Last week I tested for a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do from Simon Rhee Tae Kwon Do. For those of you who know me or have been following this blog, you’ll know that martial arts is a great influence in my artistic life. Part of the testing material is an essay describing, in the student’s words, the difference between the first and second degree black belts. Even though I speak directly about TKD, I find this experience and message is very relatable to other art forms. I wanted to turn it into a blog because my journey in TKD has been a critical and exciting route in “finding my way.” And that’s what “Megs Le Do” is all about.
HERE IS THAT ESSAY:
My two-year journey to earning a first-degree black belt was largely about coming to terms with the simple fact that “I am enough.” Some of you may remember from that essay a certain character who I named “Samantha.” She was a voice inside my head, who on a daily basis made sure I knew I was not quite deserving of my success and that I could always be better. Sure, it’s noble to always want to be better. It can make for a great work ethic. And it did. But when you always want to be better because you never feel like you’ve earned your place, that can leave you feeling very unfulfilled. And why do anything that leaves you feeling unfulfilled? Tae kwon do had a way of highlighting this and the many other ways I tend to get in my own way. That is not a completely solved puzzle, but I have made great strides in that arena. My journey to second-degree black belt has been about OWNERSHIP. And for me, that is the main difference between a first and second-degree black belt.
This past year has been a real blessing because I was forced to slow down both physically and mentally. By “slow down” I do not mean, “Don’t work as hard.” I mean work differently. Work smarter, not harder. And in doing so I have been able to find some nuance and expression in martial arts I didn’t even know was possible. This is what I would call ownership. Merriam-Webster defines ownership as “the state, relation, or fact of being an owner.” What I find curious in that definition are the words “the relation of being an owner.” While working up to a first-degree black belt, my relationship to being a martial artist, in other words, my belief about being a martial artist was “I’m decently good because I have a dance background. But I’m not a real martial artist.” I found a way of dismissing anything good about my work for any reason I could think of. This is no longer my belief. Now, my relationship to being a martial artist, in other words, my belief about being a martial artist is that every time I step onto the mat to train I have the opportunity to discover something. These are vastly different beliefs and they perfectly illustrate the difference between a first and second-degree black belt.
There are, of course, the more obvious differences between the two belts; more material, more physically demanding material, more detailed material. I don’t think all that material is in the curriculum to simply serve as more checklist items to get right. I think it’s strategically put in there to give us more to express with and to grow as martial artists. Not only doing a move effectively, but with confidence and expression is a major part of ownership.
For example, the first time a focus double chop appears in a form is in advanced form number four. It’s in there three times. And it makes a couple appearances in other advanced forms afterwards too. To be honest, a focus double chop never seemed to feel like much to me. It didn’t seem to fit into my body. And it really bothered me. I even felt this way at my first black belt test. In preparation I experimented with different types of hand positions for the knife hand; leading more with the fingers, leading more with the pinky edge of my hand, rotating it out more, extending my arm more, and before I knew it I was putting all my attention on my hands. And we all know that hands by themselves won’t do much defending or attacking. It became a movement I dreaded doing. In the black belt forms a focus double chop appears first in form number one and in every single form thereafter with the exception of Kum Gang. It’s even in black belt form number five ten times! Focus double chop became something I needed to figure out for myself. I couldn’t let myself get away with not understanding this one move. I came to a kinesthetic realization that, like all other punches and blocks it comes from your center, involves your legs and eventually comes out in your hands. And the way those hands look depends on the energy coming from your center. So eventually a focus double chop became more about an energy than my stupid hands. Now I really love doing it. So once I figured out where a focus double chop lives for me in my body, my black belt forms changed. The rhythm, the energy, the movement. So then, I had to revisit all the advanced forms and make the change there as well. This sort of investigation and exploration is what I really love about doing forms and where I have found some nuance in my movements. And I’m sure if I keep exploring I’ll find yet another evolution of a focus double chop and will revisit these black belt forms and change it all over again. But this is one small example of slowing down in order to work smarter, not harder. Ownership.
Another way I have found ownership in my art is by being able to literally slow down time and be more present in my movement. By this, I mean focusing on the move I’m doing without worrying about the eyes that are on me, or me judging the last move I just did or thinking about what’s coming up next. Ok, maybe I don’t literally slow down time, but it seems that way. It’s still inconsistent, but I’ve had my moments and I want more. Mr. Peter illustrated this very clearly for me when he likened it to the climactic moment in a movie when our hero gets a tunnel vision, laser focus on her goal and everything around her becomes a blur. Everything moves in slow motion and any talking sounds like the teacher from the Peanuts comic strip. I think being able to do this is what many artists would consider as being “in flow.” I realize that this sort of present-moment flow is not only ideal in forms, but it is vital when it comes to sparring. When I first started sparring I was so concerned about doing something impressive or planning my moves in advance. These two things could not matter less. When I didn’t have anything planned I would hesitate and just rely on being defensive. I know now that being present, having a goal and not judging yourself are important for combat. I’m still a little nervous about sparring, but the desire to find flow in sparring excites me and trumps the nervousness. In preparation for first-degree black belt I knew this was something that was possible, but I was nowhere near experiencing at the time. Now, I have had moments of being in flow in my martial arts and my goal is to be able to access it anytime, anywhere. Ownership.
I have saved my favorite discovery for last. This last form of ownership showed up in my attention to breath. This is tough to describe with words, probably because I’m still figuring it out, and the black belt panel is probably more familiar with this, but I have a habit of holding my breath while I move. Therefore, I get tired pretty quickly. But the control freak, fearful part of me thinks this is what is necessary to have control over my movements and be strong. And after close to twenty-five years of behaving like this, it is now an engrained, viable, fully fledged habit. I understand with my brain that by exhaling with power movements and letting breath flow through me regularly, I will not only be able to endure longer and actually have more power, but I could be more expressive in my movement. I understand with my brain, but not fully with my body. I know this is possible, because A) I’ve heard more experienced martial artists talk about it, and B) I’ve experienced it myself a handful of times and have even become emotional in the middle of a form because of it. If that is not accessing true expression, then I don’t know what is. What is scary, and I mean really scary, is trying to break the habit. It’s scary to abandon that which you think is serving you in exchange for something that, at first, seems unreliable. It’s scary to allow yourself to be bad and make mistakes in hopes of coming out stronger and unshakable in the end. When I practice on my own it’s so much easier to allow for those mistakes, because there is nobody there to judge. But when it comes time to perform in front of others, I have a habit of reverting back to old, reliable ways of moving that don’t allow for real improvement just so I can live up to my own ego. Unfortunately, I was not aware of this habit until around August of this past year so my understanding is still in its seedling form. This is why it’s my favorite discovery in my martial arts practice to date, because it’s the scariest. But I’m in it and I’m not backing down. Ownership.
The biggest difference between these two belts is what the experience has revealed to me about myself. Earning a first-degree black belt made me face myself as my toughest opponent. It made me get comfortable with confrontation and the possibility of making a mistake. My journey to second-degree black belt has brought me back to myself but this time to celebrate what I have to offer and be excited about what there is to discover. Even if I don’t pass this test today, I have gained so much appreciation and respect for my body, my mind, and my art, along with a continued respect for my fellow martial artists. I know that the growth has happened not only because of my willingness and dedicated effort, but because of the willingness and effort exemplified by my peers, my teachers, and my entire support system.
These are two very different lessons learned at two very different times in my life. One thing they have in common is that they are ongoing lessons that are hopefully never complete.
Train Hard. Love harder.