The Buddha and Emil Zátopek Walk Into a Bar

by Devin on February 18, 2011

in Running

Email Zátopek

It’s at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys.

Emil Zátopek

When a boy feels pain, he suffers. When a man feels pain, he evaluates it and acts.

Feel free to substitute girl and woman appropriately. The gender is not important, only the delineation between mature and immature.

Pain is an inescapable part of the human condition. With few exceptions, it is an experience that all human beings share. What distinguishes the strong from the weak, however, is their reaction to it.

Wikipedia defines pain as:

an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage

But this definition is only partially true. The Buddha would define pain differently, as would my hero, runner Emil Zátopek. They would remove one word from Wikipedia’s definition:

a sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage

The removal of that one word is vital for any athlete who wants to perform at his or her peak.

So what is the big deal about removing the word unpleasant? Why would the Buddha and Emil Zátopek agree on that change?

Physical pain is not unpleasant. Physical pain is simply a signal sent to your brain because your body is concerned that it is being, or is going to be, injured. When your brain receives that signal, it assigns the feeling unpleasant to it. That feeling is a reaction to pain, not pain itself. This reaction is called suffering.

Suffering is a choice, though usually an unconscious one. To truly push past the barrier of pain requires you to consciously choose not to suffer. Our bodies are conservative – as soon as any part feels stressed, it sends pain signals to the brain. This is a good thing. 200,000 years ago, a sprained ankle could mean being eaten by a lion, so our ancestors had to be very careful when it came to pushing the limits of their bodies.

What that means for us, however, is that we must learn to accept and push past our pain. When I am in the middle of a long run, my body is sending signals that say, “STOP. Go home and lie down. Stop pushing me, let’s just rest.” If I gave in to all of my body’s wishes, I would find myself sitting on the couch all day eating ice cream: thousands of calories to give me energy, and no dangerous activity that could hurt me.

I have to be able to listen to the pain signals, assess them, and make a decision. Is this pain really something I should be worried about? Am I going to hurt myself? Or is it just my animal brain being overly cautious? Most of the time, I find that it is the latter.

Choose non-suffering. When you feel pain, calmly assess it and decide if you are going to injure yourself. If not, keep going! Now you know that you are pushing your body to its limits! The only way to progress as an athlete, and as a human, is to live on the edge of your capabilities.

Below I’ve included some inspirational quotes about pain which, in addition to the above Emil Zátopek quote, I often chant to myself while running as a sort of mantra.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Pain is a fire, and only through the fire does gold come to its real shininess — the gold becomes pure.

Osho

Quotation Details

Quotation #2089 from Laura Moncur’s Motivational Quotations:

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.
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