Thursday, August 21, 2008

Belt Musings #1

As people who read my blog regularly already know, I'm a brown belt looking at a probable test for black within the next year to eighteen months. Part of that testing is submitting three essays. I don't have the sheet listing subjects to hand, but one is on the meaning of the black belt, one on the meaning of martial arts in general, and the third is something more personal (Why do you take karate, or why did you choose Isshinryu, or something of that nature). Towards that end, I started writing on the first essay (What does a black belt mean to you?), only to discover that my thoughts were running off in several different directions which didn't seem to all fit well together in a single essay. So I thought I would make some blog posts on the subject and get my thoughts out in the open where I can get a good look at them - maybe see which themes develop into something essay worthy.

When I first started karate, I really didn't care at all about advancement or what color I had wrapped around my waist. My sensei was pretty casual about advancement - he only gave two formal tests: one for yellow; one for black. Other than that, he simply announced promotions just before the end of class as he thought you were ready. I was at that dojo for two and a half years and was promoted to brown just before I left. That final promotion was the first inkling I had that I did care about rank. Not because I was excited about being brown, but rather because I felt I didn't deserve the belt and was hideously uncomfortable about receiving it. In a dojo primarily known for fighting skills, I had been training for the last five months pregnant, unable to fight. I'd been training katas, largely by myself while the class fought, and without anyone other than my sensei himself to check me. There was no way I had the fighting skills that dojo expected of a brown belt - and even if I had, there was no way for me to show it.

That discomfort was underlined when six years later I tried a dojo in a different form of karate. That sensei requried newcomers to continue wearing the highest belt they had ever earned - his reasoning being that students on the floor deserved to know the potential skill level of the opponents they faced. Which was horrible from my point of view. The brown belt I already felt I hadn't deserved often left me acting as the senior student even as I was still learning their first form and basic exercises.

By the time I got back into Isshinryu, I knew that I cared very much that my belt not overrepresent my abilities and knowledge, but I still thought that I didn't care about advancement in the other direction. I wanted the knowledge and skills, not a black belt around my waist. Offered the chance to restart at white, I lept at it. With nearly eight years away from serious karate, I didn't feel I could live up to a higher rank.

At first, I was right. After that long, my skills had gotten pretty rusty, but they started coming back quickly. At the time, we were not in a formal dojo, having classes out on a volleyball court, and belt testing was sporadic, as Sensei had little to remind him of who was ready. Several times he would mention I was ready, and then forget to set a date. I was ready to test for yellow within a month of coming back - but I didn't actually test for nearly six months.

In those six months I discovered that I did care about that belt around my waist.

It wasn't that I minded wearing a white belt, per se, but it began to feel like playing pretend. I was coming to class wearing that white belt, and yet with skill levels well beyond people two and three ranks above me. It didn't make for good class dynamics, as someone who worked hard and long for an orange belt is unlikely to feel great about being trounced by a white belt, even when they know why the white belt is good. As an orange belt, I ended up running class at least once, because when Sensei was called away, the blue belts were not willing to teach me, but were more than willing to have me teach them. The belts weren't matching up with the actuality on the dojo floor.

And so I discovered a lust for a black belt. Or, more accurately, the lust to become a black belt. I had been uncomfortable wearing a brown belt, because in reality I wasn't a brown belt - I was a person wearing a strip of brown fabric around my waist. I was uncomfortable as a white belt later, because again, I wasn't a white belt, just wearing one. I discovered I wanted to become a black belt, to have the skills, abilities, and discipline that would make any other belt seem like a mismatch.

Now I'm a brown belt for the second time and it's a whole lot different. This time it's a good match for where I actually am in my karate journey, and I'm comfortable wearing it. However, part of being a karateka is the drive to improve. Being comfortable can never mean being complacent. So I have become ambitious. The drive to learn and improve is in some sense, inseparable from the drive to advance. So unless I give up my desire to do karate at all, then the black belt is going to mean a great deal to me. Because if I continue to improve, then eventually I will reach the point where I am a black belt, regardless of whether or not I wear one.


Bill said...

Very nice! :-) Good points, well supported, good progression. The only improvement I might suggest would be to tighten it: it felt a little long for the content, but not overly so.

Josie said...

This entry made me very happy. I am testing for my black belt tomorrow, and I have often felt the same way that you do. It's tought to come to terms with your own skill level sometimes. And, it's even harder when you know you deserve a higher rank and don't get it. In the end though, I think we will find that the rank is not nearly as important as the strength we are able to cultivate in ourselves. That respect factor is a nice added bonus too! Good luck in your quest.

Michele said...

Your post made me think back to when I received my Shodan. I remember being happy and overwhelmed at the same time. I was thrilled that I achieved the belt but I also understood there was responsibility and expectations that came with it.

I look forward to reading your additional essays.

Perpetual Beginner said...

Thanks, Bill. Yes, it has my usual first-draft fluff. I'm not sure I'll ever get out of that bad habit, though fortunately I'm learning to clean it up later. My main concern with this idea as a final essay is the implicit criticism of the sensei to whom I'm submitting it. I don't mean to diss the sensei, but his difficulty in remembering to schedule my promotion tests was integral to my realizing I didn't want to be under-promoted any more than I wanted to be over-promoted, so there's really no way to leave that implicit criticism out.

josie - then we're even, because your comment made me happy as well. I will say that having been in both positions, I found being ranked above my skill level much harder to take than being ranked under it. Sort of like the difference between having your integrity while being publicly excoriated, and having done something you're ashamed of while being publicly lauded. The first is merely very irritating - the second is soul-killing. Belts aren't that drastic, of course, but the feeling of being over-ranked is certainly an echo of that sinking, soul-killing feeling.

You're right though, the important things in martial arts truly have nothing to do with rank at all. Best of luck with your test tomorrow!

michele: Thanks! I'm feeling that way already, and my test is still months away! How can these people possibly think I'm nearly ready for black? The feeling is distinctly different from my first round of brown, though. That time I knew I didn't have the skills to live up to the rank. I was ashamed to have it. This time, I'm merely humbled and a bit scared.