In the longstanding TV series Supernatural, the second season introduces the audience to the crossroads demon: a particular brand of villain that enacts pacts with people in exchange for their souls. Exchanges are performed for a number of reasons, ranging from trivial to murderous, yet each outcome ends with a furious attack of the initiator at the hand of an invisible gang of hellhounds. There’s nothing new about this trope: the idea of the Devil’s deal persists in pop culture, literature, and within the grabbag of overused quotes from grandma.
The idea is closer to us than we may think. Throughout our lives we are thrown into situations in which we must share space with some sinister folks. These sinister folks occur everywhere, they can be found at the workplace, in your home, on your walk to the coffee shop and within your own body. They exist to bargain, ask for money, for emotional labor, for solutions to problems, for attention and ideas. Sometimes they don’t ask so much as entice: have that cigarette, drink that drink, indulge those vices to help yourself. Meanwhile they are seen lurking in the background waiting to strike.
But what if we let these sinister types into our lives willingly?
As always I am compelled to relate everything back to the microcosm that is the world and culture of jiu jitsu. Jiu jitsu individualizes itself in the realm of martial arts and performance as a method of physical movement most purely reliant on strategy. We abandon strength in favor of technique and abandon force for efficiency. These applications follow us into daily life: sometimes jiu jitsu builds endurance and tenacity, sometimes it builds focus. But with every thing there is to be learned, we are entranced to continue by the spell of complete mastery.
Mastery is not based in observation, it can only be practiced in real time. The illusion mastery presents is that it has a finite end, that one of us will one day hold all the knowledge jiu jitsu has to offer. The only way to get started on the path to mastery is learning, and with learning as with all things enshrined in newness, there is vulnerability.
Now, jiu jitsu is one of those practices that requires the use of other people. It is almost impossible to learn the most foundational of movements without a willing and able partner, and a seasoned professional to make corrections. As obvious as it may sound, mastery needs company, and sometimes the company we choose or are thrust among, can be the very sinister characters we want to avoid.
To be an instructor is to be aware of the power dynamic that inherently exists in every learner-learned relationship. You must take the raw clay that is a student’s vulnerability and help to shape and mold it into successful applications of movement. To be a sinister instructor is to use your awareness of this vulnerability and test its limits. The tests are subtle, and exist to gain an understanding of a person’s full potential in being a compliant, disciplined, loyal but moreover successful student.
The deal slowly unfurls. The instructor rewards his/her chosen students with feverish attention and access to personal matters. Volunteering personal information is an exchange of vulnerability, and while the student may interpret this exchange as an evening of the playing field, it’s largely a strategic move towards trust-building. Soon the instructor singles out the students he builds these relationships with, and creates propositions. Up until this moment nothing strictly immoral has happened.
The propositions are vast and fall on a spectrum, but most are made for the acquisition of power, money and/or sex. The instructor usually offers one captivating thing as his/her end of the deal: total mastery. Total mastery through the domination of training partners, total mastery through medals, total mastery through the building of impressive skill and dexterity. But total mastery is just a placeholder; the instructor does not offer his/her skills as the ultimate prize. In fact, only the student knows what the ultimate prize is, whether it is attempting to fill the void left by a broken home or absent parent, find acceptance and love, prove to themselves and the world of a certain curated image they’ve developed of themselves, or a multitude of other reasons.
The instructor is fully aware that the relationship between vulnerability and self-realization is delicate and easily disturbed. He/she uses a system of reward/punishment to cement their proposition into reality. The instructor that asks for sexual favors in return for “mastery” threatens to slander the image of the student and their position at the academy. The instructor that demands power in return for “mastery” may injure, demean, insult and deliberately neglect their student. The instructor that demands money in return for “mastery” is probably the most honest in his/her approach, and may not violate any boundaries at all. Unfortunately, the most common, money-motivated types reveal themselves to be toxic by hoarding information, and punishing students that become interested in exploring other avenues of learning.
I believe we often give instructors too much credit. Those that evolved from being seasoned competitors may be no more graceful and genuine in their approach, but they often know exactly what pure jiu jitsu-linked vulnerability feels like. Those without tangible proof of the illusion of mastery turn to other measures of reinforcement: fame, wealth, and following. Students engaged in this Devil’s dance with their instructors tend not to realize just how desperately dependent instructors are on their audience to feel secure and worthwhile in their mastery. Removal of the student base removes all the luxuries of sinister behavior listed above.
I sometimes lament the ferocious loyalty some jiu jitsu practitioners exude, real issues within the gymspace are often overlooked because of the soapbox that owners and instructors are placed upon. Victims of predatory behavior are unable to speak up for fear of being challenged, accused of lying, threatened, thrown out, and a list of other completely valid fears. Bystanders have similar fears, and usually find themselves in group settings and locker rooms where concerns are quickly dismissed. I don’t really have a call to action behind this piece besides a gentle urging upon the sisters and brothers of this community to be vigilant and empathetic. To stand up to bullying and sinister behavior and do their part, however small or large it may be to preserve the integrity of this beautiful martial art.