Meditation and Muay Thai – The Deeper Connection
I’ve introduced meditation into my practice many times. I’m not consistent with it, so usually it’s trying to get 10 minutes per day, or at least 2 minutes before practice, or maybe 5 minutes during an emotionally tumultuous stretch in training. Basically, I just think that quieting your mind and learning how to breathe can’t ever be a bad idea. But I’ve also never done any formal practice with it. I’m a very fair-weather meditator.
Just after my 200th fight – literally the next morning – I woke up and drove myself over to a meditation center in Pattaya, checking myself in for a 3 day meditation retreat. I had nothing with me other than clothes and a journal. I wasn’t allowed to read anything other than the materials on the vipassana meditation practice I’d be undergoing, provided by the monastery. I barely even meditate on my own without an mp3 track, so this was a serious departure from my very-basic familiarity with meditation practices as they were. I was terrified.
The methods and experiences of that 3 days is another blog post, but it’s important to note that vipassana mediation is not about tranquility. It’s not about quieting the mind through perhaps focused breathing and finding temporary calm. Vipassana seems to think that kind of meditation is, more or less, analgesic bullshit. Instead, you are given an object to meditate on, which in the simplest explanation are the physical body (yours) and the conscious mind (also yours). Then you observe those two objects, non-stop, for 3 days, in an effort to excise the belief of “self” from them. What was most profound in my realizations – and there were many – during that time was that this practice felt exactly applicable and beneficial to Muay Thai. To give a brief example: while sweeping the porch of my hut and observing the body just doing this mechanical task, there was an abrupt and intense moment of having escaped what I call the “tyranny of self.” It didn’t matter how I was sweeping the leaves off the side, there was absolutely no judgement to it, something that I have only witnessed glimmers of in my Muay Thai practice, because I criticize and analyze fucking everything about myself and my performance. All in an effort to improve, of course, I’m not just an asshole. But in that moment sweeping leaves, I realized that it didn’t matter really what my intentions were (improvement or whatever), it only mattered how it felt (you can find my thoughts about this at the 6:50 mark in the 2nd day vlog below). In this meditation practice, you have to learn to feel whether the practice is correct or not. Many, many times, for me, it was not correct. I knew I was practicing wrong and that was okay. I said this to the monk in our second meeting, on my 3rd day, and he jumped with delight at the neutrality with which I told him, “sometimes I know my practice is wrong and that’s okay; but I know.” I’ve experienced this with Muay Thai, when I’m laughing with Karuhat because I keep making the same mistake over and over again, or when I flap my arm like a chicken wing to make fun of myself to Chatchai because the punch isn’t coming out straight. I know it’s wrong, and that’s okay because I know. I can self-correct, even if in that time I never actually do it correctly. But I’ve never been able to accomplish this attitude on purpose. This 3 day meditation practice showed me that I can, indeed, learn how to do this on purpose; and with purpose.
above, my vlog from the 2nd day of the retreat – all 8 vlogs will be published in a coming post
So that’s the short version of that experience and what I’m bringing with it (among many other things) to my Muay. But what’s perhaps more interesting is what my Muay brought to the meditation practice. There were countless times that I’d be reading the literature on theory to help me practice (you are never instructed, it’s all through practice and the monk just makes sure you understand and clears things up as you go), I’d understand something through my Muay Thai practice. I’d think, “oh, that’s just like this aspect of Muay,” or in the more esoteric and theoretical approach to dissociating yourself from your body, I’d be like, “oh yeah, I do that all the time.” That part was easy. And when I would explain to the monk that, because of my Muay, I could easily not see physical pain as being me that’s suffering, he seemed super interested in hearing about that connection and always agreed with the connections I was making. In a way, what meditation does for Muay Thai is something I’ll be elaborating on in the future as I give more informal practice to these tools I’ve learned; but what Muay Thai does for meditation, especially this sort vipassana meditation, as a beginner feels immense.
And with that, I realized something pretty incredible, which I may have secretly known all along: my 5.5 years of training and fighting full-time in Thailand, having just accomplished my 200th fight overall, has all been an extensive meditation. Fight after hard-fought fight, endless training sessions one after another, a single, long meditation practice. One of the more terrifying aspects of the vipassana method in retreat, on its surface, is that it doesn’t stop. At all. You observe the body and mind non-stop, every moment, unless you’re asleep. If you wake up in the night to roll over or change position or use the toilet, you observe in those moments that your mind is awake. It never, ever stops. And that, my friends, is what my process in Thailand has been. People ask me (including my trainers) why I train so much; why don’t I rest or take breaks after fights? Why do I fight so much? Or the more maddening inquiry I’ve had in interview: what else do you do?, as if there needs to be something else that is a focus. Fucking nothing, man. All of it is for this, all of it is for Muay. I like to read, but if I’m reading it’s going to help my Muay. I like to run, but I run to be able to do Muay. I don’t have side hobbies or pet projects; only this. Only Muay. To draw the comparison, if you were to meet a monk in the midst of a multi-year meditation quest, you’d never ask him, “what else do you do?” or “Why do you meditate so much?”
