The Utility of Pain

By Nick Wright

Sensei and I recently had the pleasure to teach a self-defense seminar to a large group of girl scout leaders. During the seminar I was often called on by the women to help them figure out the moves and provide further demonstration. During one of these demonstrations involving sankyo I repeatedly ran into the phrase, “Ow! That hurts!” My initial reaction was to apologize profusely, wonder how I was going to live with the shame of beating up on girl scout leaders, and try to demonstrate the technique without inflicting pain. I did not follow that initial reaction and, as brutal as it sounds, I am glad.

What is the point of learning Black Sword Aikido if you want to avoid the pain that joint locks inflict? To learn how to do a joint lock or a pin painlessly is to learn nothing at all. The purpose of the joint lock or pin is to inflict pain. The purpose of inflicting that pain should be to stop someone from hurting you. The joint lock without the pain will not serve that purpose and leaves a student open to potentially devastating results. As uncomfortable as it may make you feel inflicting or receiving that pain, it is necessary to the art and should be embraced for what it has to offer.

Sure no one likes pain, unless, of course, you happen to be a little bit kinky that way, but it is a great teacher. By inflicting pain through Black Sword Aikido’s joint locks and pins we learn how much pressure, torque or twist is necessary to produce the result we intend. Through repetition and practice we learn how to control these forces and protect our ukes, who are so kind as to let us practice on them. This repetition builds up a considerable understanding of what works and what doesn’t and gives birth to the elemental ethical choice aikido offers over other martial arts. Black Sword Aikido offers its practitioners the choice of controlling over hurting, maiming or even killing. Where other martial arts may teach an elbow break as a means of escaping an evil, nasty aggressor, Black Sword Aikido offers the alternative of an elbow press. An elbow press exerts enough pressure on the joint to cause pain, overcoming the evil aggressor while leaving his or her elbow injury free. The elbow break is still an alternative, Black Sword Aikido does not ignore that sometimes the break is an unfortunate necessity. But Black Sword Aikido is striving to take its ethics of self-protection to a higher level: control without injuring. Through the utility of pain Black Sword Aikido hopes to achieve this lofty goal.

It is important to understand that pain is different than hurting someone or injuring someone. Technically pain is any stimuli applied to the unmyelinated ends of the sensory neuron that relay a message to the brain via the spinal cord which causes another impulse to travel over the motor neurons to the area affected leading to the withdrawal reflex. More simply put, when we do something that causes our body pain, the little bird from Fred Flintstone’s camera starts pecking away at nerves in our brain until we stop. Causing injury or hurting someone is a whole different thing. These terms refer more to bodily damage as in a broken elbow or split lip. Pain accompanies an injury but it is not necessary to cause an injury to inflict pain. This is the line that Black Sword Aikido attempts to walk whenever possible.

Feeling this pain being inflicted upon your own body is equally important to inflicting it on others as well. The pain you feel teaches you to respect the power you are wielding. It also creates a greater understanding of the trust your uke is putting in you to inflict that pain on him or her without causing injury. If someone were to step on the mat and start twisting shoulders and pressing wrists without a care in the world, that person would soon find it difficult to practice at all: no one would go near them. Even worse, they would learn the meaning of the old saying “Payback is hell.”

But back to the girl scout leaders. “Of course it’s painful!” I replied. “What’s the point of learning a self-defense technique that’s not painful?” And then I would let them do it to me until it caused pain and everyone would laugh and we all stood around causing each other paid thinking what good fun it was and how could anyone spend a Saturday evening doing anything else. I did have the option of making the techniques sensei demonstrated painless but also impotent, reducing them to nothing more than a series of staged acts. At which point you would wonder why they just didn’t offer morris dancing or something else equally innocuous. (Morris dancing, by the way, was a medieval form of the macharena, but much worse, if such a thing is possible.) So the next time you are demonstrating a Black Sword Aikido technique to someone cause pain! It’s for their own good. Just don’t hurt them.