Altered States in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Catherine Mackenzie 41194078
Event explored and reviewed: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Competition, 27 March 2010
The warriors amble onto the green square mat, carefully sizing up their foe. Following them is the referee - their critic and adjudicator for four long minutes. One warrior bows to his opponent, the other too lost in tense concentration, forgets. The bell goes and yet, there is no contact. They begin to circle each other like two enraged yet cautious animals, always moving but not attacking. Suddenly there is movement, a lunge to unbalance the opponent and they fall to the ground in a forceful impassive embrace. They are completely unaware of anything other than their adversary and themselves. The crowd yells and cheers for their champion but it falls on deaf ears. They cannot hear anything.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a somewhat modern form of Martial Arts with its origins in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. With the first school being opened in Rio de Janeiro in 1925 its expansion has occurred extremely quickly. Devotees of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu train all over the world, striving to achieve prominence and compete in their field. As with any sport or combative practice, there is the ability to go further, to achieve higher levels of spiritual actualisation. This essay will address the occurrence of altered states in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the forms that they can take. Whether it is a recognisable and clear state of altered consciousness or something more implicit like the feeling of being ‘in the zone’.
Sporting history is littered with stories of superhuman feats of strength and agility occurring at the very last moment to win a game or race. Can this just be labelled as ‘putting in more effort’ or is it something more? Is it perhaps that competitors or practitioners pass into an altered state of consciousness? There are innumerable accounts of the feeling of passing into a different level of achievement and skill, of being in “effortless control” (Murphy and White, 1995, pg 21). This is often referred to as being ‘in the zone’. The zone is not a physical place that an athlete can withdraw to, nor somewhere that can easily be reached by any mortal. Being ‘in the zone’ can reportedly include effects such as happiness, effortless, intuition, timelessness and self-transcendence (Cooper, 1998, pg 33). The phenomenon of timelessness is one that Manolito, a 22 year old devotee of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Karate, can relate to. He believes that although Karate is a more mentally challenging practice, elements of altered states occur in both. During a fight he often loses the concept of time due to the intense concentration on what he is doing as well as the concentration on what his adversary is doing. Brian Aitken calls this experience ‘extraordinary time’ which he believes can act as a sign of some kind of transcendence (in Hoffman, 1992, pg 244) Manolito also notes the degree of detachment that can occur in a fight. He states “sometimes you get up and you’re dizzy, but you weren’t in that state when you were fighting”. Due to the high level of concentration, awareness of the state of the human body is made secondary and overcoming the opponent is of the upmost importance. The phrase, ‘in the zone’ has grown to encompass many different states of sporting prowess, all generally positive however. Achieving an altered state of consciousness in sport is seen as an advantageous and sought-after occurrence.
Joshua is a 21 year old Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner who has recently enlisted in the army and uses the Jiu-Jitsu to keep fit. Joshua competed in the heavyweight competition on the day. His first fight was against a man much taller than himself, although he would be considered in normal circles reasonably tall. Within 45 seconds Joshua has his opponent on the floor in a position that he must ‘tap out’ of, meaning he forfeits. The referee awards the match to Joshua and they shake hands. Talking to Joshua later he finds it difficult to explain how he managed to win the match so quickly. It is evident that being as well-trained as he is, his movements are intuitive and quick. In their book, In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports, Michael Murphy and Rhea White write that “one does not consciously have to plan how to act: instead, one lets the appropriate responses happen of themselves” (1995, pg 25). These intuitive responses do not happen at a conscious level but instead occur when the brain switches off and the athlete moves into an altered state of being.
During the competition there is also the occurrence of competitors passing out completely, from what can be assumed to be a lack of oxygen to the brain. If a person was to faint in any normal everyday setting, they would be given water and made to lie down for an extended period of time. In the fighting arena, if a competitor passes out they stop the match, they wait for the invalid to wake whereby they immediately stand up and the other competitor is declared the winner. This kind of behaviour, to the untrained eye is somewhat inappropriate but these Jiu-Jitsu devotees are trained to pass in and out of the states of consciousness, masters of their craft not unlike the high priest who wakes from a trance, unharmed and unaltered.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is just one of the many practices through which altered states can be achieved, despite it being decidedly less mentally challenging than other forms of martial arts. In competition, concentration is the hallmark of victory, allowing intuition and training take over and to eventually allow the competitor to move into ‘the zone’.
Aitken, Brian. Sport, Religion and Human Well-Being in Hoffman, Shirl. Sport and Religion. Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, 1992.
Camargo, Bruno. The History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. http://www.ibjjf.org/jjh.htm (accessed 2 May 2010).
Cooper, Andrew. Playing in the Zone: Exploring the Spiritual Dimensions of Sports. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.
De Gasperi, Manolito. Interview taken on 27 March, 2010.
Murphy, Michael and Rhea A. White. In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports. New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1995.
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Sieber, Lothar, Wojciech J. Cynarski and Artur Litwiniuk. “Spheres of Fight in Martial Arts”. Archives of Budo 3 (2007).