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Comfortable Being Uncomfortable, Part II

A post called “Comfortable Being Uncomfortable” from May 2016 is probably one of the top five in terms of generating feedback from students of all levels. In early July 2022, while we were all training in masks, in an unairconditioned room, during a week-long heat wave, I thought of this post several times. While trying to keep our students safe in the heat, I thought of a new way of reframing this idea and wanted to share with future students.

The section of that earlier essay that people usually comment on is called “Don’t Drink Water” and asks students to consider the difference between being thirsty and wanting a drink and being dehydrated and needing a drink. Some students misinterpret this as a suggestion to deny themselves water under all circumstances, potentially putting themselves at risk of dehydration, overheating, or worse. This is not the spirit behind the custom at all. Instead, it’s an exercise in not a) allowing oneself to be distracted and/or using valuable training time by excessive trips to the water bottle or b) being ruled by mild short-term calls from the body. It’s a mildly ascetic form of self-discipline that puts us in touch with the intersection between mind and body, giving us a deeper understanding of both.

During the heat wave, when I broke a sweat simply by changing into my dobok, I asked students to be mindful of what their bodies need from a different perspective. Rather than needlessly putting themselves at risk of succumbing to the heat, I asked them to think of the heat as an acute challenge, and to consider water as a tool that might reasonably be brought to bear in special circumstances.

The analogy I made was to mountaineers climbing Mt. Everest, or any of the extremely high mountains where there simply isn’t enough oxygen to make the body function properly. Above a certain altitude, climbers enter the “Death Zone,” where each passing minute causes the body to deteriorate a little more, and where the lack of oxygen makes it impossible for humans to live for more than some finite number of hours.

Faced with this terrifying challenge, most climbers choose to carry supplemental oxygen tanks, carefully regulating the flow, like a scuba diver, so they have just enough extra O2 in each breath to keep their minds and bodies from failing. There’s no shame in carrying this lifesaving gas, and for most people, knowing someone carried oxygen doesn’t diminish the achievement of summiting Mt. Everest, for goodness’ sake!

And yet, some small percentage of truly elite climbers—the absolute best of an already seemingly superhuman subset of the species—choose to make their summit attempts without using oxygen bottles. They closely monitor themselves, minute by minute, to make sure that their bodies and minds are holding strong. Success requires an almost unfathomable amount of conditioning, self-discipline, and self-awareness. Those who achieve it are universally acknowledged as the supreme adventurers, individuals who earn the respect of a group that can accomplish something that most can barely even imagine.

The people who summit high mountains without oxygen don’t look down on those who need the air bottles. They know they’re following the same road, and that this additional challenge isn’t really the point, just another tool for testing and learning about their own limits. And these elite climbers aren’t dumb: if the weather turns dangerous, or they hurt themselves, or something else goes dramatically wrong, you better believe they’ll go straight to the oxygen if it’s a matter of life or death. Nobody will fault them for that either, it’s just a challenge to explore another day.

If we think of water during Taekwondo training along these same lines, we see that there’s no dishonor in taking a cool and refreshing pull on the water bottle during a heat wave, even if it’s not one’s normal practice to do so. Sometimes it’s the only sensible option, which is why we recommend students always bring water to class. This gives them options while balancing careful self-study against powerful, potentially deadly forces of nature.

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