This March, in 2019, marks 20 years since I first stepped onto a dojo mat as a student.
My first thought upon making this realization is, “I really should be better at this by now.” My second is, “Who the hell could’ve predicted that?”
To be fair to myself, I had a long way to go. Growing up I was one of the smallest kids in my class, never did any sports, and PE was pretty much a nightmare. I was terrified of the kickball. I never could serve a volleyball over the net and I still have physical scars from the basketball unit. After I hit the tennis ball over the fence and out of the court three times, my father gave up. Badminton was more my speed. I liked dance, but I didn’t have a dancer’s body nor the flexibility for dance or gymnastics, though I did learn to turn a mean cartwheel. Backbends were never going to happen for me. Even my ‘movement for performance’ teacher in college didn’t think much of me as a mover.
But life takes us on strange and wonderful unexpected journeys when you stop worrying about what you are good at and just do what you like. I’ve studied three styles now and earned a black belt in each. I have stories I doubt I will repeat unless copious amounts of alcohol are involved. Each time I stopped training in a style, I swore I had no intention of starting again. My current instructor told me once he recognized me right off the bat as a “Lifer,” so I’m pretty sure by now this is something I’m supposed to do, though to what end, I sometimes cannot fathom. I’ve never been, nor do I expect to be, any kind of national champion with a room full of trophies. I’ve known some of those folks and they are amazing martial artists, and I am nowhere in their league.
So, what have I learned in 20 years? I mean, aside from multiple ways to inflict bodily harm, what have I really learned?
I’ve learned to own my space. The space my body takes up, the space I need around me to feel safe. I’ve learned not to apologize for taking up space. To hold my space, advance and take my opponent’s space, control where I want my opponent to be to give me the greatest advantage. I’ve learned not to freeze when my space is invaded, how to turn that invasion to my advantage.
I’ve found my voice. Not just the one I always had, the one that can recite Shakespeare or sing a show tune, but my wild, ferocious voice. The one women aren’t supposed to use. The one that can initiate an attack like the roar of a lion or fortify my torso when taking a blow. The one that yodels out strange mysterious sounds as I practice, a cacophony of synchronized breath and movement, impromptu. Unplanned. Weird. Powerful.
I’ve learned to let go of perfection. Not the pursuit of it, but I’ve learned to let go of the crippling disappointment in myself when I can’t achieve it. Knowing I’m only in competition with the woman I was yesterday. Accepting the joy in improvement for improvement’s sake. Understanding it’s a journey, and every day is just an opportunity to get better.
I’ve learned how to face fear – how to breathe through it, accept it, let it pass through me, let it become information, a passenger in the car but not the driver. Fear is a part of life, but like ambition, fear is a good servant but a bad master.
I’ve learned to take charge of my education, even if I have to annoy people to do that. I’ve learned to be ok with the possibility that I might be annoying. To ask people to show me things, not to assume they will get to it, eventually, one day. To ask them to repeat it, until I can see it, understand, replicate. And I’ve learned how I learn, how I need movements to have names, how I need to write them down, how I need to organize my thoughts. And that my way of learning is unique to me, and others may learn differently.
I’ve discovered that a black belt is only as meaningful as the work you’ve put into it. There are so many differences between styles, schools, and the requirements for a black belt, that your black belt is really only truly meaningful to others within your martial arts community, as they are the ones who really understand what you put into it.
I’ve learned the highest ambition in martial arts isn’t really to be the best fighter (despite what Hollywood likes to tell us). If that were the case, we’d all have to be demoted after age 40 as Time does his wicked routine on our speed, strength, joints, and stamina. (
Which of course brings us to the question: what is the goal of the journey? What is it we pass on? The great masters knew, have always known. Ed Parker, founder of American Kenpo Karate, said:
“Through physical discipline, mental and spiritual discipline becomes the most important aspect of the martial arts.”
Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate, said:
“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”
Spiritual discipline. Perfection of the character. That’s the true north.
And it’s only taken me 20 years to figure that out.