On a trip to Thailand to train in Muay Thai, Nicholas Olive discovers the meaning of mindfulness within his coach’s instructions.
A few years ago, I traveled to Thailand to further my training in Muay Thai. My first session was with Kong, a coach at a local gym on the island of Koh Tao. Throughout our session, he repeatedly barked a string of words and phrases at me. “Breathe!” he yelled. “Flow — like water!” “Clear mind!”
I hardly listened to him at first, thinking his exclamations to be arbitrary words of encouragement — clichés even. But whenever I dropped my hands, he’d respond with a jab and another comment. With every misplaced step, he’d sweep my legs and utter another phrase. By the end of our session, the outline of my body was left in sweat along the canvas floor, his words firmly ingrained in my mind.
I didn’t know it then, but there in the gulf of Thailand I took the first steps towards mindfulness.
When we finished, I asked Kong what I was meant to do with his instructions — what action should I take in the midst of the chaos of training?
“Do you know Buddhism?” he questioned.
“I know what it is,” I said, “but that’s about it.”
He smiled. “Come back tomorrow — same time. We’ll talk more”.
Without another word, he bowed and walked away. I grabbed my things and headed to the beach. Wading through the water, I felt the sting of salt water in the cuts and blisters I acquired in our session — reminders of mistakes made on the canvas.
As I stood there, Kong’s words replayed in my mind. I felt my feet settle in the sand, closing my eyes and drawing in long, deep breaths. I noticed the breeze on my skin and how the water flowed around my legs. For a moment, I breathed in the wind and exhaled the ocean.
I didn’t know it then, but there in the gulf of Thailand I took the first steps towards mindfulness, meditation, and breathwork. In the years since, these practices and the teachings of Buddhism have helped me greatly improve as a Thai boxer, extending into the activities of my daily life.
At face value, there exists an obvious dissonance between Muay Thai and Buddhist practice; one characterized as violent and the other as peaceful. But each share a common aspiration to be mindful, present, and aware. In each, we awaken to our surroundings, connect to body and breath, and find the ability to “flow like water” (as Kong put it) through the ups and downs of life. With these tools at my side, I’ve become a better fighter, but beyond that, these practices have impacted by life in positive ways I never thought possible.