No Strain, No Grain

Tony Annesi

My mother used to feed me Cream of Wheat for breakfast in the winter. With a little salt and butter on it, it tasted almost like dessert to me except for the lumps. Before the advent of instant hot cereals, very fastidious mothers might put their newly heated cereal through a strainer to eliminate the offending blobs. Twenty five years later in an errant locker-room conversation with a friend, the subject of breakfast as a kid came up and I reminisced about the comforting, secure feeling that having a mother-prepared warm and lump-free breakfast provided. I guess, my friend responded flexing his ample biceps, "It was a case of no strain, no grain!" I moaned with the pain of pun-ishment, but now, more than a decade after that quip, I am recalling not only his play-on-words, but also the tried and sometimes true statement on which it was based, and the feeling of contentment provided by Mom and Cream of Wheat.

I worked hard in all the sports I participated in, even to the point of macho self-abuse. For football, I got out to the field early to work on the blocking sled with a buddy before the coach arrived. For gymnastics, I practiced on the town park’s equipment during the weekends until my calluses tore and my stomach muscles simply could not support another horizontal-bar kip-up. In judo class, I drilled my uchikomi (fit-ins) as if each were a real throw and ended up nearly fainting on two separate occasions due to dehydration and fatigue. "No pain," all my coaches had said, "no gain." When I sprained the collateral ligaments of my knee in flag-football, I still showed up on crutches to teach my college judo classes.

In karate, when the repetition of basics got boring or when the constant blocking drills inflated my forearms with purple splotches, I gritted my teeth and fought through the pain. And, in aikido, when I barely could get up from a fall in the 95 degree temperature, I imbibed a couple of glasses of water and returned to the mat. No pain, no gain.

Teruo Chinen of Okinawan Goju-ryu, during one of his clinics, interpreted Onegai shimas’!, a phrase which is recited by students in many traditional dojo at the start of training, as "Teacher, please punish me." The phrase actually is translated more accurately as "Please give down to me," and by implication, "Please teach me," but Chinen Sensei believes in hard training to develop strong spirits. Please understand that he is no sadist and students are never truly "punished" in the Western understanding of the word, but rather challenged. My own karate instructor told me that which his instructor had told him regarding hard training: Students can learn karate without even breaking a sweat...but they feel cheated. Sense no pain, no sense of gain.

Martial arts are not unlike other physical endeavors in which, at least to a reasonable extent, no pain means no gain. But martial arts also hold out for their adherents the promise of spiritual development and the calmness and security that implies. In this, they differ from sports. The fighting arts become training, so the adage goes, in not having to fight, and eventually mastering oneself so as to achieve Enlightenment, Nirvana, Higher Consciousness or what have you. Pain produces gain which somehow magically gets converted to the warm, fuzzy feeling associated with Mommy and strained grain for breakfast.

I would like to reconsider the concept of No Pain, No Gain and relate it to the process of Life Mastery through the martial arts.

There are dojo, dojang, kwoon and studios which consider the martial arts a means toward exercising the physical virtues of the ideal warrior. Being able to take it and being able to dish it out is the highest achievement of their students. If you "take care of a injury" you are being a coward, and if you don’t put your body on the line every night, you will never achieve anything in life. Although I do not consider that attitude the essence of traditional budo philosophy, I must admit that it is prevalent in many traditional Japanese dojo as well. In all these schools, physical pain is a rite of passage, a contemporary version of The Red Badge of Courage. The problem is not that these values are invalid, but that they are too exclusive and often too extreme. Are there no other values one can gain by martial arts training? And must one ruin one’s body to gain the status of a "warrior"? What kind of a warrior cannot pass his/her induction physical due to recurring injuries? No Pain, No Gain works physically--up to a point...

The concept of using effort (rather than pain) as a rite of passage is, in my opinion more valuable. This is not to say that effort will not be accompanied by pain nor that failed efforts will not result in mental anguish. But pain is incidental to the No Effort, No Accomplishment philosophy, not its main emphasis. To me, the first step in understanding how No Pain, No Gain can become a pathway to Life Mastery is to be able to relegate pain to effort.

