Jiu Jitsu for the Kali Yuga

This article was written for Operation Werewolf by Joshua Buckley

“Jiu-jitsu is a game of death.”—Eddie Bravo

The Kali Yuga is the age of dissolution. Whether or not you accept this as a higher truth, or simply as a mythic framework for understanding our existential situation, it would be difficult not to acknowledge that our current epoch is one in which the center no longer holds. The effects can be seen in the breakdown of every social, cultural, and political institution, and in the seeming impossibility of reversing the decay. On a deeper level, one senses that something far deeper has shifted; that we have become unmoored from the higher principles that provided sustenance to our ancestors. And indeed, the Kali Yuga can be seen as a time of godlessness. Perhaps, per Nietzsche, we have murdered God, or perhaps the gods have simply turned their backs and fled. Either way, the traditional routes to transcendence that worked for our ancestors may no longer work for us. We cannot turn away from this world when the gods have already turned away from us. Instead, we must dive down deep into the depths, to harness the spiritual energies hidden within the body. The martial arts provide an ideal vehicle to achieve this—to forge our Higher Selves with the tools appropriate for the Age of Iron.

There is a long tradition of imparting various spiritual qualities to the martial arts, especially when they are viewed within an initiatory context. This is exemplified by Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery but can be found as far back as Krishna’s exhortations to Arjuna on the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita. This literature, and the philosophy that it represents, is especially relevant to those attempting to make sense of the Kali Yuga and the limitations and possibilities that it contains. I have been training as a jiu-jitsu practitioner for roughly fourteen years, and so I will limit my discussion to this particular martial art. Although I think jiu-jitsu is an excellent base for individual self-defense, it is not a complete fighting system, and it is not my purpose to argue whether or not it is superior to other styles. Neither is it my intention to tout my own abilities. My objective here is only to share a few of the insights I’ve gained from my training. If there is a specific advantage (in this context) to studying jiu-jitsu, it is that jiu-jitsu allows for consistent, high-intensity sparring against resisting opponents. Whatever lessons can be gleaned from this experience can be put to the test, again and again. The philosophical (and, I would argue, initiatory) aspects of jiu-jitsu are achieved through a synthesis of physical will and energy and what might be described as impersonal forces residing within the individual. This is the essence, or at least the rudimentary beginnings, of an approach to spiritual transformation that is still relevant in the Kali Yuga.

The first thing you will learn from training jiu-jitsu is that you are more, or less, than you think you are. One of the things jiu-jitsu players never get tired of saying is that there’s no place for “ego” in jiu-jitsu. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing someone who imagines that he’s a “bad ass” getting destroyed the first time he steps on the mat. Some people can’t handle the experience, and will give up almost immediately. Sparring will divest you of whatever illusions you have built up around yourself. (You will also quickly figure out that you can’t really judge other men simply by looking at them.) From this point on, you can begin to develop a renewed self-image that is more in line with reality. Just as you might discover that you aren’t capable of everything that you imagined you were, you will also begin to find that you are capable of things which might not have seemed possible at first. This is an essential aspect of initiation, whether you are seeking some esoteric Mystery or trying to make it through Marine Corps boot camp: you have to tear yourself down, before you can build yourself back up. However, this is a process that has no definite conclusion. No matter how hard you train, and no matter what your innate physical attributes are, there will always be someone better than you. This may be because they are more committed to training, or it might be that they are just more naturally gifted. You might also find yourself limited by factors beyond your control, such as age (at 42, I already find myself faltering against younger guys). For the purposes of self-overcoming and the forging of the Higher Self, none of this matters.

Technique prevails, when art and action are one. Jiu-jitsu (and especially “sport” jiu-jitsu) incorporates a bewildering array of techniques. This has given rise to its reputation as a particularly cerebral martial art, often described as a “game of human chess.” You will learn many, many techniques, and you may even learn them well enough that you can demonstrate them to other practitioners. However, you will find that the repertoire of techniques you can actually use in live sparring is far more limited. Some of this will be due to your own personal strengths and limitations; not every technique is suited to every practitioner. Even the techniques that you are able to make your own will require a huge amount of practice. There are positions and attacks I have drilled for years before I was able to successfully use them in a match. But here is the interesting part. Even if you have tried and failed to implement a technique in the past, the first time you hit it in live sparring, it will be yours, and you will very likely be able to rely on it from that point forward. You will internalize it to the extent that there is no gap between thinking about the technique and actually performing it. There is something truly magical about this. For those who experience its deeper meaning, it suggests the integration of intellect and action that is the hallmark of the fully actualized human being.

Closely related to this last point, but perhaps more difficult to understand, is the idea that you will achieve better results when you stop obsessing over outcomes. Just as your techniques must represent the simultaneous integration of action and will, your best fights will be those where you are able to operate almost unconsciously (readers of Herrigal will recall the Taoist concept of wu wei, or “acting without acting”). This doesn’t mean that you don’t fight to win. But as anyone who has ever tried to shoot a target can attest, the more you concentrate on the bull’s-eye, the harder it is to hit. Other athletes might describe this feeling as “flow” or being “in the zone.” In combat sports, this state is especially hard to achieve, because direct physical conflict is so stressful and emotionally loaded. In fact, it may take years before you can really spar this way, and it won’t happen every time. However, when it does, you may feel as if something beyond yourself is acting through you. This could be seen as a higher level of initiation. When Old Norse accounts describe the “berserker rage,” I believe that they are hinting at something similar. The wolf-warrior fights in a state of trance-like possession, and it is explicitly understood that what possesses him is nothing less than a god. In fact, the very name for this state of possession, wode (óðr), provides us with the name of the Allfather himself: Woden (Óðinn).

These are only a few preliminary remarks: real understanding will come only through putting in the work, and not from reading about it. Of course, similar insights can be gained from practicing other martial arts, or even from other sports requiring a high degree of discipline and sacrifice. The important thing is that we embrace the possibilities still open to us in an essentially fallen world: this is what Julius Evola would call “riding the tiger.” Very often this will involve a renewed emphasis on a conscious physicality. What the Kali Yuga dictates is that transcendence can no longer be consigned to the ethereal realms of pure intellect. The weapons of spiritual transformation must now resemble the weapons of war.