Meditation on Mental Elasticity

Nothing like a good ol’ fashioned brain stretching to stay mentally limber.

One of the best compliments I’ve received in martial arts in the past few years came from a Jiu Jitsu brown belt at my gym. We’ll call him Juan since that’s his name. I’ll paraphrase as well as I can: “You are constantly learning and improving. I’ve rolled with a lot of guys your age (I’m in my 40s) and they all just stick to what they know, the same tricks and habits they’re used to.” He would continue to clarify “but you keep trying new things, you keep trying to expand your skill set. You are the only guy in your age group I know who does this.”

I really love this compliment, not just because it paints me in a positive light and makes me feel exceptional, but largely because it got me thinking and reflecting on an important aspect of martial arts: mental elasticity. A mind that is open and flexible. A willingness to set aside the current script to examine different paradigms. An eagerness to analyze and refine ingrained behaviors and develop better responses to certain situations. So, why is this so important, and how much longer can I harp on my humble-brag here?

It’s like this: humans are creatures of habit. Habits are basically shortcuts in thinking. Let’s say you’ve done the same chore thousands of times, to the point you really need not analyze it. You don’t need to think about doing the dishes or vacuuming or cleaning the cat box, you can set your brain to auto pilot and completely think about other things while you complete the chore in question. This is fine and natural, as it saves you neural energy and you just get the chore done without any huge mental effort. No problem. We are meant to approach tedious tasks in this manner, it is our nature.

But the chore mentality can spill over into other aspects of our lives. Eat the same without thinking about it. Workout the same without thinking about it. Make love the same without thinking about it. Train Jiu Jitsu the same without thinking about it. As we get older, we get more ingrained in our habits and behaviors. So it stands to reason that it is incumbent upon us to save our chore mentality for things that are actually chores, but to remind ourselves to be present and open minded when it comes to the more interesting things, such as art, food, sex, martial arts or anything that requires skill and creativity.

In sparring or rolling we each have a set of preferred strategies, attacks and counters that we are used to. Maybe for the most part it works, until you try it against someone whose style nullifies and frustrates your whole game. Now you’re out of your comfort zone and have to come up with responses and counters that you don’t normally train with. This is why it’s important to put ourselves outside of our comfort zones and be open to learning new things, or new ways to do already familiar things.

A great way to achieve this is situational training. For example, in Jiu Jitsu, if we do situational training, we start the round from a specific common position. For example, instead of starting neutrally, you start the round with your partner on your back. Their job is to choke or otherwise submit you, your job is to get them off your back and escape. Practicing fighting out of uncomfortable or disadvantageous positions only makes you more capable, and forces your brain to focus on more creative ways to stall, hinder, and create angles for escape.

At my age and rank (currently a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) I have a series of preferred techniques and strategies that I use more often than not. I am pretty effective at my tried and true gameplan. However, I train with a wide variety of people who have different body types and skill levels, and my preferred methods are not effective against everybody. I often have to change things up against different opponents. Therefore, even if I think I understand a move, I am always open to modifications that will improve upon it. And I make every effort to ensure I am mentally present when I am drilling a technique or rolling with a partner, instead of zoning out and slipping into chore mentality.

To sum up, we are creatures of habit, and as we age it’s easy to get set in our ways of doing things. However, to improve in Jiu Jitsu or your martial art of choice or in life in general, we have to be willing to accept that our preferred methods are not always applicable in every situation. We have to be willing to step out of our comfort zones and examine new ideas and paradigms. We must continually embrace self-improvement and avoid stagnation. When we get used to this, we also improve our creative ability to improvise in new situations. So, my advice is don’t get complacent, and always have an open mind.

As always, thank you for reading and I hope this post gives you some beneficial food for thought. Happy training and remember to breathe.

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