Monday, March 20, 2017

What jiu-jitsu isn't

Winning doesn't mean winning. Winning means not losing. 
- Saulo Ribeiro

I was thinking the other day about jiu-jitsu. Yes, really.

Specifically in the context that I haven't been feeling well lately. Actually, I haven't felt well in a long time. It started a year ago when Robson lost at Abu Dhabi and I almost died of acute hyponatremia. And then it just went on from there, with various physical problems punctuated by random people behaving unpleasantly for absolutely no reason.

And as far as the random people and their wackness, welcome to the human race. Pedro Sauer told me to "Stay away from the crazies," but that's about as easy, in our 1% world, as staying away from drunk guys at a frat party. But as far as my body goes, I think I just didn't give myself enough time to heal. And when you do that, you set yourself up for the next injury.

It's kind of like submissions, but in a bad way. If every submission is the gateway to every other submission - which, if you think about it, is absolutely true - then every challenge that is not fully dealt with is the gateway to every other challenge.

Health challenges lead to financial challenges and psychological challenges, because if you're not training, you're losing your mind and wasting all your money on doctors and beer and random shit from eBay. You know that.

And psychological challenges lead to physical challenges. What happened last April is, I got very upset, not because Robson lost by one advantage point - because let's face it, losing by one advantage is exactly the same thing as winning by one advantage - but because Soca got him in side control. And side control, as we all know, is the Bottomless Abyss of Fear and Horror. And seeing Robson, who I thought had supernatural powers - and in fact there have been times, while talking to Jesus, that I have accidentally called Jesus "Robson" and I'm not even making that up - on the bottom like that, in the position I fear above all other positions, freaked me out.

And so I trained really hard that day, because I had had a shock, and I wasn't really feeling my body, and then bad things started to happen. All of which resulted in about 800 dollars worth of doctor bills because my family doctor, Dr. Dumpling, whose idea of exercise is waddling to the kitchen to get another package of Oreos, just thought I was making shit up and I didn't get a diagnosis until I saw an actual nephrologist. And I felt crappy for a long time.

And then, ironically or not - because I've never been 100% sure what irony is - because of the hyponatremia, I wasn't really working out or training and when I came back on the mat, a guy put his knee on my rib, in SIDE CONTROL (in a drill), and boom! broken rib. Which just proves my theory that side control is the root of all evil. And then I tried to lift weights too soon after the broken rib and boom! - pinched nerve (agony). And so on until my present condition of recovering from a ruptured mystery organ.

And the bad news is, I just got the bill from ER, and there goes my trip to San Diego. By the way, I think that a diagnosis of "abdominal pain," when your complaint was "abdominal pain,"  is absolutely worth 2000 dollars. Not. And I can't even blame Obama, since I had shitty insurance before. 

But the good news is, I started to learn jiu-jitsu.

And that's what I was thinking about.

I've heard a lot of people say what jiu-jitsu isn't. It isn't this, it isn't that. It ain't a sport.

And I was thinking that I respectfully disagree.

I understand that the natural urge of humans is to cut a thing down to size so they can control it. If jiu-jitsu ain't a sport, you don't have to learn the berimbolo, and you can look down on all the people who are berimboloing you from the moral highground of a guy who just got beat but kept his principles intact.

And I do get that. Apparently saying "S/he beat me" is too hard. People have to make it so that the tap didn't realllllly count. The guy was playing sport jiu-jitsu, the girl is bigger than you, whatever it takes to keep our fragile egos intact.

And the refrain is, That's not jiu-jitsu.

But I have news for you: Yes it is. It's all jiu-jitsu, and none of it's fair. 

Jiu-jitsu. It's not supposed to be fair.

I'm heavier, you're younger, nobody cares. Did you die? Then stop whining. And stop trying to say what jiu-jitsu isn't. First of all, it's not up to you, or me for that matter, but I'm not the one trying to lasso and corral jiu-jitsu. A hot yet poorly behaved male, maybe - but I would need some new cowboy boots and a longer rope. Jiu-jitsu, never. 

Don't try this at home

At the same time, just because I beat you, or you beat me, doesn't mean we can decide who's better based on that. If I beat you, that simply means that I beat you this time. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm better. Same thing goes if you beat me. It's not that big a deal.

Or we could just train.

When you beat me 100 times, and you also beat everybody else, then it's safe to say you're better, but at that point it should be so obvious that it doesn't need to be stated. Does anybody still doubt that Robson is better than them?

But what I'm saying is that that's not really the point. We don't need to come up with a hierarchy, who's better, who's worse. That's what the IBJJF is for. That's what God is for. All we need to worry about is this fight, this sub. We don't have to worry about what others are doing. We have to worry about what we're doing.

And the funny thing is that the more we try to make jiu-jitsu in our own image, the less jiu-jitsu cooperates. The more we try to submit it, the slicker the escapes that jiu-jitsu comes up with to wiggle out of our bullshit definitions.

And it reminds me of an interview I did with my ex-husband for my capstone project when I was finishing up my master's. I wanted a physician's perspective on healing and various themes associated with healing.

And I asked him to define love. I asked everybody that. I interviewed 20 people and I asked them all the same questions. I wanted to know because I feel like love is one of those words that everybody uses and few really understand. Forgiveness is another one.

