“It is better to understand that the greatest achievements will take the greatest time, and rather not to be okay but grateful and compassionate to the time.” – D.H.
Pain is not the only touchstone for growth. You don’t always have to break yourself down to nothing in order to transcend. Maybe all you have to do is breathe, listen, and walk into today.
The first time I step onto the mat, I am heavy with ego and expectations and the vague notion that I want to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to better protect myself. I think I want control. I am unaware of what this knowledge will cost.
In these first weeks of class, I operate locked in a corner of fear: I am consumed entirely, plagued. When sparring with someone, I am putty. There is no intuition or instinct, my heart is in my throat and I am waiting for instruction.
The first time I hit the door, I expect each technique to come easy to me, to be perfect. This desire will run headlong into my dizzied frustration when I am submitted rapid-fire while sparring. I smother shame with each submission. It feels only multiplied because I am a woman, and I am playing into their expectation that I am weak. Mental narrative runs wild. In the meantime, I entertain the thought of quitting.
That was four months ago. I have not quit.
When I began, I considered myself gentle, as most women are socialized to be. Make yourself small, soft, quiet. Watch me barely misstep and I am spitting an apology, a hand in their direction. This is not gentleness, but weakness. To be gentle, I think one must know their own strength — understand how to modify each blow. Each touch is a modified blow.
The difficulty I’ve encountered is a common experience. My coach once compared the process of learning Jiu-Jitsu to a toddler learning how to walk. It’s not an instant sprint. It’s slow, you stumble, you fall a lot. But you get up and try again because there’s no other option — to refuse growth is to die.
Repetition is key. I come to class until it doesn’t sting anymore, drilling each technique until it is muscle memory. Progress is gained piecemeal. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a sandbox for life — living chess.
A problem is an opportunity. These are instances where you examine the mechanics of problem-solving itself; you establish an aim, consider how that is to be done and what stands in your way, then proceed with your clear focus. If that doesn’t work, why? Try again. This is how fluidity is found. You are invited to slow down and pay attention, to develop, to grow.
Growth requires strength, which Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) cultivates. Your body is conditioned over time, of course, and let it be noted that physical strength is not a prerequisite to learn “the gentle art”. In fact, technique is often encouraged over strength, physical strength can only make developed technique more efficient.
The mind is not excluded from this conditioning. Someone double your size is dripping sweat into your eyes and weighing on your chest — what comes next? There is no time to think. You must breathe, quiet the mind, and move as your body understands. Sometimes all you can do is breathe and endure, listening; this is an act of resilience.
BJJ instigates a reunification of the mind, the body, and the spirit. You are learning self-control. Every time you roll with someone, you gain a greater handle on the present capabilities of your body. Every time you are submitted, you must mindfully refrain from critical thoughts which weigh you down. You must remain open, perceiving your experience without judgment. You are receptive and listening.
You are not only hearing yourself, either. To listen is an active process, monitoring those around you and moving mindfully in conjunction with their needs and your needs in dual consideration. That kindness is an act of strength, of knowing your full capacity and actually modifying that blow for the sake of someone else, for their own growth. Oh, kindness is foundational — a kindness towards yourself, to be truly gentle with your mistakes and those of the people around you.
I learned how to modify my presence. Having been raised socially as a woman, it is a reaction to flatten. It is a crisis to take up space, to be observed. There was a great turning point early on when I was left entirely alone in the gym to drill — repeatedly rolling over my shoulders until the movement is equal to breath.
All by my lonesome on the mat, I become conscious of my small figure on the mat. This is how much space I occupy. Sprawl out; how much space do I want to demand? Each class after, I practice answering that question.
Control of the self is perseverance, applied strength. It is a refined command of your being, and that is what is being cultivated on the mat. Left in the cold without mental fortitude — we cannot grow. When we shy from discomfort, the task of challenging ourselves and each other, from physicality to worldview — of questioning ourselves, is all the more difficult.
At any given moment of life, we are pulled between two forces — growth and decay, living, and dying. What a gift it is to be alive. We are consciously sinking our teeth into the world, we are present.
Special thank you to Kyle and the kind people of Midnight Jiu-Jitsu Club.
Victoria Winter is trying to prove that nothing human is alien to us. On paper, she is a second year student at Seattle Central College, potentially majoring in anthropology and philosophy. In reality, she is fascinated by using the mediums of photojournalism and writing to explore subcultures - the fringes, the limelight, and everything in between. She is in love with humans. Her only firm beliefs are that everything should be explored and most things are easier at night.