The Adaptable Art
Jiu-jitsu is usually translated as the gentle art, but other translations are valid. I particularly like the flexible or adaptable art as alternatives which help to fill out the meaning.
Jiu-jitsu is adaptable because in just about any self-defence situation it offers a wide range of techniques to hopefully dispel the threat.
If you only have a hammer(e.g. hit 'em in the head) or maybe also a screwdriver (head or groin?) there will be a narrower range of threats that you can deal with, and in more ambiguous situations a nuanced response may be beyond you.
Jiu-jitsu instead offers a wider range of responses via a huge collection of techniques, and limitless combinations. For example, in our system there are around 80 distinct restraint and control techniques, not counting variations. And restraint and control accounts for about 30% of our training.
Of course more techniques means more complex decisions. In a self-defence situation one does not have the luxury of planning! The art must be internalized to the extent that response flows from the situation with minimal thought. This requires long practice and regular training. The techniques must become literally second nature.
One useful exercise is to practice against common attacks. A partner attacks in a pre-arranged way and you respond. At first students of jiu-jitsu learn standard responses, but are encouraged to move on to a more reflexive form of practice in which initially the response (and later the attack) is not pre-determined.
Once someone has a couple years of training and has a reasonable grasp of a range of techniques, a great exercise is to take a pre-determined attack and not plan a full response to the attack, but just try some initial movement and see what flows from there. For example: If someone grabs my wrist, it does not matter whether I twist to the left or the right, I can continue to turn and apply an effective jiu-jitsu technique.
Over time the better initial responses should become ingrained through such training.
The syllabus is not just a bag of tricks, but rather embodies a set of principles in myriad ways.
In a real attack the situation will not exactly match what has been practiced, but the practitioner must nevertheless respond to the threat. In doing so (s)he will invariably deviate to a degree from classic technique, but will apply the principles nevertheless.
Application to every-day life
If I only have a hammer everything looks like a nail.
We all face difficult situations, often when dealing with others. If we only have one or two habituated responses we are very limited in how we deal with these situations, and will find ourselves with little or no choice. With no choice one inevitably feels disempowered.
By acquiring more options through learning, and becoming more adept at when and how to apply them, we give ourselves more options.
So even in the toughest situation, you can exercise choice. The more options that you can find, the better the chance that you will deal gracefully and effectively with the situation, rather than resigning yourself to endure it.
Now that's empowering!