When I had my first fight in Muay Thai, I’d sparred exactly 3 times prior to stepping into the ring. The way I trained with Master K, just him and me in his basement, I’d had very little actual contact in what is unarguably a full-contact sport. The thing about getting hit in training is that it conditions you to being hit under pressure and being able to respond, building up callouses both mentally and physically to be able to withstand that kind of impact. What I loved about fighting was that it was a gradual loss of fear via the repeated experience of overcoming the fear of being hit. You can be absolutely awesome on the pads or have great skills in shadow and on the bag, but unless you can do even a fraction of that under the pressure of a real fight… you don’t know shit. That belief is what led me to fight at all; that’s what has led me to fight as much as I have and, indeed, as much as I will.
I’ve been working on my mental training in an earnest sense for the past 2.5 years, roughly. It’s similar to my experience with Master K in that I’ve been just training myself, mostly. I read books, listen to people who know what they’re talking about, and track my realizations and struggles to be able to guide myself. But, just like the huge difference for Muay Thai, I’ve not experienced the impact of pressure mental training. I’ve never been hit. This 12 week training program with Niyi Sobo… I’m getting hit. I’m experiencing contact and I’m not yet accustomed to how to deal with it. So, I’ve had a pretty f***ing rough week and it’s not even because what was being asked of us is so hard, it’s because digging into myself to figure out the why instead of the easy, minimal-contact how, is a personal nightmare.
Let me try to explain this. For this week’s assignment we are tasked with defining our vision. This should be exciting. This is when you get to just take the leash off and stretch out, without any limitations just dream up your most ultimate self. Some folks can do this, like you see yourself in the middle of Madison Square Garden with thousands of adoring, screaming fans; it’s little girls singing into their hairbrushes, imagining themselves as superstars. In other words, it’s not hard. If you were like, “hey Sylvie, what would be it be like to be Axl Rose?” I could slip easily into imagining myself as a 110 lbs, skinny white ginger in the middle of a beef with an even skinnier, somehow whiter bleach-blond in a grandpa sweater. It’s crystal clear. But you ask me to rif on an image that’s actually important to me – like some kind of incredible achieving moment in Muay Thai – and I fall apart. Not like, “I can’t really see it clearly,” but actually spinning into a deep depression. Kevin has been with me for 10 years and he’s seen me go through some lows, but he said he’s never seen me like this, the kind of pitiful state I was in this past week.
So I’m trying to figure out why that is. The work I’m putting into the program is sincere. I’m not just dutifully filling out the forms, which is likely what others might be willing to risk doing just to go through the motions, but I’m in this program as a guest and I value what Niyi has to offer enough to give as much as I can to the process. That means giving a lot of thought to each weekly assignment, but it also means Kevin – who knows me better than anyone else – really pushing me to dig into my psyche and memories and assumptions about myself in order to unearth why I believe the things I believe about myself. At this point in the process we are really starting to look at the beliefs we carry around about ourselves. It’s not fun. I generally consider my childhood as a very happy one and the relationships I have with my family members are not strained or contentious, so being urged to actually get into the less wonderful aspects feels like I’m just looking for trouble. But it has also allowed me to realize that I don’t actually feel anything about many of my memories, which is odd. Memories are, by and large, feelings that carry with them kind of abstracted visuals, smells, or other sensations to aid in recalling the experience. I’ve kind of put everything into jars and labeled them as “good,” but I keep the lids on pretty tight so I don’t actually interact with these keepsakes. But whether I acknowledge them or not, the beliefs I have right now all come from those memories, regardless of how I choose to label or remember them. And Niyi is trying to get us to realize that beliefs are what shape our emotions, which influence our actions and then everything we enjoy or struggle with in our current identities are a result of that pathway.
Okay, so why does this matter? A little explanation by way of digression. Before moving to Thailand I worked as a bartender. Anytime I wore short sleeves I would get comments on my arms and shoulders, sometimes from women asking me what I do because they want the same aesthetic, but usually just from men who were trying to hit on me. Because Muay Thai was meaningful to me, I didn’t want to talk about it with these skeeves because it never felt good to do so. Saying, “it’s from hitting bags all day,” always resulted in this gross, awkward conversation about whether or not I could beat them up or defend myself in a dark alley. It sucked. So I’d lie and just say, “oh, I do yoga.” Either that would end the conversation because it wasn’t interesting enough to the men to continue to harass me, or they’d lay into a predictable line of questioning like, “oh, I’ll bet you’re flexible then,” and because I’m not and I don’t actually do yoga or care anything about it, it didn’t bother me to pretend this was something I did. It’s because Muay Thai is meaningful to me that I didn’t want to sully it with these inane conversations. However, if you answer the question about why your arms look the way they do with the same lie enough times, part of you starts to believe it. I never fooled myself into thinking I did yoga – I’m not crazy – but you can kind of forget that it comes from Muay Thai. I think I’ve done this with where my beliefs come from. I’ve glossed over parts of my young informative years so many times, so often, to others and to myself, that the shorthand of “nah, it was great,” and “I don’t think that was a super emotionally impactful experience for me,” starts to seem true. But because these things did and do have incredible impact of me and my beliefs, because of that, I’ve avoided talking about them or thinking about them by convincing myself and others that they don’t matter at all, or choosing things of lesser meaning to take over the conversation in their stead.
