Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Other than Professor Almeida, I am usually the most tenured person on the mat, and yet, I am surrounded by teammates who all understand certain aspects of grappling better than I do. With finite mat time and subjective propensities, we each explore a limited portion of Jiu Jitsu. In a room of dedicated students, everyone understands an aspect of grappling better than we do.

Many of my immediate teachers are technically my junior, and this is the lesson:

You can be senior in rank, relative to your teammate, while being junior in your understanding of a position, technique, or concept.

I think far too often as students ascend the belt ranks, they create a mental blockade in which, once someone is a lower rank than them, they assume they can no longer learn from that person. Though rarely a conscious choice, there seems to be a natural resistance to openly listening to someone who is designated your junior.

Everyone knows something you don’t. Our rolls tend to follow similar trajectories. The more time we spend mastering one type of game, the less time we leave for the practice of alternative styles. As each of us comes to Jiu Jitsu with our unique lens, with a coupling of genetic predispositions and life experiences, we gain a perspective which exists solely within us. The aim of Jiu Jitsu is to subdue another using your body. This is the goal we all share and yet we pursue its end in such contrasting ways.

Plato had this idea that everything was a manifestation of a perfect Form, an ideal version of that thing, existing beyond space and time. He believed that each chair was a reflection of that ideal chair, with all manifestations falling short of that perfection.

This way of thinking serves many purposes; Jiu Jitsu is not one of them. There is no universal form of Jiu Jitsu. The quality of its expression depends upon the practitioner, who acts within his own strengths and weaknesses, leaving him, if he is of great skill, optimally equipped to perform a particular style of game, relying on a sub-section of techniques within various positions, best performed by a body of his specific attributes.

By achieving perfection in one style of play, we lose it in all others. The opportunity cost of greatness is to be truly great in something but nothing else.

There is no universal form of Jiu Jitsu, because no human vehicle can be best suited to excel in every style of game play, as it is our differences which create the so many contrasting styles of play. We are each confined, to paraphrase Thoreau, by the narrowness of our experience. These various proclivities and inclinations result in each of our attentions being pulled in different directions, finding success with techniques, concepts, and positions in which we are best fashioned to do so. We each go farther and farther down our own rabbit hole, creating games which are appropriate representations of the contrasting depths we all possess below the surface.

In a room full of experienced grapplers, everyone knows something you do not. You may have a training partner you whoop every day, but that doesn’t mean your understanding has surpassed his in every aspect of grappling. He is simply unable to perform where he is better than you, on you, because you so surpass him everywhere else. We impede our own education. Here my friend possesses a wonderful treasure, and because of my shortsightedness, I never see it. If we are to glimpse our potential, we must learn to see everyone as teachers.

The most experienced grappler in the room is probably the one asking the most questions.

Each of us represents a very minimal understanding of Jiu Jitsu. This is a blessing. It’s not hard to radically improve every day. Jiu Jitsu is as vast as we are limited. The experienced student has just enough knowledge to illuminate his ignorance.

If I am unable to teach a seminar about one specific position or concept, without any prep time, then I do not fully understand that area of grappling. There is a big difference between knowing something in your head and feeling it in your bones. When I consider how I understand guard passing, and I recognize that the same amount of knowledge (and so much more) can be had in every position, technique, or concept, I am aware that I have barely glimpsed the depths of Jiu Jitsu.

The farther we go down the road, the more we realize just how much farther there is to travel. Our knowledge reveals our ignorance.

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”- Isaac Newton

And this is the transformative power of Jiu Jitsu. Our awareness of ignorance on the mat allows us to more easily recognize this truth in our daily lives. Admitting the shortcomings of our lens leaves us more inclined to benefit from the perspective of others.

This is best expressed using the Zen Koan:

One day, the great Zen master received a visit from his most renowned student. Though brilliant and worldly successful, this student was bound up by ego and full of pride. The master served tea. He filled his student’s cup to the brim, and then kept on pouring. The student watched as the cup overflowed, making a mess all over the kitchen table. Finally, he could no longer restrain himself as he yelled, “The cup is full. No more will go in!” Calmly, the master set down the teapot. “Like this cup,” he said, “You are full of your own beliefs and opinions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

We are most willing to empty our cups while on the mats. Our love of grappling becomes the impetus for our improved humanity. We acquire daily reps of self-emptying in seeking the council of others. We do it first on the mat and then in the world. When we embody this openness, we remove our greatest impediment to education, ourselves. It is only then that we can truly receive others’ teachings.

So much of education is learning to unlearn what we acquire along the way. But we are hesitant to empty our cups because we define ourselves by what’s inside. Jiu Jitsu has a built-in mechanism for humility: our inherent lack of skill in combat.

We’ve all seen the YouTube videos of street fights. Even amateur mixed martial arts, with men and women devoting their lives to combat, can make one cringe. And, after one’s first round of live training with an experienced student, our lack of skill becomes clear. We have no problems emptying our cup when a man half our size does it for us.

And this is the gift. When we are constantly humbled on the mat, daily letting go of our notions of superiority, we can acknowledge when we stumble in the rest of our lives. Character development transcends disciplines. We bring the humility we find in grappling into the rest of our lives.

We require courage to empty our cup. And it requires courage to simply sit down for tea. Everyone on the mat has chosen a life of difficulty through this art. While so many spend the night in front of the television, we spend ours striving toward our highest selves.

It takes tremendous courage to step on the mat for the first time. You earn a white belt by having the bravery to embark on this worthy endeavor. Humility is required to recognize that you want something out of life which you do not currently possess: a better body, the ability to defend one’s self, fellowship, or simply a hobby.

This heroic and honest assessment of one’s self is only made possible through humility. The prideful man would never embark on such an endeavor which requires the help of so many. We come to a Jiu Jitsu academy because we realize we cannot go at it alone, that our development requires the assistance of a community.

Whatever it is we search for, we find it, and bring it with us into the rest of our lives. In every hero’s journey, the protagonist descends to that special world, wins the boon, and brings it back to share in the ordinary world with his contemporaries. We are no different, but rather than return with some magic sword or potion, we return with strength and kindness.

A strength and kindness which can only be found when one admits his struggle and shortcomings, and in yielding to the teachings of wiser men, loses one’s self in a worthy endeavor to become something more. Humility frees us of our self-imposed limitations by helping us repeatedly find value outside of ourselves, and coming to an awareness that if we are to achieve anything, our success is due to all those who cross our path.


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