Monday, April 16, 2018

Month 1. Why jiu-jitsu? Mostly because of a neuroscientist/author/philosopher | Stories by Glenn Peoples on Medium

Sam Harris got me thinking four or five years ago. It stuck with me.

Halfway through the first month of a year of hobbies. It’s going well, I think. My body hurts. I’ll write about that later. Today I’ll explain how I got here.

Although I don’t remember specifically which medium first piqued my interest in jiu-jitsu, but Sam Harris, a neuroscientist/author/philosopher, certainly deserves the credit. I’ve read his books, watched his debates on YouTube, listened to his podcast, and attended one of his live events. (The last one is a lie. Harris doesn’t travel to the South—yet.) It was either a Sam Harris blog post (titled “The Pleasures in Drowning”) from 2012 or a Sam Harris podcast. I may have found YouTube video with an audio excerpt of one of his Waking Up podcasts (see YouTube video below). I recall being fascinated by a 2013 article at The Atlantic titled “The Atheist Who Strangled Me: In which Sam Harris teaches me Brazilian jiu-jitsu and explains why violence is like rebirth.” And yet my latent interest went unfulfilled until last month when I decided to undertake a year of hobbies—A Year of Hard Leisure is the blog name, I’ll explain that later—to make up for at least a decade without hobbies.

Read this great sample from Harris’s 2013 blog post:

“Delusions of martial prowess have much in common with religious faith. A crucial difference, however, is that while people of faith can always rationalize apparent contradictions between their beliefs and the data of their senses, an inability to fight is very easy to detect and, once revealed, very difficult to explain away….
Not even a professional boxer can be sure what will happen if he hits an assailant squarely on the jaw with a closed fist. The other man might fall to the ground unconscious, or he might not — and without gloves, the boxer might break his hand on the first punch. By contrast, even a novice at BJJ knows beyond any doubt what will happen if he correctly applies a triangle choke. It is a remarkable property of grappling that the distance between theory and reality can be fully bridged.”

Written like a true neuroscientist/author/philosopher.

In the podcast Harris uses wording similar to the blog post but adds an important description of jiu-jitsu’s ability to reinforce reality:

“With jiu-jitsu, you can really test to see if something works. There’s really no luck involved. If you get on the mat with someone who’s much better than you at jiu-jitsu, it’s like playing someone who’s much better at chess. You will lose. You will lose 100 percent of the time, and in ways you will find astonishing.”

And I’ll continue to quote liberally from Harris’s blog post (I trust the fair use exception in copyright law allows for it). The title, “The Pleasures of Drowning,” was derived from this paragraph:

“I can now attest that the experience of grappling with an expert is akin to falling into deep water without knowing how to swim. You will make a furious effort to stay afloat — and you will fail. Once you learn how to swim, however, it becomes difficult to see what the problem is — why can’t a drowning man just relax and tread water? The same inscrutable difference between lethal ignorance and lifesaving knowledge can be found on the mat: To train in BJJ is to continually drown — or, rather, to be drowned, in sudden and ingenious ways — and to be taught, again and again, how to swim.”

My experience runs parallel. Take the worst swimmer on a decent college team—perhaps an un-recruited walk-on—or a decent swimmer on an AAU club team and no matter how scrawny or seemingly uncoordinated, he will soundly beat the greatest athletes in any sport—football, baseball, basketball, track and field, boxing, tennis—if they don’t have experience swimming competitively or haven’t spent years trailing. Any event, any time. Swimming is a series of unnatural movements in an unnatural element. I wasn’t very good until I was around 14—six years of learning and strengthening. I’d hate to spend six years becoming (even remotely) proficient in jiu-jitsu, but perhaps my one-month hobby experiment will turn into a long-term passion.

A discussion between Harris and Joe Rogan on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast is as engrossing as Harris’s podcast. Rogan speaks of his background in martial arts being no match for an equally-sized man skilled in jiu-jitsu. Harris incorporates the themes found in his blog post and podcast. Harris talks about starting jiu-jitsu twenty years after some previous martial arts experience.

“It was like wrestling with a Martian. The rules of physics did not apply to him. He’s probably ten pounds lighter than me, probably an inch shorter. It was the most surreal experience of making 100 percent effort to survive and failing every 30 seconds or minute and a half, and then being resurrected by the sheer fact that he decided not to kill me….you have no idea what to do and you have no idea to relax.”

Not that I’m an avid MMA watcher—I’ll run across a fight and stop to watch—but over the years I’ve watched some MMA fights and have marveled at the technical abilities in multiple disciplines. Watching two fighters engage in jiu-jitsu is especially fascinating. Unlike boxing, where speed can be determining factors between winning and losing (as best as I can see…boxing fans can chime in), jiu-jitsu gives the advantage to the most skilled fighter and can eliminate whatever benefits would otherwise be granted by weight and strength. But no about of MMA viewing could peak my interest like an intellectual discussion by one of my favorite intellectuals.

Month 1. Why jiu-jitsu? Mostly because of a neuroscientist/author/philosopher was originally published in A Year of Hard Leisure on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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