This is a part of a series of planned posts sharing my thoughts and experiences as I participate in a special mental training group. Read my week 1 post here.
There’s this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that goes, “…Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong is what is against it.” This quote was one of two that I used as my Senior Quote in High School, God only knows what the hell I thought it meant back then. But it echoes around in my mind every now and again, like a draft through an old house.
In this second week of Niyi Sobo‘s “Lucky 12” group mental training course, we’ve been tasked with figuring out who we really are. That sounds really hippy-dippy to me, but I also realized pretty quickly how difficult it is to answer. There’s an even better quote by motivation guru Tim Grover that goes, “In order to have what you really want, you must first be who you really are.” That one would have been lost on my teenage self, probably tucking it in my pocket as an excuse to my family’s complaints about why I’m so gloomy and sullen all the time. It’s just who I am, man. But I didn’t get anything I really wanted out of it. But these two quotes work in tandem with explaining and expressing what it is that Niyi is asking us to do this week. Who you really are has a degree of whatever is natural to you, something you don’t have to try to be. That is probably – probably – “good,” in that it is after your constitution. Even if a quality that is objectively good is one you have to make an effort toward, it might end up being “bad’ if it’s going against your constitution, your nature, getting in the way of being who you really are.
It’s not easy to locate, at least not at my age, which aspects of my person are really and naturally me and which parts are, at least to some degree, adopted out of the course of being a mannered human being in a civilized society… and one that is foreign to my upbringing to boot. Niyi encourages us to figure it out by listing what comes easily to us and what we have to work harder at. Compulsion and revulsion as two opposites. It’s pretty easy for me to stay quiet and out of the way; it’s pretty hard for me to demand recognition for things that probably deserve recognition. But how “natural” are those? I wasn’t born that way – we’re born as emotional blobs that solve every mystery with the same sobbing, snotty mess of a response until we learn to sort them into piles. It seems valuable to me to decide how I want to be, rather than simply how I was made to be, or how I am “naturally.” In the West we seem very passive to this idea of nature, that our emotions are “natural” responses and so we have to suffer them instead of control them. Here in Thailand, you control that shit at all costs. I don’t want to be subjected to whatever I seem to feel spontaneously, because honestly I don’t think that events necessarily cause emotions in a direct correlation. It’s my opinion that we already feel an emotion, or have a hand of cards that are pretty patterned out and we can play any one of maybe 5 options at any time, but we find a reason for why we feel that emotion and call it a cause, whereas it’s seeking a reason instead of actually being one. Or at least we are susceptible to selecting the wrong cause, probably one we don’t have a lot of control over and so we don’t or can’t “do” anything about it, shucking responsibility.
The week before this one I was listening to Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” on audio. It’s an incredible novel and the narrator just nails it with Alex’s voice. The play with language drives me crazy, in a good way. But there’s this bit when Alex, who is a horrible little shit by nearly any view, decides he wants to undergo this experimental treatment in order to “cure” himself of his violent tendencies so that he can get out of prison earlier than his sentence dictates. Alex doesn’t really want to be “good,” he just wants out of prison because it sucks. Earlier in the book he recognizes his wickedness but deems it his Nature, “nobody ever asks why anyone is good,” he argues. He reckons he does bad because it feels good. So he’s talking to the counselor who is against this experimental treatment, a man of God incidentally, and Alex is saying how it will be so nice to be reformed and be a good boy. “That’s the thing, Alex,” the counselor says, “it might not feel good; it might feel very bad or be painful.” And, as it turns out, it is painful. In the reformation process Alex doesn’t choose goodness, he simply tries to avoid the sickness and rotting physical pain he receives as conditioned, therapeutic responses to violence – any violence – and so he’s just good out of avoidance.
This is very on the nose for what Niyi is working with us on. We basically have two motivators: Pleasure and Pain. We seek out pleasure and we try to avoid pain. So we’re running toward one and away from the other, but a lot of us become passive to the pain bit and just avoid it in an undirected kind of way, hoping it won’t show up. One of my primary pains, I’ve learned, is the horrid feeling of shame or embarrassment. A lot of my most vivid memories are pinned to the wall with tacks of emotional shame or embarrassment. So, I try to avoid those things and can cut some very wide circles in my path to avoid them. What Niyi is trying to get us to understand is that you can use that pain as a motivator; you can put it on the starting line and run away from it in the direction of your choosing, rather than just never going near the spot it might possibly spring up. So, for example, some years ago I was fighting this incredible young woman named Nong Maem. She was absolutely destroying my legs with low kicks, like, I couldn’t bend my knees by round 3 and was pretty sure I was going to be knocked out by them. But the thought of stopping, of submitting to the pain as a “I can’t continue” kind of decision, was so embarrassing that I just kept going. Not out of baddassery, not because I could block out the pain… because actually being forced to stop was less emotionally painful than calling it quits as a conscious decision. I ended up winning that fight because I tired her out and my Stoic non-response to the kicks made her give up on them, thinking they weren’t as effective as they really were. That’s kind of a shiny example, but here’s another one: when I was in 7th Grade we went on a Cross Counry Skiing trip. We stayed in this cabin with a pot-bellied stove at the center of the room as the only heat source. In the wee hours of the morning I woke up cold and went to stoke the fire, but in my inexperience and sleepiness, I rested my left hand on the top of the stove for balance while feeding a log into the opening. I burned my hand really badly, but was too embarrassed to wake anyone up for help – I didn’t even go outside and grab a handful of snow to stop the burning because I was afraid I might wake someone up and betray my mistake – so I just crawled back into my sleeping bag in incredible pain and waited until morning. The burn was so badly blistered that I couldn’t hold my ski pole, but I didn’t want to admit the mistake so I just covered it with a glove and kind of puppet-handed that side the whole day. The burn was discovered later that day when my glove was full of some kind of clear, oozing pus from the burn. My response was in line with my nature, my constitution… was it good?
But the point this week isn’t necessarily to label these things good or bad. It’s to identify where you truly are, if not who you truly are. If you are motivated by fear of embarrassment rather than the far more admirable desire to be a mentor to others, that’s okay. You just need to know who you really are, what truly motivates you, meet yourself where you currently are so that you can go from there. And even that is hard. I guess for me the main bit is that I can acknowledge my faults, but identifying them as temporary and something I can actually change is the difficult part. If I’m doing things that are good because they’re good, that’s okay – but it might not feel good; it might actually be painful. But figuring out where I am allows me to start making those changes. If you’re looking at a map with the notion that you should be 10 miles beyond where you actually got that day, you’re not doing your process any favors by being optimistic about that difference. The optimism is saying, “I can cover those miles tomorrow,” not pretending you already covered them today.
You can read my Mental Training for Muay Thai archive of articles here.