Jiu-Jitsu as a Warm-up for Death


It’s possible to practice fatigue, dismemberment, and death. One can do this athletically and mentally, by fractions and samples. It’s possible to enjoy it; especially when the rehearsal is a bit like fighting, but without permanent injury. This is probably one of the biggest and most profound draws of martial arts, even though I think few people articulate it quite this way. It goes a bit deeper for me than that though.

I’ll offer a simple way of explaining the benefits of a voluntary guided beatdown to those who’ve not personally tried it, and I’ll start with the “fatigue” part since it is the least heavy. I know that not everyone has experience in any athletically demanding martial arts with sparring components. It’s probably pretty alien to most people alive, in fact.

So, assuming you’re not a fighter of any kind, here’s a simple and quick thought experiment. Imagine the exact same neutral face saying one identical phrase: “I’m exhausted!” First, imagine it said in an office. Next, in a gym; even just a YMCA or something like it. You could probably already imagine the difference in the varieties of visceral feelings per setting, even without your own direct experience.

I work until exhaustion sometimes, and generally feel less than great about it. Conversely, I usually feel pretty satisfied to occasionally train jiu-jitsu until I’m exhausted, to the point where the least skilled and least experienced beginners could dominate me if they tried hard enough. It makes me happy to do it; a smile creeps up even if I wouldn’t (for whatever reason) want it to.

Exhaustion is more or less a constant for most people in most parts of the world, but voluntary exhaustion with a self-determined context and setting is quite different. It’s sort of a way of owning and mirroring a participation in this cycle of exhaustion, to your own advantage. Oddly, it makes you better at dealing with both voluntary and involuntary varieties of that exhaustion. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be able to deal with half of the admittedly cushy varieties of “problems” and energy-taxers in day-to-day life without the athletic sparring grind. Less than half could probably knock me out of the game, actually; I need my own grind-of-choice that badly.

Fight sports have far more things to offer than exhaustion though. Many of these subtle benefits are just as perversely masked as entanglement with a negative, antagonistic force. That whole “death” thing I mentioned earlier is pretty high on the list of voluntary tangles.

Specifically, at some point, jiu-jitsu became another way for me to rehearse the act of submitting to death. It’s doubly appropriate in situations where I submit to chokeholds that practically put me out of consciousness anyway. It feels a lot like death. It feels a lot like the sharp adrenaline-drenched struggle just before letting go of life. In fact, in a blood-choke, your vision slowly gets eaten away by little pixelated sparkler-works of blood-starvation to the brain. The lights are brilliant and phosphorescent for a moment, but then they literally fade to black.

I mean, I don’t know the accuracy of this implicit death simulation for sure, because I haven’t actually died yet. Obviously. The psychological equipment seems intact and somewhat interchangeable to a point, though. There’s at least a true echo in there, I’d bet on it.

There are, after all, times where I thought I was about to die, or that the process of dying had even started. A lot of the same feelings were there, in the moments just before getting choked out. So, its at least somewhat close, I guess. I can only conjecture about the ultimate accuracy though.

Even if this idea about simulated death seems pretty rare in the modern sport context, I did not make it up. Not by any means. I’m not that clever, nor even that profound.

I learned somewhere that samurais were supposed to silently imagine their own death and dismemberment first thing in the morning, and especially on the day of a battle. I’ve alluded to that in other writings. I’d also heard that the kimono worn under armor was often a funeral garment. It was apparently a way of saying “I’m already dead.”

It’s been many years since I read the old samurai texts (some of which were actually written after the historical era discussed), so I don’t really know if any of that is historically true. It is, however, functionally true for me in a very personally resonant way. It tickles all the right mysticisms in me without making me feel embarrassed to use that particular “M” word out loud.

There are other activities that could probably provide a similar effect for different reasons. Meditation (also historically aligned and associated with samurai practice) seems a lot like this death-imagination in some specific and less sweaty ways. You lie still, extinguish thought (in the flavors of meditation that advocate this), and become as inert as possible. Like a corpse. A lot like a corpse. Probably too much for my comfort, without an opposing dose of life, which I’ll come back to in a moment.

There’s a long-lasting peace that comes along with this corpse-impersonation. It is certainly, for me, a byproduct of any martial death-meditation-in-motion. It goes a long way to allowing me to declare unto a variety of circumstances: “**** it; collapse is imminent anyway.” It’s sometimes appropriate to feel this way, and to act accordingly.

Then again, sometimes submission and release is not appropriate. Jiu-jitsu helps those other times too; when the blood has to boil a bit again.

