Self-Mastery and Physical Pain

In Xenophon’s book on Socrates, he describes the great man like this:

In the first place, apart from what I have said, in control of his own passions and appetites he was the strictest of men; further, in endurance of cold and heat and every kind of toil he was most resolute; and besides, his needs were so schooled to moderation that having very little he was yet very content.[1]

The Greek word for “control” can also be translated as “mastery.” I prefer this translation, but I used the work on another in the quote above because translating classical Greek takes me longer than I care to spend. But back to the main idea. At a young age, I wished to learn the virtue of self-mastery or enkrateia. Here is my experience with this virtue in relationship to physical and emotional distress:

When I was a kid, I often experienced extreme physical pain.

Pain. The horrible response to our environment that we all fear. I want to tell you about it, but not for its own sake. 

Instead, I hope you’ll learn something, but it’s no good telling people of the uses or the solutions to pain unless you’re aware of the pain that they’ve felt. Since I can’t know your pain, I’ll tell you about my own. 

When I was a kid, I was diagnosed with a bone disorder. It runs in my family, but I had a particularly nasty case of it.

Location of operations:

  1. Both wrists (several)
  2. Left elbow (several)
  3. Both knees (multiple times)
  4. Both ankles (multiple times on right ankle)

I have nerve damage, permanent tendinitis (the pain disappears when I do one thing), severe arthritis, cold weather pains, sudden sharp pain in places where the disorders effects are made known by muscle or nerve tissue being pressed on my sharp bone, and chronic pain that ranges from a dull hum to severe throbbing.

I also have misshapen hands and severely damaged joints (left wrist, left elbow, both knees, and left ankle). Many of my family members have the same disorder. Only one of them has had more operations than I have.

When I was in junior high, with the exception of a small group of friends, I was mocked fairly relentlessly for always have my arm in a sling or for having weird bumps on my knees (I used to be afraid to wear shorts), I got it pretty bad in gym class but I was never aggressive enough to make people stop. One time in typing class a much larger kid accused me of faking my injury and hit my arm really hard with a text book. I had had an external fixator (that’s not my arm) at the time. The pain was a terrible mixture of dull jarring pain and sharp mind numbing burning. I remember  My teacher wouldn’t believe me, so I didn’t even tell my parents when I got home.

Anyway, I’m not sure if it was due to having so many operations as a young man or what, but by the time I got to high school I was known for being way too rough on the soccer field amongst my peers. Frustratingly, the older students were often quite harsh and rough. But I didn’t care, I just wanted to play.

By training with my cousin over the summer after my freshman year, I developed a fairly absurd 40-yard dash time. I remember it being so fast that several other guys wanted the coach to re-time it once, but the other guy was very far behind me and scored his typical slow score.

Anyhow, during this time, I realized how hard it was to control my emotions. My natural state is already slightly depressed, but dealing with physical pain and feelings of inferiority because of my bone disorder really took a toll on me. Honestly, I think that was related to learning Darwinian evolution in high school. I was basically taught that I was an abnormality or a genetic dead end. The teacher never meant to say that kind of thing, but it’s where my mind immediately went. That’s probably a case for teachers needing philosophical training to discuss the implications of ideas with students. In all of my schooling career, I only had two teachers who were willing to entertaining questions about issues of existential importance. I had no real religious upbringing at the time to ameliorate the effect of that.

Thankfully, I had a religious conversion experience during my freshman year of high school. With this, I discovered an entirely different way of thinking. I became rather obsessed with learning to master myself as a human being. This is partially what led to the hard training that summer since I developed a powerful belief in free will and the capacity for people to transcend their immediate limitations.

In all of this, I discovered that one of the teachers at my high school had traveled the world as an engineer, become a martial artist, and decided to become an English teacher. He taught senior English. I have mentioned him before. I found his classroom and started asking him questions about martial arts. He referred me to an instructor of incredible talent and training. He recommended several books, but I would not start attending until I was a year older.

A great deal of my sophomore, junior, and senior years in high school were spent reading the Bible, books about martial arts, Greek philosophy, and theology books that some of my college friends had recommended to me. I still studied in classes that I found interesting like Calculus, computer programming, debate, and senior English, but everything else was boring and seemed pointless.

