Near-Deathness

In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, when someone attempts a submission—say they extend your arm and exert pressure onto the rear of your elbow joint—you have three options. The first, and the most desirable, is escape. Find a way out and continue to fight on. The second, either virtuous or stupid depending on the situation and your outlook, is refusal. Choose not to surrender. Recent examples include Romulo Barral getting his ankle snapped at the 2017 BJJ World Championship and Holly Holmes being choked into unconsciousness at UFC 196. The third option is to tap.

Roberto Abreu with a double collar choke in the 2009 Pan American Championship.

To tap is to admit defeat. It’s an acknowledgement that your opponent has you in a position that is either too painful to endure or too dominant to escape from. It’s also a consequence of the realisation that your adversary could do some serious damage.

Consider chokes, a common occurrence in BJJ bouts. They fall into two categories: blood chokes and air chokes. Air chokes occur when pressure is applied directly to the upper airway. Blood chokes occur when pressure is applied to the carotid arteries and/or the jugular vein. The former is much rougher and takes longer to come into effect than the latter, but the end result of both is unconsciousness, via restricted air flow or via restricted blood flow to the brain. Of course, depriving the brain of its essential nutrients is not something to be done lightly. Maintained for too long, chokes can result in permanent damage to the brain, and even death. That’s why you tap out. That’s why you submit. You’re asking your opponent to preserve the integrity of your anatomy and your existence. You’re issuing a polite request for the rest of your life back.

I think that’s why I like BJJ so much. I’m not a masochist. I enjoy comfort and ease as much as the next person, but there’s something soothing, something satisfying on a deep, primal level in this repetitive trial by fire. Sure, I understand that it’s not really life-or-death; I train in a first-world country, in a clean, matted space, with people whose company I enjoy, after all. But it is a valuable and meaningful detour from everyday existence. As Taylor Pearson observed in A Brief History of Existential Terror:

“The healthy state of humans is mild existential terror. In Frankl’s words, “a certain degree of tension.”

For 99% of human history, this was true not in the Frankl-meaning-of-life sense, but in the my-environment-is-hostile-and-trying-to-kill-me-holy-shit-is-that-a-lion?-RUN! sense.

Humans lived in a constant state of mild existential terror because death could be on the other side of the rock at any moment.

We evolved in a world with high levels of day-to-day uncertainty and illegibility. Whether or not a hunter was able to kill an antelope wasn’t a sporting concern, but an existential one.”

Brazilian jiu-jitsu gives me a chance to re-live, ever so briefly, this experience of human-as-hunter-and-hunted. And it turns out I’m not the only one who’s pulled in by this. BJJ is growing all over the world. You can find a club in practically any moderately sized town in the developed world. And at that club there will be people of all ages and backgrounds. Men, women, the old, the young, the fit, the disabled; they all take their first class and then keep coming back. Why though? Aside from the fact that it’s an experience of a wholly different intensity from normal life, what’s so fun about trying to submit someone while they’re trying to submit you? The answer is that a sport like BJJ fills a need in the human psyche that we all have, but don’t all decide to satisfy. It allows us to dance with death, to meet with our mortality, to know what it feels like when the continuation of our existence is taken out of our control.

But before I explore why we would even want to dance with death, it’s worth considering some other means, besides Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which allow us to get a glimpse of what’s waiting on the other side of this thing called life.

TWO RESPONSES

Did you ever see those “People are Awesome” videos? They’re awe-inspiring compilations of people doing breath-taking things—riding along mountain ridges, scaling buildings unassisted, pushing machines, tools and devices to their absolute limits. Now, if you’re like me, whilst watching you’ll have two responses, one quickly followed by the other. The first will include a widening of the eyes, a slackening of the jaw, and some involuntary expletives: “What the actual fuck?” “Holy. Shit.” The second will be a simple word, either uttered out loud or in your own head, and infused with a blend of exasperation, confusion, curiosity and wonder: “WHY?”

Is it ego that compels such stunts? Is it an inner drive for self-worth? A blind faith in their destiny? A self-destructive streak? A hedonistic quest for thrills? Let’s see what two people who have done these sort of things have to say for themselves.