Anyway, Tommaso's response was as follows: 

Love is an absolute and, as such, it cannot be defined. Anyone who tries to define love wants to trap it in a definition, and love is not love when it is trapped. 
Love is free. 
Love is something you live but you can't define it in a concept, because defining it would mean limiting it. 
- Tommaso Capitano, M.D.

And first of all, now you know why I love my ex-husband. I love the way his mind works. We weren't meant to be, and now he has a beautiful family to prove it, but he's quite the guy.

And secondly, you could swap out the words "love" and substitute "jiu-jitsu" and Tommaso's non-definition would be equally valid.

Jiu-jitsu is not jiu-jitsu when it is trapped. Jiu-jitsu is free.

But the path that I traveled on in my mind to arrive at that conclusion was when I was driving down the road, and thinking about how I don't feel well, and how that has changed my game. Because my priorities used to be: a) don't get injured and b) don't get tapped. And now my only priority is: don't throw up. But as challenging as that is, it occurred to me, as I was driving down the road, that this is jiu-jitsu.

This is where the rubber meets the road, at least for me. This is where the nails meet the chalkboard, where Heaven meets Hell, where the metaphor meets the analogy.

This is where I prove myself to myself. And as much as it would be nice to have a little recognition sometimes from the outside world (but apparently that's asking way too much), the inside world is the one that matters to me. Do I meet my own standards? What are my standards?

Illnesses and injuries have sapped my strength. Random people's bullshit outbursts have eroded my will. Age isn't helping anything and neither are the doctor bills and, just on a side note, how many times can they bill you for the same fucking thing?

The love that I felt for this art is dead - or at least, I can't find a pulse. The rose-colored glasses through which I viewed my instructors have been smashed into smithereens. The crazies are everywhere and they're winning, because you can't fight crazy if you're not crazy and you can't fight gossip, period, because in the gossip wars, she who stabs the first back, wins. The honeymoon is over. Big time.

Honeymoon's over

So why do I still put on a gi?

Because the salmon swim upstream. That's why. Because, in the words of Valerie Worthington, "I can't not."

And the crazy thing is that I feel like, in a way, it's only now that I'm starting to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Now that there's nothing left in my body, nothing left in my heart or my mind, now that there is only emptiness where all that passion used to be, now there is room for jiu-jitsu to come and work through me.

At the same time, I'm not saying that what I did before wasn't jiu-jitsu. I'm not saying that all the 20somethings duking it out at the Pans last weekend, with their steroids and their sponsors and their tatts and their haircuts and their coaches (idea: why not have a "virtual" BJJ competition where the competitors don't even show up and the coaches just scream until the loudest coach wins?) aren't fighting jiu-jitsu.

It's just a different jiu-jitsu.

All I'm saying is that I think we get in the habit of thinking that is true jiu-jitsu, that the young, healthy, rockstar jiu-jitsu is where it's at, and, in one way, it is where it's at. I love that kind of jiu-jitsu too.

At the same time, I think the idea that jiu-jitsu comes from a place of strength is, at the very least, incomplete. As far as I know, jiu-jitsu was invented to trump strength. But yeah, Xande vs. Rodolfo is amazing jiu-jitsu. Terere is mindblowing jiu-jitsu no matter who he fights. And whatever the names of these kids today are, they're fighting incredible jiu-jitsu.

But when you get hit by a bus - especially when the bus is called life - and you shrimp out of the way before the steamroller behind the bus can flatten you, that's amazing jiu-jitsu too. There's no oohing and ahing by the crowd, there's no glory, it's whimper-not-a-bang jitsu, but it's still jiu-jitsu, baby. There may come a time in your life when it's the only kind of jiu-jitsu you have left. And there may come a time in your life when you realize it's the only jiu-jitsu you really need.

It's not the jiu-jitsu of winning. It's the jiu-jitsu of not losing.

It's a different layer, a different level.

Jiu-jitsu is like those matryoshka dolls from Russia, where you open one and find another inside, and you keep opening them and you keep finding more of them, and every time you think you've reached the end, you find another one. All the way to infinity.


Robson Moura says jiu-jitsu has no end. And I think when we think of infinity, we think of expansion, growth, we (at least I) think of wide horizons and big skies. But there's another kind of infinity, and that's the kind of infinity we have inside us.

It's the kind of infinity where every time you lose something - your strength, your passion, your health, your energy - you open that matryoschka doll of jiu-jitsu and you find another one inside. Every time you think it's over, it's not over. Every time you hit rock bottom, you find a diamond. 

Every time you think you have given everything you had to give, you realize that then, and only then, is when jiu-jitsu can start giving back to you.

Interestingly enough, that's what forgiveness means. I mean literally. Forgive comes from the German vergeben which originally meant "to give all." Ver + geben.

Maybe it's not until we can forgive - our bodies and our minds and our instructors and our training partners and the hotties and the haters and the doctors and our parents and gluten and beer - that jiu-jitsu can forgive us. Maybe it's not until we can stop trying to define love that we can find love. Maybe it's not until we give all that jiu-jitsu can start giving back to us. 

