On the Importance of Mental Jiu Jitsu

This is a picture of Life, and you. I hope you’re the one wearing the blue gi.

Life has a lot to do with suffering. How well you endure that suffering has to do with your mindset. This is why I want to introduce the idea of mental Jiu-Jitsu.

What I mean by mental Jiu-Jitsu is how you think about things so that you can respond productively. Exactly like the actual martial art of Jiu-Jitsu, where a significant part of the art is learning how to endure painful chokeholds or joint- locks, and how to wriggle out from them so you can resume attacking. How do you practice enduring chokeholds? YOU PUT YOURSELF IN  MUTHAFUCKIN CHOKEHOLDS!

There is a kind of beauty in the parallel between Jiu-Jitsu and how you carry on through your daily life. Is it so crazy to think that like people train their bodies, they should also be training their minds?

An excellent starting point for a “mental martial art” is a philosophy called Stoicism. From Wikipedia:

According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.

Stoicism is really a mental martial art for being the happiest we can be while tolerating the occasional (or frequent, if you’re unlucky) dick-punching that life throws at us. Like the martial arts, there are many styles out there that might resonate better with each individual person. Buddhism is a similar philosophy/religion, for example, in that it too teaches it is not that things are good or bad, but rather our opinion of things that make them good or bad.

Do you know how Bruce Lee prayed? He trained.

Being something of an enthusiastic amateur athlete, the idea of training the mind through hardship, similar to physical exercise, makes a lot of sense to me. Athletes, through their desire to be better in their sport, undergo torturous training in order to strengthen their bodies and minds so they may win. Similarly, by practicing Stoicism, you can strengthen your mind against the strain of life. This is largely done by changing how you think about things, and practicing voluntary suffering.

Currently, I’m doing some experiments on myself with intermittent fasting. Stoics suggest practicing voluntary suffering, such as fasting, as a way to inoculate yourself from the fear of the actual scenario. Is it not better to prepare yourself for starvation when food is easily available, than when you actually are being subjected to starvation? Yes, I realize that an actual starvation scenario is highly unlikely. But, there are so many reasons to see value in this act of voluntary suffering. I will list a few of them.

The main reason I’m undertaking this intermittent fasting is just to see if I can conquer the challenge. I see value in being able to have the discipline to abide by my self-imposed rules of eating only during an 8 hour window, and going without food for the remaining 16 hours of the day. Although it’s unlikely that I’ll ever encounter the actual suffering of real starvation, by stressing myself in a practice scenario I can be ready to deal with other forms of suffering.

Real life examples of involuntary suffering include the nightmare of dealing with bed bugs, or the stress of finding out that you can’t breathe in your new basement suite because of allergy induced asthma. By practicing putting yourself under stress, you’re preparing yourself to be able to continue to operate when the discomfort is no longer voluntary. Because, hey, you’re already familiar with discomfort.

Another reason for my interest in fasting is due to potential health benefits. Aside from the many studies trying to quantify what those benefits exactly are, why do you think that so many religions have elements involving fasting? Rituals such as Ramadan for Muslims, or the parable of Jesus fasting for 40 days and 40 nights? It’s because that somehow, they knew that there were some kind of benefits from fasting. They certainly weren’t trying to trick their believers into accidentally starving themselves to death and reducing their number of practicioners.

There are even studies that show fasting can reverse type 2 diabetes and aid in reversing health problems associated with obesity, arguably the most significant health problem of the western world today. And in the fasted state, the body begins a process called autophagy, where cells clean out old, damaged, or unnecessary components. An excellent resource on fasting is the well-spoken Dr. Jason Fung.

The third reason I’ve undertaken intermittent fasting has to do with saving money. I kicked off my fasting experiment while travelling through an airport recently in a “fuck you” to the ridiculous prices that airport restaurants can charge because people have no other choice for food if they’re feeling hungry. What if you could just be okay with being hungry for a bit? You know, that natural state that humans have dealt with for their entire existence, like any other animal, except for the last 100 years or so. I like having the ability to say I don’t like your rules, I refuse to play. So this experiment is sort of symbolic for what financial independence is all about.

A final, superficial reason for my fasting experiment is to see if I can cut down on body fat. I have no idea if it’ll work. But, the logic is beautifully simple, and engineers like simple: the body burns fat stores for energy in times of famine. I’m curious to see if I will see any changes, and how the practice will affect my body.

Let’s get back to the main point for all of this: mental Jiu-Jitsu. We need to have methods for wrestling, out-maneuvering, and choking our own thoughts into submission, so that we are the ones in control. Jiu-Jitsu is about leveraging weak points in the human body, and about using your attacker’s energy and momentum against him. Similar to the martial art, mental Jiu-Jitsu is about using the energy of your thoughts in a way that is beneficial to you. It’s easy when the thoughts are already positive, but it’s much more important to have mental flexibility for dealing with negative viewpoints.

Examples:

  1. I have a long distance girlfriend whom I only get to see once a month, this sucks. Re-framed thought: I’m really lucky to have a job and schedule that allows me to be able to afford to go see my girlfriend once a month.
  2. I’m so hungry from fasting, I want to eat, I can’t do this. Re-framed thought: It’s only been 12 hours since I last ate. People have gone far longer without food, you’re tougher than this.
  3. I can’t believe I made that mistake at work, I’m such an idiot. Re-framed thought: Oh well, one more mistake under my belt. Everyone makes them, and I’m that much closer to being an expert!

What does this have to do with Mac Money? Mental Jiu-Jitsu is a skill necessary for dealing with whatever circumstances you have been dealt. It’s a way for sticking to the plan that you made when you were rational but easily ignore at the first sign of discomfort. Like watching your investment accounts blow up in the next market crash and dumping everything in despair from the discomfort of “losing” money.

After enduring a bit of self-inflicted suffering, it’s so much easier to appreciate what you already have, rather than wanting more. Because let me tell you, food has never smelled or tasted so good after going 16 hours without it. Yet at the same time, going without it for that long wasn’t actually that bad, after the first day anyways. Like jumping into a cold lake; perhaps shocking at first, but you quickly acclimatize.

Furthermore, a bit of suffering makes you mentally stronger. Just like the burn of exercise rewards you with muscles that are able to lift just a little bit more the next time. Although instead of getting epic biceps, you get the calm comfort of knowing you can deal with shit when you inevitably have to.

So try on new ideas, even if it’s only to find out that they don’t really work for you. You can’t afford to be inflexible. Flexibility is adaptability. If you can’t adapt to your circumstances, you effectively relinquish any control over the outcome of those circumstances.  So learn some mental Jiu-Jitsu, whatever that means for you. Because life is one relentless mother fucker and you’re gonna need some moves if you want to survive a few rounds with him.