Transforming pain into pleasure

​“Don’t think Matt, just do it.” I raise my hand, flick the lever to the right and turn my back. The hot water becomes cold. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and smile.

I’m climbing a hill. The wind and the rain is whipping my body. My clothes are wet, I’m in the lowest gear going nowhere fast, and I want to turn back. But I swat that thought away, plaster a smile across my face and continue cycling. 

My back is on the floor. My opponent has passed my guard and is on top of me, driving his shoulder into my jaw, forcing his weight through my rib cage and attempting to use his arm to choke me. I relax, grin, and begin to think about the possible routes of escape.

I’m reclined in the tattoo studio. My eyes are closed, my top is off and the needle is scratching its ink into my chest. Sometimes, it’s feather-light—pleasant even. Other times, it feels like the needle is six inches deep. Regardless, I stay still, breathe and think about why I’m doing this.

The malleability of the human mind used to be of mild interest to me. Now, I find it fascinating. How incredible is it that, in all the above scenarios, a smile can transform pain into pleasure? A smile, alone. A forced physiological action can instigate a profound change in the psychological experience of a moment. Astounding. But how far can we take it?

Elite athletes are elite because of their genetic suitability, but also because of their mental disposition. And perhaps the key part of their mental disposition is the fact that they’ve learnt to endure–to love—what others find unbearable. They enjoy the monotony of training and practice and play. They savour the constant pressure, the need to be at their best and do their best, even when they don’t feel like it. They’ve figured out a way to go beyond the capacities of the average person. Master craftsmen are the same. Woodworkers, smiths, writers, poets, artists, actors, engineers. They find pleasure where others find pain. If these people can do that, if they can rewire their mind and manipulate their experience, what can I do?

Is it possible for me to banish boredom? Can I eradicate the experience of physical discomfort? Can I train myself to glory in difficulty and challenge, rather than shrink from it? Am I able to eliminate the scourge of anxiety and replace it with hope? Is forcing a smile onto my face enough? Maybe the secret isn’t a smile. Maybe the ability to do these things comes with the conscious distortion of body language. Perhaps depression can be fended off with the medicine of movement? Maybe timidity and insecurity can be banished by the pulling back of the shoulders and the raising of the chin. 

I know that a smile can transform something we avoid into something we adore. But where is the limit of this malleability of the human mind and its experience? I don’t know. If I buck up against it, I’ll let you know.