Maybe it's not until we stop trying to figure out what jiu-jitsu isn't that we can begin to understand what jiu-jitsu is.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

10 Things Ricardo Pires Taught Me

Josh Lasich, Master Ricardo, and son Victor Pires

It's easy to remember when I met Ricardo Pires. It was the first week in February 2010, the same week my father died. It was the usual bleak and blustery February day, Northeast Ohio's specialty. I attended the morning class.

At that time I was still a white belt. I found Ricardo Pires BJJ by accident while Googling for a seminar. 

Instead of a seminar, I found Ricardo. I didn't immediately recognize him, partly because the website pictures didn't show him with a February morning beard, partly because he spoke English without an accent. But mostly his attitude was all wrong. Wrong, I mean, for my expectations.

I was expecting "I am the Great Ricardo Pires" and I was more than a little terrified, since I am naturally shy and was at that time very conscious of my lowly white belt status. Instead, I met a guy in a simple white Fruit of the Loom t-shirt who greeted me pleasantly while straightening something on the wall.

He was tactful. When he had us line up by rank, I accidentally went to the wrong end because in my home academy, we didn't line up and I didn't know which side was the low side. Ricardo directed me to the correct end by saying, with a sunny smile that seemed devoid of mockery, "It's warmer down there."

Everybody called him Ricardo which seemed natural to me, because in my home academy we all called my instructor by his first name too. It wasn't until Ricardo's partner insisted on being called "Professor" that I even knew that was a thing, and I certainly never heard Ricardo correct anybody who called him by his first name.

Now that I've been in the game awhile, it bugs me to hear white belts yelling "Ricardo" or "Pedro" or "Robson" across the mat as if they were calling their dogs. But at the time, I did it too because I literally didn't know any better.

As Ricardo later told me:  "I don't want somebody to call me Professor, or Master or whatever, because I tell them to. If they call me that because they really feel it, then I like it. But I don't want people to feel like they have to call me that because of a sign on the wall."

And that's Ricardo Pires in a nutshell. But in a world where there are plenty of nuts in the nutshells, Ricardo is eminently sane, humble yet self-respecting, and usually cheerful.

When Pedro Sauer asked me years ago who I trained with, his face lit up with an almost incredulous smile.

"He's a good friend of mine," he said. "I knew him back in the day in Rio. He's a tough guy. And a funny guy."

I got the same enthusiastic reaction years later from Ricardo Liborio, who complimented me on my pronunciation of the name Ricardo. I thanked him without realizing until days later that of course, Ricardo was his name too. In my mind, there is only one Ricardo.

And I think it's the same for most of us Northeast Ohioans who had the chance to train with Ricardo for the all-too-brief time he spent in Cleveland. I am writing about my experience with Master Ricardo, not because I think it's unique, but because I think it's pretty typical. Typical, I mean, for Ricardo's students, not typical in the greater jiu-jitsusphere.

But I didn't know that back then. Since I was only a white belt when I met Ricardo, I felt like of course, all jiu-jitsu black belts must be smart, and funny, and humble, and really fucking good. I thought of Ricardo as the guardian of the portal to the real reality of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, where everyone and everything is awesome, and I thought that once you passed through that portal, there would be no going back.

Of course I was wrong. Not only was I sucked backwards through the magic portal the same day, the same hour that Ricardo gathered us all together to promote Mike Riedel and say goodbye, I've spent the better part of the past 8 years just trying to find that magic doorway again, let alone pass through it once more to that place in my jiu-jitsu journey where I was happy, and part of things, and where every day was a lesson in jiu-jitsu and an even greater lesson in life.

Back through the magic portal 😢💔

And if I can be a little personal - well, a lot personal - the tears are coming down as I write this, tears of pity for the person I was, who had yet to discover that not all black belts are like Ricardo. I thought that it was jiu-jitsu itself that gave him his mind and heart and I didn't understand that that's just Ricardo. There's one of him. Not two. We were blessed to have Ricardo with us for about the same amount of time it takes a comet to streak across the sky. 

And then we lost him. He went back to Brazil, and from there to Fort Lauderdale, and someone else is basking in his sunny smile. Lucky them.

And the pity I feel is not self-pity, it's pity for the person I was and who I no longer am, the person who had yet to embark on the sea of nutshells, the sometimes ugly realities of the jiu-jitsu journey where there are, let's face it, a lot of assholes in the nutshells ("A lot," said Robson Moura when I said the same thing to him.) It's the same pity I feel for the 10 year-old me who had yet to learn that not every man was handsome, and smart, and funny, and humble, and THERE, like my father and my stepfather, the me who still didn't know that women are mean and men are unreliable, and they disappear, out of your inbox and out of your life, for absolutely no good reason I have ever been able to ascertain.

Because let's face it, the jiu-jitsu journey is very much like the life journey, and the even more insidious love journey, and the same discoveries and heartbreaks you meet up with in your life, chances are you will find them on the mat. 

And if Ricardo's abrupt departure broke my heart along with a lot of other hearts, it feels, now, like a privilege to have had our collective heart broken by someone so unique who, among other things, gave all of us a very solid base in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Because yes, this is a touchy-feely kind of post, but I only get emotional about things that have value. Soppy Hallmark cards don't do it for me. I always look at the back and wish the person had just sent me a check for the 3.99 instead.

