The Joys of Meaningful Suffering

The Joys of Meaningful Suffering


I reached the peak of my skateboarding career while being drunk. It was when landing my first kickflip. What is weird about it, is the fact that I had already quit skateboarding for a couple of years after a very unsuccessful two year period of having it as a hobby, age thirteen to fifteen. I hope it is apparent how bad I was at it by the fact of considering one kickflip a highlight.

I thought a lot about why no tricks worked. Every time I failed to land something, I would automatically think about what principles I might be missing. What are the moves I haven’t considered? What is left uncalculated? All that burning of brain matter never led to anything and as I now realize, I spent way too much time thinking when I should have been acting. The one time the kickflip worked was probably because alcohol had shut off many of the mental blocks I would normally think myself into.

My natural tendency is to overanalyze. I love science, take part in debates and have easily spent a hundred hours watching TED. All of that contributes to scrutinizing way too much. I remember even thinking to myself that sports is a waste of time, since unlike acquired knowledge, any athletic gains I achieve through practice will be lost with age, and therefore learning stuff is a better investment of my time. Looking back at that opinion now, I recognize it to be a whine dressed up as a clever insight. Merely a justification to postpone.

At age twenty two I had fallen into a bit of a routine with studies I did not like and a job I did not enjoy. I thought of ways to escape the boredom and because sports was something I had never done consistently, it made a lot of sense to get into it as a way of escaping routine. The choice in favor of martial arts was immediate, because the skills gained through martial arts are transferable beyond the gym to a much greater extent than anything I would learn through “working the ball” whatever shape it may be. Karate was my first choice because I had heard the name so many times, but I quickly changed my mind after learning about two key attributes of Jiu-Jitsu. Firstly, its effectiveness is proven since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 where Royce Gracie, a man with a surprisingly unimpressive build dominated opponents from other fighting styles purely through his skills in Jiu-Jitsu. Secondly, unlike with martial arts that involve kicking and punching, you can go full speed in every session of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). That is way more fun if you are doing it as a hobby and not possible if striking is involved – any sane person would lose their appetite if teeth had to be replaced twice a week.

Like with learning anything, you accumulate a set of meta-qualities besides the techniques provided by the discipline itself. In addition to chokes and clinches, Jiu-Jitsu allows me to experience a set of mental states that I would like to touch upon in this article. But before I dive in – one cautionary note. Up to now I have spent two years of my time on the mat practicing Japanese Jiu–Jitsu (with a bit of other styles that include striking sprinkled throughout the training calendar to mix things up) and two more years practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I am still far from being even average at either Brazilian or Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. I am merely sharing insights that far precede mastery.


We all know that qualities like grit, persistence, resilience, the ability to stay calm under pressure and being proactive are valuable. But in everyday life we don’t often get the chance to experience conditions that bring these qualities forth. And even when we do, the complex nature of the world creates a distance between their application and the positive outcomes we create by applying them, thereby diminishing their perceived importance. If you are being persistent in your effort to finish a project, there are still many outside factors that contribute to the outcome of your work. Colleagues, suppliers, client mood and even the weather can play a meaningful role and often the result of your work will only be visible weeks or months after you applied the virtues listed above.

Of course, practicing BJJ also takes weeks, months and years and the results of applying grit will not immediately translate into getting a black belt. But every match is determined only by what you can do at the moment of fighting. There is something very real in the fact that regalia like job titles, your surname, reputation or bank account size have nothing to contribute in a hand-to-hand altercation. And the feedback loop between applying grit and seeing the result can be closed multiple times within one five minute match. Those five minutes are exhausting and the pressure of gasping for air while someone’s weight on your chest leaves no room for oxygen in the lungs is a strong incentive to quit. But moments like that are all opportunities to show grit. A BJJ match is real life in a pressure-cooker. Signs of weakness are immediately exploited and mistakes are pointed out to you in the form of pain while mental strength combined with skill is rewarded with a taste of victory.

Being the only one who fights on your side leaves no room for bullshit excuses that deflect blame away from you and on to others. I am often surprised by how many times I have to force myself to shut up after failing to fully execute a technique, so I don’t look like a buffoon with only excuses to offer.

The most striking example of this came when a guy I hadn’t seen before visited our class. I had been doing BJJ for about a year at that point. By the way he spoke to others, I saw that others knew him and from the way he fought, it was obvious he knows what he’s doing. He could dominate even the top guys in our class. When it was my turn to fight him I did not expect to win, as I saw how he handled guys whom I knew to be better than me, but I also didn’t expect what I experienced. It was not like I could kind-of-sort-of figure out how to defend myself. He had total control over my every move. I struggle to think of a more personal intrusion of my freedom than the total cancelation of my ability to move. He didn’t just restrict my movement, he dictated it and made me move in all the ways that I tried to avoid. Whenever I tried to catch my balance by extending an arm, I noticed that my arm is under his control. It felt cemented to his body. If I ever succeeded in retrieving a limb, it was only because he used the momentum of my pull to push me over.  I had never felt so helpless. It serves as some consolation to now know that he took seventh place in Europe in a martial art similar to BJJ a few years earlier.

Being in a state of no excuses points out the gap between your hopes and abilities, it forces you to admit your shortcomings and to work on them. It crushes your ego a little bit and, that, to my surprise, is a calming experience. Having no imaginary pride to defend, you open up a way of getting comfortable with your insecurities and therefore are not frightened by the idea of having them pointed out. Being honest really is a good way to better yourself.

One of my shortcomings that BJJ has helped to amend is overanalyzing. I rarely trusted my intuition before Jiu–Jitsu. It was in my nature to act only when I felt that all the variables had been accounted for – a situation that almost never occurs. But still, I had to feel like I have a perfect plan before daring to ease in. That attitude is unsustainable on the mat. During a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu spar (called a ‘roll’ in Jiu-Jitsu circles) the speed of your partner’s actions forces you to react without consideration – you have to act intuitively. And intuition was something I greatly mistrusted, having seen numerous psychological experiments that demonstrate our gut feel’s frightening capacity to fool ourselves. But during a roll, gut feel is all you have. It is this funny mental space where you know that there are just too many things to think about so you have to act without thinking. You zoom out and focus on nothing but the flow of your actions that are being prompted by whatever your partner is doing. That state of mind is often called “being in the zone” when applied to sports and “flow” in the context of work. It can’t be achieved through logical thinking alone and it feels really, really good. Intuition is worth a try.

I always look for principles that can be applied beyond the discipline I am practicing. Jiu-Jitsu has proven to be a prolific source of them. But one has to be careful not to attribute too much to any single thing. Jiu-Jitsu is not unique in providing useful struggles to go through. Practitioners of any sport and, indeed, any discipline have probably sensed these or similar ideas as well. Anyone who is completely honest will admit that a thing is not the thing–and my intuition tells me to keep that in mind.


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