THE GODS OF THE VOID

In 1974, a man named Philippe Petit did the incredible. He strung a wire between the Twin Towers and walked, aided by nothing but a balancing pole, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, across the sky. This high wire act of Petit’s is immortalised in the documentary, Man on Wire, and described in the book, To Reach the Clouds.

To give you an idea of the immensity of Petit’s performance, consider the following: 1) he was 1,350 feet off the ground, 2) that at that height buildings themselves move and sway, and 3) that at such a height he had to contend with the harmonic oscillation of the wire he was walking upon. The latter looks something like this:

Also, consider this iconic picture.

That’s the first response out of the way—”ZOMG.” Now, for the second: “WHY?” One answer is that Petit wanted to do what seemed impossible. After trespassing and sneaking up to the roof of one of the still-unfinished towers, here is what Philippe saw:

““… I tiptoe—carefully, yes—to the corner facing the other tower.
There! Another floating slab! So near, yet a continent apart. And that’s when I see the word stretched across the gap between rooftops in all its obscene syllabic obesity: Im—pos—si—ble! Moving my head left to right like a child in the first grade, I read it and read it and read it. Then I lean over the edge, ready to climb down the inclined columns to the six-inch ledge eleven feet below that connects the 110th floor with 1,350 feet of verticality, so I can look straight down. I do not. Because that’s when it strikes me: teeth clenched, eyes half closed, in horror, in delight, I manage to whisper my first thought (whisper, so the demons won’t hear): “I know it’s impossible. But I know I’ll do it!” ”

That is what Petit thought before. What about during the first crossing?

“My eyes weld to the metal of the arrival column, still far away, yet coming toward me. I approach the dreaded middle of the crossing, where gravity is at its most barbaric, exposure at its fiercest. Terror tints my blood.
Space no longer contains itself. The sky swallows me. What a handsome death! What a glorious delirium, to steal in that way the secrets of weightlessness!
The cable feigns he does not know me.
My arms that hold the long pole . . . The soles of my feet that press the morning vapor . . . The cable that absorbs the dew . . . I pass the middle point.
Am I going to remember? To whom could I relate? Did I see? Or was it only air? Does one escape victorious from a dream forged at such height?
The gods of the void, of space: are howling. Chanting. Screaming. All at once and in unison. I hear you.”

And after multiple voyages between the Twin Towers?

I promenade from one end of the cable to the other, back and forth.
I stare proudly at the unfathomable canyon, my empire.
My destiny no longer has me conquering the highest towers in the world, but rather the void they protect.
This cannot be measured.”

For Petit, it turned out that the Towers and the impossibility of the task he gave himself were just a gateway to contact with something else. They were a way to communicate with the void, to extinguish the self and so see death as clearly as any mortal can.

Of course, the experience was ephemeral. A dim recall of the meeting will be carried forever in his mind, but it will only ever be a memory, a poor imitation. Petit knows that:

“I go there quite often. I present my towers to my friends, my family. I daydream one more time . . .
Alone, I lean on the fence, facing the other tower, and try to let the walks come back to mind. They never do. The feat was impossible: I have to make an effort of imagination to set the images in motion.”

A STUPID ACTIVITY

We can frame Petit’s quest to master the Towers as a way to come to terms with the void outside of himself. It’s also possible to use extreme actions to attempt to come to terms with the void inside of oneself.

Mark Twight is an “extreme alpinist”. You can get a sense of what that means using three words: light, fast and high. It is climbing with minimal equipment, quickly, up difficult and dangerous mountaineering routes.

Again, the question is, “Why do such a thing?” Twight provides an answer in his book, Kiss or Kill:

“On the mountains the fear never changes. Rocks fall. Helmets break. Ice tool picks snap. Ropes cut over edges and are tossed. The harder the routes get, the bigger the packs grow. The more competent I become, the greater my willingness to push the boat way out, the tighter the hands grip the throat. No other game can train me for it. It’s a stupid activity, but name one that isn’t—to someone somewhere.”

