The beginning of all effort has indeed with me been marked by a preternatural imbecility. I never could, even in forming a common acquaintance, assert or prove a claim to average quickness. A depressing and difficult passage has prefaced every new page I have turned in life. (Charlotte Bronte, Villette)
For about five years, in another lifetime, I was a dedicated but lackluster student of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Without much natural talent for grappling, I nonetheless tried hard but never succeeded in becoming a good grappler — yet I think I was a good student, because in ways perhaps unimagined even by my brilliant teachers I learned more than I was taught. Even though I was mediocre on the mat, what I learned from my struggles there have helped me immeasurably in my life off the mat. Here are my three biggest lessons in “life jiu-jitsu.”
1) From the numerous times I have been lifted off the ground by some muscled brute and then slammed to the mat with the beast on top of me and determined to crush the life out of me, I have learned to stay calm and evaluate the seriousness of the assault. The impact was terrible — but was it pain, or merely impact? If there was only a great thumping crash but no actual pain, then it was nothing more significant than “noise,” a strong vibration, and I can go on. If there was pain, is it injurious — or merely painful? Having a large guy sit on you can be very uncomfortable, but how bad is it really? If no real harm is imminent, I learned to wait it out until the situation changed, or to create a little more space for myself by making micro-movements. When at last the situation changes, even slightly, there is hope for a new position. But if we panic and flail, we might not recognize the new opening in time.
2) From being outmaneuvered regularly by wiser, more adroit practitioners, I have learned that no matter how skillful or vigorous my attempts at evasion may be, with every move I may be falling deeper into a well laid trap that I haven’t thought of. I usually found myself on the defensive and trying desperately to escape. From my attacker’s point of view, I was the myopic novice unable to see further than one attack down the line. He, meanwhile, had set up a string of three attacks at any given moment: if I do this to avoid the armbar, I fall into a guillotine; if I do that to avoid the guillotine, I fall into an Americana; if I move too violently to avoid all of these, he easily takes my back and puts on a rear-naked choke…I am the elementary school pupil learning to spell, while my attacker composes paragraphs. Anything he knows I will do he can use against me — which is the fundamental principle of a strategic mindset.
The big lesson here is that if life is like a fight, a skillful, intelligent practitioner will see each new twist as another opportunity, or even as multiple opportunities. The more skilled you are, the more clearly the opportunities will present themselves. The less skilled you are, the more frustrated you will feel at thwarted expectations — and your frustration will blind you. To an advanced student, the opportunities never end, and an apparent setback will be a new opening. In life you can’t tap out, because your real enemies don’t respect submission. In moments of frustration or despair, I have learned to reset my attitude and ask, What is the opening here? I failed at the X, but am I now in a better position for something else? This training creates wonderful flexibility of mind. As long as I’m not dead or unconscious, I can still create a better situation. (The photo on this page is from a famous fight which begins, terrifyingly, with the great BJJ fighter Antonio Nogueira being picked up by fearsome giant Bob Sapp and slammed head-first into the floor, and which the tenacious and resourceful Nogueira eventually wins by maneuvering the giant into a submission.)
3) Victories are nourishing, but we don’t learn from them. Only in defeat are we forced to examine ourselves and understand what we did wrong and think out how we could do things better. From spending hundreds of hours on the mat getting my ass kicked by better grapplers, I really learned things — about myself, about other people, and about the art. I improved daily, but so did everyone else; I was always behind the curve, so in every session I had most to learn from every single person there. It was exhausting and wonderful. The most sobering occasions were when I thought I had figured something out and was feeling supremely confident, but then found myself easily defeated by someone smaller and with less experience. These upsets were sometimes difficult to handle but always healthy in the long term. We do not like having our self-illusions shattered. Yet what disillusion means is that we have lost illusion and therefore gained clarity; disillusion means intelligence, and greater closeness to reality. We should welcome it, and be grateful for the occasions and the people who reveal to us what we could not see before by making us lose. Only by doing this will we become stronger and smarter.
I am reflecting on these lessons today in the daze of shock and depression after the presidential election. It is as if my friends and I (not to mention the mainstream press and the Democratic Party) have been utterly blind to the society in which we are living. The defeat has necessitated the opening of our eyes: this is a good thing. Losing illusions is always a good thing, and we have to be thankful for that. “Nothing in the universe is hidden,” says a Zen proverb, but still we manage not to see. So, let us take a good look: in truth, we did not know ourselves or our fellow human beings. Awake, we can ask ourselves if the impact was painful, if the pain was injurious — and if we find ourselves still whole and conscious, we need to understand what has presented itself to us and what we can make of it. There are no setbacks, only openings. And there is no tapping.