And that's why, with all his sunny smile and charm and humor, and all the fond memories I have of Ricardo, who accidentally started dancing when the Doobie Brothers came on the radio, and who moved with an entourage of family members and random Brazilians like a movie star, the main thing I remember about Ricardo is stored in my muscle memory, and not my all-too-fallible brain memory, and that's my jiu-jitsu. Because the core of my jiu-jitsu is the jiu-jitsu Master Ricardo taught me.

And it seems to be fairly effective. I'm not one of those people who think they're awesome. I think people think I do think that, just because I go everywhere and train everywhere, but it's the opposite. I'm just trying to get better. Even back in February 2010 when I met Ricardo, my motivation was that I sucked and I knew I sucked. I wasn't trying to not suck. Not sucking, at that point in my jiu-jitsu life, was too far out of my reach. I was trying to suck less.

And if I've succeeded at all in that endeavor, it's because of the jiu-jitsu that Ricardo helped me build. And if ever a black belt has earned his tuition money, it's Ricardo Pires when he was teaching jiu-jitsu challenged me the basics.

As my friend Gregg said, "He's going to end up paying you 135 bucks a month to stay home." When I told Ricardo that, he smiled and said, "Tell Gregg I'm thinking about it."

But if this is a touchy-feely kind of post, it's also true that Ricardo teaches a very touchy-feely kind of jiu-jitsu. It is quite simply a jiu-jitsu that you cannot see, you have to feel it.

Which doesn't mean it's the much-touted "invisible" jiu-jitsu, either, simply because Ricardo is not the kind of person to give his jiu-jitsu catchy nicknames. If you ask him if it's "invisible jiu-jitsu," I guarantee that he will look at you, smile with a smile that warms the room and takes away the sting, and say, "It's just jiu-jitsu." 

To Ricardo (at least, this is my impression), jiu-jitsu is not about visible vs. invisible, any more than music or love can be visible or invisible. Jiu-jitsu simply is, and all that which is, can be felt. That's his world. And if you can't feel it, and your opponent can't feel you, you're doing it wrong.

We needed Ricardo, I needed Ricardo, and not just to set the standard for what real jiu-jitsu is in Northeast Ohio, although of course that was part of it. Because yes, there was jiu-jitsu in Ohio, kind of, but Ricardo came here and showed everybody how it's done in the real world. Something as simple as how do you know you've passed the guard? You know you've passed the guard when you're chest to chest. Not when you're hovering in the air somewhere, not when you're in Starbucks sipping a latte, you've passed the guard when you're chest to chest and in the drills, if you didn't finish chest to chest, if you were a millimeter from the guy's chest, you lost and the other guy won. Period.

And you'd be surprised how many people don't know that.

We each needed Ricardo for our own reasons, I guess. I lost my father and gained a teacher, all in the same week. Thanks, God, you're a pal. And I think every one of Ricardo's students probably has a story to tell, and as I said, I'm telling my story not because I think I'm the exception, but because I'm the rule. With the catch being that when you've had the opportunity to train with Ricardo Pires, you become, automatically, the exception.

For those who have had the opportunity to train with Master Ricardo, this list should look familiar. For those who haven't yet had the opportunity, this list might give you a glimpse into the magic portal that some of us have had the good fortune to pass through.


1. DON'T GET THERE. "Ricardo, how do I get out of (whatever bad situation)?" Master Ricardo (big smile): Don't get there! This was Ricardo's leitmotiv during his time in Ohio and he himself always gave credit for it to his teacher, Carlson Gracie. The next step being, "But if I get there?" According to Master Ricardo, Master Carlson's answer to that was, "If you get there, pray. And when you pray, pray with faith!" In Northeast Ohio, "Don't get there" is a kind of secret code for initiates. If you say "Don't get there" on any mat in Northeast Ohio, you're almost guaranteed that someone will pop up and say, "Ricardo!" It's our version of "Open, Sesame!" to that magic portal that we seek.

2. KNOW YOUR WEAKNESS - AND BLOCK IT. Master Ricardo said this while talking about the takedown. He was saying, basically, that although the takedown is great if you can get it, if you're not great at takedowns, then maybe pulling guard isn't such a bad idea. This is typical of Master Ricardo's pragmatic approach and is one that is easy to apply to all areas of life, love, and BJJ. We all have weaknesses. That's the human condition. And we can choose to ignore them, and pretend they're not there (and then get tripped up by them at inconvenient times) or factor them into our game plan. The Oracle at Delphi famously said, "Know thyself." Master Ricardo would add, "And block thyself."

3. FIND A WAY AROUND. This is about how we approach obstacles. According to Master Ricardo, the American approach to obstacles is (tendentially) to try to knock them down. The Brazilian approach, on the other hand, which is arguably the Brazilian part of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is to find a way around the obstacle. "Why try to knock down the wall," said Ricardo, "when there's an open door a few feet away?" 

4. IF  YOU CONTROL YOURSELF, YOU CAN CONTROL THE SITUATION. Anybody who knows Master Ricardo even a little bit knows that control is his thing. When I asked him if he had ever been called a control freak, he got a little tense, said no, and then relaxed and said, "Actually my wife says that to me a lot." But Master Ricardo taught me about a kind of control that he calls "good control." In our society, in our relationships, in our world, it is normal to feel out of control, and part of that is we are led to believe that control is a bad thing. We respond by micromanaging piddly details that don't matter. We all have that friend who won't pick up the phone when you call them and who will wait 15 minutes and call you, just because of their secret control complex. Master Ricardo teaches an out-of-the-closet kind of control where you take control from the get-go and retain control until your goal is achieved. "For me," says Master Ricardo, "if I have a certain objective, it's just the easiest way to achieve it." But what happens if you can't control the situation? Surely some things will be out of your control? "If you control yourself," says Master Ricardo, "you can control the situation."