This kind of thinking transcends extreme sports like Twight’s extreme alpinism. It’s present in all forms of martial arts, in all sports, and in many purely intellectual or creative disciplines. Heck, it’s there in hip-hop: one of Jay-Z’s lines on the track “Welcome to the Jungle” is, “I look in the mirror, my only opponent.”

It’s the desire to compete, not so much with your competitors, but with yourself. It’s the quest to see the true extent of the well, to see if it’s really as deep, or as shallow, as you think it is.

Or, alternatively, exerting ourselves again and again in an upwards spiral of intensity, effort and risk is just a way to re-awaken the senses from their slumber.

TURNING THE ENGINE BACK ON

Daniele Bolelli, in On the Warrior’s Path, makes an observation about our fascination with altered states:

“When the sense wake up, people talk about altered states, but actually nothing about them is altered. The only real alteration is the sleep into which we often let them fall. Bringing them back to life is the only natural thing we can do. It is as if we defined the starting of an engine as an “altered state” only because we consider normal leaving it turned off. The fascination many people have for “supernatural” phenomena is the result of their lack of deep knowledge of what Nature is about.”

Bolelli’s point is that modernity has dulled the aliveness of our perceptions and senses. That’s part of why subreddits like r/SweatyPalms exist. They’re catalogues of people trying to turn their engines back on, to make that “altered state” the default. And isn’t this what extreme athletes spend their life preparing for and doing: living momentarily in a state of higher consciousness?

Of course, we could just say that Petit, Twight and others like them push themselves and do these things for pleasure. We could just say that they’re addicted to the release of adrenaline, that they’re hooked on the rush of endorphins that results from putting themselves and their bodies on the line. Or we could say that it’s a socially motivated act, that they do these things to prove a point to others, to display their fearlessness, their superiority, their awesomeness. We could also, as above, put it down to the hunt for betterment and progress against yesterday’s version of their selves. All these are real, tangible reasons for people doing the extreme and testing the limits. But to me, they seem too shallow, too simple.

Human beings are most alive when they’re near death. Think of how your heart pounds after narrowly avoiding a car crash. Or how your mind unfurls when you hear an unfamiliar noise downstairs in the middle of the night. Your eyes widen, you feel the expansion and contraction of your lungs, you taste the sudden dryness in your mouth. Every molecule of your being is shunted into a state of utmost awareness.

Or consider theme parks. What are they but providers of aliveness via artificial means? When the ride finishes and you step out of your seat, do you feel lethargic, dormant? No. You are alive and awake and aware.

PEAK-LIFE

In To Philosophise is to Learn How to Die, Montaigne speculates that philosophy is an art less concerned with living well than dying well. More specifically, he stumbles—in typical Montaigne fashion–upon the insight that the people who die well are the ones who keep their mortality in sight whilst they are alive.

This is perhaps why the concept of “Memento Mori” is enjoying such a resurgence. Most of us are abstracted away from actual near-death experiences, so we purchase coins and watches, read posts like this one from Wait But Why that visualises the shortness of life, and seek out other shortcuts to and reminders of near-deathness. The Petits and Twights of the world go further, reaching peak-life by daring Mother Nature, Lady Fortune and Father Physics to strike them down.

A HIERARCHY OF NEAR-DEATHNESS

Which brings me to my final point. If I had to assign a ranking to the various paths to near-deathness it would go like this:

At the bottom are shortcuts—coins, countdown watches, drug-induced experiences and the like. The middle tier is composed of routes that require more investment and potentially more harm—the tasting of the extremes of experience that flavour the passing of every moment that comes after. For example, someone who endures a serious trauma is likely to have their perspective irreversibly altered, as is someone like Felix Baumgartner or any of the world’s astronauts. What they did goes on to affect everything they do in a disproportionate manner. But sitting at the top of the hierarchy of near-deathness is the route of philosophy.

