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Tales From The Dead: Part Two

A Return to the Dead?

On the day of the second ceremony, to say that I was anxious would be a gross understatement. I was completely terrified of going to that place again. As a result, I erred on the side of moderation for probably the first time in my life. I took slightly less of the vile mixture and attempted to relax, meditating while it began to take hold.

When the ‘medicine’ kicked in, that familiar sensation of nausea returned, to minimise my suffering I forced myself into purging. I hadn’t been thrown through the wall of consciousness, so I was able to make it to the toilet by my own power. Given the choice, I was all about puking in private. Vomiting three feet away from another person’s head was just too weird.

I began what was a light psychedelic experience. There were some mild visuals, shapes morphing into animals but my consciousness remained firmly rooted in reality and there was no return to the dead.

At the point that everyone began to purge, I sat in the dark, forced to listen and watch dudes vomit. It felt like an unbelievably bizarre way to spend one’s evening. I was reminded of the opening scene from ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, and I was De Niro lying in the opium den, except for the fact that everyone around me was ejecting the contents of their stomachs with an unparalleled ferocity. I didn’t appreciate this revelation, it felt somewhat dirty.

In this conscious state, I also felt like I was prying on those around me. My new friends were visibly dealing with some very difficult and personal issues, and I unwillingly had a front-row seat.

Listen to the Flower People

Witnessing, and indeed taking part, in this ancient religious ceremony was fascinating. Akin to most religious practices, it certainly appeared ridiculous; the incessant blowing of cigarette smoke, spitting aftershave, and singing songs taught by flowers. My own feelings towards the ineffectual nature of these practices did not dampen my enjoyment, however. The icaros (‘magic’ songs) of shamans, Estella and Antonio, were a joy to behold. I would happily sit and listen to them minus the pomp and the psychedelic.

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Estella unleashed rapid fire lyrics like Big Pun when he was, “Dead in the middle of Little Italy, little did we know that we riddled two middlemen who didn’t do diddly”, intermittently switching to a deep and raspy flow that was Lauren Hill-esque, before dropping her voice to an unearthly vocal quiver that would be un-replicable, by Biz Markie himself. Then, without warning, male shaman Antonio would cut in like Mike D and start to do his thing with this incredible voice that sounded five hundred years old.

I had no idea what they were saying, but if the flowers gave them the lyrics, I would go out on a limb and say it was plant based. There were multiple times over the course of the evening where I wanted to arise from my mattress and start to chop it up, but it felt akin to dancing at a Catholic mass so I resisted the urge.

Down with the Sickness

After the genuine fear prior to the ceremony, I was actually disappointed that I didn’t experience the death. Thus to begin the third ceremony, I drank two thirds of a glass of ayahuasca. Far from returning to the dark depths of the first ceremony, I had a whole other experience. I spent the entire night in the throes of extreme sickness. When it kicked in, I had severe nausea which wouldn’t let up, no matter how many times I vomited, which was a lot! Strangely, I also acquired flu-like symptoms in addition to constipation.

There was no escape from it, everything around me was making me feel worse. The tobacco smoke that was constantly being blown in my face caused me extreme displeasure. I wanted to scream ‘stop blowing this cancerous poison at me you sadistic bastards’, but I felt far too sick to muster up the effort. It felt like going to the doctors completely healthy and being administered with a stomach bug and flu combo, then being forced to smoke a pack of cigarettes in lieu of a prescription.

It was a thoroughly horrible way to spend five hours of my life – I decided never, ever to repeat it. I saw little benefit in bringing this level of discomfort on myself again.

The sole highlight came when I felt a thought leave my head. Not in a metaphorical sense, the thought distinctly popped out and floated away. I began to ponder whether it was possible for a thought to physically leave a person, and if it did would it have its own consciousness? Where did it go? And once the thought had left, would a person still have ownership over it?

This line of thinking led directly to an epistemological study into my own beliefs. As I lay, I traced my thoughts on a range of issues backwards to their genesis. It occurred to me that, whilst I claim to be rational and sceptical, I believed some silly things for a variety of unfounded reasons. This ended up becoming a long and arduous task, yet thoroughly worthwhile as I managed to rubbish some deeply held stupidity and banish it forever.

Level 10 on the Woo-Woo Scale

My journey with ayahuasca was a memorable experience. But was it a positive and was I healed? Well, I am not sure how much healing I actually needed in the first place. I did enjoy the deeply introspective aspect of it, and it highlighted a number of areas for me to think about. It even forced me to completely 180 on a couple of things that I once believed.