5. IN THE PASS AND IN YOUR LIFE, BEFORE YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING YOU NEED TO KNOW WHERE YOU ARE COMING FROM. This statement is so profound that you just have to let it percolate. I carried it around with me for years before I really understood what Master Ricardo was talking about and I can't really explain it now except to say that where you are coming from is directly related to where you are going. They are two halves of the same whole. Specifically, Master Ricardo was referring to how he discovered when he was already in his 40's that he was the descendant of slaves, and of how proud he was to learn that. And it's interesting, to say the least, that having descended from people who had absolutely no control except the control they had over themselves, Master Ricardo has become a true master in the art of control, including but not limited to his phenomenal side control. And back to the pass, once again it's about seeing reality with your eyes open, not kidding yourself, and dealing with that reality with a certain goal in mind but also with realistic expectations.

6. IT'S IMPORTANT THAT EVERY INCH YOU GAIN, YOU KEEP. This is once again relating to the pass but also to real life and it came up because I asked Master Ricardo if his passing style had changed over the years and if he saw a parallel in his life. His response was "Absolutely" on both counts. Master Ricardo described how in his early days, his passing style was much more athletic, stand up, sit down, move around, because he knew he could. Whereas at the time we spoke, he already felt like when he was passing, he had a strong awareness that he was going to have one chance and he needed to make it count. He related that to his business life in the sense that although he is by nature a risk-taker, he is much more aware now of the risk-benefit ratio and less inclined to take "risky" risks.

7. RESPECT IS GIVING 100% EVERY TIME. Respect is one of those words that everybody uses, especially in the world of martial arts, but nobody ever defines. Master Ricardo's definition is indicative of how he trains and, I believe, how he lives. It's not about perfection - although Master Ricardo is an avowed perfectionist - it's about giving everything you have. His dojo was one of the few I've ever trained in where there was no "playing" jiu-jitsu vs. "fighting." There was just training. Hard. And although physically strenuous, I enjoyed the lack of ambiguity. Nobody went crying to the instructor to complain if you tapped them and if they did, they were probably greeted with a blank stare. When I told Master Ricardo years later that I had been reprimanded for not "helping" lower belts, he got a puzzled look on his face and said, "But tapping them is helping them."

8. THE FINISH IS ALWAYS THE SAME. HOW YOU GET THERE IS UP TO YOU. In a jiu-jitsu sense, this is fairly self-explanatory. I have to confess that this tends to come to my mind more in a real life kind of sense, and of course the first step, and maybe the last step, and certainly the hard step, is understanding what the finish is. When I asked Master Ricardo what the finish was in real life, he smiled and said, "Whatever you want it to be. Whatever your goal is." And then he asked me, because I had quoted this back to him some time after he said it, "Do you remember everything I say?"

9. THE ONLY TIME YOU REALLY FAIL IS WHEN YOU FAIL TO TRY. As obvious as this may seem, it took me years to finally internalize it and believe it. Because in my heart of hearts, I hate to lose. To the point that I'd rather not compete, I'd rather not try, and fortunately or unfortunately, there are always a lot of valid reasons to not try, whether we're talking about competition or jobs or dating or whatever. I can say in all modesty that alibis are my superpower. It took me 8 years to finally get up the nerve to compete in a tournament, and it was only then, when I got choked, in public, right off my takedown attempt, that I really understood what Master Ricardo meant. I lost, but I didn't fail. In fact, the courage it took, at 49, to compete in the adult division of an IBJJF event and to lose was the same courage it would have taken to fight and win, and possibly even more. It wasn't the kind of courage anyone is born with. It was quite simply the desperate last resort of a heart that had run out of alibis. And if you disagree, good for you, because I'm not living my life to meet your standards.

10. STAY IN THE GAME. I can't even remember in what context this came up originally, but I cited it recently in a Facebook post which I think does as good a job as any of illustrating the point.

Love is like the submission. You can't look for it because it will elude you. You can't take it by force because it will resist you. All you can do is train and live your life and be ready to recognize it when it does appear. And then let it give itself to you. 
And maybe the most important thing is what my teacher Master Ricardo Pires told me a long time ago:  Stay in the game, Deborah. Always stay in the game.

~ February 16, 2017. DM

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Learn how to kneel


There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. 
That will be the beginning.
 - Louis L'Amour

I came to jiu-jitsu just over 8 years ago. I had actually encountered jiu-jitsu for the first time in California in 2005, but I made the white belt mistake of getting involved with my black belt. So I quit jiu-jitsu and I promised myself I would never make that mistake again and I haven't. Because men are temporary but jiu-jitsu is forever.

I didn't come back to the mat until late in 2008.

By then my life had completely changed. I became seriously ill in California and moved back to Ohio. But by the end of 2008 I was just sick of being sick, and I decided I wanted to do some kind of martial art, and jiu-jitsu was the only thing I could do lying down.

