Zen & The Art of Jiu-jitsu



by James Eke

“Calm your mind. Control your body. Master your emotions. Breathe”

These are words that I heard a great deal when I first started studying Zen over 30 years ago. I was lucky because a few of the great teachers that I had a chance to study with not only were students of Zen but were also martial artists.

As happens though, my own learning of these lessons took a lot longer than simply hearing the words. In many ways I first needed to learn to sit still, discipline myself, control the mind and breath.  With time though, I started to see that Zen — or meditation — was actually in everything if I had the sight to see it and the ability to integrate it.

As a lay-ordained Zen Buddhist this has been my own personal training for much of the past 20 or so years; the integration of my Zen training into my martial arts and everyday life. The simple thought being, what good is meditation or mindfulness or any other aspect of practice if you cannot use it in everything you do. In that way, when I can, I will make a walk in the woods, or the beach, or from Fernwood to downtown all Zen-walks. When I am driving I’ll make it into Zen-driving. In my martial arts too I’ll make it into Zen-training.

When I started Brazilian Jiu-jitsu at 42 years old I was thrilled to see that the words that my first Zen teachers first said to me were now being repeated by BJJ black belts when we trained. And the more I trained, the more I saw the deep connection with Zen and Jiu-jitsu.

Of course, you can just as easily train in BJJ or anything martial art and be oblivious to the Zen aspect, just as you can walk along the beach and have no real deeper training going on. The important part is the intent and what you are injecting into the training.

In Jiu-jitsu you are in a state of intimate understanding of combat and the simple reality that if you make a mistake, if you lose focus, if you lose structure, if you get gassed out, if you don’t have the stamina, this other person is going to pin you down, squish you flat and make you tap out seeming to have more limbs than possible and be everywhere at once, quicker than you can say ‘Avalokiteshvara’.

Our growth in Jiu-jitsu really starts to take shape when we learn to control our minds, to relax them, to see things as they really are, to notice the subtle differences in body position, the breath of our opponent, their intent. From there we start to learn how to control our bodies — we see how our weaknesses will be used against us, we see how simple understanding of where we are in relation to the other person can start a chain-reaction that makes a huge difference in how things happen.

For a lot of people this is as far as they get.

To get further means letting go of the ego. To master your own emotions and your inner dramas. You learn that your training is not about tapping the other person out — it is about something more. This ‘something’ depends on an impartial participant who is striving for a higher level of Jiu-jitsu than feeling the ‘other guy’ tap.

Key to all of this is to learn to breathe.

You likely think you already know how to breathe. You think that you are breathing. But next time you are rolling force yourself to listen to your opponent; are they breathing harder than you? What is your breath doing to your emotional output when you roll? What are you not seeing or feeling because of the fight to get air into your body? Why are you in a panic to get another breath when you’ve been smashed and you are dealing with their weight on your chest even though you know that this too won’t last and another breath will come if you relax and let it?

In a lot of ways Jiu-jitsu becomes a physical manifestation of Zen when we learn how to train a certain way and when we do amazing things happen — we find that the act of training itself is teaching us about far more things than simply how to defend ourselves.

The things you will learn in your Jiu-jitsu training are far deeper than you will understand when you first walk out on the mats. Yes, you’ll learn to defend yourself. You’ll learn discipline. You’ll become more fit. You’ll make friends. You’ll get a deeper appreciation for your own life. You’ll look back and wonder what would have happened if you had never started training.

We don’t have to become Zen Masters. We don’t have to become BJJ World Champions. What we do need is to become more in touch with ourselves and our potential. When we train ourselves to see more in our lives we care more about the people and things that surround us.

Jiu-jitsu, if trained properly, can give us all of this and far more.

As the teachers have been saying for thousands of years, as we train ourselves we will find the world, and our own hearts, will open to us.

There is so much that you will learn from Jiu-jitsu. It will make a world of difference to you. Just take that first step, trust in the system and what you will discover.

You’ll get there. Have faith.

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