Thus, naturally, jiu-jitsu is also a simulation of life. It is often a distillation of life’s most active moments. To wit: one of the other things I like most about jiu-jitsu is what happens immediately after I get dominated and beaten. Both players get back up and spar again. All the lava of aerobic bloodstream-engagement returns. The most lifelike feeling of life and effort is immediately turned back on. The simulation of struggle recurs.

This is obviously a comparatively a rare thrill, which I get to repeat over and over again, many times a week. It is not a mainstream activity, even if it is (by now) at least in the public consciousness. I get to alternate between the subtleties of mini-death and the sweet compressions of maxi-life for a measly monthly fee. I’m one of the lucky ones.

One could argue that these martial sports go further than just simulating managed life and death struggles. Jiu-jitsu also functions as a means of experiencing a kind of simulated afterlife, regardless of whether or not there is even a real metaphysical analogue being simulated. A class after sparring time is a lot like a Valhalla, where your friends chop each other to tiny bits and then hang out and laugh about it afterwards. There’s a lot of smiling, and a lot of… well, love, for lack of a better word. It’s at least more imminent of an afterlife than those offered in many religions, in that regard.

I’d also argue that jiu-jitsu is not just a rapid-fire life/death-struggle simulation, but an enjoyable scapegoat for something less universal than life and death. It can be a legitimate stand-in for suicide.

In my own biography, I trained as a teenager, took a decade off to do other crap, and came back at a time when I really did not like being alive. I was desperate for something that made me happy, like when I was younger, dumber, and less complicated (not to mention: before I had “desk-body”). In a very sincere way, jiu-jitsu was a substitute for killing myself. I got to kill myself by proxy literally every night, and re-emerge regenerated (albeit banged up) every night.

The natural endorphin highs didn’t hurt either. It was as if I were prescribed a cheaper, more effective substitute for anti-depressants. I’d claim there were less side-effects, but I did break an arm or two, among other various and sundry bits of my bones and joints. I’ll take those side-effects over the other antidepressant side-effects I’ve learned about, though. Ten times out of ten, give me the mat instead of the pill.

There were other amazing side-effects to bringing jiu-jitsu back into my life. My dreams got better. My thoughts became clearer. My fears became muted. The intellectually-based despairs and recognitions didn’t disappear, but they were relegated to their times and places, and their fangs were blunted. It made literally everything about my life better.

I still train, and I’m still just as grateful for it. But, it is not merely to make my life better; it is also now to make my inevitable death better. I may have made it a bit clearer as to how I hope this will be accomplished with help from jiu-jitsu. If I haven’t, just pretend I gave a lengthy analogy about training wheels and learning to ride a bike, but in terms of death, et cetera et cetera.

I forget to articulate it this way to myself from time to time, but I do like reminding myself to conceptualize this whole thing as a transaction with death. Death is owed a tax, as is life, but the day-to-day interest is less of a back-breaker if I pay it in proactive non-minimum increments, and with the correct strong currencies.

It may surprise some to learn that I no longer try actively evangelizing to others to try jiu-jitsu. I rarely do it, anyway, if not “never.” I’d be lying if I said the sport/art was for everyone, even if it could be. I do believe it is appropriate and applicable for far more people than it might seem, but I don’t have the bandwidth or desire to spread that particular gospel for its own sake. If people do express an interest, I do as much as I possibly can to help their trial experience, but that is as far as it goes.

What I could potentially evangelize, if anything, would be to do something like this. Find a transaction wherein you pay death its taxes, but with a far better accountant at your side who reminds you to take all the correct exemptions and the like. Death and the IRS are probably equally less of a pain in the ass for those who deal with them voluntarily.

Create the rehearsal, in some way, of your own death and dismemberment. Go through a proxy sacrifice of some kind, so that the cumulative interest of the fear of fears (which may be all a fear of death amounts to anyway) does not own you. Experience the miniature death, and submit to it. Emerge from it. Release some attachments, gain others.

I have no idea what your version of mini-death (which you’ll have to find) is. I’m not sure I even want or need to know, but it might make a decent conversation. You’ll know if you’ve found it though. I’d bet on it.

When the sparkler-mesh of all the lights fade, you’ll hopefully have learned acceptance, as though you’ve done it hundreds or even thousands of times anyway. If you find that it is the final and authentic death, you might be a lot more calm about some shit.

If it is a penultimate death, or even a little daily dose of death by some mundane shittiness or another, your tools will have changed, and the set will have grown. You’ll find that you’ve developed a peculiar habit, in that you’ll suddenly (without even thinking about it) crawl right back up, shake hands with your would-be-killer, notice there is still plenty of time on the clock, and say “want to go again?”


  1. Very deep. The article references the Hagakure (Book of the Samurai):
    “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.
    Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master.
    And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.”