On the intersection of Orthodox Judaism and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Growing up, I always wanted someone to come along and take me under their wing. I followed the leaders – usually the taller, charming guys who tackled physical tasks, talked to girls, dominated math. When one after the other matured beyond my boyish, puppy-dog nibbling at their heels, there finally came a time when I had to find my own way, as we all eventually have to do. But the tendency remained within me.
In college, when John Dufresne walked into my first creative writing class with his shoulder length graying hair and diamond stud in his left ear, I leaned over to the person next to me, pointed at Dufresne and said, “That’s me in 20 years.” I spent the next couple of years trying to impress him enough so that one day he’d come over, put his arm around my shoulders, and whisper into my ear all the wisdom it took to tell a good story. Never happened.
Ultimately, I came to see that part of myself as a weak part, something that had to be tamped down, a tendency of which I had to disabuse myself.
When my wife and I first started observing the tenets of Orthodox Judaism about 10 years ago, I learned that to have a mentor is something to aspire to. This is still something I still struggle with.
“Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a master…” ~ Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 1:6
Based on Maimonides’ thoughts expressed in the Talmud, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) interprets the word “master” to imply a spiritual mentor, a mashpiah. This is a widely accepted understanding in the Orthodox Jewish world. In fact, the Rebbe spoke about this notion a few times.
In a collection of insights into Pirkei Avot (In the Paths of Our Fathers, 1994), he is quoted from a talk in 1985 on this phrase. The Rebbe stresses that this instruction is to find a guide to regulate one’s conduct. Because we are so influenced by self-love and ego, most folks tend to have a difficult time judging the adequacy of their own conduct in communal affairs, charity, study, and other attributes of living a Torah centered life. He writes: “Holding himself responsible for the evaluation of another individual will enable a person to make maximum use of the potential with which he has been endowed.” He goes so far as to state that this is so important one should, if need be, force himself to choose someone for this responsibility. The key is to find someone objective who is also willing.
In 1987, the Rebbe gave a talk during which he stressed the qualities a mentor of this kind must have: they must be objective (an “outsider” you look to for advice, guidance, and evaluation), and they must be modest, compassionate, and kind.
It has been ten years of learning, doing, struggling. Ten years and I have yet to find myself a mashpiah.
I try to convince myself that this is because I am fiercely independent. (You can stop pointing out the irony of being independent and Orthodox. I’ll get into that another time.) But I know the worth of guidance. I’m a teacher, a self-defense instructor, a husband, father, son, brother, and a friend. I’ve given (when asked) and taken advice many times over the years.
As a martial artist, I know it is integral to have an open mind to learn from others. It is also extremely beneficial to have a master, sifu, or chief instructor to guide you through that journey.
Most recently, the lesson was impressed upon me like never before in the years I’ve practiced martial arts. It was this incident, while training in jiu-jitsu, which got me thinking: Why haven’t I assumed for myself a spiritual mentor? Especially when the benefits of guidance are so obvious?
I have recently been promoted to green belt. This night, my first training partner is a blue belt, with four years of experience to my one.
Almost immediately, I’m on my back. I hold him in half guard, so I don’t panic, but soon enough he’s crushing my chest into my spine.
Breathing requires a higher level of focus than I can possibly achieve in time to survive the pressure any longer. My mind short-circuits. As a green belt who still feels like a white belt with no game and no flow, I have no idea what to do and the thought to stop and ask – which I often do when training with blue belts like my current partner – does not occur to me just now. All I know is that I want to survive and I wish I knew how.
Master Barbosa calls out: “Get the underhook, David. The other side. Yes.”
I don’t know from which direction he calls, but his voice, my name, finds me.
The strain to be calm whistles out of my nostrils. “Now move your hips.”
I move. “Hip escape. Yes. Boa!”
My hips are out to the left, my rib cage taking the brunt of pressure from the side now. I’m still being crushed, but there’s more room to breathe. I’m blinking away black dots. My quads, my abs, and my chest scream with burning lactic acid: Quit!
But there’s a way out. Master Barbosa sees it. He’s showing it to me and tells me what to do to get there. He knows what I’m capable of and he knows my situation. I just have to do and listen and listen and do.
“Yes, keep going,” Master Barbosa says. “Move to his back! Go! Boa!”
I‘m sucking wind, but I’ve got my hooks in.
Someone calls out: “Time!”
We separate, shake hands, I’m breathing hard.
I raise my hand to signal to teammates that I’m good to go. My mind races with the implications of having just taken the back of a blue belt for the first time. I shut that down quick. In my next roll with another blue belt, while Master Barbosa guides another student, I will tap out three times in five minutes. This is Brazilian jiu-jitsu, where humility is integral to growth.
As my skills improve, the learning transcends technique. As much as jiu-jitsu is a mental game, a game of chess with the body, it is also an empty mind game. The proper practice of every martial art requires drilling techniques deep into muscle memory. Thinking in a jiu-jitsu fight, as in any fight, is dangerous. But that’s all I do at my level of skill, so far.
When Master Barbosa begins to call out what to do, I know it is the right thing because he’s the Master, the maestre, the professor; he’s my instructor, and he’s a champion. But I also know it is right, in hindsight, because I have drilled this many times before. Having placed my trust in my instructor, I let go. As much as there is a goal to achieve a level of skill that will not necessarily require that voice to find me, I’ve watched highly skilled jiu-jitsu competitors listen to their coaches, so I know there will be times that I will still benefit from hearing it, having my name find me, travel through the air from one who knows more.
–Photo: Benicio Murray/Flickr