Lessons from the mat …

Ego can be a crippling thing. Behind our ego lies a subtle intelligence; one, that, if sensing we are likely to fail at something, quietly offers up rationalization for why we shouldn’t even try. It guarantees that we never fail by not letting us attempt in the first place. Paying less attention to the voice of the ego is the first step in putting ourselves on a path to greater learning.

My BJJ instructors, the Machado brothers, have a family credo that begs: ‘leave your ego at the door’. This is something that martial artists can find difficult to do but it is nevertheless a goal worth setting for ourselves. Our ego likes to be right, our ego likes to win and it will squirm and wiggle, plot and plan to avoid having to experience anything otherwise. One of the most corrosive outgrowths of ego is that it will talk us out of doing things where there is a reasonable or high chance of failure. In this way, ego is probably the single biggest hurdle to overcome if we are to experience growth and learning as human beings. Some martial arts environments make it easy for the ego to remain intact, because the lack of serious tests or challenges, ensure that the ego is never really threatened. Some schools are very challenging for the ego; kickboxing or boxing gyms, BJJ or other grappling schools, etc ; in these kinds of places there are few hiding places and the ego is constantly assaulted. This is a good thing; ultimately it allows us to live in state of greater peace and with the sense of confidence that comes with real experience.

What lies around the corner, no one can know. Whether we accept it or not, life is, and always will be, an exploratory journey. As is the case with all exploration, if the unfolding trek doesn’t succeed in killing us, it will almost certainly provide us with instruction. If we want to learn things that others do not know, we need to be willing to do the things that other people do not do.

The martial arts practise, in and of itself, is something that most people are not willing to do; so in some sense, we are already on the path to a kind of excellence that remains out of reach of many people. Extraordinary results are the consequence of extraordinary actions or decisions; and who would settle for anything less? Well, I’ll answer that question for you: nearly everybody! Look around, the world is full of the ordinary, the mundane, disease, unhappiness, suffering; do we really need to contribute more of the same. For myself, the answer is definitely not. I want to live an extraordinary life and this means that I need to do extraordinary things. I approach my martial arts training with this credo in mind and I think they day we begin to settle for the ordinary; then this is the day we should give up our martial arts practise.

Most combative disciplines have evolved under very specific sets of conditions. Some of these disciplines are more or less adaptive than others. In a constantly evolving and changing environment, like the world we live in, it is incumbent upon the martial arts professional to either accept the limitations of what they have to offer or open their minds to further learning. The basic underlying rule of evolution is adapt or perish.

The martial arts are not immune to this universal principle. Each of us has adapted in a greater or lesser degree to the world in which we now live; a world that is very different from the world that existed ten, twenty or thirty years ago. None of us are in denial about the need to drive a car or use a mobile phone for example; but how many martial artists are in denial about the fact that the techniques and strategies that are on offer in the modern-day martial arts landscape are very highly evolved from where they were ten or twenty years ago. The is just so much great material out there and available now; so many effective and innovative training methods; and much of it with a proven track record; can we afford to ignore this fact? I do agree that the world needs some people who are willing to say, collect and preserve old stamps for historical reasons or perhaps out of personal interest; but just don’t try to post any letters with them. I think we need to make distinctions here; distinctions between what we are preserving for arts sake and what we need to practise for effective self-defence in today’s rapidly changing world.

Innovation is naturally driven by necessity and circumstance, and our capacity for creativity seems boundless; but it is when we are cut loose from the confines of familiarity that we can truly tap into our innovative potential. Becoming more innovative is more about familiarizing ourselves with risk, and less about staying with the tried and true.

Ideas spread if they have survival value. In this sense, they are subject to evolutionary forces in a similar way to living things. Good ideas survive and propagate; bad ideas die a natural death. Ideas that other people have about us, also spread and propagate. What ideas these are, depends much on how we go about our work and how we live our lives. Building a solid reputation begins with making small promises and living up to them.
We become more innovative as we let our ego’s go. This takes us back to the first paragraph of this article. The less attached we are to having to win or needing to be right, or be comfortable, or be safe, then the more risks we will take and the more things we discover. It is a process that shouldn’t frighten anyone; there is great joy to be had in discovering things; even if some of these things highlight our shortcomings; perhaps even, especially if they do.
Best wishes
John B Will


JAB said…
Your best post yet John! Great insight that is sorely needed in the martial arts.
Anonymous said…
Probably the best advice I have been given this year.

Anonymous said…
Coming into my first bjj tournament this weekend I was nervous about the very real thought of losing.now I am calm and will gratiously accept the outcome.many thanks
SenseiMattKlein said…
"If we want to learn things that others do not know, we need to be willing to do the things that other people do not do." Excellent comment John--to me that is it in a nutshell. Adults are scared to do the extraordinary because they are scared of looking bad (the ego). Kids on the other hand don't care what they look like, they just do it. That's why they learn so fast.

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