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A Debuting Martial Artist On Grappling With One's Ghosts

'How I found balance between creativity and savagery through fear'
by Karl R. De Mesa | Nov 1, 2018
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I’m in the middle of the Music Hall of the Mall of Asia and my left ear is ringing from a hard slap by my opponent’s open palm.

The afternoon is humid and I’d been waiting for four hours to fight in the Absolute division, a kind of Royal Rumble affair without weight divisions for medalists who still wanted to continue competing. This is the day of the Asia-Pacific Submission-Only Open organized by the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation of the Philippines. It’s also my first martial arts competition. And while my head is still ringing from a technically illegal strike in a grappling match, it was clearly accidental and we both waved it off to continue locking horns, trying to bring each other down to the mats for the next six minutes.

How did a 40-year-old skinny fat nerd with near zero martial arts experience get to a grappling tournament with international participants?

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And why did I get into a martial art that requires me to engage in extreme proximity and injurious activities with large, sweaty, often way fitter men when, previous to four years ago, my most exhausting pursuit was very light running (okay, it’s fast walking)?

Being a horror writer and a fan of Japanese works with a similar theme, I’ve been meditating on their concept of ikigai for a few years.

Ikigai roughly translates to “reason for being” and it’s the lifelong quest to find, understand, and function within your space in the world, that constantly elusive area that encompasses and ticks of all the boxes of joy, a sense of purpose, a feeling of well-being and appreciation, and of course the almighty meaning.

It’s derived from two words: iki (meaning life), and kai (meaning realization of hopes and expectations). Do a cursory check online and the concept is roughly explained by four overlapping circles where one’s ikigai is the intersection of passion and profession, mission and vocation.

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As someone who’s interested in the ecology and effects of terror, power, fear, and catharsis I’ve thought about how I’ve been trying to find my “reason for being” through the years as both journalist and creative.

Many of them have been calculated, yet nonetheless outright damn stupid, risks for gaining a story, like when I went to knock on the door of an Ampatuan mansion in Maguindanao in the late aughts. Some of them have proved harmless but were varyingly, arguably just as moronic, like playing around with summoning spells, hunting for spirits in cemeteries, and shouting at baton-wielding riot police at protest actions as a teenage activist.

My logic then was that I’d been a cooped-up nerd for a long time with my fantasy, sci-fi, and horror literature and I needed the wealth of experience. Who knew what else I was afraid of that I didn’t know about? How was I going to become proficient in scaring people if I wasn’t even aware of the universe of terrifying stuff I was, maybe, kind of, sort of, or very likely also frightened of?

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I needed to Bilbo Baggins it. “Adventura” is the root word of adventure, which directly translates to “what must happen.” I went out seeking that ‘til I was up to my eyeballs in it. There was a lot of fear and varying degrees of insight. Would all this insight someday translate to a big picture for enlightenment?

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The unpacking of ikigai lies in its four overlapping circles. A Venn diagram that oversimplifies the quest for enlightenment. Passion and profession, mission and vocation.

Passion is the territory that overlaps between “what you love” and “what you’re good at.”

Profession is where “what people will pay you” and “what you’re good at" overlap—ideally, the better you are at something the higher you can charge the cost of what your product or service.

Between “what the world needs” and “what you can be paid” for is vocation which means you’ve filled a market that needs what only you have, although you aren’t necessarily good at it or possess the talent for its needs to scale.

And finally between “what you love” and “what the world needs” is your mission: a sense of purpose, and the closest you can get to fulfillment, but nothing that necessarily is something that you can make a living out of or that people need

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I needed adventure to seek out the fears I didn’t yet know. Or, for the more grunge-era inclined, I’d bark out the old Chuck Palahniuk/Tyler Durden gem "I don't want to die without any scars." Which isn't exactly true, since I possess battle scars aplenty from a hard life of poverty and public education.

About five years ago I found one of the lynchpins of my fears in the physical arts. See, I had started covering mixed martial arts (MMA) as a journalistic beat five years prior and, since, I am most interested in power and wisdom gained through self-confrontation, leaving the physical and pneumatic skills unexamined after concentrating on the written word seemed like a truly horrifying oversight.

