My leg twitches nervously as I sit. The day I’ve been waiting for is here. Tomorrow I grade for my black belt in karate.
A million questions run through my head in quick succession: Am I fit enough? Will I remember my techniques? Have I studied the background of my art thoroughly enough? How will my will and head-game be tested? Who will I spar with? What if I mess up in front of my family? I fight to suppress them all. Mushin – no mind. That needs to be the priority right now.
Still, I can’t help but reflect a little bit on the journey so far.
I think back to the nervous excitement of being a white belt. About what a revelation it was when someone showed us that all of the taikyoku katas follow the same capital “I” pattern of footwork. About how diligently we wrote down every detail of every kata we learned. About what a rush it was when we got tapped to grade for our yellow belts.
I remember what yellow belt was like, and how excited I was to be shown my first non-taikyoku kata. A new pattern, new angles, and a new frontier of learning. We also attended our first black belt grading at yellow belt – there, we watched three of seniors grade for their nidan (second degree black belt), and one grade for their shodan (first degree black belt). Those four students set the bar for the preparation we would find ourselves doing years later.
At orange belt, I felt the excitement to learn my first non-goju kata. In my eyes at the time, it was the first “cool-looking” kata I could perform, one I was happy to demonstrate. I smile to myself at the thought of how naïve I was as an orange belt. I think we all go through that, to some extent.
Green belt was such a fun time. We learned more complex kata, including the softest and most fluid kata of them all: Tensho. I remember feeling like I had finally crossed the line from beginner to intermediate student at that time. Still naïve. But loving every minute of it. I began to notice my sparring abilities improve slowly. I practiced my katas daily and with earnestness. When we graded for our blue belt, I remember celebrating with my fellow students at a Boston Pizza, served by one of the senior black belts. What an amazing way to celebrate a grading. I hadn’t laughed like that in a long time!
At blue belt, something began to change. My attitude to training became a bit more serious, and less carefree. I don’t know why, but I do know that it came with a major revelation: blue belt was the first time that the mental voice in my head actually encouraged me. Standing in front of the class being told they would be ranking me on a scale of 1 to 10, I would normally have been wildly nervous. But that time, for the first time, I heard the voice in my head say “Everything is going to be alright.” I went on to perform the best rendition of that kata I have ever done, even to this day.
Thinking about the day I received my brown belt, I could barely contain my excitement. We felt like senior students. We got to spend extra time at the end of class training with the black belts. We learned a series of complex and satisfying kata, and I was content. I was in no rush to grade for my black belt; there was so much material to digest that it would take over a year for us to truly feel comfortable with it all.
And yet, here I sit, on the cusp of my black belt grading. It’s been 17 months at brown belt. My wife, my friends and I have overcome sprained fingers, pulled muscles, and other injuries to get here. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, and we’ve celebrated together.
Thinking about those memories, my leg stops shaking with nerves. The point of the journey was never to arrive. And you know what? It’s been one hell of a journey. I’ll see you all on the other side of my black belt grading.