A lot of learning is repetition. Kicking 100 kicks before my first round on pads, teeping the bag 300 times, kneeing 500 times, working on the same shoulder rotation and then hook over and over again for rounds at a time. Without purpose, it’s all very boring. I’ve met countless Thai fighters or ex-fighters here in Thailand who recount their days starting out in the gym, before they were even allowed to hit anything, and a ghost of torture possesses their facial expressions as they recall months at a time of doing nothing other than marching and blocking. As kids, they didn’t have the focus and purpose that they have now, as teachers showing these techniques to someone else. Counting out knees on the bag when you’re already tired or shadowboxing again at the end of training when you just want to change your shirt and go home: those are the parts the non-devoted will drop first. There are days when I’m counting out my 1000 elbows and I hate every one of them. I’m bored, just going through the motions but also aware of how piss-poor a lot of those motions are. This is like trying to sit and meditate but all you can think about is what you need to buy at the store for dinner. It’s a waste of time and it makes you feel shitty. But then there are times when every single elbow has its own fingerprint and feeling the minute difference between how my shoulder hit on this one, versus how it grazed by cheek on that one, is mesmerizing. I can feel the pivot of my feet as I switch, there’s power as the shoulders whip through and I feel a surge of energy with every slice, growing excited and calm at the same instant. I’m not thinking about me, I’m just tracking the Muay. That’s the trance state. That’s the expressive, joy state.
In my history, at the end of a round or nearing the finale of an incredibly close fight I can give up on myself. Through a distorted, negative skew I can just feel like whatever it is I’m trying to do isn’t working and I’m down on myself, feeling frustrated and pissed off. The fight is unearthing my deeper fears about myself. My face doesn’t hide these feelings, ever. It’s a terrible feeling and to go through the motions of the rest of the fight through the final round just feels worse. Like having an argument with someone and having to sit next to them in a car for hours, you just can’t get out of the feeling even when the “action” is over. That’s how I lose fights. I’ve never felt this way for instance in a Kard Chuek fight, which is my favorite kind of fighting, and I never feel that way when I’m playing around in the gym. Instead, it feels like a living puzzle is in front of me, a maze that’s moving and solving me while I’m solving it. These fights feel incredible and whether I’m winning or losing doesn’t even register in my mind because I just feel the fight. I lose myself in it – I’m not fighting, the fight just is. It’s the same as those moments in training, when I feel the movements in their detail – probably distinctly because I’m not feeling me in detail. Getting back to that state is something I’d do a million times. This is meditative practice. And then practicing it under repeated pressure and threats of injury, this is a kind of meditative practice.
The conundrum is that losing myself in Muay is what teaches me about myself, and fighting itself plays a big role in it for me. You know that line from Fight Club, “how much can you possibly know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” It’s that, but what can you know about yourself if you’ve only been in a single fight? What can you know about yourself after 50? 200? 500? In my experience in fighting the way I do, at really a record pace, there are things that I realized after 20 fights that I couldn’t realize after 5. If I had stopped at 5 those discoveries would have been lost. There were depths of understanding and shocks of perception after 100 that couldn’t have occurred after 20. I had to climb that mountain to get that view. But that’s me. There are people who may have similar realizations after 4 fights, I don’t know, but those people aren’t me. Some are super calm and feel a life shift from 2 minutes of meditation in the morning, others go on month-long retreats, and still others devote a life. You can’t force the understandings; you can’t anticipate the realizations. What I know about myself after 200 fights can’t even guess at what I might know after 400. And that “self” keeps changing through the process as it is, so I discover at the same time I’m being formed.
When I got home after the 3 days and unloaded to Kevin about some of my experiences, he showed me this short film about monks in Japan who run a marathon, daily, for 7 years. A marathon every day, for 100 consecutive days, for multiple years. There are incredible numbers involved in that, in total miles, total days, distance covered or laps completed on this mountain where the runs take place. But those numbers just help us lay-folk understand the magnitude of the task. They don’t actually mean anything. Just like 200 fights doesn’t mean what the process of 200 fights means. The running is the method, it’s not the purpose. The number of fights are a method, not a purpose; so when people ask me, “what now, after 200?” I stare blankly at what for me is the absurdity of the question. I get it, I know why people ask, because they’re focusing on the maths involved, not the process itself. But those numbers are just to help illustrate the magnitude in short-hand, for those who might not understand otherwise. The numbers aren’t the awe, man… they’re not even the sum of the footsteps involved. So, when I say that I’ve dabbled in meditation, I mean the kind where I’ve put on an mp3 and try to get all tranquil for a few minutes. Try to quiet the mind in a way that consciously feels like I’ve quieted the mind. But when I actually went on a 3 day meditation retreat, something that terrified me on the surface of the task and struck awe in me in the actualization of the process, I realized that in some important sense I’ve been meditating for more than 5 years. One of the most beautiful things to me about what these Japanese monks do is that they stop just short of the 7 years; they never actually fully accomplish the impossible feat they set out to do, so that the rest of their lives can be attempting to fill that tiny space just a breath away from completion. I nodded along to this part of the film, tears in my eyes, outwardly expressing, “fuuuuuck, that is just like my Muay Thai path,” because after 50 I said 100; after 100 I said 200. And after 200, why not 400? It doesn’t matter. The numbers just help one get a grip on it, to even be able to hold the concept in the head. You can understand a monk running a marathon every day, for 100 consecutive days and for 7 years more easily than you can fathom a monk running that exact same amount but with no measurables… just running, seemingly endlessly. One seems amazing, the other seems crazy. But they’re the same thing.
And the same goes for me, even as I undergo this insane process. The monks aren’t overly concerned about how “well” they’re running. That’s not the point. If they were to get all critical and bent out of shape about their running form, it would take them out of the real process – that’s not meditation. In my 3 days of vipassana practice, if I’d worried about doing the practice wrong, I’d have done none of it right. And that’s what I realize about my 5+ year meditation on Muay Thai so far. Fucking let it go. Those moments when I do, when I’m free and I can see that I’m wrong but it doesn’t matter because just knowing will gradually bring it back to right, those are when I’m most balanced. I tried to meditate for my Muay Thai and discovered that Muay Thai is my meditation. And it never stops. Never.
I invite you to think about your own Muay Thai practice in this way.
If you enjoyed this article, you may like this one on how Muay Thai in Thailand, in terms of masculinity, is positioned between Monkhood and Gangsterism: