My Teacher’s One Maxim

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A simple piece of advice (with a hidden warning).

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My teacher had a way of dispensing advice and recommendations so that even the simplest ones would end up like a Zen koan.

You’d go home thinking about them, wondering and turning them over in your mind, never quite having the right answer or reply. They’d have you off-balance, a little unsure of your footing.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about something that Sensei used to say all the time:

“…you have to be a generous person”. 

Now on the surface this is pretty simple. At 18 or 19 years old, I was thinking, “I guess he means I’ve gotta give more to charity. That’s what being generous is, right?”

But as I got older, I started to look at what my contemporaries were doing in the martial arts. Not just whether they’re still training or not, but what type of people they’ve become through their training, and Sensei’s message took on a different meaning for me.

What I found was that a lot of my peers – not everyone, but a lot of them – became solipsistic, withdrawn, insular. They ended up going deeper into themselves. For all these years, the Martial arts has taught them to not risk or extend themselves. This is how it has shown up:

  • I’ve known a lot of karate black belts who are cheap people. When it’s time for the check, they disappear into the bathroom.
  • I’ve known judo black belts that won’t ever spend money on a new gi. The old one is worn out and smells bad. Instead of a badge of honor, it turns into a comment on being sloppy.
  • I’ve known jiu-jitsu black belts who just cannot include others in a conversation. They need to be the center of the show.

Here’s the lesson: if we’re not careful, the martial arts can teach us to shrink as a person.

Retraction is not what the martial arts is for. In fact, we’re supposed to extend ourselves in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t.

The point is…

it’s not aggression, it’s progression.

See, we’re taught to work the inside position, to stay small. But that’s just one part of what we do. It’s not the part of the training that addresses the rest of our lives.

In my experience, the overall objective is to understand that I have the tools necessary to defend myself mentally or physically in any situation, and that gives me the courage to extend, to be more abundant in my life.

Here’s what I mean:

  • I still have a fear of trying new things, but it doesn’t stop me from trying them.
  • If I need new clothes, I buy them without guilt or obsession.
  • I’m friendlier.
  • I give more to charity now than ever.
  • I smile more.
  • I’ve re-examined my relationships with my mother and sisters and brother, to do more and spend more time with them.

The training we do keeps us open to more experiences of this type. The deeper we go, the more opportunities like this show up. On the other hand, there are also more chances to withdraw, so we have to decide which direction we’re headed

Do we want to expand and extend, or contract and get more petrified?

In my experience, there’s only one choice if we want to live a proactive and fulfilling life. Sensei said it back then, and I’m saying it again – generosity of spirit rules. If you’re worried about opening too much, don’t – if it goes awry, you’ve got the tools necessary to survive. The purpose of martial arts is not to live life withdrawn, so contracted that you never take any chances. In fact, it’s the opposite.


For more about our larger project of cooperative Jiu-Jitsu and martial arts training, visit the Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Brooklyn BJJ) website here.

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