The Atheist Who Strangled Me

In which Sam Harris teaches me Brazilian jiu-jitsu and explains why violence is like rebirth

John Cuneo

“You are not the first journalist I have taught to meditate,” Sam Harris told me, “but you are the first journalist I have taught to meditate after first strangling.”

Harris, 46, is the youngest of what the late Christopher Hitchens called “the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse,” a group of nonbelievers who around 2006 each published a best-selling book arguing that religious belief is pernicious nonsense. These “New Atheists”—Harris, Hitchens, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, and the zoologist Richard Dawkins—went on to devote a good chunk of time to forums in which they squared off against religious believers (though at last count, their efforts had failed to convince even one debate interlocutor to publicly renounce his faith). In addition to being younger than the others, Harris is more open to esoteric arts such as meditation, which he has practiced daily for nearly three decades. He claims that certain types of meditation, such as the Buddhist practice of metta, or “loving-kindness,” so overwhelm him with compassion that their effect can closely resemble that of Ecstasy, the club drug that makes users want to hug strangers.

Less well known is Harris’s other enthusiasm: cutting off the blood supply to other people’s brains by using techniques learned in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or BJJ. BJJ was first developed nearly a century ago in Rio de Janeiro by Carlos and Helio Gracie, brothers who adapted its techniques from Japanese jujitsu. It has since become the martial art of choice for those who wish to make other people physically submit without dabbling in any of the ritual or spiritual froufrou sometimes associated with judo and other Asian martial arts, like karate and aikido. To this day, it remains a Gracie-family production, carried on by the brothers’ lean and terrifying descendants, many of whom have names that start with R—among them Renzo, Ralph, Rener, Rodrigo, Roger, Ryron, Ralek, Rolles, and Rhalan.

Harris began practicing BJJ in earnest in November 2011 and now trains three times a week, often in private sessions with Ryron Gracie, a head instructor at the Gracie Academy, which has locations in Beverly Hills and Torrance, California. Last year, he posted an essay on his Web site about his experience with BJJ, in which he rhapsodized about the pleasures of being nearly “choked out”—squeezed by the neck to the point of almost losing consciousness—or forced to cry uncle when a superior fighter cranks his head or limb in an unnatural direction. (BJJ teaches mercy: before you are maimed or killed, you “tap out,” typically by gently touching your opponent’s body to ask him to stop.) Harris likened training with an expert fighter to “falling into deep water without knowing how to swim.” He sees BJJ as a cycle of mock death and resurrection, wherein an expert may kill you many times per session. “To train in BJJ is to continually drown—or, rather, to be drowned, in sudden and ingenious ways—and to be taught, again and again, how to swim.”

I found myself in a “rear naked choke,” which, while less alarming than it sounds, is lethal if applied unmercifully.

Having read all this, I asked Harris to drown me. I am several inches taller and several pounds stockier than Harris, who is 5 foot 9 and weighs 165 pounds, and I am undefeated in single combat—though only because I have never been in a fight and flee anytime I see anyone who looks even vaguely threatening. Harris proposed that we meet for a private lesson with Ryron in Beverly Hills; he and Ryron would take turns drowning me.

When I arrived for our bout, I found Harris wearing a Gracie-branded T‑shirt and a gi (a martial-arts outfit) tied with a blue belt. Ryron, who turned out to be a pleasant guy and patient teacher, was my height, but leaner and more muscular, with close-cropped hair and nails. He started the lesson by asking me to lie on my back.

What followed was a sort of sorcery. Ryron straddled me, his hips pinning my torso to the floor, then invited me to try to wriggle out of this vulnerable position, from which he could freely punch my face without my being able to hit him back. I flipped to my stomach—a bad call, he pointed out, because now I couldn’t see him, while he could grab my head and bash it against the mat or torque my arm back. Instead, he suggested, why not put my left ankle here and my left arm there, pull this way, and roll like that? I complied, and within about a second I had flipped us both over: now he was on his back and I was straddling him. I repeated the move three times, never really sure how this recipe of foot and arm positions led so precisely to the flip.

I told Harris, who was warming up, that I could see how the cycle of helplessness and mastery might get addictive. “It’s the perfect schedule of reward for a lab rat,” he said. Next, it was Harris’s turn to attack me. He started off in a dominant position, although it was no longer clear to me what was truly dominant and what was just an invitation to be spun around and choked. He pinned me to the mat with his body. I pushed back, and when he raised his chest off mine for a second, I tried to exploit the opening by crossing an arm between us and prying him off me. But he had set a trap. When my arm crossed between our bodies, Harris sprang up and grabbed it, locking it across my throat. Ryron looked on, narrating the whole scene calmly, so unsurprised by my boneheaded errors that I wondered whether he could have described them with his eyes closed.

