Based in Kingston, Canada, Michael Tremblay is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Queen’s University. His research focuses on ancient philosophy, specifically moral education in the Stoics.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Stoicism: 4 connections between Stoicism and the philosophy of BJJ

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Stoicism: 4 connections between Stoicism and the philosophy of BJJ

Greek civilization, Plinth of kouros statue, bas-relief depicting wrestlers, circa 510 B.C., detail, from Kerameikos necropolis in Athens, Greece

Greek civilization, Plinth of kouros statue, bas-relief depicting wrestlers, circa 510 B.C., detail, from Kerameikos necropolis in Athens, Greece

Stoicism is an over two thousand year old philosophy originating in ancient Greece. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a modern martial art originating in Brazil. Despite these unique origins, they have a lot in common. I am both a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, and a PhD. candidate in philosophy studying Stoicism, and I have noticed that my philosophy helps my jiu-jitsu, but my jiu-jitsu also helps my practice of philosophy. Here is a list of the ways in which Stoicism and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu complement one another.

1. Stoicism and BJJ both place responsibility on the individual, and thus empower them to change themselves.

Stoicism is all about the choices we make. As an ethical system it tells us that we are responsible for our reactions to any given situation. If we are unhappy, angry, sad, or otherwise disaffected, it is up to us to change that, and not the fault or responsibility of someone else. On the plus side, this also means that it is our responsibility, and within our power, to improve our lives and become the people we want to be. In other words, Stoicism is about personal accountability. Happiness and a good life are dependent upon ourselves, and how we choose to react and respond to the world around us.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teaches this same value of personal accountability. Although many people are constantly searching for the next secret technique or strategy, the way to improvement is as obvious as it is boring. You become good at jiu-jitsu through a combination of mat-time, effort, and study. There is no secret formula.

More than any other sport I have encountered, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a meritocracy. The best people are the ones who have worked the hardest for the longest time. The down side to this is that it is your responsibility to get better. You cannot blame anyone else if your jiu-jitsu fails to improve. But this is also the hidden plus side. Jiu-jitsu works with any body type, gender, age, or size. If there is a problem with your jiu-jitsu, it comes down to you! This can be disheartening at first, but it is ultimately empowering.

2. Stoicism and BJJ both ask us to reevaluate and challenge our own ego.

the-wrestler-copy-of-greek-sculpture-3rd-century-bc

the-wrestler-copy-of-greek-sculpture-3rd-century-bc

Because most people have not accepted the degree of their personal accountability, they have developed a complex system of excuses, rationalizations, or external justifications for why they do not have the kind of life they want. Stoicism asks us to challenge and question these justifications. Are you really unhappy because of that past event? Or are you instead unhappy because of the choices you continue to make?

External justifications of unhappiness are easier for our ego. They place blame on something else, and remove personal accountability. But when we remove personal accountability we also remove the power to change our circumstances. Stoicism thus calls for us to deconstruct this ego. It is a commitment to a world view in which things are not our fault which prevents us from improving our circumstances.

Any individual who has trained in BJJ has experienced the same challenge to their ego. When you begin, you lose to people of much smaller size, who would not be traditionally categorized as ‘tough’. And even after you have trained for years, you will still get tapped by people of lower rank, or people who have been training for less time than you. This is made worse by the fact that there is an inherent intensity to grappling. It is not emotionally easy being physically dominated and made to submit by someone else.

You have a choice then in BJJ: to preserve your ego and blame your performance on something external to you, or to take accountability and focus on what you can control. This choice is not an easy one and many people stop training BJJ because they are not willing to make that conceptual switch. But those that do decide to focus on accountability instead of their ego will find the benefits permeating all the other aspects of their life.

3. Stoicism and BJJ both offer a way of reframing challenges as an opportunity for growth and improvement.

Even though we are responsible for our own happiness, in Stoicism there is still a place for external challenges. Challenges and hardships are tests. They show us the true state of our character and what we still have to improve on. In this way challenges are reframed as a positive thing. They are an opportunity to learn about ourselves, and to take that information and improve further.

So if I get angry at something I should not have been angry at, like an insult, I should not beat myself up about it. Rather I should identify that I have a problem, namely I allow other people to make me angry, and work to improve that problem. Challenges become a good thing. In the words of my favorite Stoic Epictetus:

“Difficulties are the things that show what men are. Hence-forth, when some difficulty befalls you, remember that god, like a wrestling-master, has matched you with a rough young man. For what end? That you may become an Olympic victor and that cannot be done without sweat.” (Discourses, 1.24.1-2, Translated by Robin Hard)

      Epictetus, who lived in the first century A.D., was a slave, and became a teacher of Stoicism after gaining his freedom. He possessed first-hand knowledge of the kinds of difficulties life holds.

Just like in Stoicism, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can help us view challenges in a new light. Training is hard. Tournaments are even more physically demanding, and challenge our ego as well. And losing is the hardest feeling of all. If we strive to avoid challenges then we will avoid partners who are better than us, and tournaments we might lose at. Such a strategy might make us feel better in the short term, but it will only harm the progression of our jiu-jitsu. Worse still, we might even become angry at the people who beat us.

But if we are able to view these challenges as benefits instead of harms, then we will seek out tough training partners, and we will compete more often, and our jiu-jitsu will become better for it. BJJ forces you to come to this realization that challenges are beneficial instead of harmful. As my coach says, you do not go to the doctor to find out where you are healthy; you go to find out where you are sick. Likewise, if we want to improve our jiu-jitsu, we must seek out challenges, which, like a doctor, will show us where we need to improve.

4. Stoicism and BJJ both force us to admit that there are some things we cannot control.

After all this talk of personal accountability, it is ironic that one of the best parts of Stoicism is that it helps us come to terms with what we cannot control. Stoicism teaches us to put all of our effort into what is up to us, and to stop trying to control what is not up to us. To be good Stoics, we must accept that certain things are necessarily beyond our control, and we must accept these things as they are.

To relate this to BJJ, this means accepting that while your progression is based on your effort, you do not control the progression of other people. While BJJ is more of a meritocracy than most other sports, it is still a sport. No matter how much you train, some people are still going to be younger, more talented, and just plain better than you. Even if you are a world champion, you are only going to be the best for 10-15 years at most. Then other people will be better than you.

Any practitioner of BJJ will have to accept this. But this does not make the training worthless. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, at least for me, is about improving yourself. Like practicing Stoicism, the struggles and hardships of training and competing are worth it because they transform us personally, and help us become better people. To conclude, here is another quote by Epictetus:

“[To compete in sports], You must conform to the discipline, submit to a diet, refrain from pastries; train under order, at an appointed hour in heat or cold; you must not drink cold water, nor ever wine as you like. In a word, you must give yourself up to your trainer as you would a doctor. Then, when it comes to the contest, you have to compete in digging, and sometimes dislocate your wrist, twist your ankle, swallow and abundance of dust, get whipped, and ever after all that you are sometimes defeated. Reflect on these things, and then, if you still wish to, go on to become a competitor.” (Discourses, 3.15.2-6, Translated by Robin Hard.)

      You can train as hard as you want in BJJ, and go through all the hardships that this entails, but not matter what you do sometimes you will still lose. However, if you are willing to accept that, and still want to train, compete, and continue to improve your jiu-jitsu, then jiu-jitsu has already taught you a lot about being a Stoic.

Part 2 of An Introduction to Stoicism: Why Other People Cannot Harm Us.

Part 2 of An Introduction to Stoicism: Why Other People Cannot Harm Us.