Gym Class Zen


My first day on the job, as I was basking in the early fall sunshine at the playground after school, I noticed with horror that Billy was kneeling in a patch of dirt, sobbing.  Oh crap, I thought.  Oh crap oh crap oh crap.  One of the other children sauntered over—very casually, I thought, given the circumstances—to provide a report: “Billy is crying again.”  I ran over to Billy, self-conscious of the other parents around, no doubt noticing the failure of the new gym teacher in allowing harm to befall one of his students.  What I would’ve noticed in my student’s report of the situation had I not been panicking was that ever-informative “again.”  I probably would have also noticed the utterly blasé attitudes of the other parents and teachers as well.  Billy, I soon came to learn, cried multiple times, every day.

In the movie Road House, after getting stitched up by the beautiful blond doctor, legendary bouncer John Dalton (Patrick Swayze) famously declares, “Pain don’t hurt.”  I’ve spent most of my life vehemently disagreeing.  I avoided pain like the plague, and I made it through childhood without suffering any broken bones, let alone stitches.  It has only been in adulthood that I’ve gotten a couple more serious lumps. And in so doing, I’ve found that Dalton was wrong: pain hurts so much that when you are in pain it seems to be the only thing that exists.  But, paradoxically, because it is the only thing that exists, the sense of personal suffering I assumed would be agonizingly present in moments of intense pain was absent.  Dalton, with his Zen bouncer mystique, was right, in a backwards kind of way: pain don’t hurt.  Pain is, or pain isn’t.

As a Zen practitioner, I cringe at casually uttered assignations of Zen-ness.  Being blessedly comatose is not “so Zen”.  Neither is attending yoga, taking a candle-lit bath, or becoming a vegetarian. But Zen does turn out to be helpful in discussing and understanding pain, and so its mention above in relation to Dalton is purely intentional.  In a 2010 study on pain and meditation, published in the (wonderfully named) journal Pain, researcher Pierre Rainville found that the meditators were not processing the pain sensation in the part of the brain responsible for “appraisal, reasoning, or memory formation.” In short, “We think that they feel the sensations, but cut the process short, refraining from interpretation or labeling of the stimuli as painful.”

Interestingly, this learned ability to deal with pain seems to be shared by Buddhists and athletes alike.  Writing for Time recently, Laura Schwecherl cited Pain and a group of 15 studies comparing the pain thresholds and tolerance of athletes and non-athletes. While both groups felt pain at similar points, athletes had much higher tolerance. Athletes, of course, also practice being in pain.  It is an unavoidable aspect of the practice of athletics, just as it is in the practice of Zen.

When I go on Zen retreats, as I do about twice a year, colleagues and acquaintances often express jealousy at how lucky I am to be able to go “chill out,” In truth, these retreats are the most difficult—and painful—experiences I’ve ever (literally) sat through.  I used to try and endure the pain, clenching my way through the sitting rounds as my knees felt like they were on the verge of spontaneously combusting.  But, the more I’ve sat, the more pain has become just another thing that happens, and not something I have to personally relate to (or grapple with).

I still avoid pain like the plague, only when I’m plagued with pain, it just doesn’t suck as much.  And I wish I’d been forced to endure more of it, earlier, so that I could’ve learned that being in pain won’t kill you (usually, anyway).  “Pain is inevitable,” goes the Buddhist proverb.  “Suffering is optional.”

Tears are part of the reality of life as a gym teacher.  I soon discovered that a gym class devoid of them was rare indeed (and probably boring, if the stakes never got high enough for waterworks).  Gym is the space where children, little athletes in training, figure out their kinetic potential, as well as its potential limits.  It is a space where they learn basic lessons regarding pain and suffering.  Safety is my main concern as a teacher, but I quickly developed a thick skin when it came to tears.  My job, I came to recognize, was in part to allow a healthy dose of lumps and bruises in exchange for the greater physical command and confidence such lumps and bruises provide.  In that sense, being a gym teacher is somewhat like being the Wizard of Oz.  Arrive frightened, leave courageous.  Arrive reckless, leave cautioned.  Arrive heartless, leave compassionate.  Pain, it turns out, is a great teacher, and though our gym walls are padded, the floor is not.

One of the secrets of the gym teacher’s profession is that ice packs are the greatest medical advancement since the polio vaccine.  Use of one is seen as a badge of honor, a purple heart of the gymnasium, evidence that one sacrificed their body for the greater good, balled so hard, if you will.  Thus they are highly coveted.  Over the years, I’ve had to temper the regularity with which I provide them so as to fend off ice-pack inflation. I now have to see evidence of a bump/cut/bruise in order to deem an injury ice-pack-worthy.

In popular culture, gym is where our soulful protagonists go to experience excruciating torture by way of a slovenly, authoritarian creep with a whistle. In adults, gym often evokes memories of cruel and unusual punishment, usually involving dodgeball or something that can be reduced to one word, like the Wall, or the Rope.  It’s unfortunate that gym maintains these associations because it causes us to overlook the value of the growth that occurs there.

Gym class is actually where you get to practice joy and suffering, and there is a learning curve.  I often watch, in awe, as my youngest students, the first and second graders, run around the gym during a game of tag with reckless abandon.  Sometimes I cringe for them, sensing an impending collision before it happens.  By now, I’ve probably earned a doctorate in the field of ballistics.  In most of us, this reckless abandon eventually gets molded into cautious exertion.  I marvel at the fact that my older students, though much larger and in greater numbers in the same space, collide far less.  In the adult soccer leagues that I play in, true collisions almost never occur, for everyone has long ago learned the evasive actions required to stay vertical and intact.  The rate at which my younger ones go down, actually, could only be likened to professional athletes; those among us who are athletic enough to be reckless at full throttle, or tough enough to endure the lumps without embracing the caution.

In gym, everyone will go up against their own particular edge, where their comfort zone ends.  It is good to play on that edge, to be reminded of where it is and what it feels like to cross it.  Without the shock and sorrow that come from discovering new limits we also lose the exhilaration and courage that come from leaping into the uncertain and expanding what we thought we were capable of.

In football, when a player gets hit hard, announcers often say something like, “Boy, he got his clock cleaned.”  Being knocked senseless is no fun, and I certainly wouldn’t wish it upon anybody, especially my students.  But the way most of us get knocked senseless is more tragic: by avoiding pain and suffering and remaining tightly enclosed within our comfort zones until we balk at ever crossing that threshold again.  There are worse things than having a clean clock, and there are few things better than seeing the immersed exuberance on the face of a child at play.  Don’t believe me?  Come by the gym some time.

Alex Tzelnic is a writer in Cambridge, MA. He enjoys Zen practice and going on ill-advised motorcycle pilgrimages. His latest such pilgrimage, a 10,529 American criss-crossing that he undertook this summer, can be found at