The highlight of my time at the centre was the wonderful people that I was able to meet and befriend, a real eclectic mix of age, occupation, social class, ethnicity and beliefs. I felt privileged to spend time with cats that under other circumstances, I would never have had the opportunity to interact with.

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Everybody had an intriguing story and their own reasons that had lead them to the Amazon. For example, second-in-command at the centre had given up an acting career and abandoned Los Angeles for the jungle. He had pursued his dream of helping people through ayahuasca, as he himself had been transformed by it. These truly amazing people opened up about their lives in ways that I would never feel comfortable, which in itself has given me something to look at.

The issue that I had with the experience as a whole was the complete lack of a scientific basis. There were a lot of claims made by people who were not nearly qualified enough to make them, and there was the propagation of woo-woo on a grand scale.

Ayahuasca was not a magic wand that could cure you of all ills, physical and psychological. Current research has shown potential benefits in treating psychological issues, but there is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest it can heal physical ailments. Voicing the belief as fact, that it could cure anything from cancer to athlete’s foot, was dangerous bullshit.

Some of those who visited the centre had serious issues, and I felt like they were being sold magic beans in the form of healing plant spirits. These people needed to be empowered. If any ‘healing’ was to take place, it was on each individual person working through their problems.

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This is not to say it was a swindle,  far from it. The centre itself was picturesque in every sense, the staff were wonderful and I could have lived off their food forever. The owner, had the best intentions and wanted to help those under his care. The problem was, he was not qualified to do so, and I don’t believe that in a position of power you should be filling desperate people’s minds with ‘facts’ which are easily refutable by a seven-year-old with an active command of a keyboard.

The research shows that there is something in this, I just think it needs to be made a secular experience, rooted in science. I also think it would be more fun, doing it in a field, on a sunny day with a group of your close friends, close enough that they wouldn’t be averse to an accidental spray of vomit.

Can’t Knock the Hustle

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We had one Gi that we used to rock around in”

To anyone that has considered going full-time with Jiu-Jitsu, brothers John and Patrick Sheridan are a shining example of the hustle that it entails. Together they have established their own academy in Satori BJJ, clothing company Sub Only, and the second largest competition in Ireland, the Dublin International Open.

I was in a bad spot at the time. I could see the way it was going; 40, fat, mid-life crisis and done”

John was working in the Irish financial services – working with figures, creating spreadsheets and moving around vast sums of money. Pat worked a government job on flexitime, which had been ideal for fitting multiple training sessions around his work hours. But unfortunately when the recession hit, his job disappeared. Both brothers were at a crossroads and made the decision to plough head first into the daily grind of making Jiu-Jitsu their livelihood by whatever means necessary.

Making money doing something you don’t want to do, to buy something you don’t really want”

The brothers made the initial step by becoming recipients of Ireland’s social welfare. Anyone who has visited Dublin can attest to the fact that it is an expensive city. When questioned on how they managed to survive, they explained by living frugally and completely stopping spending money. No more holidays or trips to hotels with girlfriends and remaining at home with their, thankfully understanding, parents.

This also meant not buying any new clothes for years. At this time John was training three times a day with only two kimonos. One only has to see the pictures from his first attempt at qualifying for Abu Dhabi World Pro at the trials in England – he picked up a double bronze in a extensively oversized pair of A3 Gi pants with an tight-fitted  A1 kimono top.

Going to a competition and not being able to walk up the stairs in your house the day before, because your whole central nervous system is so fucked…”

I first met the brothers when they were training with Darragh O Conaill at East Coast Jiu-Jitsu. At this point they were training between three and four times a day. This work ethic led to competitive success, particularly for John who became European champion at blue belt in No-Gi, and scored qualification to the Abu Dhabi World Pro by submitting all of his opponents at his weight and the open weight division.

But this overtraining resulted in a laundry list of injuries for both brothers. Reflecting on their mistakes, they explain they were constantly in and out of the car, which doubled as a bed between sessions, and not getting the correct nutrition. Perhaps most importantly, they were not getting enough time off the mats to recuperate; not resting properly before a competition and not taking any time off after they had fought.

I wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t tap and he broke my foot”

In hindsight this wasn’t one of John’s most intelligent decisions but it actually came as a blessing in disguise. When having his cast put on, the nurse noticed his back. As it turns out, the constant pain he had been in was a result of two herniated discs with another one bulging so that the nerve had become impinged. At this point the doctor exclaimed, “I don’t know how you’re able to stand up let alone compete.”