Short-cuts to near-deathness are conscious choices that require little resources and whose effects fade rapidly. The tasting of the extremes of existence are sometimes willed and sometimes foisted upon a person, but their resulting effect is both longer-lasting and of a more intense nature. Near-deathness via philosophy, on the other hand, requires decades of investment and has unmatched consequences; it changes the nature of a person’s existence completely. It is neither a shallow nor a deep etching in one’s soul, but a complete renovation. Think of the Western and Eastern sages. Their thoughts are shackled to the concept of impermanence. Their very lives are lived in close proximity to death. As Pierre Hadot points out in Philosophy as a Way of Life, the philosophers of antiquity engaged in regular exercises whose purpose was to remind them of the closeness of death.

Or consider it another way. Life is a great mountain whose peak is near-death. Some crawl up to the edge, poke their heads over the precipice and shuffle away soon after. Other, more adventurous folk dance joyfully on the peak of Life, chucking shapes and seeing how close they can get without losing their balance. Yet, while they make frequent pilgrimages to The Edge, they too always return to normality. But there are a few people throughout time that not only come to The Edge, but never leave it. They make the climb, slowly and patiently, and spend the remainder of their existence on the Peak of Life, never far from Near-Death.

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About Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet writes a daily blog about mastery, strategy and practical philosophy at Swell and Cut. He currently lives in Devon, UK.

Comments

  1. Romeo Stevens says:

    The first few times you encounter death you will be too tense to do anything useful. It takes repeated exposure to get loose enough to move fluidly. This is the spiritual path. To become ever more relaxed and playful in the face of a non-being that is coming into ever sharper focus.

    • I like the idea of fluidity. Definitely see it in the top performers in extreme sports. Also wondering if moving closer to death, or facing down non-being, is a part of what allows older people to handle a variety of scenarios with greater grace and aplomb than their younger counterparts.

  2. Julia K. says:

    I recently had the experience of natural childbirth: 57 hours of labor, 25 of them active, including three hours of transition and two of pushing.

    During that interminable transition I remember thinking, I understand how some people die in childbirth if they can’t get the baby out. There’s no tapping out.

    Thanks to modern medicine it never would have come to actual death, but since I had medical contraindications for the most commonly used drugs, intervention was reserved for true emergencies.

    It brought me back to that reckless teenage feeling of going all in, of before I learned the wisdom of holding back, of tapping out before your ankle snaps or you get choked into unconsciousness. In the throes of labor holding back only makes it more painful and exhausting. It must be a completely honest experience.

    I would never say I enjoyed labor, but it was the most powerful experience of my life. Barbara Katz Rothman wrote, “Birth is not only about making babies. Birth is about making mothers: strong, competent, capable mothers who trust themselves and know their inner strength.”

    • There is a theory I’ve heard that men seek out death risk for philosophical reasons more than women because childbirth puts it naturally in women’s lives.

    • It’s not comparable to the same degree, but your talk of “holding back” and “going all in” reminds me of episodes spent weight training and doing heavy intervals. During training sessions, I had a problem giving absolutely everything. I was afraid I’d compromise form or efficiency. My coach encouraged me to forget about that and “pull the pin”. I remember the first time I did it—not in a sport with an external focus—but in an environment where it was myself against myself. It was eye opening.

      • Julia K. says:

        Thanks for sharing. I agree, the “all in” aspect seems to be a commonality there. I found my memories of backpacking and rock climbing relevant to access during labor; weight training sounds similar. And I’m no runner, but I understand that many people seek an analogous experience in marathons.

        • Was your perception of that point during labour something you experienced directly in that moment? Do you remember that dialogue specifically? Or was it something that you realised after the experience?

          • Julia K. says:

            Most of this framing has been afterward as part of processing what really was a life-changing experience.

            I think that for most of labor, the pain was so much stronger than I had experienced before that my attention was taken up by working with it directly. In a sense it’s that full attention that’s the thing we’re relating to other experiences now. In other words, I was too “all in” to reflect on that in the moment.

            When I got to the pushing stage there was less pain and more conscious muscular work, and I did have space at that point to recognize a familiarity with the grit of my prior athletics.

  3. In Buddhism we have the 5 Remembrances which I try to recite daily:

    “I am of the nature to grow old.
    There is no way to escape growing old.

    I am of the nature to have ill health.
    There is no way to escape ill health.

