Tantra, Martial Arts, and The Metaphysics of Pain

“Pain is one of the keys to unlock man’s innermost being as well as the world,” wrote Ernst Junger. “Whenever one approaches the points where man proves himself to be equal or superior to pain, one gains access to the sources of his power and the secret hidden behind his dominion. Tell me your relation to pain, and I will tell you who you are!”

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The sensation of pain is perhaps the most sobering and foundationally disconcerting human experience. A great equalizing force, pain spreads its influence across all boundaries of race, gender, age and socio-economic standing. As humans and as a society we are afraid of the sensation of pain and seek to suppress and eliminate It’s voice at all costs regardless of the long term outcome. Yet the voice of pain often transmits great teachings and esoteric lessons if we learn to listen tuning our hearing away from the egoic mind and towards the “heart” or Soul, a type of cardio-sonography which can guide our lives in extremely transformative and mysterious ways. The respect for pain is held in high regard in the practices of martial arts and tantra, two systemic world-views which seek to explore and refine the physical body as a field of transformation, manifestation and Self-Realization.

The voice of pain functions as a powerful catalyst for growth and transformation within the deeper systems of martial arts / tantra expressing itself on the physical and psychological terrain of the corporeal, the “landscape of the body”. In these systems pain can be creative or destructive, an alchemical fire which can slash and burn the egoic illusions which act as hindrances to our maturation and growth as fighters and as self-realized beings. Bruce Lee would often discuss this important idea in his complex revelations on fighting and his overall paradigm for self-development. A simple yet puissant example of this is Bruce Lee’s discussion of the tools of fighting and the “fighting stance.” In Lee’s expositions on his system of Jeet Kun Do he mentions that the tools of fighting serve a dual purpose:

To destroy the opponent in front of you—annihilation of things that stand in the way of peace, justice and humanity….and to destroy your own impulses caused by the instincts of self-preservation. To destroy anything bothering your mind, not to hurt anyone, but to overcome your own greed, anger and folly…Punches and kicks are tools to kill the ego.

This description of “fighting tools” contains powerful metaphors for a much larger fight than a basic pugilistic encounter; this describes the battlefield of the mind and body as we seek to loosen the hold of the ego on our Soul vision. These are the exact ideals of the tantrika attuning himself or herself to the mind and body rather than seek to escape or transcend the corporeal; the body itself becomes a magical tool for self-realization, a weapon against the stronghold of the conditioned ego and its futuristic escapist fantasies; an instrument which is fine tuned by a systematic cultivation of esoteric practices. Bruce Lee also discussed the idea of the “stance” as the foundation of his system of Jeet Kune Do and described the “fundamental positioning” of the stance as:

Simple but effective organization of oneself mentally and physically….ease, comfort, and body feel during maintenance of the ‘spiritual stance’….simplicity: movement with no strain; being neutral, it
has no commitment in directional course or exertion.

Bruce Lee (left) and Yukio Mishima (right).

Bruce Lee (left) and Yukio Mishima (right).

Once again Lee’s description of the “fighting stance” contains metaphors for a much grander vision and echoes much of the practice ideals of tantric physics. The stance we assume in our daily battles will determine the outcome before the fight has even begun. In tantra the body is cultivated to a state of mental and physical harmony without fanatical engagement in myopic fundamentalist paradigms: “movement without strain.” The tantric physicist is always on guard and always ready to assume a natural stance to manage the daily battle of the conditioned mind and the war against of the fundamentalist shibboleth. As Lee stated, “While the punches are coming, keep your eyes open every minute. The punches will not wait for you. They will strike unexpectedly and, unless you are trained well enough to spot them, they will be hard to stop.” So we train ruthlessly to be ready and in a relaxed state to confront the daily blows of the conditioned mind and stronghold of the egoic forces. Our body and mind will constantly seek to support the illusions of the ego in an attempt to keep us in our safe places, our comfort zones. However this prevents us from growing and realizing our true Self and manifesting our Soul Vision. This was aptly described in Sun and Steel by the controversial gnostic Yukio Mishima:

I would draw attention here to one fact: that everything…proceeded from my ‘mind.’ I believe that just as physical training will transform supposedly involuntary muscles into voluntary ones, so a similar transformation can be achieved through an inevitable tendency that one might also call a natural law, are inclined to lapse into automatism, but I have found by experience that a large stream may be deflected by digging a small channel.

