The Magical Middle
How to Get There by Really Being
Jiu jitsu is interesting, and discouraging, to many folks because there is always something new to learn. The results of not learning these new skills means the higher probability of just getting continually smashed day after day. And since we are basic creatures, we don’t want to experience that kind of discomfort after a while.
Which brings me to the good old city of Plano, TX. I lived out the years of teenage tumult while cultivating a love of classical music, feeding ducks and SAT wordlists (one of these is a lie).
My experience at Plano taught me a lot about achievement, and how continually achieving could help me stay noticed in a competitive environment full of affluent kids that could afford private tutors, boarding schools, college admissions help, cram schools, and fancy cars. I learned to ignore my nervous system signals and adopt a “do or die” mentality. I would finish a task just so I could say I did it; go somewhere just to say I went there; and participate in an activity just to say I was there.
What this way of operating did not give me, though, was a sense of self awareness about who I really was and a framework for finding my true purpose and meaning, whatever it meant in the moment. Over the years, as I’ve reflected on my experiences in high school (and at unhappy jobs), I’ve realized that I had — albeit unconsciously — brought a lot of unnecessary suffering to myself.
I have spent entire decades of my life just doing things, never once stopping to consider, reflect, or ponder on the reasons why I was doing something, or more importantly, the changes that I was noticing in myself as I worked my way through difficult things. I thought I was going far, but I actually went nowhere.
The point was — well, only a point. It never went beyond that, to become something greater — a line in a masterpiece, a note in a composition, or a thread in tapestry.
Music differs from, say, travel. When you travel, you are trying to get somewhere. In music, though, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who only wrote finales. People would go to a concert just to hear one crackling chord… because that’s the end!
- Alan Watts
Recently, I’ve been deeply considering the idea of the Middle — the place where you’re already well on your journey, but have not yet reached a certain milestone or destination. The Middle is often where the hero of the story finds themselves in a quagmire (literally or figuratively), where they feel stuck, unmotivated, fearful, anxious, or directionless. The Middle is often a place that people don’t write about, because it’s less exciting than the beginning (where there’s excitement and possibility) and the end (where there’s resolution).
You can get so confused that you'll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place......for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or the waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Oh, the Places You'll Go - Doctor Seuss
For those of you who have practiced for a while, you’ll definitely recognize the blue belt phase as the first time you’ve experienced the “middle” in the jiu jitsu context. The initial rush and joy of jiu jitsu fades a little faster than usual and it becomes harder to confront adversity.
No one likes to be in the Middle, yet this is where we learn the most about ourselves. When we break down in our confidence, this is an opportunity for us to start to break down the pieces of ourselves that don’t make sense as they are put together right now.
By examining this place more closely, we begin to finally recognize that in order to be unstuck, we have to both borrow from the past and reach into the future so that we can move our present selves forward. We are forced to make connections in order to bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be.
Learning to tolerate, and even savor the Middle, has not been easy for me. It’s a little like eating the lettuce in a BLT by itself without the rest of the trimmings available. But it’s given me so much to work with in terms of developing resilience and grit. Practicing, repeatedly, the act of accepting the present moment — not just through mental gymnastics but by really acknowledging how those sensations live in your body — means that there is heightened awareness without the associated hyper-paranoia.
Because we thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at that end, and the thing was to get to that thing at that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.
But we missed the point the whole way along.
It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.
- Alan Watts
Over the pandemic, I picked up a musical instrument again — not the violin, but the ukulele this time. It was difficult to get my fingers to understand the shapes for certain chords, difficult to do the musical equivalent of “pat your head and rub your belly” for strumming patterns, and difficult to read lyrics while also trying to read chords. But for the first time in my life, I was making music because I wanted to do that, and only that.
In jiu jitsu, when most people join, it’s usually for a specific goal or end state. Some special unicorns claim that they joined because it looked fun, but even there, it was to achieve a dopamine hit of some kind. When these expectations don’t pan out, some of us quit, and others persist or change to new goals to chase. But with each new goal comes new expectations, and the vicious cycle continues.
We need to remember that we play jiu jitsu — like we play a game, a song, a movie. However, there are no mods, no next buttons, no skip options in jiu jitsu. Jiu jitsu must be completed from beginning to end, and those who attempt to speed-run by exploiting loopholes don’t experience much of the story or the substance. Playing in jiu jitsu means relishing in whatever the Middle might be, because with time, it will move on and we will be in another new Middle to contend with. Assuming you’re in a safe and supportive space, when your training progress slows down, consider how this new place may be worth staying for a while, for you to learn about yourself.
If you want to enjoy jiu jitsu, you have to integrate all of its parts — the good, the bad, the ugly; the beginnings, the middles, and the ends. It’s with this belief that you can navigate the trouble times with a sense of peace, knowing that this is exactly where you are supposed to be.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
"Among School Children" - William Butler Yeats