Learn To See Past the Obstacles
Anyone who has trained and fought in Muay Thai knows how important it is to have the right attitude—to be confident, focused, and positive.
But the sport can be challenging and stressful. It’s hard to imagine there are many people out there who are immune to the kind of negative thinking that leads to bad habits in the gym or in the ring.
The ancient Chinese philosophy of Daoism can offer some helpful strategies for staying focused and keeping unproductive ways of thinking at bay. Sometimes when we are working a particular technique and things aren’t clicking, for whatever reason, it can cause us to struggle with ourselves.
Why can’t I get this technique down?
What’s wrong with me?
And the more pressure we put on ourselves and the more negative thoughts we have about ourselves, the harder it is to actually move forward.
Daoism promotes a way of thinking in which we allow things to progress and change without struggle by removing the obstacles that we create for ourselves.
Despite the fact that most Daoist philosophy was written more than two thousand years ago, the lessons it contains about how to live and act harmoniously are just as relevant today.
The philosopher known as Zhuangzi (c. 369-c. 286 BCE) wrote in the form of short anecdotes that illustrated the principles of Daoism. One of these tales is about Ting, a butcher who works for a prince. When the prince sees Ting carving an ox, he is amazed by the butcher’s incredible, effortless skill and asks him how got to be so good at carving meat.
Ting replies that for the first several years of butchering he was only focused on the giant ox carcass sitting in front of him. But as time went on he learned to see beyond the ox and eventually he learned how to see without even using his eyes. His whole body understood how to guide the knife so that it cut cleanly and easily through the spaces between the joints and bones.
Ting tells the prince that an ordinary cook has to replace his knife once a month because he mindlessly hacks away. Ting’s knife has lasted for 19 years and it’s blade is still as sharp as if it were brand new.
When Ting carves, he lets his experience guide him and when he encounters a tough spot in his work he slows down, relaxes, and refocuses. Ting concludes by telling the prince that when he carves, he allows the joy of the work to flow through him.
So this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with training or fighting Muay Thai?
I think we can all relate to Ting’s example of the ordinary cook who just hacks away until his knife is broken. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hitting the bags at the gym and I suddenly notice that I’ve just been pumping out the same technique mechanically a hundred times, just to get through it.
I’m not paying attention to the quality of my technique.
Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to improve when you are just going through the motions. By training without focus and intention you make it harder on yourself. You can just picture the sense of frustration that one might have hacking endlessly at an enormous ox carcass.
If we treat our bag work like a chore, we will never improve our technique.
Like Ting, we have to find the joy of the work.
Another important lesson from this tale is that Ting has been carving for at least 19 years. By the time the prince observes Ting’s incredible skill, he has been practicing his art for so long that it now appears effortless.
But Ting is not some kind of mysterious master from a Kung Fu movie. He has just been practicing a lot, and with focus and attention. So often fighters want things to happen quickly, and that goes double for training.
I have seen people who get mad at themselves for not progressing faster only after a couple weeks of training. This kind of attitude makes everything harder. Muay Thai is hard enough with all the hours of bag work, pad rounds, sparring, and fighting!
As students, if we can slow down and learn to do the work joyfully, patiently and with focus, then we can get out of our own way and allow progress to happen naturally.
Ever confront your own “Giant Ox Carcass?” (Metaphorically Speaking). Comment below, we want to hear from you!
- Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature. He has taught courses on Daoist philosophy, the Beat poets, among others, at the University of Connecticut and Springfield College. He has been training and fighting muay thai for almost 2 years.