Playing Jiu Jitsu
the song of the gentle art
The existence, the physical universe is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn’t going anywhere. That is to say, it doesn’t have some destination that it ought to arrive at.
But it is best understood by analogy with music, because music, as an art form is essentially playful. We say, “You play the piano.” You don’t work the piano.
- Alan Watts
I remember the first time that I was told I wasn’t good enough by a music teacher. He charged $60/hour for lessons (a fortune for us at that time), and he required that all of his students play to highly technical standards. That, in of itself wasn’t the issue. The issue was that I didn’t practice.
I didn’t understand the point of music was music itself.
Piano had to be about written exams and live competitions; trying to win solo competitions; and looking impressive for a resume. I’m sure that the divine aspect of music was available to me, but no eight-year-old (let alone some 18 or 28 year olds) had the capacity to do it by themselves.
(That piano teacher, by the way, fired me.)
It was not until I started attending orchestra concerts did I understand what music could be. A sacred space with the ability to transport both the players and the audience into a different, transcendent state. I began to see how music was not a transactional affair, but an art. Today, when I hear a sublime piece of music, it evokes — no, alchemizes — emotions that make me forget about everything else.
I’ve followed a similar journey in jiu jitsu. For a while it was a largely transactional affair. Train hard, win medals (maybe), repeat. There was no thought given to the artistry of this martial art. I even tried to use jiu jitsu as a launchpad for internet fame, and in the process, failed to see jiu jitsu as an art to be played, not worked.
Play — in its purest form — necessitates being present with whatever is happening. The word “play” has its origins in a word meaning “to occupy oneself.” The word “work” has its origins in a word meaning “to operate, function, or set in motion.” Given this etymology, we can understand work is external, while play is internal.
So could the two states look like in jiu jitsu? Work in jiu jitsu looks like showing up to class, blindly grinding your way through drills, and always looking to smash to win during sparring. It looks like never taking days off because that’s the “way” to climb the ladder of champion success; going even though you don’t feel like persisting any longer, not because of a weak will, but because you refuse to accept that you’re human — no matter how much you’re looking to strive to become something else. Work is never being off; making jiu jitsu your identity even though you can be a multi-dimensional person instead; and telling yourself that all this suffering will be worth it for some far off, vague notion of a better reality and life.
Play concerns itself with the activity at hand and the imaginative places that it can take you. When you play, you understand that not much is at stake in the long term, and you allow yourself to find a sense of ease in any scenario, no matter how stressful someone else would make it. During play, there is no judgment. This is perhaps why bad coaches frown upon having a playful attitude, because their value comes from telling their students why they are always wrong. Play assumes that the people engaged in the activity have maturity and autonomy to work within the boundaries of a container that they have set for themselves. Often, it is in this free environment — not a controlled, strict setting — that allows for the most amount of learning.
Play is not exclusive of technical progression, competitiveness, and skill development:
Most animals have been observed playing, and play does seem to make them happy. But research has also shown that play is a serious business, and many researchers argue that it has evolutionary significance, essential for developing a host of social, physical, and psychological skills.
For instance, Marek Spinka, who studies animal behavior in Prague, and his colleagues have recently argued that play helps animals prepare for the loss of balance they experience when chased by predators, or it can help them deal with the emotions they feel after losing an aggressive interaction. Play, in short, prepares the brain to handle the unexpected. - “Games Animals Play” in Greater Good Magazine
It’s telling that young animals and kids play out of instinct, but it’s hard for adults to do so. Whatever reason or excuse you can come up with for not playing, the benefits have been great for me. I face less anxiety when I’m going to class. I don’t think about “what if” disaster scenarios to avoid, because everything is designed to be fun. And at the end of the day, I’m ready to do it again. Best of all, no one has to pay me to get me to make it feel worthwhile in the long term.
The more I’ve progressed in this jiu jitsu journey, the more I have come to value play. I delight in the way I find new questions to my old answers and old answers to my new questions.
The dissonant phrases of my past still echo from time to time, as if I’m playing in the wrong key and time signature while everyone else harmonizes along. Yet take me out of the orchestra and put me in a single room, and you’ll find that perhaps I was playing the right song, just not in the right place. We learn over time that there are different melodies to be explored, in the form of life’s harshest lessons and gleeful triumphs. The point though, is always that they are to be played.