I’m becoming certain that, as unexpected as it may seem, there is nothing quite as mindful as getting punched in the face or choked by your own collar.
I’ve been toying with the idea for several months now, ever since I started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and sparring in Muay Thai. After years of becoming knowledgeable as and identifying myself a runner (something I’m struggling with), I’ve jumped into two physical worlds where I know… absolutely nothing. I’m newer than new to both sports. I had a brief stint with Karate as a kid, and trained some boxing and grappling on and off over the years, but nothing consistent.
Needless to say, the experience has been incredibly humbling. There’s a lot to learn, and while I’ve always considered myself generally athletic, there’s something really different about BJJ and Muay Thai that’s asking me to do something completely new: be totally and completely present.
Don’t get me wrong. Running and weightlifting both require thought, especially in order to do well. Running distance asks you to consider pace, strategy, and efficiency of motion. Weightlifting and doing a difficult WOD means thinking about form and timing strategy as well.
Still, both (running especially) have allowed me to slip into a cradle-rock rhythm of “work” and lose myself there. I’ve said before that running is a form of moving meditation for me. It often allows me to zone out completely until I’ve suddenly run many miles without realizing it. It has offered me solace and escape in this way for years.
Now, though, I’m working in a world where the consequences of zoning out will punch you in the face. Literally. As soon as the bell rings, all my attention has to focus on that moment– what is my opponent doing? Where am I expecting them? How will I counter their move? The physical muscle memory I am trying to build so I can hit or grapple safely and effectively is in a consistent, intertwining dance with the mental chess game at stake. Come at me with a body kick? I can be ready to throw the cross. If I’m able to take mount, I better be thinking about how to keep my base and try for a submission. Every moment is assessing the situation, choosing a response, and planning the next move.
Still, while it’s tactical, it’s a graceful and powerful experience too. It’s dangerous to overthink (and, thus, slow down) while sparring, so while there is consistently critical thought, there’s also the need to let go and see how well training and translated to good instincts. There isn’t always time to debate every possible move; the person in front of me demands a response in this moment. It demands my body to move in space with another. It forces me to interact with the world around so completely that I can no longer turn only inward and ignore everything around me. Instead, I allow myself to be drawn into the push and pull of another person, and the tension is fraught and exhilarating and reaches into a deep, gut-level part of myself that I so rarely get to interact with.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of Flow, a state of joyous and complete focus.
As strange as it is, I have always had a hard time reaching Flow while running or even while doing yoga. I would try and focus, be mindful, concentrate on my body, but the repetitive movement made it so easy for me to zone out, stop thinking about my body, be able to work through other mental things (something, again, I often love).
As I am trying to grow in these new arts, though, I find myself not only focusing more quickly, but almost being forced into Flow. In some ways, a sparring situation is a Flow or Die kind of moment. You either pay attention and do your best, or you get smashed.
There’s no shame in getting smashed though. If anything I’ve come to welcome it. There’s nothing like a teep in stomach or getting rolled over your head to bring you back into your body. When I am tempted to lose myself down the rabbit hole of my own mind, being in a space with other people who will beat me back into my body– quite literally– is actually incredibly soothing in a way.
Each hit, blocked or eaten, is a reminder to breathe. Each slam of breath out of my lungs makes me grateful for the next gasp I take in. And when time my training kicks in (finally!) and I land a hit or take a stronger position, there are double blessings: there is a brief moment of triumph that my I learned and executed something new, followed by the humbling realization that it was one moment in a series of many, and that I better get back to work.
Because the work is exhilirating, empowering, and exciting.