Ouch! The Role of Pain in Transformation

Leon Ingulsrud's picture

Pain is weakness leaving your body.

For many years I’ve thought the source of this adage was the monks of the Shaolin Temple where Kung-Fu was born and became the root of much of what we call martial arts. According to my research , it was actually a recruiting slogan for the US Marine Corps. I’m now not even sure how I got the idea that it was from Shaolin.

Wherever it comes from, it is, at best, only partially true. It’s a sad reality that all of us have probably experienced pain that is not weakness leaving our bodies. If I’m walking down the street and someone stabs me in the eye with an ice-pick, there is a tremendous amount of pain involved. Very little of it can be described as weakness leaving my body. It would be callous at best to describe the pain suffered by someone with a terminal illness in this way.

Through talking about this in class over a number of years, I came up with a second part to the aphorism. Resulting in: Pain is either weakness leaving your body, or stupidity entering it. The point of this was to encourage people to listen to their pain, and determine if it was a signal that they were indeed getting stronger or it was a signal that they were doing damage to themselves.

One of my favorite ways to think about pain comes from the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In this sequel to the original Terminator, James Cameron explores the relationship between humanity and technology by having a copy of the heartlessly relentless killer robot from the first film simply re-programmed to be a protector. As the child John Connor gets to know the Terminator, he is curious about the differences between them. He asks “Do you feel pain?” Arnold Schwarzenegger as the T-800 Terminator answers: “I have information about damage to my systems. You could call the data, pain.” I think that’s brilliant on so many levels.

By the way, I am not a huge Schwarzenegger fan, but I try not to be a hater. I first saw Terminator 2 while in Australia with Tadashi Suzuki. I made arrangements to go see the film one night and asked Suzuki if he wanted to come along. He made fun of me for going to see a “stupid Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.” When I got home he was all excited about this surprisingly good movie he was watching on TV: Conan The Barbarian.

The thing is, as Buddhism so elegantly points out, pain is an integral part of life. And as the avoidance of it is impossible it behooves us to have a relationship with it that is characterized by something other than panic. This is not easy, hence the long history of people trying to sell spurious ways to avoid it. Our current opioid crisis and our inability to sacrifice short term benefit for the sake of long term goals like climate stability speak to our rather infantile relationship to pain on a collective level. 

Often the lack of sophistication in relation to pain comes from our tendency to cause suffering in ourselves or others by trying to avoid pain. Suffering is the negative emotional experience of pain. Pain is neither good nor bad. Not to be superficially Buddhist about it, but pain just is, and the attempt to escape it is what brings about suffering.

Part of what is so tricky about pain is that although it can be thought of as data about damage to our systems, evolution found a way to make sure pain got our attention, by wiring it into our consciousness and emotions in such a way that it grabs our attention and makes prioritizing anything else, almost impossible. This is a good thing, until it’s not.

Add to this that pain has almost unavoidable moral implications. One of the few things that seem clear in the otherwise murky water of morality is that the causing of unnecessary nonconsensual pain in another person is wrong. And the deriving of pleasure from such a thing is about as close as we get to a reasonable definition of evil. This means that whenever pain is present we must be very careful, and since pain is woven into the fabric of life itself, we must be very careful all the time.

Pain is a subjective experience of the mind. It is the way our consciousness reacts to the data of damage. One of the clearest ways to argue this is that general anesthesia is essentially turning off the mind so that pain doesn’t need to be experienced. In the brilliant and provocative book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow Yuval Noah Harari argues that since most of the useful responses to our environment do not require the intervention of the mind, it is increasingly unclear what consciousness and “the mind” is even for. 

A large part of training of the body to do anything from playing the guitar to juggling chainsaws, is to spend enough time in the painful part of the process to allow the blaring trumpets of the subjective experience to calm down to the point that one can attend to the objective reality of what you’re doing. At the same time, the body transforms to accommodate the new conditions. For example, in the case of a guitar player, the calluses required to protect the fingertips will never form in the right place unless the player continues to press their hurting fingers against the strings. It is interesting to note that the more directly the body is involved in an art form, the more pain seems to be required in the training process.

