward anyway, I have learned to practice practicing and hit a growth spurt. I am training joy and the happy side-effect is progress.
And this is really what Master K has been teaching me all along, but I was just too blinded by my self-involvement to see it. “You have to love Muay Thai,” he says. And I have always loved it; I just have slowly learned to love it more freely, to stop hiding my flaws and instead let them become the quirks that both enrage and endear.