At that time, I was just trying to do something to make myself feel alive. I had no idea jiu-jitsu would be a pathway back to health and back to life and back to myself. Because when you get sick - which I hope you never do - you lose yourself. You lose your identity. I looked in the mirror and I didn't even recognize myself.  My life was a wreck. And I saw no reason to think it would ever be better than that. I had been told I had an incurable disease, more than one. 

I thought I would be sick, and ugly, forever. And I accepted it, like you accept a lot of things when disaster strikes. When a tornado hits your house, or you lose someone you love, of course you're sad but that's your reality and you accept it pretty quickly. And that's how it was for me.

Actually I didn't accept it that quickly. I hated being sick because of what it said about me: LOSER. It was the humiliation I minded the most. I had always been pretty, and successful, and had boyfriends, and things had gone more or less my way in my adult life. My childhood was no joke but that was a long time ago.

And then everything was swept away and it was just me and I didn't know who me was. Because all those things, looks and a good body and success and boyfriends, those were things I had. It wasn't who I was. And it wasn't until I had nothing left but myself that I started to try and figure out who I was. It wasn't until I was ugly that I could appreciate the beauty I had inside, even if nobody could see it but me and God. It wasn't until I was alone that I could start to build a relationship with myself. It wasn't until I finally gave up on perfection that I could allow myself to be me.

And I did and I have.

This isn't the article I wanted to write. I wanted to write an article about jiu-jitsu and the transformation of the self. But the harder I tried to write it, the more it sucked, and that's because I was writing with my head and not my heart.

Recently, I talked to Robson Moura for the article I meant to write.

I was thinking about this thing that everybody says: Leave ego at the door. And I was thinking that sometimes jiu-jitsu is the place when the ego - meaning the sense of self -  finally gets a chance to be born. And that made me think of Robson, because even though he has a phenomenal athletic talent in pretty much everything, he was stuck, as a kid, in the favela, in a reality where he had literally no outlet for that talent except for playing soccer in the streets and dodging bullets.

And I wanted to know how that affected his self-esteem. Was he born knowing he would accomplish great things? Or did the mat act as a kind of magic carpet for his sense of self?

Where it all began

Me: Was jiu-jitsu the first time you experienced success? Or had you already experienced success in other athletic pursuits?

Robson Moura: Yes, it was the first time. I had played soccer in the streets, but that's all. Nothing serious. And when I came to jiu-jitsu it was an open door, not just away from my neighborhood, the reality that I was living in, but an open door on the world. It helped me get a high level of confidence. I knew I didn't have to fight people in the streets to feel good about myself.

Me: Recognition is so important for everyone. Did you experience that right away? Were people telling you how great you were?

Robson Moura:  I don't think I chose jiu-jitsu, I think jiu-jitsu chose me. I started training and competing right away, and I lost my first competition. I didn't feel good and I didn't feel bad. But when I won my first competition, I wanted to feel that more.

Me: But were you receiving recognition?

Robson Moura: I always had people telling me that, telling me I was going to be huge, but I couldn't see that then. I didn't start seeing that until I was maybe a green belt.

Me: You had to prove it to yourself.

Robson Moura: Exactly.

Me:  Did you ever start to get the feeling that no matter what happened, you were going to make it? With or without jiu-jitsu, did you start to think of yourself as a successful person?

Robson Moura: Yes, 100%. Jiu-jitsu helped my self-esteem a lot. I started to think of myself as successful, I started to learn about who I was.

Me: Did you ever think you might not make it in jiu-jitsu?

Robson Moura: No, I don't think I ever thought that.

If you look at Robson's story and my story, they couldn't be more different. At the same time, in a strange way, my story is a shadow version of Robson's. He came to jiu-jitsu at the age of 10; I came to jiu-jitsu when I was already in my 40's. He was surrounded on all sides by a wall of poverty; I was surrounded by a wall of disease. He thought his life would never begin; I thought my life was over.

He went on to become an 8 time world champ, a household name in jiu-jitsu, and all the things we know about him. I went on to become...myself. He went from the top of a favela to the top of every podium that matters, and I am right where I was at the beginning of this journey, in my home that I love, that I have never left, that I never want to leave (except sometimes in the winter).

My home

Every hero's journey is different and every hero's journey is the same. And a hero is just someone who, when faced with impossible odds, refuses to give up. Robson fought his way out of poverty and hopelessness to the status of living legend. I fought my way out of ill-health into wellness.

And although I am certainly not crazy enough to compare myself to Robson, if I had been offered, when I got sick, a choice between achieving everything he has achieved and getting well, I would have chosen getting well.

We are all different. We each have different tasks and a different path. I would not trade my life for anyone else's. On the other hand, I can grow and my life can grow. There are many things I have yet to experience in this life.

There are many challenges still to face. And the number one challenge, at least for me, is coming back to life. It was so hard to accept defeat, but I did accept it, because I had no choice. And now the challenge is to understand that I do have a choice.

As Bruno Bastos told me: "Don't get used to losing."

