Fighting For Your Life: How To Be The Happiest Malcontent You Can Possibly Be

A few nights a week, I spend time trying to stay afloat and survive in a shark tank otherwise known as American Top Team. At their headquarters in Coconut Creek, I train in Brazillian jiu jitsu and muay Thai with fighters – some amateur, some pro, some cops, some paramedics, some salesmen, engineers, laborers, mechanics, teachers, students, lawyers, real estate agents, doctors – fighters all, in one way or another, and coached by fighters.

Whatever the individual reasons for being there, every time someone trains in a fighters’ gym, the first opponent is the self. Much of the battle has been won just by showing up on the mats. But then some nights every teammate is tapping you or baiting you with feints so you eat jabs for an hour. Sometimes the fatigue is like heavy mildew growing on your bones. The fighters do this for a dream. The rest of us have our own reasons. It’s never easy. There is pain. One time my right shoulder came right out of the socket. The pain was stellar. Knowing fingers found the jutting bone below my bicep, gave a slight push, and popped my shoulder back in its socket. Three months later I was training regularly again. Six months later it was a distant memory. Most of the time I spar with more advanced teammates, so most of the time I lose. Spectacularly. And I’ll have the best time doing all of it — coming to the sick edge of blackout trying to defend a choke to the last or eating leather gloves for dinner with a smile.

I’m always trying to justify (to anyone who’ll listen) my martial arts obsession training by conjuring through description and anecdote some parable, some analogy to Torah concepts or chassidus or life lessons in general. Something perhaps inspiring. Sounds hokey, I know, but I truly believe there is meaning to be found in putting effort into learning a skill, and good reason for the deep learning of said skills through practice and struggle.

Which is what life is really all about.

Last week, Elad wrote about the dissatisfaction of Jews. My initial response was that not being happy doesn’t necessarily mean being unhappy. Giving it more thought, though, I believe that it is possible to actually find happiness, even contentment, in that dissatisfaction.

Because la lucha is the thing and la lucha never stops, so there’s no choice but to face it and go for it. So why not freaking enjoy it?

You don’t have to practice the martial arts to find this contentment in dissatisfaction. But I do believe in the benefits of regularly practicing something. Trying to get better at something. Learning our own potential even as it blooms as we age. Failing so we can learn. And having the passion to keep on doing it.

And success happens before achievement. Sometimes even without it.

Without achievement, the practitioner still knows he’s succeeded because he showed up and gave his best and learned from his mistakes to try again next time. The struggle itself has value beyond the prize. Eventually, achievement itself is redefined. The lessons of this kind of effort are the only achievements that truly matter because they are our teachers.

Fighters train to fight by fighting

By the time they step into the cage, even the first time under lights in front of crowds, well disciplined MMA fighters have put themselves in the fight as part of their regular training. Some of them have the scars and disfigured faces to show for it.

I believe everyone is fighting something. Some of us have never put on a gi or gloves, but we’ve been scarred. And the fight always starts within.

A modern MMA fighter spends many hours on a daily basis drilling techniques in wrestling and grappling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, striking, working on strength and conditioning – days with schedules and goals, meetings, diet plans, and the business of trying to acquire sponsors to support his lifestyle he’d like to make his career.

And so they meet their teammates in the cage and fight through shadow boxing, dirty boxing, light contact, heavier contact, implementing the combinations, set ups, takedowns, and submissions they’ve drilled over and over. Slip a punch, deliver a hook to set up a body kick. Moving, breathing, flowing with it, learning and learning every burning step of the way that the win is in the heart, that the body simply needs to catch up to the heart.

Because of their hard work ethic, their struggles, the blood, sweat, and tears, fighters are easy metaphors. And great ones. One of the clearest lessons in chassidus for me came in Tanya. Early in Chapter 26 of Likutei Amarim, the Alter Rebbe uses the metaphor of two wrestlers in discussing the internal battles between our good inclination and that of the other direction. The Alter Rebbe explains that one who is not lazy and perseveres with determination can defeat a more physically imposing and capable opponent.

Victory, then, depends on attitude as much as aptitude, if not more. A fighting spirit is mere wind, though, when confronted with a technically sound and devastating judo throw or powerful flying fists, knees, and elbows. So to win, one must train in both areas with equal perseverance and determination.

Knowing beforehand that satisfaction and complacency are the enemies, we know to build our fighter inside for a long career. And not just through books and lectures. That’s like hitting the punching bag. It’s a good work out, it helps us to stay fit, but the bag doesn’t hit back.

