It’s the time of year when it’s nice to take a break from complaining about all the side effects that come with having Diabetes and just be grateful for what you have. A home to sleep in, food on the table and clothes on one’s back are essentials that not everyone has, but most of us who do, tend to take them for granted and always yearn for something more. But there’s usually plenty to be thankful for in each person’s life, even when we don’t always see it.
One of the things I’m most thankful for in my life, is karate. It’s hard to believe that in a few short months, I will have been practicing the martial arts for almost as long as most people I know have been alive. Longer than some, in fact. And although my reasons for getting into karate may have been particular, STAYING in karate was a choice. One that I’ll never regret making. And like any journey, this one may have begun with a single step. But I’ve been walking the path long enough now that I’ve lost count of how many steps I’ve taken. And the stories that accompany those steps could fill oceans…
I don’t think I’ve actually ever told the story of how my black belt test went down, so buckle up; this’ll be a bit of a long read. Although black belt should never be the end goal of a martial artist, it’s an obvious important step and should be given the weight it deserves. I’ve seen some folks go through something that’s referred to as a “test,” which involved little more than doing a couple of forms, breaking a couple of boards and answering a few questions before the pomp and ceremony of kneeling in front of the head instructor to remove their old belt and replace it with a black one. For some schools, the involved ceremony outweighs the actual need to be tested for black belt. But I digress…
Many of these people got their black belt without even breaking a sweat. And although I won’t get into the specifics of the testing, since you need to get to that point if you wanna find out, I think that sharing the experience of what I went through is important. Not only is it important because it’s a story to tell, but because it signifies the challenge that a traditional black belt test SHOULD pose to a practitioner. That may come off as a bit subjective, but my blog is my soapbox, so here we go…
In late 2001, I travelled to Okinawa with Sensei, his wife and two other students. I was a brown belt at the time, and one grade short of qualifying for Shodan (black belt). It was the trip of a lifetime, despite the fact it almost didn’t happen. The terrorist attacks on 9-11 had taken place literally one month before our scheduled departure, and many travellers were cancelling their plans for fear of being on a plane. Our group met to discuss the issue and it was decided that we had invested the money and resources, plans were in place and we would proceed unless the airlines stopped us.
My time in Okinawa was amazing. I’ll never be able to say otherwise, but there was something missing. The experience wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. We attended two karate classes a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. We’d spend our afternoons on the beach since, despite being mid-October, temperatures were in the high 40’s. My thought, and my intention, was to test for black belt in Okinawa at the parent dojo, where my name would be forever registered with the masters. This would ensure the future of Sensei’s student lineage, since the day would inevitably come when he’d step down and retire. But this was something that I would need to be invited to attempt. I couldn’t ask for it.
Even though our dojo closed during summer break (we adhered to the public school schedule), I trained like a mad man all summer in anticipation of studying with the masters. I did karate four days a week and filled the remaining days with cycling and swimming. I worked on body conditioning and some light weights. I had no idea what to expect or what I would be subjected to once I reached Okinawa. But I vowed to be ready. With the exception of Sensei, I was the only one who trained throughout the summer. The impression we gave the Okinawans left something to be desired…
I enjoyed travelling with the team, genuinely and honestly. But when it came time for us all to demonstrate for Nakama-Sensei (my Sensei’s Sensei, try to keep up!), I performed a brown belt kata that put all my heart and energy behind my karate, which is what any true practitioner should do on every form. Sensei’s wife could barely remember the steps to the kata she was currently studying. Daniel, the other white belt who came with us, was very much in the same boat. Philipe, who was the other brown belt who came with us, was able to perform his kata without issue, but there was no energy or spark behind it.
Sensei would later tell me that my kata was done well and he couldn’t have done better himself. But we demonstrated as a team and Nakama-Sensei was left unimpressed. He asked Sensei, “Is this it?” to which Sensei merely shrugged and said yes. What else could he do? The culture prohibited Sensei from “defending” the quality of his students. In fact, the students were meant to demonstrate not only their prowess but the quality of Sensei’s teachings by showing effort, skill and energy. Apparently, I was the only one who got that memo…
The rest of our time on Okinawa was… nice. We visited some museums, neighbouring dojos and even attended the All-Okinawan Karate Tournament, which was interesting to watch. But because of the poor, total effort put forth by the others, I was never invited to test for black belt during my time in Okinawa. The masters were unimpressed with us and we were not worth their time. I returned to Canada feeling slighted. I was hurt, angry and resentful of the others as I believed they should have trained harder and that my loss was because of them. In retrospect, that sounds profoundly selfish but I was young and committed to the next stage in my development and I wasn’t used to having others stand in my way.
I spent the next six months focusing my anger and rage into my training. It wound up being a useful tool as well as being a healthier way to focus that negative energy than placing blame. But I’d be lying if I said there are days that I think back to 20 years ago and still wish it had been different. Karate has an unfortunate way of being political, a fact that I experienced firsthand in Okinawa. After some lengthy discussions and one-on-one training with Sensei, my black belt test was scheduled in the early months of 2002. And since the content of the test is a well-kept secret by the select few who have passed it, I won’t be sharing the specifics.