Bruno Bastos

I am not the same person I was 8 years ago. I think I am a better person, or at least a bigger person, and most of that I owe to jiu-jitsu. But now is the time for me to figure out who I am. It's time to reclaim my ego, the one I was told to leave at the door but didn't, because my ego was all I had. It's all anyone has. It's what gets you out of bed in the morning, it's what pushes you to succeed or at least try to succeed. It's what pushed me to get well. It's what pushed Robson to get out of the favela. And yes the ego pushes you to win, but it also pushes you to give everything you have and in so doing, make yourself vulnerable to loss. The ego is what transforms you and you are what transforms the ego. That's the way it should be.*

By accident, I seem to have gotten well. By accident, I seem to have written an article about jiu-jitsu and the transformation of the ego. And I'm curious to know where the next accident will lead me.

Disease taught me to kneel. It taught me that there are things that are bigger than me, and that bad things do happen to good people. But it also taught me that sometimes good things happen to good people, when good people try hard enough and sometimes even when they don't. Sometimes you have help. Not often, but sometimes.

But if disease taught me to kneel, jiu-jitsu taught me that kneeling doesn't mean the fight is over. It means the fight is beginning - with an opponent or with your destiny. In fact, it's a great time for a loop choke.

Jiu-jitsu taught me that a really bad position can turn into a really good position, but you have to make that happen. Nobody is going to do it for you. You have to try and never give up. If you want to win the war, you have to be prepared to lose a lot of battles and keep smiling.

You can touch the sky. But first you have to learn how to kneel.

Before you touch the sky
Better learn how to kneel


*N.B. When I cite the "ego," I mean the original definition of the word, which is the Self. "Ego" is simply the Latin word for "I." The word "ego" seems to have become synonymous with "exaggerated sense of self-importance." But that is not what I am talking about in this post.

Many thanks to Master Robson Moura for this interview. January 2017.

Friday, December 30, 2016

When people say "But you're not Robson"

6 years of Robson Moura jiu-jitsu

If you always put limits on everything you do, it will spread into your work and your life. There are no limits, only plateaus, and you must not stay there. 

You must go beyond them. - Bruce Lee

I don't have a home academy. I mean, I do, it's just 1100 miles away.

It wasn't always that way. I started training jiu-jitsu at an academy that was a 45 minute drive from my house. In all my time on the mats, I have never had to travel any less than that. Often it's more. But I never expected the jiu-jitsu journey to be easy, and it hasn't been. On the other hand it's been rewarding.

I think it was Ryron or Ralek or one of those people who talked, in a podcast, about the difference between an internal monitor and an external monitor. The external monitor is when you receive recognition from others. In jiu-jitsu, it's medals, belt promotions, student of the month, or whatever. 

The internal monitor, on the other hand, is when you know your jiu-jitsu is growing, you know you are on the right path. There are no medals and your belt may stay the same color for a long time, but you can feel your jiu-jitsu growing. You hear tapping and it's not coming from you.

In an ideal world, we have both. We get recognition for our efforts from others, but we still push ourselves to excel.

In the real world, sometimes we have to choose. I knew at the beginning of my purple belt that I had to choose between a belt and jiu-jitsu. Purple belt for me meant a time to look around and see what was out there in the jiu-jitsu world. But obviously, you don't get stripes for looking around. You don't get a brown belt for exploring, but I accepted that because purple belt was the first time I really understood how jiu-jitsu could differ from person to person, and I wanted to be sure I chose the path that would fit me. In the end, I chose the same path I always choose, or rather, the path that chose me from before I was born - the path of freedom.

In practical terms, I chose Robson Moura. I didn't even think I could ever be on the team, or ever progress beyond purple belt, and I accepted that because it was the only way I could grow my jiu-jitsu. I just wanted to follow Robson Moura and see where his jiu-jitsu would take me. And although this path has its share of frustrations, I embrace them, not because it's the best way, but because it's the only way for me.

There were people who would have welcomed me on their team as long as I accepted their limitations as my limitations. And I couldn't do that.

Limitations, in jiu-jitsu, are dependent on the ego. And although people tend to think of the ego as something bad, it's the opposite that is true. Ego just means "I." A strong ego is a healthy ego. It means you know who you are, where you're going and what you're doing.

You're not threatened by new ideas, you welcome them. In general, the greater the accomplishments, the healthier the ego. Those who have proven everything there could possibly be to prove don't need to prove it to you, and they don't need you to validate them.

It's the people who may not have reached their goals, who maybe didn't even try, who need to have their jiu-jitsu validated by their students. There is only one way to do things - their way. And that's frustrating when you're trying to grow.

I have ego too. Of course. The difference is, I admit it. And my ego wants me to be the best. Not the best in the world, or even necessarily the best in the room - just the best I can be. And I can't do that under somebody else's ceiling.

Trapped in somebody else's limitations

I have always had an internal monitor. Actually, I have always had an internal everything. When we were given an assignment to write 300 words describing a trip, my instructor's comment was: Great description of your inner world. And I remember thinking, with a slight sense of shock, that I didn't know there was another world.

When I turned 30, I started to work out, because I knew that at 50, I would have the body I started building at 30. Now, I am turning 50, and I have 20 year-olds telling me that I have an amazing body. So, am I bragging? Mmmmmaybe. But the point is, I set my own standard and I met it.

The body you build at 30 to live in when you're 50

In the same way, I have my own standards for my jiu-jitsu. There are certain things I want to accomplish, certain mind-body goals that have as much to do with who I want to be as the kind of jiu-jitsu I want to play. And Robson Moura has much of what I lack.