This is another example of the quality that our spirits and bodies have in common: that tendency shared by the body and mind to instantly create their own small universe, their own ‘false order,’ whenever, at one particular time, they are taken control by one particular idea…..This function of the body and mind in creating for a short while their own miniature universes is, in fact, no more than an illusion: yet the fleeting sense of happiness in human life owes much to precisely this ‘false order.’ It is a kind of protective function of life in face of the chaos around it, and resembles the way a hedgehog rolls up into a tight round ball. The possibility then presented itself of breaking down one type of ‘false order’ and creating another in its place, of turning back on itself this obstinate formative function and resetting it in a direction that better accorded with one’s own aims.”

Mishima’s poetic revelations echo much of the deeper ideals of tantra. Rather than abandoning the mind and body, the tantric seeks to use these egoic limbs as tools for alchemical transformation and a true stance of elan vital: embracing the world rather than seeking to escape it, embracing the daily battle with the ego and its conditioned illusions rather than seeks to run away, embracing the daily battle as an opportunity for self-realization! This is not merely rhetorical posturing. In actuality it is a cogent description of what is referred to in Left Hand Tantra as the “merciless path.” The daily acceptance of the challenges of the flesh and the mirages of the mind is a battle indeed, one which inevitably ends in death. Just as the fighter seeks to be able to hold his or her stance at a moment’s notice always ready for the unexpected and unpredictable blows of life, the tantric seeks to assume a stance which is always ready to see the inner struggle as a rare ephemeral gift and strives to be able to assume this stance at the ultimate unexpected and unpredictable event: death. As stated my Mishima:

If the solemnity and dignity of the body arise solely from the element of mortality that lurks within it, then the road that leads to death, I reasoned, must have some private path connecting with pain,
suffering, and the continuing consciousness that is proof of life. And I could not help feeling that if there were some incident in which violent death pangs and well-developed muscles were skillfully combined, it could only occur in response to the aesthetic demands of destiny. Not, of course, that destiny often lends an ear to aesthetic considerations.

Martial arts and tantric physics see the inevitable experience of pain as sacred doorways within the mind and body which if courageously and strategically entered can lead the explorer into the landscape of the Soul, the true vista of freedom and self-realization. There is no escape plan for pain. However we can refine our minds and body to see the encounter with pain as an opportunity for revelation exposing areas which need to change, evolve, mature, or die. We cannot be lazy or postpone this pursuit as we have no guarantee of the time allotted to us on the battlefield of life. There are not trophies or awards on this battleground, only scars which serves as reminders of our dedication and commitment to the path and of the lessons transmitted to us by our respective lineages and teachers. Yet this is the ultimate gift which is only awarded to the few and the truly courageous ones who will walk the merciless path and learn to listen to the voice of pain. What is your stance? Are you ready to listen?

craig-williamsCraig Williams is the author of Tantric Physics Vol I: Cave of the Numinous. He has been a practitioner of Yoga, Ayurveda, Tantra, Jyotish and Vedanta for more than 25 years and has undergraduate degrees in Religious Studies, Philosophy and English Literature and a Master’s Degree in Oriental Medicine. He is also an ordained gnostic Bishop and an adept of Esoteric Voudon.

Craig lives in Austin, Texas where he operates a busy private medical practice specializing in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture and Ayurveda (www.AyurvedaAustin.com). He is a licensed Acupuncturist and a Professional member of the American Herbalist Guild and the National Ayurvedic Medical Association.