I eventually did start studying Isshin-Ryu karate and loved it. I only stopped when I eventually started graduate school and got too busy.

It was during all of the martial arts and philosophical reading I came across several techniques for learning to control your emotions (some of the medieval devotional manuals and the works of Jonathan Edwards also taught these). These were very important to me because of my morose temperament.

Outside of this small collection of items: trying to improve my body to avoid what I saw as inevitable premature skeletal aging, reading, and spending time with friends I was chronically unmotivated. What I had never considered until more recently was how to use some of these same techniques to make myself do things that are boring. 

Anyhow, here are some of the techniques I came across. I can’t cite sources, because I found all of these books in libraries and never bought them:

  1. Cold showers
    I started these my sophomore year of high school. I had read in a book about the founder of Aikido, that he would take cold showers out of doors. I believe there was a picture in the book of his shower stall covered in icicles. I also would wear only shorts and a t-shirt in athletic or marching band practice no matter how cold it got. It was rarely below freezing, but when it was I typically felt fine.
  2. Refusing pain medication
    The idea with this was to learn to be awake to my body and its needs. The second idea was to use pain to motivate me toward this or that good. The third idea was to learn to experience discomfort and distance it from my consciousness. One book by a journalist who started karate training included a story about how he had dental work done with no anesthetic. I still don’t believe it.
  3. Sleeping on the floor
    My senior year of high school we had to move several times. In each house, I often would simply sleep on the floor. The worst flood was my grandparents’ attic bedroom. But I got used to it.
  4. Extended periods of prayer and meditation
    My emotional state control has always been the highest when I keep these two disciplines close to my heart and long on my schedule.
  5. Fasting
    A great deal of religious, philosophical, and even physical culture books I had read talked about fasting as a means of gaining control over one’s passions and emotions.
  6. Do precision training right after intense cardio
    The idea here is to train yourself to focus very carefully when under immense stress. One might do katas with perfect form immediately after heavy bag work or a 20-rep squat. Later in life I would run just over a mile as fast as possible and then do squat, bench, and dead-lift with very high weight without letting my heart-rate decrease very much in order to train myself to focus under stress.

Just for your information, by my senior year in high school, I had learned about Ebsco through a college dual credit program and started looking this stuff up in a peer-reviewed article database. Everything but 2 and 3 had a lot of positive feedback in the psychological and sports science literature of 2002.I’ll write more in the future of the mental how-to of self-mastery and include some significant stories of how I failed at it.

Now, I want to share what was literally my most painful experience:

When I was 18, I needed to have a bone tumor removed from the back of my knee.

I had decided that I would do two things:

  1. Train incredibly hard the days prior to the operation to place my body into a state of anabolism to help me heal more quickly (this was a theory I developed in high school, probably not true).
  2. I would use meditation and mental distancing to avoid the need for pain medication. I successfully managed this when I was still in high school. So I committed to myself that upon waking from surgery I would take no pain medication.

Anyway, the silliest thing happened. On the operating table, the doctor accidentally sliced my poplietal artery. I had to have an emergency fem-pop operation.

I was in the hospital for several days because of this, but I stuck with my decision to utilize no pain medication.

There were some moments when I momentarily would shake with pain. But for most of my stay I was able to distance myself from my leg (think of it like looking at it in a picture), the pain was in a picture of a reflection in at mirror. I was conscious of it, but it wasn’t direct.

While it is true that after this experience I’ve still lost my temper and slipped into sadness or depression, I perceive that in the twelve years since I went through that I’ve probably experienced intense rage or inconsolable sadness less times than I had during my four years of high school. The effort to control that specific painful event over the course of a week trained me to have much better control of my mind and body during times of stress and pain.

Conclusion: The Moral of the Story

You never know what ridiculous suffering will come along that doesn’t kill you. Use it to become greater than you were.


[1] Xenophon, Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 4, trans. E. C. Marchant (Medford, MA: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London., 1923).

3 Comments on “Self-Mastery and Physical Pain

  1. You have three curses:
    – Curiosity: You dare look into history and find great philosophy.
    – Stoicism: You find purpose and serenity in your suffering.
    – Intelligence: You are too smart for the rest of the world, you can do logic.
    In a post-modern word, these are handicaps. Join us, google Vile Faceless Minion. Your curiosity will do the rest.

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