Putting it all on the line

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BJJ_chokeI think sport can be a scared act. And it can teach you as much about yourself as anything. Everyone knows that playing on a team is good for you and breaking a sweat never hurt either. But on a deeper level than that, I think sport challenges us to be better; to go beyond ourselves and break free of the impossible. 


The two main sports I practice at the moment are Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Crossfit. I've had life changing experiences with both.


Jiu Jitsu

Jiu jitsu is a hell of a martial art. And as a martial art it's essentially a fight; albeit one set within set rules (no ball punching or eye gouging please). In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), you basically put on some white pyjamas (the gi), or some shorts (no gi), step onto the mats with an opponent, and try to choke him unconscious. Seriously. That's the goal. You can also break his arms, legs, neck, wrists, and any other joints except the fingers or toes. But you can't hit. That would be uncivilized. When training, BJJ practitioners learn to bring their opponents to the point just before serious injury and then to stop and allow the opponent to submit, by "tapping out". Once your opponent submits, you win the match. In a real life situation, your opponent doesn't submit (tap) and you break his arm or choke him unconscious.


BJJ_changed_lifeOkay, so what the fuck does choking someone unconscious have to do with Sacred Sundays (a day often reserved for the likes of Walt Whitman, Neil Young, or St. Teresa of Avila)?. Well practicing this martial art makes you humble. Quick. I've been brought to the point of near death or grievous injury so many times it's amazing I can walk. Yet every time injury is averted by submitting to my opponent. He's physically and mentally beaten me, and I have to ask for him to stop. There's something incredibly humbling and healthy about this, in my experience, and I've encountered few things so searingly ego-squishing. People who practice jiu jitsu are often some of the most easy going and humble people you'll ever meet. I've even seen guys wearing t-shirts that say, 'Jiu Jitsu changed my life'. Here's a short video of television personality, and martial arts expert, Joe Rogan, speaking about this aspect of jiu jitsu.


('tapping' = submitting)

                 (Rogan speaks more to the point in part one, here) 

But Jiu jitsu isn't all humble pie. Like any sport, it's also a competition. And this makes room for a whole other aspect of human growth. 

Just yesterday for example I competed in a BJJ tournament. I essentially fought to the death against eight different men over the course of an afternoon. (It's one way to spend a Saturday anyway). Lemme tell you it's scary as hell putting it all on the line in front of a crowd and your friends, knowing you might get hurt, or be embarrassed. But you go for it and do it anyway. By the fourth and fifth fight I was so exhausted I could barley open and close my hands. My neck and upper back were completely seized up from injuries during earlier fights and I couldn't look at my shoulder in either direction. But every time they called my name, I still peeled my beaten carcass off the bench and got back in there. I'm not tooting my own horn here, I'm trying to convey the kind of serious will, perseverance, and intensity it takes to go do battle with another human being. It's not all rage and bone-head aggression (so called red meme stuff). You have to dig into the best part of yourself, fight your fears and unwillingness to go on, and have the courage to put it on the line and see what you're made of. If that's not 'spiritual' I don't know what is.



Speaking of digging deep and seeing what happens, here's a short journal entry about an experience I had during a particularly intense Crossfit workout. I think it supports the point that sport can be a sacred act. Sport reveals previously unknown potentials within us and provides a platform for our own potential greatness, however small.


Fifteen minutes into the most intense workout of my life I was still running as hard as I could. Every cell in my body and the voice inside my head were all screaming "No! Stop! You're going to die if you don't stop right now!". It was very visceral - my chest was tight, stomach twisted, I felt like crying and vomiting.


 There was such a deep resistance to continuing, it seemed insane to keep going. Normally when I'm tired I try to push it down, grit my teeth and fight through it. But this time was different. It was so intense I thought, "Fuck it, I want to see what happens. I'm just going to let it be how it is. I won't fight it. But I won't stop either."


Things started changing quickly. I was suddenly very clear-headed and alert. It was like the world around me was moving in slow motion, but I got to stay at regular speed, sharper than ever. I felt like I had stepped into another dimension. Almost instantly a huge surge of energy, emotion, and heat poured over my entire body. I felt joy and relief and electric-life-force rushing out from the core of my torso into my extremities out my fingers, toes, and top of the head. It was the feeling of being utterly alive. No mistake about it. The thought entered my mind  - "I've never been here before. This is uncharted territory." I've never actually passed through this level of physical and mental exhaustion. On the other side everything was different. I saw the pain and resistance was mostly a mental barrier that didn't mean squat about my ability to go on. I started smiling and laughing at the joy of it all. I finished the workout no problem, with energy to spare.


The 'uncharted territory' thought has stuck with me. I think I have a better idea now of what it means to discover new potentials. I like the idea of bringing this kind of intensity to every workout, of always being in uncharted territory. What would a world look like where we brought this level of perseverance and guts to everything we did? No barriers. Man, that'd be a hell of a place to live. 

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  • Comment Link Philip Corkill Monday, 23 January 2012 17:31 posted by Philip Corkill

    I think studying Islam's prophet and his calls to "put it all on the line" would be a fantastic way to go deeper with this. I intend to go there when I have finished with the New Testament. Anyone on board?

  • Comment Link Tineke de Boer Wednesday, 25 January 2012 10:18 posted by Tineke de Boer

    Man, this inspires me to go back to the gym tonight! The point of surrendering in the context of hard work is subtle... I am very familiar with working hard with pure willpower, but disconnected from the passion for growth. It seems to me that an interest in whats beyond, development, to go further, gives you all the strenght and perspective you need to go further. Places you can't reach from just working hard, where you're perspective is tiny. This goes for sports, but I think it goes for everything we do... Bergen can you speak more about this point and your own experiences?

  • Comment Link Tim Walker Thursday, 26 January 2012 16:05 posted by Tim Walker

    Hey Berg,

    Nice piece. Similar to Tineke, I wanted to start doing burpees after I read this. But i didn't, lol.

    I really liked what you said (and Rogan) about how the act of submission is an on-going ego-checking process. Makes sense to me. My experience with submission has always felt as though I had to give something up in myself, like pride for example. So these artists must get used to it early, but not let it affect their inner resolve and courage to continue, while at the same time some trait of humility seems to be developed in them, generally speaking.

    It's interesting to observe how the ego shows up, inflated, or healthily in check, even transcended, in different sports and activities.

    The idea of submission connects to the idea of 'failure' for me. Our ego doesn't like it. Also, our relationship to it is distorted, and our fear of it keeps us from taking certain risks. I recently started taking improv lessons for fun and to challenge certain fears that I have, particularly around preserving certain self-images and avoiding failure. It has been an awesome activity to confront these parts of me, because as my teacher says, "in improv, you have to learn to embrace failure and discomfort, over and over again" until it just becomes natural. You also have to let go of your ego's preferences, resistances, and self-concepts, and be with, and respond to whatever is arising in the creative field at any moment. I have found it to be a very sacred act as well.

    As you mentioned with your cross-fit experience, pushing through your own resistance to continue brought you to a new threshold of experience.

    Whenever we can find activities (sport, arts, or otherwise) to push us into our own 'unchartered territory' it is such a gift.

    Great piece Berg.


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