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

   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.

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.

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

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.

Stoicism and Emotions

low angle photograph of the parthenon during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

How the Stoics conceived of emotions:

A major innovation of Stoic psychology was their detailed theory of emotions. What was unique about it was that they believed emotions to be exclusively the result of rational judgments. For the Stoics, emotions are not animalistic tendencies to be suppressed, nor are they habituated responses that must be trained. Rather, emotions are movements of the soul caused by how we perceive the world.

The picture goes as follows: human psychology functions in such a way that when I believe something to be good or bad (that is, harmful or beneficial) my body responds in accordance to this perception. A belief that something is harmful causes my soul to shrink, and produces negative emotions like anxiety, fear and sadness. A belief that something is beneficial causes my soul to expand, which produces positive emotions like happiness, excitement, and joy.

Our emotions are complex, just as our beliefs are, with specific emotions corresponding to specific kinds of beliefs. The two most important aspects of a belief, in terms of which emotion it will produce, are: A) the benefit or harm of a given event/action/circumstance, and B) whether the event is already occurring or if it will occur in occur in the future. These two aspects divide emotions into four general categories.

Present Oriented: Future Oriented:

Harmful:

Distress

Fear
Beneficial:     Pleasure

Appetite (Desire)

Things can get more complex than this though. For example, anger would be the belief that harm has occurred and someone or something is to blame (whereas sadness would be the recognition of harm, without a specific object of blame). But for our purposes it is sufficient to see why the Stoics plausibly took beliefs to be the source of emotions. And there is a definite intuitive appeal to this theory. It seems to mimic, at least in part, how we experience and engage with emotions today. If I think I see a snake in the grass, I will tense up with fear. But upon discovering it to be a branch, my fear immediately subsides. What was producing the emotion was not the actual danger, which remained constant, but my perception of a danger. And even those who do not study Stoicism appreciate this correlation and use it to their advantage. It seems like a reasonable strategy for one who is afraid of flying to remind themselves that it is actually a relatively safe method of transportation. We recognize that this kind of strategy will actually help to affect our emotions.

How the Stoic theory of emotions can benefit us:

So the question then becomes, how do we benefit by adopting this perspective? How can a Stoic understanding of emotions help us to navigate our own emotional lives? The first benefit of this perspective is that emotions are not things that happen to us. Rather they are the direct result of our choices about how we choose to perceive and value the world around us.

This gives us a degree of power when navigating the world to regulate and alter our own emotions. Especially those we do not wish to have. We can remove a negative emotion, or even induce a positive one in its place, by examining and altering the beliefs that are causing the negative emotion. This can be done by asking two questions about a given belief:

  • Is the belief true?
  • Does the belief involve something of genuine value?

Imagine for example, that you suffer from anxiety at work. According to the Stoics, if you want to feel better, then this emotion should not be repressed, or shamed as irrational. Rather the belief producing this emotion should be identified, examined, and developed further. Let’s suppose the anxiety is caused by a belief that your coworkers do not like you, and make fun of you behind your back.

You then have two ways to deal with the emotion. First, you can question the truth of the belief. Are you misinterpreting your coworkers’ shyness for disdain? Do you have good reason to believe they do not actually like you? It was said that the Stoic sage, the ethical ideal for the Stoics, would not form any belief without being certain first of its truth. The Stoics believed that the normal person jumps to conclusions too quickly, and does not set for themselves a high enough standard of proof before believing something. If we are cautious about what we choose to believe, especially when the event really matters to us, then we will save ourselves from unnecessary negative emotions.

But if it turns out to be true, then you can still move to the second step, and question the value of the event itself. Does it really matter if you are unpopular with these people? Is this really such a bad thing? What genuine consequences, besides the negative emotions, are caused by this? The Stoics held that the normal person tends to non-reflectively adopt the value system of their society. In this way, they are predisposed to care about things that do not really matter, even by their own standards of what is important. So if we want to limit negative emotions, we should be careful about what we choose to assign value to.

A Life without Emotions:

As it turns out, for the Stoics very few beliefs are going to make it past these, and thus almost no emotions are going to count as proper to have. This is because the Stoics think that nothing external to our own virtue has genuine value. In other words, the events we typically think of as being bad, such as damaging your car, being insulted, getting fired, or even having a loved one pass away, are not actually bad things and do not concern objects of genuine value. The reason we suffer from negative emotions then, is that we mistakenly attribute objects external to us as having value or disvalue. Thus when we naturally encounter things we disdain, or lose things we value, we experience sadness or anger. Even if we are lucky and have all the things we want, we then exist in a state of anxiety at the fact that this luck might change.

This aspect of their theory is of central importance to the Stoics, but it also the part that can be the hardest to accept. But unless you want to be a Stoic sage, that’s fine. There is no reason why one cannot both adopt their conception of emotions, and retain the belief that our friends and family matter, and that our interests have an objective value. It is perfectly coherent to recognize you are sad when a loved one has passed because you value that person, and to choose to keep that belief about their value. The Stoic theory of emotion does not necessarily entail Stoic ethics.

But what even the non-stoic can take from this radical Stoic position is the idea that we should not be passive in how we choose to value the world around us. If we are going to suffer about something, or suffer for something, it should be something that we have actively decided matters to us. We should not suffer just because we have been told to care about something. Because our emotions are not things that happen to us, but rather the result of the beliefs we choose to form and retain, we are able to become the authors of our own emotional lives. And indeed, the Stoics thought this self-authorship was our responsibility.

Conclusion:

The Stoics are often portrayed unfairly as being hyper-rational, cold, and detached from their emotions. But hopefully we can see from the discussion that this is not the case. While it is true that the Stoic sage would have no extreme emotions, the Stoics have no bias against emotions as emotions. Rather, the Stoics sought to eliminate themselves of passionate emotions because they took them to be indicative of false beliefs about the world. And false belief, or ignorance of the truth, was considered to be the same thing as vice, which was the only thing considered by the Stoics to be truly harmful to the individual.

Thus Stoicism does not call for us to suppress our emotions, so much as to be aware of them. It demands for us to be intentional about what we choose to give value to. It warns us not to frivolously form a belief about an ambiguous event, because this can wreak havoc on our emotional well-being. Finally,  it demands from us that we investigate the reasons we feel the way we do, and that we ultimately give up those feelings if the reasons are poor.

Further Reading:

Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum:

If you are interested in the theory of emotions as being produced by beliefs, Nussbaum does an excellent job of developing a contemporary stance on the topic. A benefit of Nussbaum’s position is that, while it is inspired by Stoicism, it does not depend upon Stoicism, and thus separates itself from most of Stoicism’s more extreme claims.

Stoicism and Emotion by Margaret Graver:

This book by Graver provides one of the most exhaustive and detailed scholarly accounts of Stoicism and their theory of emotions. This would be an ideal book to gain a better understanding of Stoicism’s position on emotions and human psychology in general.