Five Days of Mindful Agony


This time my only injury was some mat burn on my left instep. I must be improving! Every year my body awareness, mindfulness, martial skill, and gratitude for this tribe increases.

For many Springs we’ve had one of the larger informal gatherings of jujutsu practitioners in my system in the shadow of Mount Shasta. The venue is like a zen temple made by a millionaire half way up a mountain. It’s always a transformative experience, designed to totally overwhelm the mind that’s so detrimental to so much of our consciousness. The sheer amount of distilled skill, body knowledge, martial prowess, and grain alcohol staggers the imagination, particularly when experienced at the same time. There is also a cat with a stubby tail.


The Austin dojo usually fields three or four to this event. Dire predictions about the consequences of me being the only representative from Austin went unheeded, so this year I climbed the mountain alone. The only benefit was a smaller overall attendance, leading to more personal attention and an easier time collecting all the Pokemon. We had as many instructors as not, a teacher-to-student ratio rarely seen in the martial arts. And it always leads to the same dynamic. Teacher A teaches you something. You then switch to Teacher B, who tells you something subtly different. I’ve learned that saying “but Teacher A just said this other thing!” doesn’t work. You stay present with the teacher in front of you, and chamber the other teacher’s technique for future exploration.

Not that there isn’t continual comparison, improvement, and debate about the best way to do things and why. Frequently this happens after the formal classes are over and the alcohol has begun to flow. But in the moment, each teacher has a unique perspective, frequently based on twenty, thirty, or more years of experience that’s really worth fully embodying for the short time they’re in front of you. It’s then up to you, as the seeker, to suss out what marrow there is to be teethed from each experience and which method works for you right now, while realizing that some of the knowledge will only be clear later at some higher level of sensitivity and awareness, and some is already happening without conscious effort.

This instructor magic lasts for a short period of time, and it is critically important not only to take notes, but to embody the knowledge with willing victims as soon as possible afterward to get it out of your mind and into your body. My Austin brethren who though to escape the agony of the training will soon discover they have merely postponed it.

Major takeaways this year included just how much throwing strength away is fundamental to this system. When the founder says “no strength” he means “no strength.” Every motion should be feel completely natural for both the attacker and the defender. The attacker should feel confident at every moment that he has you and that proceeding with the attack will lead to victory. Instead, if the defender has the body skills, sensitivity, and relaxation, the attacker throws, pins, or off-balances themselves by continuing the attack. There is never a moment of doubt, a feeling of being “done to” on the attacker’s part. At most the defender is hijacking the attacker’s intention, but it much more an act of will or mind than a physical response.

One place this became very clear was the second-degree black belt material I’m working on now. It’s finally starting to sink in for me, and the biggest thing I noticed was that it’s nearly 100% setup. If my posture is correct and my subtle response to the incoming attack is sensitive enough, the attacker begins to collapse long before I “apply” the technique, and the speed of that collapse is directly proportional to the power of their attack. Excessive movement or the need to add energy to the system on my part simply means I missed my window and now have to compensate. Both should be practices mindfully, i.e. what’s the ideal application, and what do I do if I miss it?

Another clarity was the degree to which similar techniques at higher belt levels can be seen as a progression of backups in case the first technique fails. I perceived some conflicting information here from different instructors. Some said “do the first degree technique fully first, then apply the second degree technique to already destroyed posture.” Others said “I learn more if I do the second-degree technique to someone with full posture, so don’t go too far with the first-degree technique first.” It’s up to me to make sense of all this, which is a constant challenge.

Finally, the feeling of tribal acceptance with a group of like-minded weirdos is one of the best features of the event. Late into the last night we launched in a four hour alcohol-enhanced group singing extravaganza MCed by a local nurse of shocking Bardic talent. I was able to dredge up long-dormant spontaneous harmonizing and word-following skilz I haven’t fielded since my six years of choir in high school. I was one of the people amazed at how well I could do all this for songs I barely knew or had never heard before.

Profound thanks to everyone who participated in this and previous years! It will remain one of my two non-negotiable trips each cycle of the sun.

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6 Responses to Five Days of Mindful Agony

  1. Vasa says:

    But what about the stubby-tailed cat?

  2. Michael Hanna says:

    Some of your comments about Nidan waza sounded very familiar!

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