Being Better at Being with People
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
I've been practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu at the Marcelo Garcia Academy since the spring of 2017. For those unfamiliar, BJJ is a martial art focussed on grappling. To practice BJJ, you must be with people; your training partners. And, not just with your training partners, you must be in contact; draped on top, to the side, and on the back of one another. Very few scenarios are similar to the closeness you experience with people in a BJJ class. Every training session is both humbling and satisfying. It is a unique and intimate exploration of our physicality in relation to another person.
Every six months, the Marcelo Garcia Academy holds a belt promotion ceremony. The event brings together the entire school over the course of two nights. It is an event that everyone looks forward to; an opportunity to celebrate the hard work you and your training partners have put in for the last six months. Marcelo always gives a short speech at the beginning of the ceremony. He usually shares some thoughts on the journey of BJJ. On one occasion he talked about his love for jiu-jitsu, and that what he loves most is not the championships he has won (Marcelo is a multi-time world champion) or the successful gym and affiliates in his name. He said, "What I love most about jiu-jitsu is it makes you better at being with people." He went on to describe how the practice transcends your day-to-day interactions and relationships. The closeness, intimacy, and trust involved in training jiu-jitsu prepares you not just for fighting and self-defense, but to face the social engagements of society. I found his thoughts deeply profound, and have continued reflecting on this idea of "better at being with people" ever since.
How do we get better at being with people when the trajectory of our modern life style is pushing us further apart? This is a challenge because as humans we tend to seek the path of least resistance and so we can't refuse apps like Facebook, Amazon, Grubhub, Tinder, porn sites, and online gaming that seem to streamline our lives. Unfortunately with this convenience we lose the scenarios that would have traditionally forced us to step out into the world and interact with people. Even fitness has lunged onto the anti-social bandwagon with Peloton and Mirror. Authentic human interaction is impossible to monetize at scale, but that isn't stopping companies from attempting to convince you that their app or website can bridge the gap. You can wake up, spy on your high school friends, buy all your household needs, ride a fake bike, eat a gourmet burger, swipe left and right without having to make eye contact, have sex with yourself, and then unwind with Call of Duty without ever leaving your apartment or talking with another person. But, we are social creatures. We need people IRL. This new environment is filled with unintended consequences.
While this social experiment in isolation is still relatively young, we can't ignore the effects it is having on us. People seem to be more anxious and depressed than ever. These issues may be connected to our growing disconnection from one another. Humans aren't learning to manage their stress with play, or balance each other out with genuine human interactions. The less we are with people, the less our nervous system is getting the education it needs to know what is safe and what isn't, and how to act accordingly. When I practice BJJ I get to play and socialize. I get to fight another person, within the context of a game, and continuously get feedback on that interaction. After training, we sit and talk. I get information on facial expressions and tone of voice. These skills transcend the mat.
Humans, like most mammals, need to socialize and play; our health depends on it. We need the ability to both self-regulate and co-regulate. Legitimate social engagement allows people to co-regulate. The state of our nervous system is effected by the people around us; this is one of our tools to determine when we're safe or in danger. Signals are sent through social interactions to help us create balance. This is why it can be beneficial to be with a family member, friend, or pet when we're physically or emotionally ill as their relative calmness can help us bring our own nervous system into a state where it is ready to heal. Perhaps this is why we sometimes feel like we just need a hug.
Play is an essential piece of the co-regulation equation. In The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Stephen Porges states, "...play is functionally a neural exercise of using the social engagement system, a uniquely mammalian system, to down-regulate our fight/flight behaviors, to be able to contain and "socialize" this defensive system." We must engage, actively, with people to educate our nervous system on what is and what isn't safe, and how to react accordingly. When we play we receive information through eye contact, facial expressions, and vocalization. This information plays an integral role in how we approach future interactions, relationships, and society. If we don't play, our body lacks the ability to predict when an interaction is aggressive and when it is safe. Aside from being fun and unifying, we address this deeper layer of our animal nature through face-to-face play. Unfortunately, NBA2K and strolls on the StairMaster do not fulfill these human needs.
NYC is filled with boutique studios offering classes that work even further to keep people apart. Everyone has their station, their number on the ceiling, or their lane. More so now than ever I feel that what we pursue at Movement Brooklyn is not instagram worthy handstands and muscle-ups, it's interaction with humans. Every class is a series of face-to-face interactions. Sometimes we're playing games and other times we're collaborating on tasks. We pursue skills on a daily basis, but I'm growing to believe the most valuable, and transferable, may be getting better at being with people. Being better at being with people makes us better at being with ourselves.