These injuries were coupled with the realisation that life as a competitor might not pay the bills. John recalls a trip to the Jiu-Jitsu World Championships in California. Being tight with money, he had just googled the cheapest place to stay close to the comp, which predictably ended up being the worst place on Earth. As he was reflecting on the fact that this was the sort of place where people get shot, ADCC absolute champion, Claudio Calassans, came out onto the balcony. “If that is the shit-hole that he is staying in, with his Gi drying out on the balcony, then something isn’t right here,” he reflected. “You can be unbelievable at Jiu-Jitsu and not have any money.”

One of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life”

Some important decisions had to be made when the social welfare began cracking down on those on long-term unemployment benefits. They came to the brothers with some options. One was to do a “shitty computer course for nine months” which John, with degrees in maths and history, would have no use for. Another was to train to become a maths teacher, and the final option was to become self employed. This was the genesis of Satori BJJ

Their goal wasn’t to own an academy, it was to train. Their dream was to become world champions. But now three years in they couldn’t be happier, both creatively and financially they are in a good place. Although it wasn’t a success from the offset; coming off the back of winning No-Gi Euros at blue belt and qualifying for Abu Dhabi, perhaps naively they imagined it would be an instant money earner. John explains they wrote up their projections and, “We might as well have wiped our arse with them!” The bubble was burst on the first night when they had six students turn up.

Students have to know your intentions”

Whilst the academy has become financially successful and the brothers no longer need to share one kimono between the two of them, they explain that the bulk of the profit goes directly back into the business itself. The brothers are well aware of the socio-economic make up of their catchment area having been born and bred there, and they know their students don’t have large sums of cash to throw around. While making enough money for themselves to live from Jiu-Jitsu is a necessity, their goal is to have Ireland’s most successful competition team. With this in mind, all seminars are provided to their students for free, as well as all gradings for children. This is coupled with paying for outside tuition from pro MMA fighter Chris Fields for those students who want to punch each other in the face, and a black belt Judo instructor to ensure an attitude of institutional butt-scooting isn’t fostered.

They are off to a good start in their goal of a dominant competitive team. This year two of their students scored silver medals at the European Championships.

In a lot of gyms the most experienced guy teaches the easiest classes; the black belt teaches the advanced class where most guys know where they are going. I believe that the best coach needs to be at the bottom where they need the most instruction”

Kids have been a key part of the financial success of the academy with over seventy children and teens attending classes. This is where Pat’s passion lies, he relishes the opportunity to plan and deliver his own program to children and teens. Having had eight years experience in this area, it is something he excels at.

When questioned on why he is so impassioned to work with the little guys who, in my own experience, are notoriously difficult due to having attention spans similar to a grape, he explains the satisfaction of seeing their immediate progression from session to session and week to week. This is unparalleled when compared to their adult counterparts. The success in this area is evident as a class of four year olds seamlessly drill through a De La Riva sequence with a level of finesse that puts my guard game to shame.

Running a clothing company is a full-time job in itself”

After opening the academy, John would stay up late night watching business webinars. He took on board advice about the necessity for multiple streams of income. Out of this the Sub Only brand was born. The brothers shy away from discussing how it was possible to initially start a Gi and clothing company from scratch, which isn’t surprising given the currently oversaturated nature of the market.

Establishing a kimono company in this climate has been far from easy and the brothers admit they made a plethora of initial mistakes. The idea that you spend an initial amount which you make back and then turn a profit simply does not happen. Reflecting on it, approaching every Irish athlete for sponsorship and sales deals was a mistake. They helped so many people out in the beginning with free Gis and sponsorship, and ended up down, thirteen thousand Euros.

Financially it hasn’t been a success yet, but they have produced nine Gis in their short three years of life. The kimono designs are some of the freshest on the market and include a Cystic fibrosis kimono; Pat’s friend tragically died of the disease. They took all the profit from its sale and donated it to the Cystic Fibrosis Centre. Pat explains,

This has been a learning process. We are heading in right direction, at the very least we can provide top quality Gis and affordable prices to all our students.”

Looking out across the academy at a packed mat for a (free) seminar with Polish European Champion, Jacob Zajkowski with every dude on the mat rocking Sub Only, this is completely true.

