How Martial Artists Handle Fear

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Yesterday, I had a very interesting conversation with my mentor.

She told me a story about how one of her family members, who is in the medical field, was required to take a fire safety class.

The fire marshal who was running the class asked the attendees whether they knew what the number one cause of death was in a fire.

Most of the attendees answered that it was smoke inhalation. However, that answer was incorrect.

How is the answer relevant to our practice of martial arts?

I’ll explain.

My mentor went on with the rest of the story (I’m paraphrasing).

A man was cooking when a grease fire broke out. And how he thought to treat the problem led him to a series of very bad, fear-based decisions.

First, the man tried putting out the grease fire with water. The result was the flames burst! Suddenly, the apartment was on fire, eventually blocking the exit from the kitchen. So he went to his bedroom and called the fire department. The dispatcher told him rescuers would be there within ten minutes. He put some towels underneath the door to keep the smoke out.  

Once he was in the bedroom, fear must have risen up in his mind because the next thing he did was tie clothing together to make a rope. He tied that rope around his television set and climbed out the bedroom window. However, as he was descending, the television set dislodged. Out the window it went halfway through his descent. He fell to his death. 

What the man did not realize was that his bedroom doors were made up to code to withstand fire for up to thirty minutes! The man would have been safe had he stayed put.

The fire marshal said the number one cause of death in a fire is not smoke inhalation.

It’s not the flames. It’s not falling. It’s fear!

Now, perhaps you can relate to this man’s choice upon facing such a detrimental dilemma.

Many times in our lives, we choose solutions that make things worse. We force ourselves into a corner, or a bedroom, even though that doesn’t make our situation any better.

Fear is the culprit.

Whether it’s being afraid or making bad decisions or being afraid to make any decision at all—it’s still fear-based!

That’s what gets us.

But that’s also what our work in Jiu-Jitsu, and martial arts as a whole, is designed to alleviate.

These practices give us tools to remain calm under pressure.

We already have every tool we need within us—calmness, composure, intelligence, and right-reasoning—if we choose to practice and cultivate them.

Imagine if we could just relax in the face of stress. Our minds could operate more fluidly, more naturally, and once the field opens, then we can come up with an appropriate solution. 

When we choose panic, from the lack of training and practicing, our decision-making is compromised.

So what’s the way out of the kimura, the ankle lock, the heel hook?

Well, it’s not by panicking. Nor is it by doing nothing at all!

There are plenty of options, but often we become hyper-focused on one thing so that we lose sight of all the other possibilities that are there for us. Just like the man in his apartment.

One of the beauties of Jiu-Jitsu is that so many possibilities of escape exist. And though you may think the house is on fire, there is no need to panic or consider jumping out of the window.

A better way is available. 

Freedom is associated with the training. This is not something you can just buy or take. It’s your work as the engaged practitioner to make way for good ideas and harmonious solutions to elevate to your mind. 

That’s a big part of your martial arts practice: get it in your mind first and execute it second.

The practice of martial arts requires studying the right methods to deal with kimuras or fear of being trapped. We can overcome, no matter the situation. 

Once we commit to that disciplined study and consistent practice, we can move the barriers and get out of our own way to start to find different, better, and more intelligent solutions!

– Gene Dunn & Foundation of Love

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  1. Mario Avocato

    Great story.

    A few weeks ago Professor Dunn told this story in the last class I took before flying out west to ski some big mountains. I was in some gnarly hike-to terrain alone and took a bad fall. I lost both skis and one pole and slid uncontrollably for about 50 feet. Once I gathered myself I realized I’d have to hike back up the 45 degree slope to find my gear. At that point started to think about the story and the man who unfortunately passed away because of panic.

    It took me more than 45 minutes to collect my gear and create a space flat enough to get my skis back on. Thinking of this story helped me to stay calm and I just kept telling myself that fear or panic wouldn’t help in any way.

    I’m still a white belt who sometimes still ties his belt incorrectly but this story helped me get out of a real life scary situation!

  2. Great story!
    I personally use the trick if I’m under the stress which can help to escape from fear cage: Think about your situation as your friend’s issues. You see it as an external observer and you are asked to give an advice. It will calm down your mind and help you to find the best and RATIONAL answer. Then just do it! But be careful because probably your mind soon advises your fear-based solution.
    The truth is that martial arts training built this rational confidence!

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