I was born with a particular mutation on my Melanocortin 1 Receptor Gene (MC1R). The most visible result of this mutation is that my hair is red. A less solidly confirmed result of this mutation that is often discussed is that gingers are supposed to have higher pain thresholds. Actually the more granular version of the theory that I have seen, says that we’re more sensitive to most types of pain, but less sensitive to the pain associated with electrocution. I’m not sure if that means that we redheads suffer more or less. What I know for sure is that it doesn’t mean that I don’t mind pain. That there is some straight up bull-shit. I hate pain. Far from not minding it, I HATE it! This hatred is among the most subjective things I know of.

There are a good number of things that I want to do, that I know are good for me, that I know will make me stronger, that involve pain. One of the first things that people notice about the Suzuki Training is that it involves putting the body into positions that cause discomfort and pain. It is not an inordinate amount of pain when compared to almost any other training of the body to do difficult things, but it is more physical pain than is involved in most modern approaches to acting. This has led to a certain reputation that is ascribed to the training in certain circles.

When I first began doing the Suzuki Training in Toga village, there were people coming from all over the world to learn the training, and I observed that there were certain differences in people’s relationships to pain that seemed to correlate to cultures. The big thing that I noticed was that Americans, in general, were quick to express the fact that they were experiencing pain. For better or worse, it was clear that they saw themselves as entitled to a relatively pain-free experience, and the normalizing of a degree of pain like what the training involved was confusing to many of them. I’m not saying that they were weak or wimpy about it, but they certainly wanted to talk about it a lot.

An American actor who was training in Toga told me about a conversation he had with one of the Japanese SCOT company members that illuminated the difference in perspective. He had remarked on the fact that many of the foreign actors training in Toga were experiencing pain in their feet, and he asked if this was normal. The SCOT member said that it was normal but nothing to worry about, as it usually goes away after the first two years.

I’m not sure if it contradicts Tolstoy’s assertion that all happy families are alike but unhappy families are all unhappy in different ways, but Suzuki once observed that what gives people pleasure varies pretty wildly, but what causes pain is universal. Therefore, pain was an effective way to bring people together. He went on to joke that we were creating a community based on pain. It’s jokes like this that have led to misunderstandings over the years.

Throughout its history, the Suzuki Training has had detractors. It has always been painfully clear (pun intended) that part of this is rooted in Euro-centrist bias. Very few people identify the Stanislavski method as a Russian approach to acting, but Suzuki Training is routinely talked about as “Japanese”, not just originating in a Japanese company. Some have gone as far as to make the bizarre assertion that English speaking actors should be wary of vocal techniques that did not originate in English.

There is also an unfortunate history of people who lack a sufficiently deep understanding of the training teaching and representing it in ways that are truly damaging. Because of the physical rigor involved in the training, and the hierarchical format in which it is usually taught, the training is subject to abuse. Add this to the fact that when people are just starting out with the training they manifest a great deal of tension that the training is designed to control or get rid of. People have mistaken this for the goal of the training, instead of the problem the training is trying to solve. All this has damaged the reputation of the training.

But I think that part of what leads to people ultimately rejecting the training is that not only is it difficult, it involves some pain. This incentivizes finding reasons why it’s bad, why it’s destructive. I’m not saying that everyone who has opinions in opposition to the training are just wimps. They are not. But I do think this phenomenon points to the way in which pain can confuse us.

All of the actors of the SITI Company have been doing the Suzuki Training for decades. In some of our cases, we have been doing the training for over half our lives. If the training was unsafe or degrading to physical integrity, you would expect that the members of the company would manifest a plethora of injuries. Rumors to this effect are actually common and we often find them comical. 

There is a rumor out there that all of us have had various forms of joint replacement. In fact, only one member of the company has had joint replacement: Anne Bogart. Anne’s not an actor. She doesn’t do the Suzuki Training. There is another rumor that all of our arches have collapsed and that we all have flat feet. I don’t even know how to describe how hilarious that is. It is true that our feet are probably larger than they would be if we didn’t stomp, but this is because most people who wear shoes all the time have a degree of binding in their feet. Stomping in tabi encourages the foot to spread out to its natural size.

