About Fear, About Pain

I attended a regional tournament (Tae Kwon Do) a few days ago, and while there was a lot going on and I met any number of old friends, there are a couple of things I would like to discuss. I post this as a direct response to an incident or two I observed at the competition


"Fear creeps up on you from behind, grabs you and holds you back" - Hirakawa sensei

This is, quite literally, true. Fear comes from the amygdalla, part of the limbic system of the brain which controls emotions, and the limbic system sits in the middle at the back of the brain just above the brain stem.

Fear moves forward from the back of the brain, on both sides of your head, and squeezes your vision. Your sight becomes narrow and extremely focused, until you cannot see anything other than what you fear. Fear drags you backward, away from the thing you fear. Fear makes you run away.

Everybody feels fear; from the lowest kyu rank to the most senior Dan rank. No matter what art you practice, at some point you will feel fear. What matters is how you handle it.

"So how DO you handle fear?"
Quite literally by "facing" it. Turn your face directly toward the object you fear, open your eyes as wide as you possibly can and LOOK at it. Then you take a breath, exhale and MOVE... toward it, at an angle, sideways, any direction except away.

Simple, no? Too easy?
Well, there is a reason why most warrior cultures practice some form of enhanced awareness training. When you open your eyes and look at something you shift activity from the limbic system (primitive brain) to the occipital lobe of your cerebrum and just like that you are back to being a thinking person instead of a reacting animal. Also, "Run away" comes from the limbic system; but a decision toward a deliberate movement comes from the frontal lobe of the cerebrum (you know, that "thinking" thing again).


Pain rises. From the heart to the head, pain rises. In order to catch the pain, ...you have to clamp down at the very instant you feel it. Do you understand? The very instant. Pin it with your teeth" - Roland Deschain, son of Steven

Yes, pain rises. Right along the old spinal cord, pain rises. And where does it end up? At our old friend the limbic system (remember him? old Mr. Primitive Brain?).

Everybody feels pain; from the lowest kyu rank to the most senior Dan rank. Just wait until you jam a steel splinter half an inch underneath your thumbnail (no, seriously - wait as long as you can before doing that. Trust me). What matters is how you handle it.

"So how DO you handle pain?"
Here is a thing most people miss - there is more than one neural pathway to the brain. In fact, there are faster neural pathways than the spinal cord. Have you ever touched something hot and jerked your hand back off the (whatever) before you even felt the pain? Then the pain hits - a slowly swelling feeling that builds up until it can be overwhelming. After many years as a practicing blacksmith I can tell you all about those burning sensations.

The interesting part is that you know you have been burned before the pain gets there. This is because the myo-fascial sheath actually serves as a sensory organ and a neural pathway straight into the brain.

So pain rises, and you can feel it coming. You cannot make it go away, but if you clamp down hard enough and at the right time you can control it. "Bite the bullet", so to speak. Or your mouth guard. How does it work? again, it puts the cerebrum in charge instead of the limbic. A hard exhalation and tensing of the abdominal walls helps as well; just one more deliberate action the cerebrum has to manage before the gibbering monkey "back there" can take charge again. A powerful kiai just when you are hit in combat gets it all done at once, you know.

If you are lucky, you can clamp down on the pain and control it long enough for it to fade away. If you practice, you can control it long enough to keep on fighting.