You would go to tournaments where you would have nothing to do with it, and you end up telling the guys how to run the clocks, and refereeing. What the fuck is happening here? I am running their tournament”

Not content with these two streams of Jiu-Jitsu cash, they dived head first into the competition scene. Competition was something both had a wealth of experience in, they had been attending karate competitions their whole lives. They reminisce about attending the Irish Open, where there would be 2000 athletes for sports karate tournaments in the national sports centre.

After growing up around this and then attending Jiu-Jitsu tournaments, they saw so many things that were blatantly wrong. They wanted to create a model for BJJ following what they had experienced in karate, with attractive medals, fair pay for employees and tightly run schedules; to this day they have ran seven tournaments without a single delay.

Whilst there goal of competitors isn’t quite in three figures yet, they do have the second biggest turnout in Ireland and have achieved a goal of having a higher standard of competitors. They have achieved this by flying in Swiss black belt, Thomas Oyarzun and Swedish European Champion, Max Lindblad, among others. This is something other profit-hungry tournaments simply don’t do.

Jiu-Jitsu changes the way you think about everything”

Spending time with these two brothers and seeing how far they have taken it in a few short years has been nothing short of inspirational. From joining them in their old stinky 1997 Volkswagen (which cost them three hundred Euros, only had one workable door, and an engine that would set on fire on the way to the gym), to watching them effortlessly deliver technique to their own packed class of students today in their own academy.

Pat credits John for the bulk of their success, he has created an ethical means of making money through Jiu-Jitsu, and his love for the sport and his inherent fairness is passed down to everyone. As brothers they have carved out a piece of Jiu-Jitsu for themselves, one which ensures the progression of those around them and indeed the sport as a whole in Ireland.

Trying to Find a Balance with Darragh O Conaill

There is nothing that I don’t fucking love about Jiu-Jitsu”

In the run up to his superfight at Polaris 3, I spent the day at East Coast Jiu-Jitsu  in Dublin with head honcho, Darragh O Conaill. Darragh is a success story for his native country. As a competitor he is a European champion and has had international recognition for his role on BJJ Kumite. He is also a successful businessman with his academy. This is coupled with his skill as a teacher, where he has created arguably the strongest and most competitively successful team in Ireland, producing his own European champions. I spent the day kicking it with the man in an attempt to discover whether it was possible to succeed at the highest level in all three areas.

The morning at the academy begins with Darragh the businessman, albeit in a pair of shorts and a fitted hat. Before all the fun begins there is the admin; vital yet unglamorous tasks have to be attended to, such as ordering stock, updating memberships, cleaning the toilets and handling all the social media.

The academy itself is beautiful, it looks like a large scale academy you would expect to find in Southern California, but the three heaters blowing directly onto the mats remind you exactly where you are. Darragh appears to have the business side of things on lock. He has 160 students, with new students arriving and checking out classes daily with a high rate of return.

When questioned on whether this came naturally to him, he explained that he picked it up incrementally – at first it was just ‘teach the class and pay the rent’. Then as more students began to join via word of mouth, his responsibilities increased. Then he had to set up a beginners class, which in turn necessitated setting up Gi sales. Interest from parents led to multiple kids classes and a website had to be created and maintained to market the product. 

Travel to different academies worldwide has taught him vital lessons, in addition to being schooled by mentors Saulo Ribeiro and Rafael Lovato on creating a profitable business. But even then, not everything was applicable to Irish customers. His success has mostly been derived from reacting to new situations as they have presented themselves.

At 11 o’clock, Darragh becomes the competitor. This begins with an hour of yoga. This is something that he has incorporated into his routine as a form of injury prevention, which has allowed him to perform at the highest level as he navigates through his long day of teaching and training. 

The first class begins at noon. Whilst he teaches the class, this functions as his training too, so he dictates it towards what he feels he needs to work on. The session is focused on simulating scenarios one might encounter in the competition through systematic drills, and specific sparring.

This training could never be confused with the ‘gentle art’, it is literally kill or be killed, either from young purple belts berimboloing you like crazy, or having your lights begin to dim as your very last breath is squeezed from your chest via Darragh’s signature baseball bat choke.

Darragh had a good measure of success at the brown belt level with a European title and multiple wins at the IBJJF London Open. When questioned on his transition from brown belt to black belt and whether it had been impeded by responsibilities as a teacher and an academy owner, he explains that it has definitely made the process slower. At this year’s Pan Ams he fought Yago de Souza from Cicero Costa. He admits that he was bettered by someone who was faster and sharper than himself, Yago, a beast of a human being, went on to claim the title. The key difference here is that Yago’s sole focus is his training, every single day, he has no additional responsibilities, no business to run or students to looks after. This is a luxury that Darragh simply does not have.

