BJJ is a voluntary ordeal by which you expand your notions of self and your capabilities. It serves as a catalyst to your physical body’s evolution. It deepens and adds to the types of relationships you have in your life, with a room full of training partners and mentors. It thus also magnifies the extent to which you can identify your own concerns and dreams with those of your teammates, teachers, students, and maybe even your fans if you reach some sort of athletic or instructional celebrity.
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You’re likely to help others grow too, implicitly, unless you’re in the wrong environment. You and all those in your dojo are on a trajectory with a beginning, middle, and an end, even if there are several plot twists and narrative confusions. Not everyone’s story arc will be the same; many drop off at different stages of the journey, and perhaps you’ll outlast many alongside whom you began your journey. Your circle of student-peers at the end looks quite different than it did at the beginning, should you make it that far.
You’ll have long dark nights of the soul, doubting yourself, when you hit seemingly insurmountable plateaus or challenges to your improvement; sets of crises that you need to dig deep and take hard looks at the deepest parts of yourself to resolve. You’ll need to expand your notions of “faith” to include expanded belief in yourself, your teachers, and the efficacy of the techniques and the learning process as a whole.
Put succinctly: you’re not the same person as when you began your journey, after enough time has passed.
Now that those initial observations are out of the way, I need to mention one thing right off the bat: this is not a religious piece, at all. I’m not offering anything in that department. You would not have a clear idea whether I’m an “atheist” or a “believer” whether we had a long conversation or a short one about it. That’s because I don’t personally have such a simple answer for such a complex universe. My own viewpoint is not crucial to yours in that sense though. Be whatever kind of believer or non-believer you want to be, and once we establish some workable terms, we’ll probably discover some useful enough common ground for the topic at hand.
“Spiritual” is a word that makes my skin crawl at least as often as I find myself jiving with someone else about it, like we’re on the same page about such a wide-ranging term. I mentioned above several aspects of human experience that we can fold into a communicable experience of the “spiritual.” I’ll take it from the categorical to the specific, however, just to make it even clearer. For convenience, place a “perhaps” at the beginning of each of the following examples, as everyone’s mileage may vary.
- You’ll find yourself anchoring onto one or two very specific sayings or maxims your teacher often repeats about a BJJ principal. You’ll find yourself eventually applying it to other areas of your life. For example: “basic doesn’t mean simple”, as a maxim about the deep and rich complexity inherent in the fundamentals, and how far you can take them.
- You’ll find yourself seeing the agony or the victory of a teammate, and experiencing it as your own; suddenly, in that moment, the distinction between “you” and “them” collapses just a little bit; in mystical terms, this is something like a metaphysical union of spirits and identities, even in miniature. You’ll see just how much deeper this experience can run once you see a teammate injured badly; perhaps you almost even feel like you personally feel the pain of that torn knee, even if just in an echo of your imagination.
- You’ll find yourself reading books or watching interviews by people in totally unrelated fields of study or practice, observing the lessons of mastery that they’ve gained along the way. You’ll (consciously, or otherwise) begin applying that to your own practice. You may even communicate it to students one day, as a teacher. This is nothing short of an act of consciousness expanding, which becomes a communal act of the same sort, once you’ve taken on a teacher role.
- You’ll be the person who pivots someone’s life forever, in one or another context. You’ll be the opponent that crushes them in a match, after which they vow to never endure such a defeat again; suddenly, they become driven mat-monsters. Or maybe you’re the one who says one simple and profound bit of consolation to a frustrated teammate; whatever you said, at that right time or place, suddenly makes sense to them in a way nothing else had; even if it seemed an obvious insight in your own mind.
- You’ll be the one who introduced someone to the sport; perhaps even kept them involved when they felt like quitting; perhaps this person tells you, in a heart-felt moment, that you are someone who helped you to not commit suicide; I’ve had this said to me several times as a coach.
- The things you taught (or helped another train) literally saved someone’s life. I’ve had at least one person definitively say this to me, and one or two others imply it; that their lives were saved, and also that they weren’t raped. This is not just a casual hobby, it has martial (defensive, offensive) application in real-world settings.
- You’ll experience the burning regret of having introduced someone with soul-sickness of one kind or another to this hobby, and they misused the gift. Maybe they hurt and dominated people with the “gentle art,” breaking the trust of all their teachers. That knowledge never quite leaves you, and you’ll have reminders along the way.
- You’ll experience a sense of time stopping as you see someone execute a technique so perfectly that it almost doesn’t seem real; maybe this person executing this technique is you, in another case, and the imperturbable sense of “flow” while executing it made you feel almost as if you were not even piloting your own body as you did it. You’ll have an aesthetic experience of beauty creep up on you, in the context of a combat sport.
- Maybe, if you are religious, you find yourself in one or another negotiation with your god; pleading for help and support in an athletic quest that you’ve come to identify so deeply with your sense of character, worth, accomplishment, and so on. Maybe later in your life, you feel differently about those moments wherein you asked God to get involved. Or maybe you just assume your God was involved in both your successes and victories, and that your portion was doled out according to some necessity.
- The resiliency and grit you learned from jiu-jitsu helped you endure through other great life challenges. Maybe those other challenges were a thousand times more dangerous and threatening, but nonetheless were approached with the same courage and mindset with which you approached your training.
- Along your training journey, you finally begin to understand some of the statements of old martial arts masters (or even masters of other disciplines) which before seemed like cryptic nonsense. Suddenly you have a rich experience to draw from, and it begins to decode old wisdoms that have surrounded you for your entire life.
- There will come a moment, if you’re lucky, where you understand that you and your competitive adversary are one and the same instrument of one another’s mutual growth. The simultaneous competitive zeal is somehow equally braided with regard, respect, concern, and admiration for the adversary who made the self-expansion possible.
- You’ll learn the focus and discipline of the zen-buddhist samurais who day in, day out, honed their skills, until all they could see (literally, it seems) was the bullseye at which they aimed, as the rest of the world literally faded away. You’ll suddenly realize how much sense the old meditation practices of these warriors now makes sense to you, as it is all only ever the same practice of archery whether on the battlefield, the practice-field, or sitting cross-legged with only the image of the bullseye in the silence of your own mind.
- You’ll contribute to the growth of children, if you’re around a kids program. The sense of contribution here is about as primal to our species as possible, short of rearing your own children, and your lessons and mentoring will become part of these children’s souls forever. When you realize this, and when you realize that you’re repaying the same contribution you received (at some point, from some mentoring adult), that might stretch all the way back before history, in an endless unbroken line. Your notion of “self” again expands, radically.
Those, my friends, are just some quick examples.
But: wasn’t this labeled as a “how to” article?
“How” to have a spiritual experience in this art barely needs any external instruction. So many of these things will simply happen to you along the way. However, your receptivity to it all, and your ability to put language to the experience, will increase if you also make yourself a student of other disciplines.
The works of poets, philosophers, saints, mystics, artists; these should all be part of your diet if you wish to have the deepest possible experience of something you’re already doing. Give yourself as many contexts to understand your experience as you can. Read books, listen to audio lectures, take courses, find mentors in these areas as well as BJJ coaches. Your soul, your spirit, your mind, your heart will have room for nearly all of it. And any of its quantity that overflows is likely to spill into your neighbor’s cup. So be greedy.