On the Gentle Art #8

bjj evolve

A wise man once said, “Don’t think. Feel. It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. [If you] concentrate on the finger…you will miss all that heavenly glory.” (Okay that wise man was Bruce Lee, and that time he said it was in Enter the Dragon, where he probably said it multiple times on multiple takes, but you get the point.) The metaphor might not be perfect, but I’m going to borrow it for a moment. So why did Mr. Lee find it important to distinguish thinking from feeling? Why did he admonish his student for thinking instead of feeling?

Well let’s use an example. Say you’re at a bar drinking with your friends. All of a sudden a guy comes up from behind and throws his arm around you trying to cop a feel. (You’re a girl for this example, but hey maybe you’re at that other kind of bar, and you’re a dude. I don’t know how that would work, but dudes are dudes, and in fairness to those guys, I’m going to assume that it works the same way.) So we’re back to you, the girl, and the arm comes over your shoulder. You immediately turn into the dude, pummel for the under-hook, and get inside position so that you gain control of his body. You could easily go for a body-lock takedown if you wanted to, or you could push away to create space, and deescalate the situation. Whatever action you take, as a jiujitsu practitioner, chances are that you will not be thinking about it as it’s happening. You will have acted on muscle memory. You would have felt the initial contact of the arm coming around your shoulder, and would automatically begin to react in this series of steps as if by instinct. Most of your untrained girlfriends would have frozen in place at the mercy of their thoughts. (Oh no! Who’s this guy? What should I do?) We’ve all seen it.

So where does this muscle memory come from, and why don’t you have to think about it? Isn’t it memory, and doesn’t that all get stored in your brain? Well it comes from repetition; thousands of attempts of turning into your partner, and pummeling for the under-hook over the span of thousands of hours. Let’s go back to the first time that you stepped onto the mats, and attempted your first pummel. You had no idea what you were doing. You were probably a little weirded out by having to get so close to a sweaty guy you’ve just met, and you’re both wearing strange pajamas. (As a girl, maybe you’re into guys who smile at you, and are super polite before they strangle you? Ladies I leave that up to you.) Needless to say, you’re probably not feeling well after the grueling warmups where you attempted shoulder rolls that left you feeling vertigo, and break falls that you totally screwed up, and you’re pretty sure that you concussed yourself.

Before you attempt your first pummel for an under-hook, you observe and listen to your instructor. Your cerebrum, where you process high order thoughts in your brain, begins to process what the instructor is saying. (Accompanied of course by your cool, internal narrator’s voice repeating, “Okay, now I do this. Then I do that. Got it!”) But you so don’t got it! And so, in the most awkward way possible you approach your partner, and jam your hand into his armpit. (“Why am I getting closer to this guy if I want to keep him away,” asks your sarcastic internal narrator.) You repeat the under-hook attempt several times, each one slightly better or worse than the last. And though you may think that your attempts are futile, since the very first attempt, your brain began to make a motor-neural pathway from your frontal lobe (part of your cerebrum), which initiated your movement, down to your cerebral nuclei which coordinated your muscles, back to your cerebellum that then sent the message to pummel for the under-hook down your spinal cord and to your arm. Every step along the way, little neurons (brain cells & central nervous system cells) fired off electrical signals to each other saying “Hey, pummel for the under-hook.” The electrical signals delivered the message incredibly fast (at about 268 mph from your brain stem to your muscles with the help of alpha motor neurons), but as soon as it was delivered, the message was gone. However, a residue remained; an afterglow in the motor function center of your brain. Then you try the pummel again, and the afterglow is a little less ethereal this time. Repeat the process many times over, and the pathway no longer glows. Now, there is substance to it; an imprinted pathway paved by countless instances of repetition. Your brain and central nervous system will continue to pave that “pummel under-hook” pathway in the same manner, every time.

This process occurs subconsciously. That is, you don’t think about telling yourself, “do it this way or that”, every time. With enough practice, your internal narrator shuts up, and you begin to function silently and reflexively. You begin to feel the movement! Your movement is no longer being directed by your cerebrum’s frontal lobe, because you are no longer dependent on your instructor to tell you how to do it. You are also no longer consciously processing what you need to do. Now, you’ve really got this!

And so, we return to the bar. You’ve decided to take the de-escalation route, and pushed the guy away from you by controlling his hips, but he’s decided that he doesn’t much appreciate this girl punking him in front of his friends. But hey, you can now find comfort in the fact that your pathway for under-hooks, and many more grappling techniques have been paved steadily over countless hours and repetitions into high-speed, ass-kicking Autobahns, and this asshole is cruisin’ for a bruisin’!

© J. Manuel Writes

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