During the morning session there are high level purple belts on the mats, but is this enough to succeed at the highest level when a competitor like Yago is able to train with fellow black belts every day? Darragh is a competitor on the highest stage and is trying to win the same accolades yet he can’t just focus on himself and he doesn’t have access to other top black belts all the time. He freely admits that he has considered whether it would be better moving to America or Brazil.

“But how I learn is from the experience of fighting these guys, now I know how fast this guy is. So now I know how fast that I am expected to be next time that I compete.”

He concludes that he is still able to, “…get to a really good level, but it is a longer process, competitively it is a disadvantage but it is my choice.”

The afternoon’s focus is back on the business and time for doing the mundane shit, as he puts it We’re gonna do three things at once.”.  Time for the things the Jiu-Jitsu videographers don’t document; Gis for new students have to be taken to be washed, mats have to be cleaned and toilet paper has to be bought. This is coupled with answering questions for this article, before jumping straight into a podcast for Show the Art.

Maintaining energy levels is most difficult aspect in creating a balance, he explains, finding the time and the energy to do everything that needs to be done. Having energy cannot be understated; as a teacher you have to be excited in front of students:

You can’t come in and be like ‘fuck it, do an arm-bar’ as everyone will have a shitty experience. It is hard to find the energy to go and buy a gas canister and waiting in line but that is a piece that is essential for the whole process to run smoothly.

“Doing 45 minutes of straight rolling in preparation for the Polaris super-fight, and being so exhausted, but still having to do the rest of the day. Finding the energy to do the rest of it is one of the more challenging aspects, but not as challenging as putting a suit on and going to an office.”

The evening is time for Darragh to assume the role of teacher, mentor and role-model for his students. He teaches three classes a day, but with a growing academy and a popular children and teen program, it has been essential to delegate some responsibilities to his students. Thus, these two programs have been passed on to trusted blue and purple belts to run, as well as help from long-time students manning the admin side of things, working the front desk in the evening.

Sometimes when big competitions are coming up or super-fights, he will instruct one of his students to take the class and he will jump in as a student himself.

This trust that he has placed in his students has paid off in their own success, with many of his students establishing their own academies and making Jiu-Jitsu their full-time occupation. When questioned, he is characteristically coy on his own influence, not only in the success of his students, but also the firm hand he has had growing the Jiu-Jitsu scene on the Emerald Isle. He explains that if anything it is his love of Jiu-Jitsu and his work ethic that has inspired his students.

They can see how much that I love it – they see the lifestyle that I live, I don’t have to go to a real job and wear a suit and they love BJJ just as much, so they want that too”.

He goes on to say that he has lots of friends that don’t know what they love, they don’t know what they want to do in life and thus end up settling. So when he sees people who really love Jiu-Jitsu the way he does, he tries to facilitate their path to success. With multiple full-time athletes and five students now running their own spots – his positive influence is apparent.

His own teaching in the evening begins at 6 o’clock, after fun and competitive games during the warm-up, Darragh switches to a meticulous and no-nonsense style of teaching to a packed class. His technique is packed with layers of detail which ensures that students of varying levels of experience are able to access and gain an insight.

His teaching is based around the competition, the use of the points system, a breakdown of where scores occur and common ways people give away points. He preaches the importance of competition, as such he encourages everyone to compete, and going even further, believing it is something that everyone should do. The competitive success of the team can be seen as a direct result of this ethos which is propagated and instilled by all students. But this isn’t to say that students are forced to compete. Whilst this aspect of Jiu-Jitsu is given primary importance, Darragh himself stresses:

Don’t let tournaments overrule everything – it is Jiu-Jitsu itself that makes you a better person, not competition.”

Throughout the class he uses positive reinforcement as an effective tool with his teaching, ensuring that students are constantly praised for their successes. Even though the class is large, there is a distinct focus on individualised learning as he takes students aside during the rolling to provide them with additional details and explain why certain things have just happened during sparring.

At the end of the day as the beginners class finishes and the last student asks the last question, Darragh, the teacher, the businessman and the competitor reflects on whether it is possible to excel in all three areas. He thinks it is, but admits it takes a long time – much longer than if you were focusing on just one of them. What is apparent from my day with him is that he has found a balance where he is able to do what he loves every single day.