Filippo comes over and hands me his phone, asking me to take a short video of him, Kru Nu, and Sudsakorn supervising the boys as they kick the heavy bags. Sure. I wipe my hands on the nearest piece of fabric, usually a shirt discarded on the apron of the ring, slip through the ropes and stand a few feet above the row of fighters as they shout and slam their shins into the bags in a syncopated, thwack, thwack, thwack. The boys don’t change how they’re kicking the bags at all. They’re fully focused, driving their bones through the air and into the well-dented leather of the bags. I pan the phone across, showing all three of the trainers as they stand just a little distance from the fighters and watch them kick and knee the bag. Each of them perform this task a bit differently: Filippo stands with his hands by his sides (a position he almost never actually assumes) and focuses his gaze first on Bank, then on Alex. Kru Nu has his hands behind his back, which is a position he often assumes but usually when he’s being looked at and less so when he’s doing the looking. Sudsakorn takes the chance to peel off his shirt.
The three men are performing watching training. They’re not actually watching training. I find this funny. In fact, only a few days later we were all in the ring doing our conditioning as a group, a series of situps, pushups and planks for about 9 minutes. We all just obey the timer, occasionally with Kru Nu calling out for someone to straighten out their plank or maybe calling out what the next segment is, kind of urging us to transition more quickly. Usually he’s leaning against the ropes or splaying his legs out towards us as he sits on the white plastic stool in the corner of the ring – one phone with the timer on it, facing us, the other phone (he has two) in his palm as he squints and scrolls. This, too, is a performance of sorts, in that Kru Nu is acting out the “I’m the trainer, I relax and make sure you all do the work,” and very occasionally joins us. But today, Filippo and Kru Nu are yet again performing their roles as trainers in a very different way. They’ve got their phones in hand to snap pictures of each other as they kind of wade between our rows of bodies. Kru Nu adopts the same stern expression on his face, folding his arms in front of his chest to play the part of the trainer who is making sure we do our work right. In reality, you never think he’s looking at you when he’s watching you. But he sees everything. It’s only when he’s acting like he’s watching that he ever looks like he’s watching. And, quite frankly, he’s kind of a bad actor.
But here’s my point: there is a strange line in Thai culture and perhaps even Muay Thai culture in Thailand, between the real and the performed. The performance, the fake, isn’t “fake.” It’s just show. I remember many years ago, when I was at Lanna, one of the trainers was going through a rough time with his ex. I won’t go into details, but in order to demonstrate his despair, he had one of the boys at the gym take a bunch of photos to post on Facebook, basically of the trainer in different sad sitting positions around the gym. It’s not that different from how one might post a sad song or a vague update to indicate one’s feelings, but really badly acted photos instead. But these are real. Maybe in the way that one’s “face” in Thailand is so important, so how you allow yourself to appear publicly has a kind of weight to it that I, as a westerner, place almost solely in “authenticity,” rather than the performance. What you appear to be has weight and significance, perhaps even over what you more or less “truly” feel. The public expression is risky; internal, “real” feelings are just your own business.
There’s actually a lesson in this. I, as a westerner, have been conditioned to give primacy of value to the “authentic” feeling. But, as a westerner, there are also tons of examples of virtues we find in going against the feeling that would easily be labeled as authentic, simply because it’s the more automatic feeling. Courage, for example, cannot exist without fear. I would label the fear as an authentic feeling, because it’s the more natural or base one. But the act of bravery or courage requires me to go against that “authentic” feeling and outwardly express nearly its opposite. And that’s virtuous. Kindness, generosity, and self-control are all virtues as well, and yet all of them are even more virtuous when they are not the primary feeling, when they have to be chosen and performed in the face of adversity. Showing kindness when you’re wronged, generosity when you have little, and self-control when your “authentic” or automatic response is inappropriate. The public performance, the show, is important.
And this is important for Muay Thai, especially in what I’m working on right now with the whole concept and performance of ning. Ning is being calm, unperturbed, peaceful and unmoved… and it’s especially valuable when that’s in the face of things that make ning not one’s natural state, like being punched in the face, for example. Of course it’s wonderful if I’m actually ning in my heart and mind – that is the actual goal for me – but it’s not false or fake or less of a virtue to simply perform ning, before it’s a “natural” or “authentic” personal, internal state.