Last night, I finally earned that belt which I have dreamed of. When I was a teenager just starting out in Taekwondo, I thought getting to black belt was the end game, the ultimate goal, the proof of mastery of the art (and the accompanying invincibility and inherent awesomeness). And in just over a year I got it, largely due to monthly gradings and a “if you give us money we’ll give you a new belt” attitude. (My club, despite hosting the most state champions in WA, was a bit of a McDojo/black belt factory.)
Things with the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts are a little different. The gradings are irregular, maybe two or three a year. And they say from the start, it’s a long-term journey. In the same way that one doesn’t pick up a guitar and play Hendrix after a week, it takes hours and hours of grooving movement and internalising concepts before a person has the requisite skill and knowledge to transcend it. This means that the students stay on their grade for months, or even years depending on how frequently they train. The resulting difference in skill between belt colours is obvious, with good reason; each and every student trains until they have learned what their grade was designed to teach them. This makes for a robust system of competent martial artists, where everyone’s current skill level is clearly visible by the colour of their belt.
When I was first introduced to the system of Wu-Wei Dao, I was blown away by how much I didn’t know and how skilful the students and teachers were. I didn’t care in the slightest about rankings or belt colours, I just knew that these guys knew their stuff, and I wanted to have more of that in my life. (And it was admittedly refreshing to find a school where I was not one of the top students, which I had grown accustomed to and caused me to become a little arrogant.)
Last night I achieved that dream which I so treasured as a young man. And I must admit, it gives me a thrill of pleasure to see such a symbol around my waist. But it does not change me. Ever since that first lesson of Taekwondo, I have said to myself that I will act like a black belt whether I wear one or not. I have trained hard, I have worked to cultivate a good attitude, and I have helped my fellow students as much as possible. I have strived to be a good martial artist and human being, to be “an officer and a gentleman” as Kancho would say, and to set a good example for the other students. Being yudansha is more about the colour of the cloth around your waist: it’s an attitude. Jesse Enkamp said it well: “If you’re a black belt, you should brush your teeth like a black belt, tie your shoes like a black belt and wipe your a** like a black belt.”
Wearing kuro obi is, as I said, both thrilling and kinda scary. My brother tells me those two emotions produce an identical autonomic response, it’s just the mind that chooses whether to be excited or fearful. My physical condition, while decent, is not extraordinary, and I still have a lot of work to do on my attitude (I’d like to complain less, be kinder, and to be more grateful, for instance). The other yudansha have set high standards for the school, and I will work hard not only to meet them but promote them, because it becomes me. To put it another way, now that I’ve finally managed to do 50 push-ups, I will not allow myself to do any less from now on. It’s all up-hill from here, but you know? I’m enjoying the journey up the mountain, and I don’t particularly mind that it doesn’t have a summit.