Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lifelong Learning...

In the book Zen in the Martial Arts the author tells of a student talking with his master over tea about his difficulty to grasp new techniques. With both their cups already full of tea, the master began to pour even more into the student's cup until it ran over and onto the table. Confused, the student asked the master why he poured more tea into his cup when it was already full. The master made the comparison of the student's mind to the tea cup and stated that if your mind is already full of what you think you know, there is no room to be taught that which you do not.

As a school teacher the term "Lifelong Learning" is a catch-phrase I come across often. As an educator, and in hopes of bringing the best education possible to my students, I am expected to continue my education beyond all my required certifications and degrees. We find this in almost any profession we come across, don't we? As new techniques and technologies become available, one must keep up with advancements if they wish to stay competitive and/or knowledgeable in their field. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and martial arts in general, should be no different.

On my journey with this blog I will often cross over between the worlds of both student, and teacher. It is my hope that everyone will be able to take something away from, or perhaps add to, the topics I address here, from a beginner white belt, to brown and black belts. A good friend of mine named Steve is fluent in Japanese. We were talking about Japanese terms once, and I was intrigued to find out that the Japanese words for student (seito), and teacher (sensei), share the common character sei- for "living" or "life". It is my understanding that the only difference between the two terms is experience and/or age. Notice where the shared term comes in each word. In the beginning for the younger, less experienced, student and at the end for more experienced, wiser, master. The Japanese see that the teacher and student both travel on a parallel path. There should be a very thin line separating the student from the master. I jokingly tell all the white belts in our Jiu Jitsu school that the only difference between them and me is that I've tapped out more than anyone else, and that's why I got my black belt. I see myself as a student, just like them. It is not uncommon for me to learn details about a specific move or position, that I have not realized before, only after I was asked a question about it. For example, I conduct private lessons with a purple belt student on a regular basis. As a higher level BJJer, his questions tend to be a little more detail oriented and we are literally analyzing a move or position down to the smallest detail or fraction of an inch. I am often asked a question that I may not know the answer to off the top of my head, but as we discuss the issue and begin to breakdown the position, the answer is revealed to me.

How is this possible? Am I a some sort of Jiu Jitsu prodigy or genius? Hardly. I simply have never put up the image that I know or have all the answers. If I am faced with a question I don't know the answer to I am comfortable saying so, and try to find a way to work towards the answer with the student. This is the same thing I do in my classroom. If a student asks me a question I don't know the answer to, I thank them for asking a great question and tell them that I will find the answer and get back to them, or welcome the class to beat me to finding the answer (they love the challenge). I make sure I ALWAYS follow up with an answer to their question. Same in Jiu Jitsu. I am fortunate to be surrounded by talented and experienced teammates, and of course, our master, Caique. I always have a resource to find a solution if I am stuck in a position or need an answer. With new technologies, I am even able to video tape a position I have a question on, email it to Caique and receive a video response a few days later! If only Bruce Lee had the Internet...

The biggest mistake for any martial artists is to say "I've made it!" after they've reached a certain point. The day I received my black belt I realized that this was just the beginning of the journey for me, which was both an exciting and scary feeling. There is not one day that I step on the mats that I don't learn something new (Here's where the obvious analogy of "that's what life is all about" comes in.) I have seen it time and time again with people in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, at all belt levels. I will address this later, when I talk about each belt and rank, but for now I'll just speak of it in general terms. I see students who make it to a certain rank and literally stop learning. Sometimes it's at blue belt, sometimes it's purple, etc. etc. It's as if they set a goal for themselves to make it to a certain level and once they reach it, they are satisfied. I see them come in time after time and literally make no improvements in their own Jiu Jitsu game plans. They are more focused on the sparring and rolling, and seeing how many people they can tap out and who they can keep from tapping them out. The result is their progression literally coming to a screeching halt and they get stuck at a certain point, while other pass them by.

The death of any martial artist is when they think they know everything they need to know. I am often reminded of a phrase a friend told me once: "Good enough usually isn't." It's difficult, but necessary, to remind ourselves that sometimes we need to "empty our cups" if we wish to learn anything new.


  1. Good stuff Angelo. Got here from nhbgear, and intrigued to see these thoughts from a black belt. Pls keep sharing. :)

  2. Thank you so much DP. Please check back as it's my goal to post something new at least once a week for starters. If you like what you read please spread the word about the blog as much as you can. It is my goal to reach as many people as possible. Also, feel free to add to the discussion, ask questions, etc. BJJ has given me so much in life, I just want to give something back.

  3. Angelo,

    Phenomenal!!! I really, really enjoyed reading this. I'm going to post it on some of the forums and will also send it out to my students.


  4. Thanks Andreh, I appreciate you reading my thoughts. I love this sport and the experiences I've had. We are truly lucky to be involved in a great community like BJJ.

  5. Nice change to the background/font.

    Much easier to read. Looking forward to your next post.

  6. Thanks B... Trying to make it easier on the eyes :) Next post will be up tomorrow morning to start the week.