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So I signed up for my first Brazilian jiu-jitsu class. Got promptly beaten up, choked, limbs overextended, tapped out dozens of times all in the space of four minutes in an hour and a half long-class. Afterwards, reflecting on what had happened I concluded that, in true “road to ikigai” fashion, I both feared and craved it. Fast forward a few years later and I’d gone on to study quite a few grappling arts and finally mustered up the courage, time, and money to prep for my first competition.

I liked the no-points, submission-only format so I signed up for the Asia-Pacific tourney. Hence, being at MoA’s Music Hall for the competition on a humid October afternoon and basting in the stew of my fear, apprehension, and anxiety as I waited to be weighed in and called for my age bracket, belt level (white), and weight division.

Incidentally, I’d also turned 40 a few months back so I was competing with similar men past their spring chicken days. Here was sheer terror, though: the unknown adventura of “what must happen,” of standing on the verge of battle and, though knowing you’d prepped as much as you could for this, was utterly terrified of what would happen. Failure, like an abyssal pit, was waiting with its mouth always open.

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So it was a mix of relief and frustration that I confirmed what my team and I suspected earlier that day: nobody else had signed up for my bracket so I got a gold medal for simply showing up.

Screw that. I hadn’t trained and prepped for two months to just go home and not fight!

So after I grabbed my gold medal and took solo podium pictures I signed up for the Absolute and waited a few more hours. The same nail-biting anxiety of waiting ensued, now coupled with the very real pang of hunger, since I hadn’t eaten anything since 8 a.m. and it was now close to 4 p.m. I chewed on a granola bar to ease both butterflies and appetite.

My name was finally called and I went up against a way fitter amateur MMA fighter from Boracay. It was like wrestling a damn boulder. With springs for legs. I got Stockton slapped hard (an open palm strike) and afterwards my wife clocked that I had claw marks on my head and nape, all from accidental grabs and jockeying for position. No problemo, I just fought through it since I couldn’t feel anything anyway with the adrenaline but I could clearly hear my corner coaching me for defense. Surreal how states of high-intensity work. While I got most of my techniques right, and even got a bodylock takedown (that one of my coaches later pronounced “beautiful”), defending a guillotine choke left one of my arms open and the match was stopped before I got chicken-winged good in what’s called a bootleg kimura.

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After my first competition—going home with a gold and a silver for my troubles—my appreciation for athletes, and the utter realization that I'm not one, has skyrocketed and that experience has also imbued me with a better understanding of myself in terms of fear and ikigai.

Prepping for an athletic competition is a selfish, singular mission with very real rewards though: a win swallows everything that's gone before it with succinct, pleasurable enormity. Where terror lies is in the interminable waiting for your match to begin, the mental and social stresses of fitting in prep time while juggling work deadlines, and how trying to be competition-ready after being a journo nerd for so long takes so much out of the support system around me. At least it is, for me.

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On the upside, I did get my fittest and ate my cleanest in 30-plus years. Also on the upside, I got to grapple with my own ghosts and demons, a profound koan of martial arts that bears understanding only when you’ve started to train: who you’re truly fighting against is yourself and your limits, not your opponent. While I will remember that loss, I remain exorcized and free of the wraiths that would have haunted me had I not even tried. I failed myself even as my opponent conquered his own monsters better.

Passion and profession, mission and vocation. Where does grappling sit in that Venn diagram for me? Likely between passion and vocation, but some days it shifts further towards the territory of one or the other. Both are paths further into ikigai.

"I no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu" goes another Japanese saying. Or, literally: "A frog in a well does not know the great sea." Which is what I say when people in the liberal and communication arts ask me why grappling, why this particular martial art? I use the English translation, too, since my Nihongo sucks.

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Competing has allowed me deeper thoughts of the world, to make better acquaintance with my own savagery and swim in the great sea that others before me have floated or drowned in. And it has let me see myself and my trivial accomplishments more lightly, sans any aura of gravitas. It has freed me, to become more fully creative and willing to sit at peace, in silence with nothing extenuate.

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