So you train the body. And in training the body, you train the spirit, your will, as it is called upon to drive the body beyond it’s perceived limits. Constantly, for the fight will come. And when it comes, on the other side of the cage won’t stand a partner whose goal is your growth, improvement, and achievement. On the other side, at least temporarily, is an opponent. Your enemy.

Fighters have so much to teach us about the heart’s determination and perseverance, and how to move under pressure. Because there’s always a fight for all of us, in all of us, so fight we must. There’s always another problem to solve, issue to face, decision to make. There’s always another fighter trained just as you are, with the same intensity and purpose, waiting to be called out and meet you in the ring, oftentimes wearing your face for his own.

Here we have our dual inclinations meeting in the ring. Allow dissatisfaction to anger, to cause derision, to disease goodwill. Or rejoice in a cause, in an opportunity, in the blessing of responsibility to better the world before you leave it.

What’s your fight?

Good fighters know they have to end the fight before the fight ends them. Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

But metaphysics is in the streets. The fight at our core – the center ring under the focused lights – must be reflected in our daily lives if we are to succeed in finding happiness in our own discontent. So we have to struggle on purpose. With purpose, too, but decidedly. Because purpose is divine and the fighting is holy.

So the key to dominating dissatisfaction is to find something to be purposeful about, to train ourselves like fighters, to accept challenge and defeat and to recognize the importance of not giving up if we want to achieve with any sense of accomplishment. The fight is about taking something on that you want to see to continuous fruition, to achieve new levels of personal growth through challenge. There’s always something new that can be and should be better. And being the kind of person you are, you’ll want to change it, fix it, improve it, take it to a whole ‘nother level.

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Accepting the Alter Rebbe’s metaphor of the grapplers — like Yakov’s struggle with the angel when he was renamed Yisrael — visualizing our struggles as such, we should then know of ourselves that the body has to catch up with the heart. We need to train so we can fight til the sun comes up.

And fighters train to fight by fighting. So, while the intellectual and spiritual battle of our minds requires study, it also requires drills. And time in the cage.

How is all of this applicable in achieving and maintaining contentment, even happiness and joy in dissatisfaction? How does it translate to the streets, to real life?

I suggest that, in addition to learning Torah, etc., integral training for the spiritual fight can be found through struggling in the material world. There is a plethora of evidence that challenging play, movement, and creative endeavors alleviate anxieties, pressures, depression, and even pain. What better antidotes, then, for lack of contentment?

We can even be as happy as (fill in the blank with your own version of “a lark”) — without ever being satisfied with the status quo.

What can you do?

Whatever has been your challenge. Whatever you haven’t tried yet. Whatever you want.

Play guitar. And then learn to play the guitar. You will find it difficult. It will get easier, until you find more difficult pieces to play. And then you might want to write your own songs. It doesn’t get any easier. You’ll love it.

Bang a drum. And then learn to play the drums. Find a rhythm that moves you. Then find another.

Fill a canvas with paints. And then learn to paint. Choose your medium: oil, watercolor. Then choose another. Speak in color and shadow and light, see the pliability of the world around you in pencil or chalk or ink.

The pursuit of happiness has no end goal. The pursuit is everything. The beauty of life is the struggle of life. Create.

Shape clay, march, sing, demonstrate, dance, or go to the gym and box, grapple, or swim like no one else on the planet.

Cook dinner with your favorite herbs and meats. And then try some funky freaky recipes. Have guests over. Serve your mother-in-law your newest creation. Try vegan, Thai, Mediterranean, Caribbean, or Indian. Over cook, under cook, burn your rice. Learn, retry, taste heaven off the prongs of a fork.

Fill a page with words infused with your truth. (Actually, keep doing that no matter what you end up doing.) Do it often. Learn about what you actually think. Tap into the central facts of the issues. Or play with language and paint meaning with words.

Find that thing you love to do or have loved to do or want to love to do. And do it. The doing gets done in the doing. Living is practice for life. Fighting is practice for the fight.

Find that thing and do it for fun. And then do it to learn, to struggle how to do it better, and with purity of intent.

You will smile. You will sweat. You will stumble. You will cry. You will utterly fail. But if you maintain that visualization of your soul in conflict, a grappler, a fighter, then you will know that there’s no giving up. There’s just getting up. And getting at it again.

So you train your mind and your body to melt the ice of doubt and laziness held in the course shell of your flesh, muscle, and bone – you build your skill set to push yourself to the edge, to challenge yourself in order to get to the core self and express that truth in the world because that’s the truth with which you will fulfill your purpose in the constant creation of existence.

Hotzlocha to us all. May we never be satisfied in our endeavors. And happily so.


Featured image from Flickr.