I was training Brazilian jiujitsu and was on round seven of sparring of the night, which means I had been grappling for close to forty minutes. Typically I’ll spar for 3-5 rounds after class, so round seven is the fourth quarter, maybe overtime. After finishing my sixth round I had taken my gi jacket off with the intent to call it a night, but one of the other guys was sitting against the wall looking eager to keep going, so I offered to do one more.
I spent the first three or so minutes of the round comfortably on top in side control. But he pulled off a reversal and I ended up on the bottom. I turtled with the intention of stalling out the final two minutes. My turtle is generally reliable for such deliberate inaction.
He went for a bow and arrow choke, but I managed to get both of my arms under both of his legs for a “bucket escape.” This is a technique I use all the time, which is why my last conscious thought was one of imminent safety. But I underestimated the strength of his grip on my collar. He pulled up on my neck while pushing down on my shoulders with his legs. I was essentially hanged. Next thing I knew I was waking up from a deep sleep.
When I regained consciousness I was irritated at having been woken up–like when an alarm wakes me up for an early flight. Looking around and recalling my extreme fatigue, I rationalized: I must have decided to take a nap on the mat after training. (A totally normal thing to do at the gym, right?) But my worried-looking training partner explained that I had been choked out. Oh. That made more sense.
I’m trying to convey here that my experience of being strangled to unconsciousness is difficult to decouple from the exhaustion I was feeling at the time. As I laid on the ground staring out the window, I wondered: Is the nausea coming from the strangle or the exhaustion? Is the light-headedness from the strangle or the exhaustion? Is the serenity from the strangle or or the exhaustion?
And perhaps in part because of the exhaustion–I don’t know–I experienced the actual moment of unconsciousness in a particular way: as blissful.
I can’t recall ever feeling such intense tranquility. And yes, I’ve experienced post-coitus twice, since you ask.
Imagine a sleepy Sunday afternoon. You’re lying in bed with a half-dozen kittens, a warm glass of milk, a hotel bathrobe, cucumbers over your eyes, for some reason. You’ve just received a massage from a beauty or hunk of your choosing and Norah Jones is nearby with a piano performing her entire debut album for you–just for you. A bowl of fish bite your feet, if you’re into that kind of thing.
I tell you now: Lying unconscious on the mat in a pool of my own sweat was better.
Let me put this another way: I’ve been practicing meditation for a few years now, but I think in that moment of unconsciousness I experienced, in a sense, the goal of meditation.
Am I sounding like one of those ayahuasca/LSD/Herbalife fanatics? Are you looking around for the nearest pair of burly arms that could help you simulate death’s subtle embrace? Let me dissuade you. Don’t. Because the transcendence was followed by a crash.
Last week while talking with a friend I committed to writing more. I had no plan, no topics I was interested in writing about, no outlines, no inspiration. And then the universe handed me a near death experience! Would you look at that!
I mean, I have got to be one of a handful of people on earth who get recreationally strangled to unconsciousness and then have the impulse to write about the experience, at least outside of the domain of romance fiction. While within the jiujitsu community strangulation is kind of mundane, I understand that most of the population goes to great lengths to avoid strangulation (Imagine that!) and being strangled to unconsciousness is quite unusual.
So this is kind of a “big deal” for me. As a San Diego millennial laptop worker, this is about as close to death as I plan to come until I–you know–die.
So now I’m writing sloppily drafted notes at 2 a.m. the same night I was strangled because I can’t sleep (I rested at the gym, remember). And I’ve got some difficult ideas coming out of me. It feels more like passing a kidney stone than a benign catharsis.
Because I’m realizing that while I did not die in that moment, part of my relationship with the martial art I love did.
In part I’ve been reflecting on how I spar. Jiujitsu is not a tea party, of course. It can be used to kill people. You could die or be incapcitated while training. But you’re not supposed to get choked out. So I must have been doing something wrong.
In general, I train with a certain insouciance, even puckishness, insofar as a 33 year-old, 200lb man can be puckish. I give up top position often and easily, and I expose my back a lot. I escape and recover. But I have noticed that it’s easier to catch a knee to the dome on the bottom or be accidentally injured, generally. And of course you are exposed to more chokes when someone is on your back. So I’m thinking, maybe, that I should abandon some of those practices.
It occurred to me, also, that perhaps I shouldn’t do a seventh round with a giant, athletic twenty-something when I’m exhausted.
But really I think the culprit here is my own ego. It is, frankly, out of control. It’s not lost on me that I was choked out by a blue belt–that despicable lower caste. That key detail I even omitted from the opening paragraphs. Had he been a brown belt I think I would have tapped.
It’s common in the jiujitsu community to talk about the gentle art’s relationship with the ego. A jiujitsu black belt who doubles as a life coach has just written a book called Jiujitsu and the Ego, for example. Listen to a few episodes of the Joe Rogan Experience when he speaks to his jiujitsu friends. I guarantee that they discuss the ego.
Training, allegedly, is a way to keep your ego in check: There’s always someone better than you on the mat. And he could kill you with his bare hands. That idea, I guess, is humbling.
I say to you, reader: Cherish the white belt. Those early days of being indiscriminately smashed and dominated by everyone don’t last. It is easy to be humble when you are so obviously humble. The white belts shall inherit the earth!
But as you climb the skill ladder in jiujitsu, the crystalline lessons of humility become less frequent. You spend more time as the humble-er and less as the humble-ee.
To be honest–and this is silly, even absurd–I even feel some pride at having been choked out. It’s like I’m now part of a somewhat exclusive though tremendously stupid club, a fringe political party or something.
I am never going to say that I am “good” at jiujitsu–that label is reserved for champions, and I am well aware that I am not a champion. But, I am also aware that I can put the hurt on a lot of guys now. I’ve started to feel good about certain positions and techniques. That fuzzy feeling? That’s pride. I wrote an entire essay about the turtle position. And if you read between the lines of that essay, you’ll see my pride. Fortunately, it was strangled to death by a blue belt the other night.
Back to training tonight. See you on the mat.