Now ask yourself, after the effort (with or without pain), what have you gained? And, are you willing to pay the price? Effort pays for whatever it is you are trying to gain. In the martial arts, it may be a trophy (self-worth), self-defense skill (control over one’s environment, security), rank (self-evaluation through the evaluation of others) or any number of similar goals. But the Gain always has to do directly or indirectly with self-improvement. Some of the Gains may be relatively shallow, but you may need them in your personal development at that stage of your life. Ultimately, however, if one gets caught up in shallow achievement, rather than seeing it as merely a step on a longer pathway, the Effort may not have been worth the Gain. So, the second step toward understanding how No Pain (Effort), No Gain (Accomplishment) can become a means to mastery is to understand one’s motives as stepping stones to a larger even more personal goal.

Often when your objectives are attained, you are not happy for long. And, naturally, when your objectives are not attained you are not happy at all. Contentment seems impossibly illusive. You have worked so hard for so long to get where you are now. Perhaps you have spent 10, 20, even 30 years as a budoka and have devoted a good part of your waking hours (and many of your dreams) to achievement in your martial art. You look back to see that you have in fact made great strides along your pathway, but you haven't gotten as far as you had hoped. The Effort has produced Frustration, Disenchantment, or even Despondency. You do not necessarily like what you have gained. This however is the next step and the most important one for those using the martial arts as a pathway toward higher self-development. True spiritual growth comes out of hardship: what doesn’t kill you makes your stronger. In other words, you learn through experience that Pain can be converted to Growth. No Pain, No Growth.

Pain is, at first, a price we pay, but later it is just a point of view which we can choose not to take. It is not that nothing painful ever will befall us--indeed that which we normally call painful is as prevalent for masters as it is for novices. It is that an event termed "painful" by others is seen as "gainful" to masters. It is just a test on the pathway toward security and contentment. Happiness is converting pain into effort, effort into gain, and the converting the whole process, victorious or disastrous, into growth. Effort always produces a result, so that any martial artist is always efficacious! The master however takes joy that he is able to produce a result, and that he evaluates a result, no matter what it is, as a gift for his own further development. He may prefer to have a loving mother serve smooth porridge, but he is just as happy with lumpy Cream of Wheat.

For many, many years I considered settling for the lumpy cereal a lowering of standards. Why should I treat myself that way? I am worth more than that! I demand my Cream of Wheat lumpless! That was a fine and necessary stage in my development which I believe everyone should go through. Not settling for less is an expression of self-worth and healthy pride. A positive self-image is so important that hundreds of books have been written on its value in just the last ten years, as if the previous decade discovered the concept for the first time! "Never settle for less!" the saying goes. But if you are used to having strained grain served buttered and salted by Momma-san and one day Momma-san passes away, you must learn to settle for less. You may be worth having a loving mother to make you feel secure of a winter’s morning, but if your worth is based on that, her passing makes you value yourself less.

You do not have to settle for lumpy cereal if you can provide your own fiber in a flatter form, but if you are distressed and disheartened by not having what "makes" you feel good about yourself, perhaps you have not really mastered feeling good about yourself. Your tools are not Mommy or milled meal, but your mind.

If I teach a defense to a punch in my karate or aiki class, there are inevitably those students who learn the technique with a fervor bordering on obsession and as a result feel confident that they now can defend against that specific attack. When they change partners however and the new attacker throws his or her blow at a slightly different angle or speed or intensity, those obsessed with the ultimate punch-defense find their egos sorely tested and their security threatened. It is not that the defense does not work, not that they had learned the technique poorly; it is that they had fallen in love with the waza and could see nothing else. No variation, adjustment, or "settling for less" had entered their mind. Instead of appreciating the technique as a tool at their disposal, they used the tool in a manner which nearly disposed of them. It is desirable to be committed to mastering the tools of one's art, or to mastering one’s art so that one may develop into a better person; it is not desirable to be obsessed by it. Obsession (according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary) is"a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling." Steps on the pathway toward Life Mastery should be a preference, not a disturbing preoccupation.

The master might prefer the same feeling which that lumpless and lovingly ladled Cream of Wheat gave you or I as children, but if an occasional blob appears or if it is not served so tenderly, the master still appreciates it and is not diminished or disturbed by it. He appreciates the Grain without the Strain.

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