    I am of the nature to die.
    There is no way to escape death.

    All that is dear to me and everyone I love
    are the nature to change.

    There is no way to escape
    being separated from them.

    My actions are my only true belongings.
    I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
    My actions are the ground upon which I stand.” – translation by Thich Nhat Hanh

    • A lot of parallels with Stoicism—the deliberate contemplation of ill health, death, the dichotomy of control. I suspect you’d enjoy Pierre Hadot’s work.

  4. Human beings are most alive they’re near death. I think there needs to be a correction.

  5. I’m going to pile onto your enthusiam for BJJ a little bit. I started doing BJJ about 9 months ago. You talk about near death experiences being hard to find in modern life, but I feel like one of the advantages of BJJ is that it’s a way of experiencing that kind of primal stress you talk by gradually increasing the intensity, if only because you trust your sparring partner. Because you decide when to tap out, you can control how much stress you want to take.

    BJJ allows you to experience an continuum of stress between relaxed and near death that most other combat sports and martial arts can’t. Before you even get to the point of being choked or armbarred, you experience a wide range of stresses that you have to overcome. Your opponent is restricting your breathing, your range of motion, your vision, keeping you off balance, in compromising/powerless positions, and generally trying to make you as uncomfortable as possible until they can submit you. And you have to learn how to remember to breath, and then to think, to slowly maneuver yourself out of those positions.

    Also, fun fact about chokes and armbars: We have a couple of police officers who train at my academy. According to them, in the US you can punch someone in the face as much as you want and legally the actions would only be considered a misdemeanor. If you use BJJ in a fight to choke someone or hyperextend a limb, like an armbar, it would legally be considered a felony – so you better make sure you only use jiu jitsu as self defense.

    It also speaks to what kind of culture surrounds BJJ. When you train, you walk into a slightly padded room, find a sparring partner you probably don’t know very well, and commit felonies against each other for an hour and half trusting that they will honor your “request for the rest of your life back.”

    • The emphasis on “gradual” is important. If it’s escalated too quickly most will turn away from BJJ, or any other physical or mental pursuit for that matter. Specifically with BJJ, the uncomfortableness of having your personal space taken away turns out to be a very strange experience in the beginning, as does trying to compel yourself to remain composed and think in the face of immediate pain.

      I’ll remember that if I’m in the US—hit ‘em in the face!

  6. I have long since realised I don’t push myself hard enough. And actually, I’m okay with that level of ‘mediocrity’, a topic explored in an earlier post of yours…

  7. MochiMich says:

    These people who don’t come back from atop the mountain aren’t unlike the Sociopaths in The Gervais Principle — pre-eminently the bored variety who see as hollow even power & recognition by others.

    They aren’t unlike, either, the solitary “immortal” and “free” truth seekers in Immortality Begins at Forty (where Forty is a mental age unbound to coincide with chronological age).

    Jung, R. D. Laing (Knots, The Politics of Experience), Erich Neumann, … seriously, quite everybody serious since Anaximander Parmenides Heraclitus and Aeschylus, have dealt with nothing but this; narrated and described nothing but the climb and the sight from high there.

    Now, it can’t be ruled out that death be only an appearance in a dream, along with the mountain and the climb, and that mankind will rewind the tape of its culture back to Anaximander’s “first surviving lines” of philosophy, where death, the falling of what is into not being (nothingness) doesn’t seem to be taken for granted, for the last time in culture’s history. (Religions and positive systems of thought all unconsciously or not have discounted that death is real. That what is can go into non-being, or rather, must by necessity do so.)

  8. I enjoyed reading the article and the ensuing discussion. In particular, I feel like bending towards the idea of the nobility of philosophy – more than any shortcut or activity that demands such vigilance of the self, within and without.

    I am reminded of an old saying attributed to Confucius: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

    But I would also wager that our experiences shape our existence. So, while Felix Baumgartner may derive his worldview from the odds he has jumped from, or a drug addict may derive from the moments of delirious slumber, they have chanced upon a way that a contemplative philosopher may never hit upon (unless the philosopher also seeks out such ways which I don’t think would happen too frequently).

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