Where I'm rigid, he's flexible. Where I'm slow, he's fast. Where I'm glued to the ground, he can fly, evaporate, shapeshift, and return to Earth with his hooks in. Where I'm afraid, he's fearless. And I want that. I want to change. I want to grow.

I don't want a jiu-jitsu that panders to my weaknesses. I want a jiu-jitsu that reveals my hidden strengths.

I have said this before but what really fascinates me about Robson Moura is that he has done the same thing in his life that he does on the mat every day. At 38, he stands about 5'5" in his flip-flops, and I don't think he is going to grow any more. But every day, he dominates people who are much larger and stronger, people who are on steroids, people who have jiu-jitsu too. And that's impressive, but what is even more impressive is that when he was 10 years old, he consciously embarked on a path that would enable him to dominate his life and his fate in the same way he dominates his opponents.

And what that says to me is that he has found something that works. He has found the truth.

The truth is outside all fixed patterns

There is an Italian proverb that says: Lies have short legs. It means that sooner or later, the truth will run faster and catch up. And that's especially true in jiu-jitsu.

In Robson Moura's case, the truth has short legs.

Sometimes the truth has short legs

When people think of Robson Moura jiu-jitsu, they think of rockstar jiu-jitsu, and it is. It's flashy, it's hot, it makes the audience go "oooooo" in a way that other kinds of jiu-jitsu do not.

But it always goes straight to the point. It's not flashy for the sake of being flashy. The flashy guard pass is aimed straight for the sub.

The opposite of that is a kind of jiu-jitsu that I would describe as masturbatory. Different for the sake of being different, fancy for the sake of being fancy, designed for form and not function, catering to people who want to look cool while staying mediocre.

I'm not saying those are the only two kinds of jiu-jitsu out there. There are lots of kinds of jiu-jitsu. Most of them involve some amount of size and strength.

And to me, jiu-jitsu that relies on size and strength is a lie. Jiu-jitsu is supposed to be that thing that is there for you when your strength is gone, when your body hates you, when you are 50 years old and female. When you are me.

And that's why I always come back to Robson Moura jiu-jitsu. Because it works. Yes, it requires a certain amount of flexibility. So does life. So do relationships. And if flexibility - and relationships - haven't been my strong point so far in this life, that just gives me a goal.

Rickson Gracie said "The guard is not the place you go when you are younger, stronger, better than your opponent. The guard is where you go when you need to turn the game around."

And maybe that's why the guard is the heart of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Playing guard, passing the guard, yes there are other things, but first you have to get past the guard. The guard is the alpha and the omega of jiu-jitsu.

And Robson Moura is the alpha and the omega of the guard.

Often, people tell me, "Yes, but you're not Robson." And it not only hurts my feelings, it insults my intelligence. I know I'm not Robson. I have a mirror. I checked my I.D.  Nope, not Robson. And I'm not trying to be, although I would love to be Robson for a day, just to feel what it's like. Wouldn't you?

What they're saying is that Robson Moura jiu-jitsu is somehow too cool for me, out of my range. What they're saying is I'm too old. 

Which, first of all, is rude. My age is my business. If I'm not doing a move right, it's because I haven't drilled it enough, not because of my date of birth.

Meanwhile, these same people, the ones who are telling me that Robson relies too much on his athleticism, teach a kind of jiu-jitsu that relies on size and strength but they don't know that, because they've never not been big and strong. 

But I don't waste time arguing about it, especially on somebody else's mat. You either get it or you don't.

I don't follow Robson because he's cool, although he undeniably is. I follow Robson because his jiu-jitsu means freedom and and a rainbow at the end of the pot of gold. I follow Robson Moura because Robson Moura jiu-jitsu has no end.

On the other hand, life does end. Life is short as heck. At 50, how much time do I realistically have left? 30 years? 24 hours? Who knows? The last 30 years have gone by so quickly. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I have to remember where I am. Am I in Rome? Calabria? Croatia? New York? Oakland? The mountains? Which mountains? What language am I supposed to be thinking in? Which life am I living right now?

It takes me a split second to remember where I am and what I'm doing. And when I do, it's with a sense of urgency. We have so little time. It's important to use it, or rather, invest it, wisely. 

Maybe it's this sense of urgency that makes me connect so strongly to the urgency of Robson's jiu-jitsu. One thing I've heard him say many times is the admonishment: Don't waste your time here! As chill as he is as an instructor, he takes the time element very seriously.

I had no idea when I met Robson that I was embarking on a one-way path, that training with Robson was going to mean opening my eyes to a new dimension of jiu-jitsu and that once opened, my eyes could never be closed again.

I just followed the crumbs of awareness, just like in any fairy tale, and ended up in this enchanted kingdom that is Robson Moura jiu-jitsu. I'm free to go back to real life smash-and-grab jiu-jitsu at any time, but the problem is that I don't want to.

Following the crumbs of awareness to a new jiu-jitsu

And it makes my life harder but my jiu-jitsu easier. And that's what matters. 

I know I'm not Robson, but thanks for telling me. Now, please get out of my way so I can train Robson Moura jiu-jitsu.

Using no way as a way, using no limitation as a limitation.