The white belt mentality

The Gentle Art: The importance of Perception


     Most of the time we experience life as a series of unrelated events, happening in space and time, and the only correlation we find between them is the associations of our likes, dislikes and past experiences.  We compartmentalize life into different sections: school, work, family, friends, etc. To a certain extent this is a practical and necessary social-adaptive tool, because in one way or another, we must make sense of our surroundings to become capable, efficient and functional individuals in society.  It provides a context for our personality to unfold. 

     You may be wondering what all this have to do with the gentle art of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu?   The answer is pretty simple.  EVERYTHING. Although the way we perceive life and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu may seem like two unrelated topics, they share a very subtle connection.  If we understand this connection we can become fertile soil for the seed of the gentle art to bloom.  The underlying factor underneath everything we do and experience is totally dependent in our PERCEPTION.  Our perception is the filter through which we filter all the experiences happening in our lives, from getting your first job, having a girlfriend or walking for the first time in the mats.

     How many times had you hear phrases such as “leave your ego at the door” or be “open minded” within the jiu-jitsu community? Probably many times.  But what does it really mean? What is this ego? Or what does it mean to have an open mind?

     To understand something we must know its origins, its basics.  The ego and the capability and willingness of our intellect (rational mind) to learn, are products of our perception.  Think of perception as the “software” and your brain as the “hardware” or computer.  A good software (perception) is more efficient processing (learning), storing (memory) and retrieving (using) information.  So, how are the ego and our state or mind a product of our perception? 

     First of all we should examine what it is and what it is not the ego.  The ego most of the time it’s seem as something fix and negative, or is associated with arrogance, which can be possible, but is a half-truth. The ego is nothing more that a psychological response, a persona or a “mask” we wear to fit certain scenarios.  As we can see is not something fix, but flexible like a wave that shapes to the contours of the objects it encounters.  The KEY is to be aware that the ego is not who we are, but it is a mere tool of navigation. 

     Remember when I mentioned in the beginning that we compartmentalize life into sections? So the ego is just a set of behaviors and expectations we select as appropriate for a giving context. How do we know what is appropriate and what is not? Here is where perception comes at play.  For example, if you are going to the beach to surf, you would take swimming shorts and not your gi and your belt, it does not mean the gi is bad, is just not appropriate for the purpose and occasion. 

     Remember I compared perception as mental software and the brain as the computer? so when your perception perceives the beach, it access the memories from your past experiences stored in your brain regarding the beach, and selects what it was functional and valuable back then to aid your present decision. For that reason, gives priority to your surfboard and swimming shorts and not your gi.  It is important to mention, that I used a clothing example for simplicity, but it works in the same manner regarding attitudes and behaviors.

     To be honest, walking into the mats for the first time can be very intimidating, even frightful. You see a bunch of sweaty guys rolling on the mat in various unorthodox ways, trying to choke the lights out of each other.  It can be quite an impression, especially if it’s your first encounter with the world of grappling.  

     So it is possible to become overwhelmed with all the stimulation, adding the nervousness of starting a martial art and meeting new people, plus our insecurities of not been good enough to learn something as complex and demanding as Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.  We tend to experience mix emotions, an inner battle between excitement and fear.

     The balance between the two depends in our state of mind.  There are two existent possibilities: the stimulation can be turn into potential energy, or it can become a hindrance in our ability to learn and perform.

     The majority of the time, we tend to shift towards fear, since fear is our most primal survival mechanism and it’s been there since our ancestors first walk the earth.  It is kind of our default or automatic reaction to the unknown. If we experience reality through fear, our perception fires up our neurons and access the memories, and past experiences where we felt in a similar way, and pulls up an ego or a set of attitudes and behaviors (persona) that made you feel safe in the past.

     Most of the cases, when we experience fear, or we feel intimidated, we tend to go back to our primal defense mechanisms and voila! We impersonate the macho alpha ego to hide our own insecurities. Unconsciously, we become the infamous ego that is not welcome in the mats, a hindrance to our own and partners learning process.

     I am not saying this is deliberately done, but it is an ingrained condition reaction. Similar to the reason why we stop when we see a red light or a stop sign.  The key is to recognize our behavioral patterns when we are becoming defensive and reinforce a positive one.  

     For example, if you feel intimidated and you begin to isolate yourself from your partners, recognize it, and instead, go and talk to them.  You will be surprise how a little bit of awareness can shift your perception of a situation.  So next time you walk into the mats don’t leave your ego at the door, but choose the appropriate one.

     Choose the personality of a student, of a pupil, choose an “open mind” rather than a close one, always be open to new concepts and ideas.  Let you persona embrace the qualities of a sponge, be always ready to absorb and retain what it is compatible to you.  Like a great martial artist once said, “Be like water my friend”.


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