I earned my black belt in Shaolin-Do the year I turned 21. I was drawn more to the Tai Chi and meditative aspects of the practice than the actual sparring, but my years learning this martial art taught me much about myself and the sort of life I want to lead.
Master Tim Nance was trained by Lexington-legend Sin The, who trained under Chang Ming, a Shaolin Grandmaster who began his studies at the Chinese temple as a young boy.
I will never forget the amazing stories Master Nance told about the Shaolin monks. These Chinese monks are renowned for their kung fu fighting skills. Lore tells that these Buddhists trained in secret by disguising their training program as chores. They carried water, chopped wood, and hammered nails as a way to prepare to defend their land and temples should it become necessary. Across many decades, these Buddhist monks gained followers to their belief system and had thousands of acres of prime property that more than one Chinese and Russian monarch coveted.
But these were not ordinary chores. The monks’ “training” was vigorous and required almost impossible amounts of mental and physical stamina and prowess. They ran up and down the temple steps on all fours for hours at a time. They hammered nails with their fists instead of hammers. Appearing to be planting seeds in the garden, they held crouches and lunge stances for a full 24-hour cycle. These exercises were always done with complete focus and were supported by a special breathing exercise used to increase Qi, or life force.
My favorite story Master Nance told illuminated the monks’ unique ability to process pain. In a scientific attempt to understand the incredible stamina of these monks, a group of monks and a group of lay people were asked to sit in a chair and don an arm cuff (think about a blood pressure cuff and you’re very close), which would incrementally get tighter to the point of pain.
When the monks wore the cuff, they stayed calm and quiet throughout the experiment. They had trained their nervous systems to be present with unpleasant or intense sensations. And when the study was over, they did not assign a negative memory to the experience. They just moved on.
But when the non-monks donned the cuff, they reacted as soon as they saw the cuff, well before it was placed on their arm. Their eyes dilated, their heart rate elevated, and they started to sweat. A few people went into full-blown panic attacks. Very few of those people got to the full tightness of the cuff.
Science calls this anticipatory anxiety, or the dread we feel leading up to an experience. It is a normal limbic response to perceived future threats. That response has been with humans since the dawn of time. But defaulting to our lizard brain prevents us from leading a present and purposeful life. If we don’t practice dealing with uncomfortable thoughts and sensations, we experience pain and sadness twice. We feel the pain or sadness physically as uncomfortable sensations in the body. But we make it so much harder on ourselves by projecting pain and sadness emotionally at the same time.
Why do we expect that the other shoe will drop precisely on our throats? Why do we assume that we will be completely unprepared for the challenges the future will bring? Anticipatory anxiety is a false dichotomy, causing us to expect only the negative aspects about an upcoming experience; why shouldn’t we focus on the positive aspects as well?
Those monks train their physical bodies to be sure. But more importantly, they train their minds into submission, making friends with the screaming dinosaur in their brain that swears it’s all going to end badly. When we remember that only about 80% of the dire future scenarios we imagine actually happen, it helps us see a false alarm for what it is.
But this has to be practiced preventively. The monks practiced doing one thing at a time with complete focus and a connection to their breath. Over time, this mindful superpower allowed them to be perfectly present to whatever came up without ascribing the labels of “positive” or “negative” to that moment.
Mindfulness is a superpower. I know I write about it so much that to many of my readers, it might be nothing more than white noise. But I believe it’s the most important tool humans have in their lives. Why wouldn’t we hone that skill?