The night before testing, I had grand plans to get to bed early and get some rest on the night before testing. Then I fell asleep around 3:30 in the morning and woke again at 6:30 when my alarm went off. So much for getting some rest. There was a tight knot of fear and anxiety in my stomach and I had no idea what I was in for, which is likely what had me worried the most. Green and brown belt testing had gone very well for me, but the content of the tests were known to me before taking them. I couldn’t say the same for this test, which was only described as an all-day, 8-hour test of absolutely everything I had learn in karate since day 1.
The next hour consisted of eating a very light breakfast and packing my gym bag, which included a sandwich, granola bar and some fast-acting carbohydrates in the event I suffered a low. Sensei had instructed as such, saying that we would take a break for some lunch. I drove to the dojo and was there at 7:45, thinking that as per usual I would change and stretch prior to the start of testing, which I was told would be 8:00. I sat nervously in my car for the next fifteen minutes, wondering where Sensei was and thinking I had mixed up the days, until I saw him turn the corner and walk towards me with a jovial smile on his face.
We changed in silence and went upstairs to the training floor where we took several minutes and stretched properly prior to beginning. Much to my surprise, the actual test was started at about 8:30. Once it began, I was all-in. That morning felt like the longest three and half hours of my life. I was put through the ringer like I never had before. I may have thought I’d sweated through workouts, but it was nothing like this. Sensei was relaxed, pensive and observant of everything I said and did. And that was the clincher: everything involved in-depth explanations of EVERYTHING I was doing. That’s what made it so intense. Ask me to fight? No problem. Ask me to fight while simultaneously explaining what I’m doing, how I’m doing it and why I’m doing it? Not so easy!
We broke for lunch around noon. I was of the impression that we would be taking a quick half-hour, wolf down our food and carry on. It was, after all, an 8-hour test and we needed to be conservative with our down time. This is why I began to wonder what was going on when we had reached nearly forty minutes of lunch break and Sensei was calmly looking outside, commenting on the weather. I was pacing on my spot, anxious and raring to continue, and he was acting like we had all the time in the world. I thought that maybe this was part of the test; maybe it was to test my patience and ability to keep calm. If so, I was failing miserably but said nothing.
The afternoon was a blur, with everything being mostly applied techniques and the physical aspect. We were done with words and if I thought the morning was tough, the afternoon was tough and painful. I didn’t break any boards. I didn’t demonstrate for a gymnasium full of friends and family and I wasn’t testing in tandem with a handful of other students. Everything was real. If I got struck, I suffered the actual result. Our only bodily protection was a pair of thin, white sparring gloves. Every part of my body held a mixture of sheer exhaustion, pain and adrenaline. The final stages of the test involved a couple of timed endurance exercises. Yes, you read that right; I had to do this AT THE END OF THE FUCKING TEST!!! Imagine doing a plank for twenty minutes after running a full marathon. That kind of thing.
When the timer finally rang, I unceremoniously dropped to my knees. My body begged me to let go and just close my eyes. My blood sugars were all over the place with a mixture of lows from exertion and highs from the adrenaline and glycol release. To this day, it was the most intense and physically-demanding challenge I’ve ever been through. It was made all the more important by Sensei dropping my black belt in my hands and saying, “I guess this is yours to wear now…” He went on to explain that I shouldn’t become complacent and that passing Shodan was a student’s way of formally asking his Sensei to learn karate. The true learning could now begin.
Sensei invited me to his home after the test and we cracked a cold beer (of course). His son, who has been one of my best friends for decades and also holds a black belt, came rushing into the house like a tornado and hugged me tightly in celebration. Just about every inch of me hurt worse after that. But it was all worth it. Sensei explained that we were able to take a longer lunch and the test ultimately only lasted about six and a half to seven hours because there was very little he needed to correct me on. After we reminisced about the previous years I’d spent as his student, I made my careful way home where I enjoyed an overdue long shower and took a nap. When I awoke, I was able to share my accomplishment with my parents as well as a brief visit to the cemetery to visit my brother.
Since then, I’ve had schools of my own. I’ve trained a little bit everywhere, sharing knowledge and techniques with different schools, different styles and different people. I’ve taught others and continue to be taught, myself. A true martial artist will NEVER be done learning. And I can truthfully say that not only has karate played an integral role in maintaining my health and fitness, I’ve used it in defence of myself, in defence of others and in the line of duty. For the nay-sayers or MMA freaks who like to say that traditional martial arts don’t work, I know firsthand how very wrong that belief is.
In over forty years of teaching, Sensei has only ever graduated less than a dozen students to black belt. At the time of writing this, there are only seven or eight of us. And that’s the mark of how challenging the style may be. If you walk into a dojo and there are black belts floating all over the place, including on the kids, you can expect that you may not be getting the quality of training that the rank deserves. But those of us who have achieved Shodan in Uechi Ryu Karate can say without question that only those who are truly committed and have the will to do so, will succeed.
The greatest gift that karate has given me, other than saving my life, is having the opportunity to teach and protect others. And this is also the mark of a true martial artist, when your skills are used for the betterment of the world. I still have days when I look down at my black belt, which is starting to fray and come apart at the edges, and remember all the blood, sweat and tears that I paid in order to wear that particular colour around my waist. And it’s near and dear to me but you know what? I’m still a student. I’m still learning. I’ll continue to train and learn something new until the day they nail my coffin shut. And that’s why my belt may be black, but my soul will always be white. ☯
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