Last night and we were discussing my friend’s trip to Japan. He had been a martial arts practitioner and I had asked him what the best part of the trip was.
He said, “I can’t really say what my favorite part was, but I’ll tell you what surprised me the most. Back when I was training in the martial arts, I never really understood the bow. I thought it was just BS – just some remnant of Eastern philosophy or Japanese culture that was irrelevant to me and who I was at the time.”
He went on: ”When I got to Japan I really understood that there are a lot of subtleties that get communicated through the bow – there was a lot I had missed out on.
“There were people bowing me to me to say ‘thank you’, there were people bowing to me to welcome me, there were people bowing to say ‘please’. There were so many subtleties that I hadn’t been tuned into.
“Throughout my practice I had been making assumptions about what I was being asked to do based on my own personal experience. Rather than actually considering what was going on proactively, I was being reactive because of my own resentments, issues and problems.
“As a result, I dismissed the bow and some of the other traditional elements of the practice because I thought they didn’t apply.
“It took me years to understand that I wouldn’t be able to solve my problems with the same mind that had created them. I came into the martial arts because I was looking for a different perspective on my life, but I had brought my reactivity with me.
“And even though I had an enjoyable and thriving experience as a practitioner, it wasn’t until I was in Japan and felt the bow that I understood what had been going on. I had been getting in my own way by trying to get my own way. Looking back now, I feel sort of…well, remorseful about these thoughts that I used to have.”
I found two significant points in this conversation. The first is that there is a folly to being reactive when we encounter something that creates friction for us. In my friend’s case, the friction came between what he was asked to do (bow) and what he was already believing about what he was asked to do. Of course, this doesn’t mean just go along with whatever people ask you to do – on the contrary, it means apply your proactive and inquisitive mind whenever you’re up against some resistance.
I had been getting in my own way by trying to get my own way.
But to stick with this example, I believe that the bow, along with some of the more subtle philosophies and rituals of the martial arts, are still very elusive to the Western mind and to American culture…but they’re really important nonetheless. We have to be prepared to open ourselves to the possibility of a deeper experience.
My friend was seeing black and white where really there are many subtle distinctions along a spectrum of meaning. The act of the bow is not just one single thing. It takes on meaning and becomes valuable as we seek to perfect it and make it a part of our practice. It becomes not just a tool for interacting with another person, but a ritual that binds us together as practitioners. We could even consider it a technique, designed to bring about a particular result and feeling.
This is one part of why it’s so important that we practice it properly. To treat it like a technique, instead of merely a formality that our instructor has “made” us do. Truthfully, bowing in Jiu-Jitsu is usually dismissed by both parties. No one in the Jiu-Jitsu community would be happy with a sloppy guillotine, but lots of people are satisfied just bobbing their heads rather than performing a proper bow. I’d argue that they’re both related to performance on the mat, but being able to bow has a deeper resonance and relevance for us off the mat also.
The bow points us to the principle, and ultimately Jiu-Jitsu asks us to feel our way through training and through life with principle, rather than just with our reactive mind. Of course, this essay is saying that there is an opportunity for each student to really open up to the subtleties of the bow. But more than that, really what we’re asking is for the practitioner to be open to more subtleties, period. To not be so hard black and white.
There is a chance to become more sensitive, less reactive, to the subtle communications that come our way. It’s good for your Jiu-Jitsu practice. And furthermore, it’s good for your general awareness as a member of society.
For instance, in an art and a practice that is still overwhelmingly male, we could use an understanding of communication that is more advanced, nuanced and subtle. The macho side of the martial arts still frowns upon expressing subtleties and feelings, and it serves to keep us locked in a box. We want to encourage everyone, but particularly the men, to consider what it would mean to communicate more, to look for more depth, to not be so reactive. What would it be like to express more subtleties in your interactions with people?
The challenge for the serious practitioner then, is this: seek a deeper level of connection, to the technique, to the ritual, to the practice. Then extend it to a deeper level of connection with your own assumptions and guiding principles. And then extend it out into the world so that your communication serves the connections you foster in your lives, on and off the mat. I promise that you will not die from the effort. You’ll be safe, you will contribute to the legacy of Jiu-Jitsu and the result will be an even better, richer, more rewarding community to live in.
For more about the larger project of cooperative Jiu-Jitsu and martial arts training, visit the Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Brooklyn BJJ) website here .