The Tao of Tough

Photo Credit: The author
Model: Pham Hanh (Instagram @phamhanhyoga)

This post is dedicated to Cozy.

I started practicing pranayama when I was about twelve or thirteen.  I’d never even heard the word “pranayama”, but I’d read somewhere that yogis and ninjas could slow their breath and heartrates.  I didn’t know what a yogi was and I didn’t care; I knew my career path, and I knew that I’d be wearing a black suit and mask with matching split-toed fabric shoes to work when I grew up.

And so I’d sit in class and watch the sweep of the second hand on the clock, and slow my breath until I could endure the interminable forty or fifty minutes of social studies or math or whatever class on just more than a breath a minute. 

Now this was the early eighties, and my buddies and I were all about ninjas.  And for us, the iconic weapon of the ninja, even more than the sword, was the throwing star.  Ninja throwing stars weren’t for sale in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and internet shopping didn’t exist yet.  My first DIY examples were cut out of tin can tops with my mother’s kitchen scissors (“Why are my damn scissors so dull?” she’d mutter from the kitchen as I sat mutely culpable before the television, watching Lee Van Clief play the first Occidental ninja on “The Master”) and weighted with electrical solder melted onto the tin over a candle.  From a range of eight or ten feet, they could stick in a cardboard target quite nicely, but they clearly weren’t potentially lethal, and so I went looking for viable steel, and brought Grandpa in as a consultant. 

Grandpa understood steel; he was the kind of guy who owned an anvil and used it on occasion.  He taught me about steel, and the first lesson was the dichotomy between hard and soft.  Hard steel could be sharpened, but it was brittle.  Soft steel was tough.  Soft steel could survive a shock that would shatter hard steel.  Which was interesting enough.  And none of the ninja throwing stars I laboriously hack-sawed and filed out of variously-sourced soft (or “mild” as Grandpa put it) steel scraps ever broke, even when they missed wooden or Styrofoam or dartboard targets in favor of the cinderblock behind.

Five years later, on my first day at my first job after high school, I woke at 5 in the morning to men banging on garbage can lids and bellowing “GET UP YOU FUCKING MAGGOTS!!!”  Infantry training in the Canadian Armed Forces had begun, and by the end of the training cycle, most of the young men who had started had quit, broken by the pain and fatigue and stress and fear that is essential to the transformation of an ordinary young man into an effective killing machine.

We knew going in that most of us wouldn’t make it, and I’m sure we all looked around and placed our private bets as to who would and who wouldn’t.  The attrition began quickly, two guys quitting before lunch on the first day, and a surprising trend was soon obvious:  the big, loud, macho, tough-seeming guys, the avatars of Yang, broke faster.  The quieter guys, the less ostentatiously (indeed, as it turned out, meretriciously) masculine guys, even the nerdier guys, they seemed to somehow soften into the shape of that brutal crucible.  They hunkered down, they accepted the countless day-and-night physical and psychological cruelties.  They took the shit.  They were standing tall on graduation day. 

The phrase “taking shit” has vernacular weight in the Canadian Forces; Brits call it “beasting”.  It refers to the physical and psychological agony instructors inflict on soldiers in training to inoculate them against the stress of combat.  “How was that course you went on?”  “It was good, it was a tough course, we took a lot of shit.”  Note the nature of the verb in context, the receptive denotation of “taking”.

A couple of years later I was in University and tree-planting across Northern British Columbia for the summers, and the same phenomenon presented.  The attrition rate wasn’t as severe as it was in Infantry training, but the discomforts of the job are significant, and at the end of a planting season maybe half of the people who’d started had packed up their tents and slunk home. And the demographic trend was similar: the Yin-ier types tended to make it through, and the Yang-ier types tended to break. 

I’ll pause to note here that at the time, I wasn’t thinking in terms of “Yin types” and “Yang types”.  I just noted that the big , loud and macho didn’t seem to have the long-range toughness of the quiet and unassuming.  I vaguely theorized that the bigger, louder guys were more used to inflicting discomfort and the smaller, quieter guys were more used to receiving it, but I didn’t give it the thought it deserved, and the penny didn’t drop until I came to Southeast Asia, and specifically to the mega-city of Saigon, rented a scooter, slipped into the riotous flow of vehicles, and began to learn the culture of urban Vietnamese traffic. 

