When I first started to seriously focus on martial arts 20 years ago, the word ‘master’ would bring several things to mind.

It conjured up images of red-and-white belts and unbeaten streaks. It made me think of gold medals and world titles and of seeming-invincibility.

I still respect and admire these things but to me they do not necessarily justify the title of ‘master’. Today that word means something else entirely to me

During my travels I’ve been lucky enough to train with a diverse range of jiu jitsu players. I’ve seen pretty much every kind of practitioner there is.

I’ve met the weekend warriors and the 3-times-per-day hardcore competitors. I’ve trained with guys who embody every single style – from the lanky, hyper-technical guard player to the stocky, smash-passing bruiser.

Extremely rarely I encounter a stand-out.  Those who have transcended. Those who have that elusive x-factor. I’ve heard it called ‘entelechy’ – the ‘realization of potential’.

Sure, some of them were world champions. But most of them weren’t. These men and women and all had something more than just phenomenal technique and ability. Something deeper.

I call these the Masters.

Of all the people I’ve seen on the mats of the world, the Master is the one I admire most and the one I most want to be like. For the longest time I’ve been trying to reverse-engineer these actualized people and see how they could be emulated.

These are the traits I’ve observed in all of them:

Responsible

The Masters have all taken responsibility for their own growth. They accept and welcome guidance from their teachers and peers, but they understand that jiu jitsu (and life) is their own journey and that nobody can do it for them.

Their conditioning, their understanding, their practice – they know that although a coach can help with these things he is not ultimately responsible.  A Master knows that they are ‘the captain of their own ship’ and they find that liberating and empowering.

And that’s the strangest thing. The true Master will never tolerate someone else using that title to address him. Because he knows that if you call him that, you giving away your power and potential for self-mastery and placing it on him. And that is the one responsibility he does not want.

Flexible

This includes but goes beyond physical flexibilty. A Master sees jiu jitsu differently. To him, every roll is an opportunity to explore and even seemingly impossible positions become adventures.  He is experienced in tactics and strategy but is not bound by them and as a result, even the most overwhelming odds can turn in his favor.

He is not blinkered by ‘a system’. He understands the traditional approaches and uses them when he needs to, but can play at the borders of them or transcend them entirely.

He is not afraid to lose a position or even submission because knows that more opportunities will always be there.

His jiu jitsu is adaptable. He will let go of the elements of his game that no longer serve him, despite how attached he might feel to them. You cannot take a snap-shot of his jiu jitsu or define it as a particular style, because it’s always changing and not limited to definitions such ‘guard-passer’ or ‘leg-locker’.

Aware

The Master is ‘in’ his body. He is constantly looking to increase his understanding of his physiology and improve his relationship with it. He may or may not be a gifted athlete – he might have only moderate physical abilities. But every single millimeter of what he has is accessible. He is in complete control of the vessel he is piloting.

He understands the dangers of overtraining. He knows that his health and body are finite resources. He is playing the long game. He will never sacrifice his well-being for a medal or a tap.

He is also acutely aware of the link between his body and his mind and seeks to strengthen it. He knows that when his mind is busy or clouded by negative emotions, that these will manifest in his body and degrade his jiu jitsu. So he does whatever it takes to keep his mind calm and focused.

Graceful

The Master moves differently. On the mat, efficiency is his religion. He may endure an agonizingly difficult roll against a game opponent, but you will never see him panting and totally spent at the end of the match. He always holds something in reserve.

His moves are characterized by precision, not strain. He can move quickly but does so infrequently, because he is not in a hurry.

Many of his matches could be mistaken for ‘flow rolls’. To him, ideal jiu jitsu is not a struggle or a fight but instead a dance or a movement of energy.

The clip below is from a philosophical golf movie, but it taught me more about jiu jitsu than just about anything else. Do yourself a favor – put on some headphones and watch it with an open mind.

The jiu jitsu Master does not view his opponent as a ‘some dragon he has to slay’. He looks at the match with ‘soft eyes’.

Balanced

The jiu jitsu Master is driven not by a belt or a desire to dominate. He is not empty inside and trying to use jiu jitsu to make up for anything. He could lose jiu jitsu tomorrow and he’d still be content and awake each morning with a purpose.

He is not a bully and does not look for opportunities to test his skills against untrained opponents or outside the boundaries of competiton. He doesn’t film himself beating up people in the street.

He does not focus on jiu jitsu to the detriment of the other things in his life. He has other passions and can shift his focus when he needs to. The jiu jitsu Master doesn’t just try to perfect his throws and submissions. He’s tries to perfect life itself. He practices everything.

Complete

The Master is not just someone who has learned a combination of two moves and used them to win competitions. He is a complete grappler and a well-rounded martial artist.

He does not know everything, but there are very few holes in his game.

In a grappling match, there is nowhere that an opponent can take the fight that would make him feel out of his depth. This is because he is not one-dimensional. He experiments with and becomes familiar with all aspects of the game.

And his knowledge extends beyond just BJJ and grappling. He can put on gloves and spar a couple of rounds of boxing or Muay Thai comfortably. He also knows the basics of self-defense including verbal jiu jitsu.

Often the Masters have fought MMA. Without exception they have all competed. It might not be their focus, but they have all tested themselves in a competitive endeavor.

Connected

This is what truly separates Masters from everyone else.

He is connected to his training partners. To his family. To his community. To something bigger than himself. Although he is independent and sometimes even a ‘Ronin’, the Master is not selfish.

Several years ago I read a piece by a philosopher named Michael Tsarion that had a profound influence on the way I viewed the world. It is still the yardstick by which I measured both my self and others. I’d like to share it with you:

It’s titled ‘The Creative Man‘ but in my opinion that could easily be swapped out to ‘The Jiu Jitsu Master’.

“The creative man is alive from within and is inner directed.  He does not require external stimuli to feel alive, and so his relationship to the world is healthy, deep and real.  He has the best of both worlds.  He has a strong sense of selfhood, and is autonomous and independent in the true sense. 

He is a rebel.  He does not cling to things or to other people for fulfillment because he is not inherently empty.  His relationships are not based on power dynamics.  He is present within every moment, and is open to change and the future.  He sees problems as challenges and has strong boundaries. 

He does not manipulate or deceive.  He envies no one and takes charge of his own destiny.  He knows that consciousness changes reality.  His happiness and suffering are sacred to him.  He does not censor himself of care what others do, say or think.  Evil is, for him, the absence of autonomy and selfhood. 

He leads and does not follow.  He is in contact with the true source of life which exists and flows from within his being.  His life force is his own.  He is mutable and is ever growing.”

– Michael Tsarion

Jiu Jitsu can never be mastered, but striving to become a jiu jitsu Master is a fulfilling path.