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Sharpening is Always the Removal of Anything Extra

by Vince on May 12, 2011

Guest Post by Vince Anila

After a dozen years on the mats, my friend Dorrian Robinson was recently awarded his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu by Professor Tyrone Gooden. If memory serves, it was Tyrone who told me that his own instructor, Master Rigan Machado, once said to him that you can tell everything you need to know about a person on the mats when you’re rolling (sparring) with them. You feel their arrogance or humility, their aggression and ambition, almost everything of their humanity and of your own as well. By these measures, Dorrian is an utterly remarkable person.

There’s an old martial arts cliché that “iron sharpens iron,” and if you watch two people training, there may be many ways in which this is obvious. What you don’t easily see is what’s happening internally, maybe the fears someone is moving through, the discomfort of not knowing, the foregrounding of imperfection and all the ways we tend to hate it, ignore it, or otherwise try to hide it.

Without question, in martial arts there is (and probably always has been) plenty of posturing, scowling, skull tattoos and the whole theater of the thing. No matter how good we get at convincing other people otherwise, though, all of these things about ourselves that we’d really rather have disappear instead shine more clearly somehow off the surface of those mats, reminding us that we’re always either simply reifying what makes us comfortable, or else we’re actually present with our lives moment to moment, emerging by degrees into the very things we’ve been trying so long to outrun. These are not only the hurdles of martial arts practice, they can themselves constitute the heart of what it means to even practice in the first place.

Multiple-time world-champion Marcelo Garcia – possibly the best pound-for-pound grappler of all-time – once said that the only thing that distinguished him at all was love. “Why do I beat a lot of people?” he asks rhetorically in Sam Sheridan’s The Fighter’s Mind. “Maybe I am not better than my opponent, but I know for sure I love my training more.”

I remember the day this started making sense to me at all, at least a little bit . . .

I’m a few minutes into a roll with Dorrian when it happens. “Rolling” can be anything from a relaxing sort of warm-up – two people flowing through positions and submissions (which, it should be noted, are not even in this case pre-determined, and even relaxed require sensitivity and creativity) – to something more closely resembling two dogs fighting nearly to death over a squirrel.

I’m somewhere in the middle of that spectrum with Dorrian today, although he himself is so far into “relaxed” that if not for the fact that he remains a solid step ahead of me the whole way, I’d suggest someone hold a mirror to his face, or maybe check for a pulse. Dorrian has about a decade of experience over me – he’ll have his black belt in another two years – and even though he could tie me up and end this at will, Dorrian on the mats – at least in training – is the definition of “egoless.” The dude is surfing. Unlike some guys I roll with who smash me without mercy just because they can (not complaining), Dorrian lets me in the game, lets me try things, encourages me. And then here and there he taps me out with an armbar or choke, maybe trying some new move himself or showing me in no uncertain terms the mistake I just made.

Lately, I’d had a hard time enjoying training at all. I’d been kind of dreading it, in fact. First of all, everyone I roll with owns me. Everyone. I’m discouraged, wondering why I ever traded in rock climbing for getting my ass kicked three times a week. But more than that, there’s always someone watching us roll, sometimes a real audience. All those old fears of being judged; all those old ways of wanting to hide; all that desire for comfort, which seems so obviously to exist anywhere outside these mats. Why do I keep coming back?

Since childhood, I’ve always been drawn to solitary pursuits. Writing. Zen practice much later. For physical activities skateboarding, boxing, distance running, tennis, cycling, mountain biking, rock climbing. . . . I used to tell people I liked things that forced me to sink or swim by my own efforts, and there has always been some truth to this. Maybe even as much truth as the fact that very early in my life, I learned to hate – “fear” might be the better word – the way a missed throw in baseball had the whole team hating me for an inning or two. Better just to climb up cliffs where no one else cared.

So that day I’d been on my way into the dojo, debating as I always did in those days about whether or not to quit altogether. Whatever else had happened, I had begun somehow to identify with jiu-jitsu, and since I still sucked at it, that meant that part of me, maybe some core part, sucked too. I was just so tired of this whole dance, a pattern my whole life: utter engagement followed by identification followed by paralysis. So far, Zen practice was maybe the only place I had forged on past that sequence, perhaps because I had recognized and resisted from the beginning this tendency toward identification, at least there.

So there I am in all of it, rolling with Dorrian. Today as I write this, I don’t remember what had happened, exactly, but we ended up in a scramble, which is to say we had entered the chaos between positions when nothing and everything happens. We ended up on our knees facing each other, half a second still, balanced, and silently entering the next moment, entirely open and devoid of script. There is no hiding place just then for any of me, and there’s absolutely no way in hell for me to win. I dive back in with a euphoria I’d only ever otherwise felt on Zen retreats, my wedding day, and the night my daughter was born: the euphoria of trying no matter what, this spirit laid bare and no longer needing to own the outcome.


Vince Anila is the guiding teacher of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit. He trains at East West Martial Arts in Canton, Mi.

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  • Great post Vince!  I really appreciate your honesty.  I love how you describe what is going on inside while you’re training.

  • Yes, great post vince.

  • Vince


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