It’s a multi-level gob-smack for every Westerner who experiences it for the first time.  The sheer volume of traffic, the toxic cloud generated by hundreds of thousands of emissions-control-free engines revving in a dense mass, the savage, merciless aggression of the drivers, are all indescribable by mere language. 

But to a boy raised in a rough-and-tumble semi-rural North American culture, the most shocking thing was that nobody was getting the shit beat out of them.

People battle for every meter in Saigon traffic.  If you leave a wheel-diameter space between you and the vehicle in front of you, somebody will instantly jam their front wheel into that space, obliging you to stand on the brakes and wait until the next wheel-diameter space opens in front of you, so you can do the same thing to the next guy.  It’s vicious.  Traffic lights are universally ignored; when a light turns red, people just keep driving through.  The drivers who now have the green light inch forward, pushing, pushing, waiting for somebody to leave a violable space, and when one wheel jams in, the tide turns, and that flow of traffic has the upper hand.  In the resulting practice, the flow of traffic is often exactly contrary to the turn of the traffic lights.  People are mostly blocked when they have the green light, and mostly bulling their way through when they have a red light. 

And everybody just deals with it.  Just as they mete out reprehensible aggression to others, they receive the same with abiding equanimity.  It’s incomprehensible to a person from a place where the phrase “road rage” has been common vernacular for decades. 

My premise is this:  the everyday Saigon Viet, on his or her everyday commute to work, is a Taoist master, balancing the most intense Yin and Yang energies without thought or effort.  It’s just what they do.  It’s the Tao of getting around, and without the Yin part of the equation, you will be batshit crazy at the end of the first block of Saigon traffic.  You have to be able to chill out, to take the shit, to soften to the shocks, in order to endure.

Toughness, true toughness, the capacity to endure when it’s not easy, to keep your shit together and keep going when all you want in the world is to scream and cry and break down and pick up your marbles and go home, that’s a quality of Yin.  It’s a quality of the soft, the receptive, the feminine.  It’s not a macho quality.  It’s the precise polar opposite of that.  Yin is that which receives what comes, whether it’s comfortable or not.

This was an epiphany for me.  Western culture, I believe, grossly over-values Yang and undervalues Yin.  We lionize the active, the aggressive, the productive, Getting Things Done.  We insufficiently credit both the power and importance Yin, maybe we even attribute Yin virtues to Yang.  Maybe we think of the capacity to endure adversity as a capacity to harden ourselves against that adversity. 

It’s not.  The capacity to endure adversity does not exist without the capacity to accept that adversity.  The capacity, in short, to take it.  When we accept it, when we take it, we can keep functioning, keep moving forward through it, and karma allowing, maybe even past it.  It’s the Yang that “can’t take it”, because Yang doesn’t take, it doesn’t receive, it gives out. 

The principle applies to discomforts from minimal to intense, from having a tooth drilled without anesthetic to holding a warrior pose a few breaths longer than one wishes to.  Whenever it’s not easy, it’s Yin that sustains.  It’s softness that survives the pressure or the shock that would shatter hardness.  

As always, Dear Reader, do not believe me.  Try it for yourself.  The next time you’re in a situation that requires you to be tougher, to endure that which is other than pleasant, be softer.  Your mat is probably the best place to take it for a spin.  Let me know how it goes.   


I have one more little evidentiary tidbit.  You might find it more repulsive than probative, but I’m going to subject you to it anyways.

I had a kickboxing teacher once, a formidable guy who had been a notorious brawler in his youth.  He’d mellowed with age (thank God) and held a wealth of martial arts arcana.  He told us if we wanted to toughen the skin on our knuckles in anticipation of bare-knuckle fighting, we should pee on our knuckles.  “Hardens the skin,” he said matter-of-factly.  None of us ever admitted to trying it. 

I heard the same thing a couple of years later from a gymnastics coach, who advocated peeing all over one’s own hands, again to “harden the skin.”  I wasn’t a gymnast, but I was curious, but not that curious. 

Got a bottle of quality moisturizer?  Go look at the ingredients.  It probably contains urea.  As in urine.  Not to make skin harder, but to make the skin softer.  I think my kickboxing teacher and the gymnastics coach were half right.  I think peeing on one’s own skin does make it tougher, but not by making it harder.  I think urea makes skin tougher by making it softer. 

You can let me know how that goes, too. 

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