Some of the members of the company wear braces of various sorts when they work. In some cases, these are because of injuries suffered outside of training, or they simply prefer the compression these braces offer.

As a young person, I was plagued with knee issues because of some injuries I suffered in high-school athletics. When I joined the Suzuki Company and began doing the training, I was worried that I was going to be “the one with bad knees” and would have to sit out a lot. But the fact of the matter is that over three decades of doing the training has strengthened and stabilized my knees to such a degree that I have not had any serious issues since I began.

I vividly remember my first summer in Toga. As I said, I hate pain, and this training was the most physically rigorous thing I had ever engaged with. I hated it. I saw the value of it but hated doing it. And I was in a lot of pain. I remember waking up every morning and not being able to get out of bed until I could muster the conviction to keep going. I had to get to a place that I wanted to do this enough that it would overcome what I thought it was costing me. This crucible was one of the most valuable things I ever went through. I have not seriously doubted that this is what I want to do since. It created a floor below which my spirit does not drop. A floor on which I have stood ever since. 

I am aware that this is close to how brainwashing works. But I’m pretty clear that this is different. I’m skeptical as hell about this work, and I think that’s healthy. I don’t have any question about how much I owe this training. But if I didn’t think that it was still helping me be a better artist I would stop doing it. On the contrary, the training has put me in productive, long term dialogue with many of my biggest weaknesses, physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.

Over the decades we have created together as SITI Company, we have worked very hard to find ways to share the Suzuki Training in ways that minimize pain. Particularly the pain that accompanies injury. We have looked at injury avoidance through the lens of training as a way to extend one’s career. And I think that there is empirical evidence that we have been successful at this. What we have noticed is that historically people are much more likely to get hurt doing Viewpoints exercises than doing the Suzuki Training. This difference is marked and dramatic, but we rarely have anyone who has safety concerns about doing Viewpoints. The openness and freedom from constraint that characterizes working on the Viewpoints is attractive to a lot of people, but it doesn’t guarantee that your joint alignment is going to be safe in the way that the strict forms of Suzuki Training does.

It is not just about avoiding injury however. In a recent SITI Thought Center event the director Lear deBessonet talked about something she had learned from a sociologist. She discussed the idea that  the way to create a transformational space is to have a group enterprise that has high stakes, and yet is safe. In many ways, this is our goal with our training.

Actors have lost so much moral weight in our culture. We say “This is not an actor” when we want someone to seem trustworthy. We use the word “Kabuki” to mean something is devoid of actual substance and is for show only. Part of this is that there is a general feeling in the zeitgeist that acting is easy, and that actors don’t go through anything difficult to do what they do. There is no cost. Celebrities decide to “become actors” in a way that no one would talk about becoming a doctor or athlete. Because of this, people do not intuitively turn to the theater and actors when our culture is in crisis. In moments of peril, we are too easily seen as completely dispensable.

Someone once asked Anne Bogart, what good actor training is. She answered, “Find something that is difficult for you to do, and do it every day.” Part of this is about becoming a more skilled performer by acquiring difficult skills through training and practice. But a huge part of it is becoming more weighty as a being. 

Ultimately I don’t care if people find that the Suzuki training is not for them, for whatever reason. I prefer that they make that choice from a place of knowledge and not wild rumors about “those crazy people,” but there’s always going to be a certain amount of that. What I do care about is that, as a community, we begin to have expectations about what an actor needs to do to become and remain an actor. I know many fantastic actors who don’t train. Many of them have careers in which they are acting a lot. This is excellent. Performing can do many of the things that training does for you and keep you in shape. But the percentage of actors who are working enough for this to be true is tiny. For the rest of us, we must find something to keep us in dialogue with our work, on an ongoing and life-long basis. This is why I have often said that training must be part of an actor’s lifestyle, not just their education.

Part of why the Suzuki Training is so good for me is because I hate pain so much. Suzuki Training is very difficult for me to do. It’s designed that way. Over the years I have developed a relationship with it that is rich and varied and filled with joy and fun as well as pain. But it has never gotten easier. That’s part of the point. Ultimately the weakness that leaves the body is not a weakness of the muscles and bones, It is a weakness of the spirit.