Jazz Piano and Jiu Jitsu

In a recent study, some scientists strapped jazz pianists into an MRI and found that the brain suppresses its self-criticism during improvisation and kicks the part that does creativity into overdrive.

The study suggests that the region of the brain that does rational thought (the prefrontal cortex) is an angry little fascist that regulates – or more to the point, inhibits – the rest of the brain. I imagine the prefrontal cortex as a stony-faced little nun who is always sad and angry with you no matter how hard you try (I went to a Catholic school for three years). That’s why alcohol makes you feel more relaxed and less self-conscious before it turns you into a drooling idiot; the first part of your brain that gets shut down is that mean little nun.

Last week I watched Choke, the 1995 documentary about the Vale Tudo Fighting Championship from the same year. In the opening scenes of the movie, Rickson Gracie says this about jiu jitsu:

The most interesting aspect of jiu jitsu is the sensibility of the opponent, the sense of touch, the weight, the momentum, the transition from one movement to another. That’s the amazing thing about it.

You must allow yourself to go as like an automatic pilot. You don’t know exactly where you’re going until the movement happens. Because you cannot anticipate what’s going to happen. You must allow yourself to be in a zero point, in a neutral point and be relaxed and connected with the variations. You pretty much flow with the go. This is a point beyond the knowledge. It’s years and years of playing around, giving this kind of sensibility.

This short passage cuts to the essence of what’s unique about jiu jitsu among other martial arts, including other grappling arts.

I’m not a spiritual person. What most people see as the spiritual or mystical side of martial arts is, for me,  a matter of getting in touch with the part of yourself that lies beyond the oppressive little nun, which is to say, to tap 99% of your true potential. The ability to do this is what results in the “point beyond the knowledge” – the ability to flow, to zen out, to find the center, to go on autopilot.

Improvisation and the hard path to zen

Think about it: When you learn a new technique, you’ll follow its alien movement one step at a time. If you keep drilling it after class, you’ll eventually perform the move without having to think too much about the details at all. Then, one day, you might even be able to perform the technique live, against a resisting partner! Still later, you’ll find yourself performing technique after technique before you even knew you were going to do them. An experienced athlete performs the most complicated techniques as a matter of habit, or as Rickson would say, on automatic pilot. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

By itself, this isn’t all that interesting: you already do it in your everyday life. Say, when you come home with a bag full of groceries and you have to unlock your front door. You might hold the screen door open with your foot while you find the key with one hand, switch the groceries over, and unlock the other door with the other hand. The balance and precision required to do this everyday task are no more demanding than those required, say, for an arm bar from the guard.

The only substantial difference between unlocking your front door and doing an arm bar is that the arm bar is new and unfamiliar. Making it familiar is just a matter of practice.

Dismissing the Inner Fascist

But for most of us, that mean little nun is a huge obstacle to getting that work done. It’s not so much that we’re lazy (although that’s obviously a factor as well) as that we’re afraid of looking awkward, of messing up. The good news is you’re expected to mess up when you start out. The only way to get over the hump is to keep trying new stuff until you get it right. No one should ever be embarrassed to try something new and fall on their face. I have fallen on my face, literally, time and time again in training. It’s all part of the journey.

You should never be embarrassed to try a new technique and fail, or to repeatedly drill even the simplest techniques over and over again. These are the hallmarks of a future black belt in training. When I watch new guys train, I’m not interested in how naturally talented they are. We’ve all seen a million talented guys get frustrated the first time they can’t do something right away and eventually quit. What’s way more inspiring is the guy who sucked at something to start with, but kept at it, and can now do it effortlessly. He’s learned to unlock the front door.

I believe this extends to life outside the gym. Most of us are so terrified of looking awkward that we never try new and difficult things. But there’s the minority that’s willing to get out there and fall down trying. It’s not even a matter of talent. Those who are willing to fall down are the ones that end up getting really good. That’s the difference between the artist and the poseur.

Once you’ve got enough  jiu jitsu down deep in that reptile part of you, you will find yourself at that zero point, that flow, that eye  in the center of the hurricane. And that is the unique reward of practicing jiu jitsu.


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