It’s not fun to realize this. It’s really uncomfortable; it is, quite honestly, painful. So in this last week when we’re supposed to be defining our vision, this really exciting and important thing, I’ve been lost. Imagine living in a house that seems haunted because water weeps out of the walls, but if you did a little investigating you’d discover that someone put a wall up in front of some pipes where a sink is located and now it’s leaking. You don’t see the sink because of the wall, but the sink is the cause of the water – it’s not a ghost, it’s a sink. But you have to see past that wall to figure that out – you have to find the actual cause of the water to stop being afraid of it and do anything about it.
The second part to all this is that my vision isn’t all that different from what I’m doing now, which is pretty incredible. But that doesn’t actually mean, or feel like, “I’m almost there.” Because every inch is important at this point. Imagine running a marathon and your legs are beyond burning, they’re like, not even attached to your body anymore, and some guy yells to you from the sidelines, “one more mile, you’re almost there!” He thinks he’s being encouraging. “Only one more mile,” seems like a perfectly motivating thing to yell. But fuck that guy; seriously. When you’re at that point in the race hearing “one more mile” feels like death. You’re not almost there; there is no almost there when you’re in that state of suffering. There’s just nowhere near and finished. Obviously this is a mental condition and not a reality, but thinking about my vision put me in that state. Instead of thinking, “wow, I’m so close, this is really exciting,” I just saw it as being so f***ing far from where I want to be. Those 25 miles behind me don’t put the 1 mile in front of you in perspective; it’s just you’re there or you’re not. And I’m not. So clearly I need a perspective shift because I can look at this objectively and realize how unhelpful it is to be looking at it this way. But I don’t just need to find a more positive way to think about it, I need to actually think those other thoughts by addressing my beliefs. I need to find that sink and deal with the pipes.
Let me be clear, when I say that I have a mile to go I don’t mean that I’m within imminent reach of an ultimate goal. I’m within reach of my 200 fights goal, which is real and important and significant. But it’s not my vision. My vision is for greatness, my vision is to forever change the possibilities within Muay Thai, to change how people think about what is possible. That kind of “finish line” keeps moving, but the reason I say that I’m closer than I thought is that people are already changing how they think, Muay Thai is already changing, and I’m already achieving glimpses of the kind of fighter I want to be. That’s why the dude on the side of the road yelling, “you’re almost there!” is full of shit. Because being on the Hillary Slope of Mount Everest is, technically speaking, almost at the peak. But it’s the hardest part, it’s the part you might die on, it’s the part you lose your mind on and the part where every centimeter you move is the hardest centimeter of your life. And then you have to find your way back down. In Lewis Pugh’s book “21 Yaks and a Speedo,” he tells a story about having to complete this insane course in no more than 24 hours in order to be accepted to the British Special Air Service. It’s like what SEALS have to do – what most people don’t get through. He’s on this mountain in freezing conditions, the threat of hypothermia is imminent and he’s blown his knee out. His comrades leave him and he’s alone in these conditions with two choices: feel sorry for yourself and lay down, or ask yourself, “can you take one step?” If you can, then take it. That’s the kind of movement I’m talking about when I say I’m “closer than I’d thought.” I know I’m close because every movement is this hard. When you’re at base camp, it’s “getting hard,” but it’s not this hard. When you’re on mile 10 of a marathon it’s starting to get hard, but the difficulty of mile 25 let’s you know that you are closer, but definitely not “almost there.” And I’m not running a marathon; I’m running a fucking Ultra.
I was in the deep end of this depression, pursing my lips to lift them above the surface just to sip air, the water was so high at that point. And then Niyi released the interview he did with me for his podcast. Sweet Jesus, what kind of timing is that? I don’t tend to listen to myself in videos or interviews and I actually didn’t intend to listen to this one. It seemed especially difficult because Niyi had invited me onto his podcast as an example of someone who has their shit together and I did not currently have my shit together, so it felt like a terrible moment for this to be coming out. But I also felt I owed it to a man who has been very encouraging and generous with me, so I listened to the podcast while I was working out at the gym in the morning. As far as timing goes, this was pretty much Serendipity. Totally like a time-travel paradox in a sci-fi movie, I was talking to myself in my own ear, reminding myself that I already know how to “unfuck” myself, as it were. I’ve accomplished quite a lot carrying this extra, mental bullshit around with me. Just imagine how much I could do if I just put it down; if I just saw the wall for what it was and got to that sink. There’s this incredible word anamnesis, which means the loss of forgetfulness. Not remembering, but the absence of amnesia. That’s what listening to my podcast with Niyi felt like. The thing about vision is that you have two choices: you have to open your eyes and look to be able to see; or you have to close them and envision the vision you have inside of yourself, the manifestation of your values and beliefs and dreams. The difference is that you have to know which is which, you have to know both what you’re looking for and what you’re looking at, which dictates whether you should have your eyes open or closed. I’m in the process of sorting that out.