Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Monotony of Training

Below are excerpts from another excellent post at Must Triumph. The full post may be read here.

Philosophers should fight and fighters should read philosophy. Otherwise, a fragile society awaits.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
BJ "The Prodigy" Penn will go down as one of the best in mixed martial arts history. Some of us, however, would like to believe that "The Prodigy" could have gone down as the best ever—possibly in all of combat sports. Yet, the fans have come to know two BJ Penns: the motivated Penn, who is a two-division champion, and the unmotivated Penn, who loses or has draws with lesser-skilled fighters. There have also been the long time-offs taken during Penn's prime, to find his motivation. From the UFC film crew, his former teammates, to the president of the UFC, Dana White himself, have all witnessed Penn's lackluster training. He is a prodigy, and sometimes that means only wanting to do things that come easy, and not the hard things that feel like work.

The Human Condition of Inactivity

Though Penn is a natural fighter, he's human like the rest of us. And like the rest of us, he's susceptible to the same mental trappings. He's a product of the same messaging many of us grew up with in the 80s and 90s; that motivation is the answer to everything, and everything must be fun. (The media needs you to believe this so you feel a need and urgency to keep buying crap. If you were content, you would be a terrible consumer.)
We're told that whatever it is we want to accomplish, we should feel like doing it. And if we don't, we should somehow motivate ourselves to feel like otherwise. Journalist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking Oliver Burkeman said this in a talk:

“You do not have to feel like doing something to do it. Such a liberating insight. All those motivational messages ... it seems like they will help you get things done but they actually erect this additional barrier. They say now, not only do you have to do the challenging-important thing, but you got to feel like doing it as well. And I think that’s a lot bigger and unnecessary demand.”
If we take the typical advice for getting things done, it often makes things worse. Doing it and also feeling like doing it; it's a double-whammy of stress. Yes, it may work for some people but the effects are usually temporary. Motivation isn't the same thing as endurance, it's not meant to last. Which is the point of self-help, you must keep returning to consume more motivation because you can't generate the will yourself.

The Monotony of Being a Champion

For most of his professional career, BJ Penn was his own head coach. He had long avoided training with the best camps. After another losing streak followed by another brief retirement, Penn took time to reassess. Like many of his fans, Penn knew he never lived up to the fighter he could have become. Penn sought out Greg Jackson, whom many consider to be the best coach in mixed martial arts, and undeniably one of its best minds.
It was with Jackson when Penn recognized the stumbling block that had been plaguing his career—his misguided perception of boredom. With every loss, Penn made excuses: he accused fighters of cheating, he came up with conspiracy theories, he blamed the athletic commission. Yet, there was no secret conspiracy out there holding him back. (The fans and the UFC itself wanted him to win.) His saboteur was himself, and his weakness wasn't physical, it was mental. He could face extraordinary obstacles without fear; what he couldn't face, what he couldn't defeat were simple and ordinary daily challenges. Penn said this in an interview:

“The talks Greg and I have together, he tells me, ‘BJ, if you’re going to go out there and do something that no one else has done before and win these three belts you’re going to have to put in [the work]. You’re going to be sitting in the apartment bored, looking at the ceiling and you’re going to have to go through all these things, go through all these emotions.

It’s starting to happen already. I’m getting further into camp, and I’m starting to see the monotony and repetitiveness take place. That’s why I stepped out of the sport before. All that stuff, it all plays, and all those mental mind games. It’s all how you handle it. Being tough mentally. At the end of the day, it’s a mental game, and you’re only as good as you think you are.”
As much natural ability BJ Penn had, he had a mental weakness: endurance. This had not only shown itself physically during his matches, by him gassing out, but also in his inability to maintain his training. He was on-and-off with fighting, staying in shape, and his martial arts progress. Penn could not endure. That's the irony many of his fans could not understand; he could fight men twice his size, people that would make us cower, yet he could not overcome minor things like boredom and emotions. Things most of us overcome regularly. Sometimes, true mental strength is pedestrian. Many fighters fight not because it is a challenge to them, it's often the opposite, they get a "high" off of it. (It is the constant chase for that "high" that is dangerous and self-destructive.) Now, being able to do those things that aren't exciting and fun, that takes courage and grit. But in our society, we are not likely to admire the trash collector or the public high school teacher (but we should).

Bertrand Russell on Fruitful Monotony

This is a life lesson mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) discusses at some length in The Conquest of Happiness. In it, Russell writes:

“The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements, such as shows and good things to eat, and they do not realise the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.”
A life lesson that many of us never learn, but for those that do, a world of accomplishments and happiness awaits. I know it sounds counterintuitive but embracing boredom is how you rob boredom of its powers. Fleeing from boredom only allows it to dominate you. Think for a second what you could achieve if boredom was never an issue? Russell calls the productive embracing of boredom "fruitful monotony." In the realm of martial arts, it's called discipline. It's how people launch companies, build Apple and Facebook, go through a training camp, get their PhDs, and how hard-working fighters defeat prodigies. It's the mistake young lovers make; they think love only means excitement, but love is also the fruitful and tender monotony of spending the rest of your life with another person who wants to do the same with you.
Russell writes:

“I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony. ... A boy or young man who has some serious constructive purpose will endure voluntarily a great deal of boredom if he finds that it is necessary by the way. But constructive purposes do not easily form themselves in a boy’s mind if he is living a life of distractions and dissipations, for in that case his thoughts will always be directed towards the next pleasure rather than towards the distant achievement.”
Physical toughness is not the same as mental toughness, though one should be fit in both arenas. Philosophy for the body and martial arts for the mind; philosophers should fight and fighters should read philosophy. Otherwise, a fragile society awaits.

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