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Friday, February 1, 2019

Two Approaches to Mental Strength

Like most martial artists, I've been punched.  Aside from a few that were particularly hard or unusual in some way, most of those punches were pretty forgettable.

But the other day, I got a punch I will never forget.  The kind that has you standing in line at a grocery store two days later pretending everything is okay when it Definitely. Is. Not.  This punch came in the form of four words:

"I canceled my chemo."

My instructor proceeded to tell me about how he had to work outside in the cold this week, and if he had his chemo treatment, it would be too painful for him to complete the work.  He explained that he couldn't take the time off because he needed the money, so he canceled his chemo appointment instead.

So that was my punch, and I'd trade it for a dislocated jaw any day.  But as hard as this is for me, it is obviously much worse for him and his family.  I have the mental strength of a martial artist.  I can be everyone's rock, right?

How To Maximize Mental Strength

When we talk about physical strength, having a strong body can mean being able to lift heavy things, excelling in physical workouts, being resilient to illness, and so forth.  Mental strength also encompasses a lot.  It's the discipline to crank out those last few reps, the motivation to force yourself to go to class even if you'd rather stay home and relax, and the focus to keep your mind from wandering when you need all your attention in order to get a job done.

Just like a serious physical ailment can destroy all aspects of your body's strength, hardship can kick your discipline, focus, motivation, patience, and so forth, to the curb.

The good news is, mental strength trainable.  The even better news is, martial arts can be a great vehicle for training mental strength.

So what do you do when you need all your mental strength?

1.  Reframe your stressor as a challenge. 

If you never challenge yourself, you'll never improve.  If you're never failing, you're not challenging yourself.  So as insurmountable as your stressor may be, in some ways it's not so different from the heavy weight at the gym, or your nemesis sparring partner, or whatever other physical challenge you're trying to overcome.  Just like those physical challenges, if you've chosen a goal that is so easy that you have no chance of failing, you have chosen a goal that will not help you improve.  And just like practicing martial arts will make you better at martial arts, practicing with your problem will make you better at dealing with your problem.

Once you understand that whatever situation is giving you a beating is ultimately not that different from your regular training, you can approach it with a healthier mindset.

2.  Let the little stuff go.

There's science behind it, but it's also just common sense that when you are enduring hardship, it makes no sense to make it even harder on yourself.  If you put a lot of your mental energy into the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic, the actual sinking ship is going to be that much harder to face because you're mentally fatigued.  Focus on what's most important, and cut yourself some slack if you're not perfect in other areas.

3.  Train your mental strength.

Hopefully you started this one before you need it.  Just like your physical conditioning, it takes time.  Very hard training that makes you dig deep to find the strength to finish will condition your ability to finish things you don't want to finish.  Ignoring distractions in your training space will condition your ability to control your focus and direct your mind back to the task at hand when it wanders.  Focusing on your next technique when some corner of your brain is telling you to feel embarrassment or pride about the last one will bolster your ability to spend your effort on things that can actually affect the outcome of your struggle.

4.  Manage your energy levels.

As trite as it sounds to include "self care" in a list like this, it's a cliche because it's true.  Taking care of your health and getting quality sleep will absolutely help your mental strength.  Beyond that, whatever boosts your energy is as individual as you are.  Spending time with friends, cuddling pets and getting lost in a book, splurging on a snooty dinner out, watching a movie, getting to class... all of that has a cost in time, money, or both.  But if it gives you the energy to jump back into the fight with gusto, it also has a lot of value.

So that's my toolbox.  Here's how I've used it lately.

I put on the biggest lie of a smile for the students who come to train.  No one is going to get the class they need if I'm not strong for them.  Focus now, despair later.  Make jokes about stances so that everyone is laughing while they're pushing themselves to improve.  Don't give the elephant in the room even an inch.  Make sure no one uses a particular 6-letter C-word.  Model excellent mental strength for students who still need to learn those skills.

Everything is just fine.  Actually, that's an old picture, so everything really is fine.

Off the training floor, I do everything I can to help out financially and logistically.  Try to give him a little more freedom and means to focus on his health.  That requires a measure of mental strength, too.

But that's me.  I'm not at the center of this turdnado, and the person who IS at the center has trained a lot longer than I have.  I wondered, does a lifetime of martial arts make you strong enough to face this?  So I asked.

Here's what he had to say.

1.  Stay positive.

"When someone hears you have cancer, they always say, 'I'm sorry.'  But I don't feel sorry for myself."  He then proceeded to talk about some good things that have come out of his experience with cancer, like learning from the experience, being more connected to the people around him, and increased spirituality.  He emphasized how important it was to stay positive in order to have the mental strength to keep fighting.

2.  Maintain self control.

It's easy to imagine what he's going through and think that he must be stressed out, irritable, in constant physical discomfort, and on the edge of despair.  But interacting with him, you'd guess none of those things.  He credits his martial arts experience with giving him the skill of calming himself and maintaining that calmness, for the mental strength it has instilled in him, and the physical strength as well.  Because, as he put it, "You can only build so much of your mind without considering your body."  I'm sure no doctor would disagree.

3.  Keep learning.

He specifically mentioned "drawing strength" from learning from the experience.  He talked about how the experience has made him more aware of the connection between his mind and body.  He says he has also learned to open up as a human being, and is now more conscious of his own feelings and the feelings of others.

4.  Keep being you.

Actually what he said was, "Always remember to keep giving."  But he has a GoFundMe, and I was afraid it would sound really self-serving, so I changed it.  But "always keep giving" is such a pure reflection of who he is as a person.  This is someone whose generosity has exasperated business partners by giving away so much for free to people who couldn't pay.  Someone who has given so selflessly to his students and to the community that there's not enough left for himself, a martial arts retelling of It's A Wonderful Life.  This is someone who swooped in like the mentor figure in some saccharine after-school special and helped me regain my footing after my own really awful story.

And I'm one of his less dramatic stories.  I know about ex-felons who turned their lives around because of his help.  I know of at-risk kids who he put on the right course.  I know of kids who were bullied to the verge of suicide who pulled through in part because of him.  His life has been a series of Quantum Leap episodes, minus the time travel.  How many of us see our lives that way?  If we could travel to the past, we say we'd try to make small changes that had heroic consequences for the present.  But who tries to make small changes in the present with heroic consequences for the future?

I've lost track of how many times I've heard him say some variation of, "I didn't train for X years so I could keep it, I learned it so I could give it away."  That variable X has increased over the time that I've known him, and is now up to 47 years as he said it to me again today.

Friends, I don't ask for much.  Sure, I appreciate the likes, shares and subscribes, but I don't have a Patreon, a paid content section, DVDs or books or supplements or snake oil for sale.  Even my seminars I do without a paycheck.  But right now I'm asking.  If you can help, please do.  https://www.gofundme.com/ken-bent-cancer-fund