Countering BJJ Frustration with Stoicism

Countering BJJ Frustration with Stoicism.

Bye: Joe Hannan

I let my sweaty head fall with a thud against the ocean blue mats that lined the walls of Performance Jiu Jitsu. I don’t remember the roll, but I’m sure it had been savage and swift, with multiple tapouts and lots of flailing around. I might have even let out a heavy sigh. I felt the muscles of my face go slack with the far-away feeling of dejection. I replayed the roll in my head. I hadn’t noticed Lou, my instructor, seated across the room from me.

He laughed. “You just have this ‘I hate life’ expression.”

I was taking myself far too seriously. He knew it, and then I did too. I laughed and got back to failing in earnest.

With all of that failure, you are bound to feel frustrated. Frustration, I find, is one of the biggest roadblocks to learning. I figured out early on that mastering my emotions on the mat would be essential to having some modicum of success in Jiu Jitsu. It was fortuitous that about this time, I fell into the world of Stoic philosophy.

The great warrior, philosopher and leader Marcus Aurelius, in his iconic stoic volume “Meditations,” attaches almost holy reverence to what he calls the “ruling principle” or the “temple of reason” that is rational thought. I prefer the image of the temple of reason as a physical place and refuge from the turmoil of emotion. Summarizing Aurelius in very broad strokes, he espouses that “opinion is everything,” meaning that we have the freedom to choose what we think and how we feel about everything. When emotionally rankled, we have the option of retreating to our temple of reason, seeing the situation accurately, and responding dispassionately and appropriately.

Back on the mat, my face and large nose are being smashed against the unforgiving surface of my training partner’s chest. This is uncomfortable. My reptilian brain is screaming: Thrash! Push! Gouge! Escape! My frontal cortex is whining about how attacking with a triangle two moves ago was one among a long series of poor decisions, starting with totaling my Honda Accord in a drag race when I was 17. It’s getting noisy in my head now, and my nose can’t support the weight of my training partner’s chest much longer. I dash up a short flight of stairs in my brain and close the door to the temple of reason.

Before the altar, I see myself below on the mat, getting smashed. Sucks, I think. Now what? I assess the situation. Both arms are pinned overhead. I don’t have long before I get choked or armlocked. But my legs are free. That counts for something, right? I also notice that my training partner’s belt is still on and tied. In a flash, I remember the cheapest of cheap sweeps that a purple belt showed me at my old academy.

I run from the temple of reason back to the mats and clumsily hook both feet into my training partner’s belt and kick, bringing his weight off my face. It’s not a clean sweep, but it buys me enough time to shrimp out and reestablish combat base. If this were a real fight, I am, at least, not dead.

As a Jiu Jitsu white belt, failure is as certain as death and paying taxes. And you will fail more often than you succeed. However, how you respond to that failure — physically and emotionally — is a matter of choice, in accordance with thousands of years of Stoic tradition.

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