On the Gentle Art #15

bjj evolve

"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;" 

- To Althea, From Prison by Richard Lovelace 1642 A.D.

Constraints – life has a lot of them, biological and otherwise (your blood’s ph level, the minimum amount of oxygen that you need to breathe, the level of carbon monoxide & carbon dioxide in your system), and we add to life’s constraints with every choice we make or defer. (That is if you believe in free will. Some intriguing fMRI studies seem to suggest that our choices are made subconsciously before we consciously become aware of them and “choose” accordingly.) Constraints themselves are neither good nor bad. They are merely circumstance boxes in which things can or can’t occur. Plant a seed in dirt and it grows. Plant a Monsanto seed in dirt and you get sued for intellectual property infringement. See constraints!

All of our choices are made within the constraints in which we find ourselves, and our choices, made or deferred, necessarily lead to further constraints. (Example: If I grow up in a neighborhood without a supermarket, but only bodegas and Taco Bell, I am limited in my daily choices of what to eat. I may not even know that a place like Whole Foods exists. So I “freely choose” to eat Taco Bell. Half an hour later that choice has constrained me to making a call between Pepto Bismol chewables or liquid.) To repeat, by making choices we necessarily limit the next steps in our journey. Think of it as trying to find your way out of the woods. You’re lost and you find a trail. (Yay!) You walk through 100 meters of brush only to find an impassable gorge. You can go left, right, or back, but either way you’ve got less choices than when you first started. But what if you go back the way you came? Don’t you have just as many choices as when you started? No, you don’t. Even if you retrace your steps to the beginning, you are now limited by your knowledge of the gorge. (You could go back there, but if you ain’t leaping off this mortal coil what’s the point?)

Every jiujitsu class offers opportunity for constraint and to be constricted in the very squishable sense, too. These opportunities occur when you are practicing what is often called “specific training” (technique drills). Here you are forced to take advantageous or disadvantageous positions (mine are always disadvantageous). You then try to improve your position or defend attacks using the techniques learned that day. This is unlike free sparring where you are free to flail about at the dismay of your professor (Seriously why does he even try sometimes? He says this to himself while he tells you, “good job today”.) The constraint presented by specific training is meant to get you to improve the weaknesses in your jiujitsu that you may not necessarily ever use during sparring because you always retreat into your comfort zone (comfortable constraints).  I’m often tempted to ditch the new drill techniques for my old binky, the half-guard and pray defense.

Some jiujitsu practitioners prefer to take the top position, and thus constrain themselves to initiating the attack. It’s a great constraint to have until you run into a person who is better than you at it or you run into a good guard defender who can stymie your attack and drain you of your energy. Or you could choose to defend and work your guard in an attempt to stymie your attacker while looking for openings to launch your own counterattack (as I’ve attempted for the better part of a year with lackluster results and mounting frustration).

Remember that I said earlier that constraints are neither good nor bad, just a box in which things can or can’t happen? Well there is something nefarious that happens when you continually put yourself in the same constraints consciously, and that is that over time you forget that you initially made a choice to constrain yourself. It’s as if you kept jumping into a box so many times that you forgot to jump out one day, and now you live in that box. You find comfort in that box because it has become familiar. You know all of its corners, its nooks and crannies, and yes it gets darker and darker as its lid is slowly pushed over top, but you convince yourself that your eyes will dilate large enough that you’ll still be able to see. And you even find hope in that box; a match to give you light. You strike the match and lay down next to the embers of your newly-built, warm fire content that you are in your safe and cozy box under the warm glow of the oxygen burning flame. You close your eyes and fall asleep thinking happy things unaware of your blood’s increasingly acidic ph levels, rapidly dwindling oxygen supply, and the ever increasing concentrations of CO and CO2. (On a positive note, you’ll be dead long before the box goes up in flames and the once comforting fire consumes your body leaving charred remains.)

So here’s a tip. Every once in a while you should reassess the constraints in which you place yourself. Go back to the beginning and reassess your initial choice. Stop lying in the box, get off your back, stand up, do a firewalk over those embers if you must, stomp out the flames, and jump out for good. You’ll probably find that you are right back where you started, but that choice will necessarily lead you on the path to your next one, and maybe this one won’t lead to a gorge. (Beware the boxes my friends!)

© J. Manuel


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