On a superficial level, martial arts although universally revered and respected, are simply a set of techniques and training methods which teach its proponents how to kill and harm a fellow human being. From learning the simplest punches and kicks, to throwing, locking or choking an opponent, not to mention the innumerable systems which involve blunt, bladed and projectile weaponry.
So why is it that these killing systems are so highly regarded, from young to old, across cultural boundaries, even amongst more pacifistic societies? Could there be other benefits for both the individual and society from learning to fight, beyond the obvious benefit of being able to defend oneself?
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) is martial art with proven effectiveness and has become a world wide phenomenon. There are many reasons for its explosive popularity and I do not believe it simply lies in its effectiveness in the UFC or street scenario, I believe that the training methods employed in BJJ leads one into a journey of self-development, making students better people, often very much unconsciously.
This path to mastery is extremely challenging, and takes many years of training to attain, but the basic process is as follow: The uninitiated turns up to a class, totally unaware of the depth of the art, they are unaware that they are totally unskilled, they are “unconsciously incompetent”, making error after error as they lack the correct intuition to make the right movements. Getting constantly handled and submitted by more experienced practitioners, the beginner will eventually start to become aware of their lack of ability, i.e. they become “consciously incompetent”. A hunger begins to develop at this point, whereby the student starts to try and make sense of what seemed like total chaos previously, they start realising the various moments and mistakes that lead to bad situations, but their ability to analyse is still poor at this stage, that is until they move into the next phase of the process to mastery, that of “Conscious competence”.
The conscious competence phase is when their ability to analyse the experience improves, they are putting moves together and can now consciously implement their skills against less experienced individuals, but it takes constant analysis and reanalysis as new scenarios are put in from of them. After several more years of regular training, the ultimate expression of mastery is when the student has moved into the “Unconscious Competence” phase, here their analysis is minimal and they are training from an intuitive place, things are unconscious and automatic. Bruce Lee termed this beautifully when he said "Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. (unconsciously incompetent)
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. (analytic: conscious incompetence to conscious competence)
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick. (unconscious competence)“
This process holds true in all skill development, watching a baby learn to walk, is to me the best of examples, the initial moments of aided standing, to holding brief moments of balance, taking the first few steps with total concentration, the constant falling, but it literally takes years for a child to walk comfortably and unconsciously with a solid sense of balance, so do not be in a rush to reach the final phase, it cannot come overnight.
Throughout this process of learning BJJ, you will learn many techniques from a variety of positions, on how to develop your position to a more dominant one, to avoid the worst case scenarios and to finish a fight with a submission hold that makes your opponent surrender. But progress cannot happen unless you are willing to address your mistakes, short comings and bad habits, i.e. a sense of self awareness needs to arise, otherwise you will continue in your folly and struggle to get out of the phases of incompetence, and competence will remain an elusive goal. Simply put, this is the basis of all self development, one attempts to observe themselves, their thoughts, feelings and behaviours, perhaps examining where these have lead to in the past, and to polish and amplify those that lead to positive outcomes and amend or curtail those actions which had had less favourable results. What are you doing about your greed, jealousy, negative internal dialogue, prejudice, anger etc? You can use exactly the same process to observe these emotions, feelings and consequent behaviours and mindfully address and perhaps dissolve them. So after you have won all the competitions you could possibly want to win, after you have built your body into a beautiful, chiselled, killing machine, know that you now have the ability to evolve your character in similar fashion.
Many people recoil at the thought of working on themselves in this way, our egos don’t want to admit that we may not be the best version of ourselves that we can be, but it is no different to coming to terms with your own physical limitations as an untrained jiujitsuka, yet still wanting to improve; seeing how you can grow as a fighter and thus knowing that you can also grow into a more evolved person. Do not be too attached to your negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours, you almost certainly weren’t born with them, they have often been taught to us unknowingly by those close to us and life experiences, for the same reasons, they can be unlearnt as our brains are extremely “plastic” structures. Neuro-plasticity means that our nervous system is malleable and very adaptable, it will respond to its dominant stimuli, in other words “Nerves that fire together, wire together.” Consciously changing your thoughts and internal dialogue with daily practices of self awareness, changes nerve signal firing, and can cause a rewiring, with new networks being formed, ultimately changing us both physically and emotionally.
This journey into BJJ will throw many challenges at you, you will be choked, thrown, and submitted on a daily basis. When one is submitted you are in fact shouting “Uncle” or “Mercy” as you acknowledge your opponents ability to ultimately take your life and well-being in that given moment. This process of “tapping out” teaches, layer by layer, of your own vulnerability, but it also teaches responsibility and control to the one who has you in a finishing hold. This daily process of surrendering and also submitting others is one of the most powerful parts of the journey to developing compassion, mainly because you are coming to terms with your training partners ability to cause you significant harm, but it also empowers you with the same skills in the process. This exchange of submitting and being submitted develops compassion when trained in the the correct environment, you learn to take care of your opponents, because you realise that that could be you, you want your training partners to turn up to the next class, and more importantly, you realise the fragility of the human body at its most vulnerable. Perhaps on the surface each submission may seem extremely violent e.g. occluding blood flow to your brain in a strangle, crushing the windpipe in a choke, or putting muscular and ligamentous structures under such pressure that they are on the brink of rupture. But in fact i believe that developing this “superpower” ultimately leads to an increased awareness and thus recognition of ones own ability to harm which is accompanied with a deep sense of responsibility.
In other words, your journey into BJJ mastery is your template for becoming a better and a more compassionate human being, one that is kinder, more flexible and ultimately a nicer person to be around, even though you have cultivated the ability to crush every windpipe in the room! So do not forget that there is a deep philosophical element to this process, and this is why I believe that Warriors are respected the world over, it is not just their ability to inflict damage nor kill, it is the control, humility, compassion and responsibility that accompanies the self-aware and cultivated warriors path.
Now go train whilst evolving your character.