There’s a great line in Conan The Destroyer—wait, here me out–after Conan gets done with an intense battle. A scantily clad princess is rubbing a wonderful ointment into some gouges on his biceps.
“Nothing hurts you, does it?” she asks.
“Only pain,” says Conan, before going all bottoms up with a gourdful of liquor.
No kidding. Are you from North “Duh-Kota?” as my dad has often asked me. I tell you that pain hurts not to be obvious, but so that we will each give ourselves permission to feel pain. To hurt. Life is hard and pain hurts.
Now…how to deal with it?
Easy! Or, relatively easy. The answer is: harden up. Embrace it. You’re not made of glass and you’re not going to shatter every time something hurts. But it would still be nice if things hurt less. Well, they can. Harden up. Time for some muscle training. And mind training.
I have always been fascinated by the idea that the mind can harden and toughen in the same way that the body can. Fascinated and a bit desperate at the thought might be a better way to say it. My physical pain has never been nearly as hard to cope with as the mental pain it causes—or that I let it cause.
Each week I have between three and five kettlebell workouts. At least one of the workouts begins with a session in which the goal is building “work capacity.” This simply means trying to increase the amount of time I can do a lift for. Reps don’t matter. The only numbers that matter are those on the clock.
This is very deliberate. It is much harder to say “I will do this for eight minutes” than to say, “I only have to get through 10 reps.”
For instance, I might do kettlebell snatches with a very light weight, but I will do them for seven minutes without putting the kettlebell down. Reps don’t matter. I can switch hands if I want. If I only get 10 snatches, that’s acceptable, as long as I didn’t put the kettlebell down.
The semi-fancy name for supporting a weight is “time under tension.” As long as you are holding a weight, a suitcase, a kettlebell, a baby, or a giant doughnut, that is time under tension.
Time under mental tension
Physical capacity work is one of the great loves of my life. Mental capacity work is one of my most sinister demons. I’ve told you that the urge that causes me to have tics is similar to the urge when you need to sneeze. Well, here’s what I’m suggesting: pretend that the ten seconds when you need to sneeze are time under mental tension.
You could hold it in. It would eventually go away. Would that toughen you up? I’m not sure about that. Regardless, the stakes aren’t high when all that hangs in the balance is a sneeze.
Two weeks ago I was 30 minutes into my shift when my tics started misbehaving. It was noticeable enough that the patrons in the library were looking in my direction. I could have taken a break. I could have explained to the patrons what was going on–that’s what I usually do. I could have done any number of things, but I decided to try something new.
“No,” I said to myself. “Just no. Not today.” Two hours earlier I had been in the gym. I pushed 140 lbs worth of kettlebells over my head 60 times in 30 minutes, and then I did a bunch of other hard stuff. It took all the focus and determination I had.
Why could I force through something physically but not mentally?
I made a decision: I will not have tics for the next 30 minutes.
It was really, really hard, but I made it through the 30 minutes without so much as a superfluous eye blink. Usually when I try to hold things in, I pay for it later. There’s a quota of craziness to meet, after all.
But I was okay for the rest of the day. The next day I bumped that 30 minutes up to 35. I was okay for the rest of the day. I’m curing myself! I thought. I’m such a handsome genius!
The next day I had a bit of a problem in the airport. I paid for my experiment. I paid for it and then some.
Silver lining trumps blood and tears
Yesterday I tried it again. I made it to 40 minutes. And you know what gets me off right now? It’s not the two days of physical and mental misery that my meltdown in the airport caused. All I can think about, with a big fat smile is:
I just went 40 minutes without having tics. It may have been a year since I’ve had one minute of complete stillness. I’ll probably smash my face in tomorrow as punishment, and it will hurt…but so what?
I’m convinced the theory is sound. Time under tension applies to our bodies and our minds. Subject them to tests and they will grow. Yes! You can do this as well. This post is not supposed to be about me.
If you are human, you have negative thought patterns. It is very likely that there are uncomfortable realities that you need to spend time thinking about that you choose not to. There are things you can’t dodge forever. The sooner you put your mind under tension, the sooner you can think about other things. The quicker you increase your work capacity and tolerance for mental discomfort, the sooner your mind will truly be your mind.
Confront the thing that should be confronted. Tomorrow, add time. Soon, you will no longer have to increase your mental work capacity because the problem will be solved.
Will it be comfortable? Certainly not in my case, and most likely not in yours. It will hurt. Pain always does.
But there are worse things than mental pain. Like having to flex for an entire 90 minute movie.
You belong to you. Act like it.
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