Sunday, January 23, 2011

Things I Only Understood After Black Belt

The Wednesday night class in our dojo has been mostly black belts. Two of the students (a father and son) are new black belts. They tested for their shodan in Okinawa Kenpo Karate and Kobudu during the summer of 2010. The father told me a story about how he expressed to his wife (a 1st kyu student) how different it was to be a shodan than a 1st kyu.

It reminded me of Sue C's excellent post called The Black Belt Paradox where she makes the following observation:

When I look at who it is that tells me it’s not about the black belt or that we don’t need coloured belts, I realise that they are all (no dis-respect is meant here) – black belts! It seems to me one needs to acquire the wisdom and experience of a black belt to realise that getting the black belt is not important and only really represents the beginning. I can ‘know’ this but it remains precisely that – knowledge, not wisdom. I have to go through the process myself of converting this knowledge into wisdom through practice, learning and experience and to help me do this I need my belts, all of them! I call this the Black Belt Paradox – you need to acquire a black belt in order to truly understand that ‘it’s not about the black belt’.

Sue is right. There are things I only understood after I earned a black belt. Here are a few:

1. Black belt is the beginning. The kyu rank students in our dojo hear this statement a lot. We tell the students how much more there is to learn and study.

2. Black belt kata are those kata that come later in the syllabus. I remember learning a "black belt kata" when I was a new brown belt. I learned the pattern to Passai at a seminar. I thought it was cool that I knew the pattern to a "black belt kata". I didn't realize at the time I didn't really "know" it. I could move through a sequence of movements. Turns out it wasn't so cool because I should have been focused on my current material. We do not try to let students get too far ahead with their material. As a kyu rank it is tempting to want to learn "new" and "more". There is simply too much material that needs to be learned before shodan.

3. The use of the word "Know". After I tested for black belt, I realized how little I actually knew. This feeling hit me the moment I tied my black belt around my waist. We test for shodan at the Federation training camp. The guest instructors are dojo heads, karate federation leaders, war heroes and authors. They are people who have been training 30-40 years. And there I was with a shiny black belt and three years of training. I have been a black belt for almost 15 years (in July 2011) and I still feel the same way. The amount of information to "know" is incredibly overwhelming. There is a lifetime of learning.

4. Black belts are students too. I never gave this much thought as a kyu rank. As a black belt student, I am still learning, exploring and discovering.

5. A black belt brings responsibility. I remember thinking a kyu rank student might ask me a question and expect the correct answer. What if I did not know the answer? I found out it is ok not to know the answer and it is an excellent opportunity to search/learn the answer. The new shodan I wrote about early in the post let me know how he makes sure he is in correct stance during class. He noticed the new white belts watching him and wants to be a good example.

6. Your karate changes as you age. It becomes more about technique, function and conservation of motion.

7. You need to make the kata your own.

8. Basics are awesome!

I am sure there are more. The above list represents a few of the things I only understood after I was a black belt.

And it is still a work in progress....


Journeyman said...

Great post, Michele.

I remember long ago, an aging, out of shape acquaintance was telling me about how he was a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He had obtained his belt 15 years previous. I remember picking his brain and being impressed that he had achieved such a ranking.

Looking back, I'm not nearly so impressed. It remains an impressive accomplishment, yes, but the fact that he got his black belt and quit right after that now tells me a story I didn't understand back then.

To quit when you've just 'mastered the basics' makes me suspect he was not on as fulfilling a journey as he could have been. I don't know if it was him, his teacher, or both, but I suspect he regretted some part of quitting as he liked to regale me with stories of his 'fighting' youth.

Black belt is important, very important, in fact, but as you've already said, it's only the beginning of a long and interesting path towards deep and meaningful understanding.

Felicia said...

Totally true, Michele. And I remember feeling the exact same way once my stiff, new belt was tied around my waist - that what I knew/know about my art could fill a thimble. Always so much more to learn, explore and dissect. Shodan/black belt really is only the beginning - it is an amazing adventure to always be a student! A black belt really is only a white belt who kept coming to class, learning and growing, and a sedond, third or fourth dan is a black belt who did the same. It just goes to show that the learning continues long after the belt isn't so stiff and new anymore...

Sue C said...

I'm actually looking forward to being liberated from the process of grading. Even though our classes are not overly focused on grading it still hangs over you with these short term goals to achieve to get the next belt. I'm looking forward, once I've got my black belt, to having time to consolidate on what I've already learned and have time to 'play' with it a bit more and settle into my dan rank. There will be at least 2 years before the next grading so I will be able to just enjoy the training! Thanks for the link Michele.

Michele said...

Thank you for commenting!

I definitely had a different perspective after black belt testing. I asked the new shodan in the dojo to write a guest post about the differences before and after black belt but he told me he did not like to write.