Harris let me out of the hold and allowed me to attempt an escape. I soon found myself in what BJJ practitioners call a “rear naked choke,” which, while less alarming than it sounds, is lethal if applied unmercifully. At one point, I resisted by pushing my jaw between Harris’s elbow and my throat. That didn’t help. “He can choke your whole jaw into your throat,” Ryron said. “It affects the carotid—through the jaw!” He said this with an air of Isn’t that cool? Later, once Harris had let me go, I had to agree: Yes, very cool.

Harris thinks about violence more than almost anyone else I have ever met. After our BJJ encounter, we went to a Korean restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, where he tried to explain his obsession with self-defense—including not just BJJ but also guns (he has several stashed strategically around his house) and physical force generally. He said that the response to his first book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, published in 2004, had led to concern for the security of his wife and, more recently, his daughter, who is 4 years old. He asked me not to say where he lives. “People’s craziness has no expiration date,” he said. “I don’t know when someone is going to discover that thing I said about Islam or Christianity or Ayn Rand on YouTube seven years ago and decide that it’s a killing offense.”

Harris’s self-defense obsession predates his counter-apocalyptic horsemanship, however. His parents divorced when he was young; growing up in a household with no adult male left him with a lasting concern about physical security. By the time he headed to Stanford for college, he was studying and teaching ninjutsu, a Japanese martial art. He dropped out in 1990 to write fiction—somewhere in a drawer, he says, rests a never-to-be-published Sam Harris novel “derivative of Pale Fire,” in the form of annotated letters to God, some written by such historical figures as Nietzsche—and spent the next 10 years learning to meditate. He later returned to Stanford, earned a degree in philosophy in 2000, and finished a doctorate from UCLA in neuroscience in 2009.

Along the way, Harris developed an interest in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a freestyle martial-arts competition, begun in 1993, that he describes as “a science experiment that martial artists had waited centuries to have happen.” Would a boxer win? A karate guy? A wrestler? “It was everyone’s fantasy,” Harris told me. “Who’s stronger: Batman or Superman?” The outcome of the first UFC was clear: Royce Gracie, Ryron’s uncle, won handily, and the Gracie school of jiu-jitsu established itself as first among equals.

Harris clearly craves the feeling that he has dispelled an illusion—whether about the effectiveness of a left hook or about the divinity of Jesus.

In Harris’s eyes, that gave BJJ scientific credibility. “Most martial artists get illusions in training,” he said. For example, if you are trained as a boxer, you come to trust that an opponent won’t try to tackle you to the ground—because that’s not what people do in boxing rings. Instead they hit each other, with gloves on (another condition that is not very realistic). Boxers and karate experts therefore don’t actually know what would happen if they were to deliver a full-power uppercut or rabbit punch to an opponent. “The great strength of jiu-jitsu,” Harris told me, “is that there really are no illusions.” BJJ practitioners generally don’t punch or kick, but the holds and locks they do use can be tested as if in real-world conditions. As a result, “Ryron knows that if he puts you in a triangle choke, you’re going to sleep in six to 10 seconds.”

Harris clearly craves the feeling that he has dispelled an illusion—whether about the effectiveness of a left hook or about the divinity of Jesus. “I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be,” he told me. “BJJ was so illusion-destroying and ego-canceling. And the combination of those two things was just exquisite.”

A week later, Harris tutored me in his other passion: meditation. The introduction left me with an even greater sense of spiritual discomfort than the ass-kicking. And after 20 minutes of struggling to banish the voices in my head and clear my mind, I felt just as winded as I had at the Gracie Academy. The experience did, however, offer some insight into why Harris might crave a daily routine of silent reflection. He has, after all, chosen a life of wandering the Earth getting in unwinnable arguments with unyielding people. Perhaps this leaves him with an unusual need for peace, quiet, and answers.

“The sort of satisfaction one hopes to achieve in intellectual debate is always elusive,” said Harris, referring to his public disputations with various professional Christian apologists. “I’ve had debates where it’s absolutely clear to me that my opponent has to tap out,” he told me. “They are wrong—just as demonstrably as you’re wrong when you’re being choked to death in a triangle choke.” (Which raises the possibility that, however calm and well-spoken Harris appears onstage with, say, Rick Warren, he may be silently imagining strangling the pastor into unconsciousness.) “It’s like they’ve turned into a zombie,” he continued. “You rarely get the satisfaction in intellectual life where the person who is wrong has to acknowledge and grow from the experience of having been self-deceived for so long.”

For more on martial arts and atheism, read Graeme Wood's interview with Sam Harris.