Wherever You Roll, There You Are

(The following is a guest post by Joe Hannan from Princeton BJJ.)

I’m deep into hour two of training, and my back is a lightning storm of stinging pain as my gi sandpapers away another layer of skin. I’ve established a serviceable spider guard. Tension from the fingers-in sleeve grips radiates through the sinewy tissue of my fingers and into the sturdier muscle fibers of my forearms. There is music playing, but it’s sweeping over the mat like a sonic shadow, only vaguely recognizable.

I roll my weight to the left, kicking upward and outward, pushing my partner’s left arm into a marionette pose -- just like Val had showed me. I see my opening, and snap the triangle in place before my mind recognizes what my legs are doing.

My partner taps, but it doesn’t matter. We slap hands. We bump fists. We train again. I tap. He taps.

This situation illustrates what I love most about Jiu Jitsu. The world outside the mat doesn’t intrude. The stresses of a difficult day in the office, a misunderstanding with a loved one, or the malaise of depression can’t slip under the door that separates the outside world from the academy. Jiu Jitsu creates such a sharp focus on the present that even what is happening on the mat’s periphery is out of reach for the senses.

On the mats, you have no option but to be completely present. You can’t lock the triangle, pass the guard, or sweep if your mind is anywhere but in the present moment. Jiu Jitsu forces you out of the fog of thinking and into the clear light of being.

The title of this post is a riff on the title of a groundbreaking book about mindfulness, Jon Kabit-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” In his book, Kabit-Zin defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” He writes further that “paying attention in this way opens channels to deep reservoirs of creativity, intelligence, imagination, clarity, determination, choice, and wisdom within us.”

Kabit-Zinn puts forward that mediation is an effective path toward mindfulness. I would argue that you get similar, if not the same benefits from Jiu Jitsu. Please keep in mind, though, that Kabit-Zinn is an MIT-educated scientist with a Ph.D. and I’m a journalist who likes individually packaged slices of American cheese.

The most salient point of “Wherever You Go, There You Are” is that if you are mindful, you are living at the intersection of here and now. You are grounded, connected to your senses, and 100 percent present.

You know what else lies at the intersection of here and now? The Jiu Jitsu mat. The mind does not wander out of the present moment when rolling because the moment it does is the moment your partner gains an advantageous position or submits you.

Jiu Jitsu, like mediation, is a practice. There is no end goal. You might say that you could be practicing for an upcoming competition, but what is on the other side of that competition? More Jiu Jitsu. You might say that a belt can be an end goal, but what is on the other side of that black belt? More Jiu Jitsu. The Gentle Art, in my mind, is a practice for the sake of practice. Jiu Jitsu is endless.

And when Jiu Jitsu is done at its best, when it is practiced at its highest levels, you’re watching two people work their games in the most mindful way possible. They are grounded on the mat -- by gravity and the gravity of the moment -- at the intersection of here and now. Wherever they roll, there they are.

Joe Hannan is a journalist and editor living and working in New Jersey. He trains at Princeton Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.