The Dragon That Bleats

“Mind sharpens body, body sharpens mind.” ~A.F.

Agony. It was liquid fire, breathing acid, self induced, whole body agony. The lights were dimming, limbs were melting, brain was possessed by a maniacal insistence. “Just keep running,” was the mantra branded on its fleshy lobes. There are other words to describe what I felt. But ‘agony’ does well, sounds well, suffices. For that is what it was.

I had felt it many times, and I’ll feel it many times again. I have no fear of it, no anxiety facing it, and no regrets bearing it because I know that agony is fleeting. I’ve bridled that dragon.

The specific agony I’m referring to arises in the final moments of an intense workout where consciousness melts away. Awareness dissolves until all that remains is that manufactured imperative to continue. This form of agony is tapped into by denying the body relief. It is a mental region that requires the strength of mind to resist every excuse, every compulsion, and every primal instinct that begs and screams STOP!

I’m a regular in Club Agony.

I have a red leather booth there, reserved for me, cordoned off with velvet rope. A well dressed maitre des wearing a pinstriped suit with a crimson bow tie, sporting a carefully waxed mustache, and who calls me sir, leads me to that booth. My booth. I’m a regular at Club Agony. And no amount of its vicious flavor will ever stifle my ardent devotion. Because the fruits of my suffering, the credits that balance this wicked transaction, are always paid in due course. The club owner never defaults on his debts.

But what is pain really?

Is it suffering? Is it a source of torment? Something to be repulsed by, or averse to? Something evil or sinful? Something a perfect world would lack? No. Look at it more objectively, without negative connotation. See it detached from anguish or suffering. It is a mechanism of our bodies that indicates stress, and possible damage. If there is no damage, and no threat of it, then pain is only a mental barrier. Pain is merely a response to stimuli like that of sensation or discomfort, only of greater intensity.

So are we doomed to forever cower at the mercy of the pain we experience?

That all depends on the choice you make.

Pain is inevitable. Whether you call it agony, discomfort, irritation, or anguish, everyone will experience unpleasant sensations of varying intensities throughout their lives.

The choice each of us must make, or have it made for us by our habits, is whether the boundaries of each sensation, discomfort, and pain are alterable. In other words, ask yourself if what you consider painful now will always be, or if you can augment your pain threshold. If you believe you cannot change what is painful then you’re right, and you’ll set for yourself a wall that will never budge.

But if you believe you can, if you believe as I believe, that you have the ability to strengthen your capacity to endure pain, then you’re also right. And you’ll be free to push your limits as you want. When it comes to what occurs in the mind, much of our limitations are derived from our underlying beliefs.

If you had the chance, would you lead a painless life?

Consider that you possessed the means to live a life completely insulated from all discomfort and all pain. Perhaps you live a pampered life dominated by comfort and ease. The hobbies you choose are safe, your pursuits innocuous. You have access to pills and salves to remedy any bodily ache. You have the money to transport yourself in convenience and isolation, so you are never exposed to disturbance or intrusion. You’re never caught in the rain. You’re never stranded on the side of the road. You never have to spend the night camping out in a stranger’s peach orchard. In other words, your senses are never offended.

Allaying judgment on such a life, one question still persists: How thin the breadth of experience is contained in this life? How many pleasures barred from those who circumvent the requisite struggle to attain them? Is it worth discarding those pleasures to escape the occasional painful moment?

Fortunately most of us cannot muster the painless life. Unfortunately most of us live lives still too detached from pain and discomfort. From lack of it we grow fat and inactive, lethargic and bored, dull and numb. And one effective way to combat this is by fostering an inclination towards pain. We must reevaluate pain into something not to be feared, or as a burden to be hefted, but as a metric of resiliency. Pain is not inherently bad. Pain is a message from your body telling you that you’ve stepped out of normal conditions. And when you change your reaction to that message, you become powerful.

Once you interact with pain consciously, you can allay it. Instead of clenching up against a banged shin or stubbed toe, relax into it. Let the pain in. Without delirious focus on it, that pain will shrivel rapidly. It’s like standing up to a snarling beast and having it scurry away. Oftentimes pain’s bark is much worse than its bite.

But why bother? What value is there in augmenting your tolerance for something that you naturally avoid in the first place?

In short, because it strengthens you in far reaching, unforeseeable, and innumerable ways.

Physically you can push yourself further, harder, and reach higher plateaus. You’ll become stronger, more capable, and thus more confident. You’ll be able to accomplish greater things, and reap the sweeter self esteem they provide. As you become physically stronger you’ll see the world differently, so the world will see you differently.

Life will get easier from two fronts. Mentally, you’ll care less about the bumps and bruises. And physically you’ll surmount the day to day obstacles of life with greater ease.

Generally you’ll be more comfortable with life. The pangs and disturbances that might have once derailed your focus and your thoughts, and thus your emotions, will vanish. You’ll rid yourself of the locusts of the mind; the petty complaints about minor aches and soreness. You might even relish the throb of a stubbed toe just for its capacity to bring you into the moment.

As your pain threshold increases, your dependence on amenities will diminish. You’ll be capable of finding rest on jagged stone, comfort in crowded trains, and peace in uncertainty. Undistracted and undeterred by minute irritations, you’ll no longer need the salves that cure them. Your independence of these things will foster a hitherto unknown freedom. With it, the range of experiences you’ll be able to participate in will grow, and the lessons, values, memories, and happiness that those experiences will bestow will be unlocked.

Your comfort zone will expand. Your fear will shrink.

These are a small fraction of the benefits I’ve reaped since holding a different paradigm regarding pain. But ultimately the paradigm I’m outlining is a trunk, and the beauty of a tree is not contained in its trunk. The beauty of a tree is in its sweeping boughs and sprawling branches, the qualities and traits I’ve learned since adopting this perspective. The beauty is in the vivid greenness of the leaves, the experiences and memories created. How dull trees would be if they were merely pillars of brown?

As in all these posts, I can only offer you the seed of this idea. I can only describe the magnificent canopies that exist in my mind. The tree that grows in yours, should you accept these ideas, is entirely determined by the environment of your life.

So how do you view pain? Challenge yourself, question yourself, be skeptical of your own beliefs on pain, no matter how deeply seated they may be. What if all it took to dispel pain was to change your thoughts about it?

So go run through pain. Go swim to exhaustion. Go push your body until it begs your mind to stop, then strengthen your mind enough to say NO. You won’t regret it.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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