Mastering Martial Arts – Not Levels, but a Huge Circle

A lifelong journey

Black Belt Disappointment

There’s a common response to receiving your first black belt. I’ve seen it in many people. Initially you’re elated and can’t stop grinning. You think, Finally! I get to wear that thick black belt and be called Sabum, Sensei or Sifu. I get to stand at the head of the line and be respected by the kups or kyus (the colored belts). I get to tell all my friends that I’m a black belt.

This initial high is followed by a feeling of self-doubt and disappointment. You recall your test and all the little mistakes you made. You’re painfully aware of your shortcomings. You wanted your black belt test to be a perfect experience, where you performed your forms or techniques flawlessly, showed off your self-defense ability and “proved” yourself. If that didn’t happen then you feel embarrassed and even resentful. You wonder, “Why did they promote me? Is it only because of the time I’ve put in, not because of my skill?”

I have a friend who felt bitter when he got his Jujitsu shodan. The instructor made some criticisms of his performance and he latched onto those and took them personally. He stopped attending class for almost a year after that.

I have another friend who totally discounts his own shodan, nidan and sandan promotions (1st, 2nd and 3rd degree) in Karate. Someone shot a video of his test, and when he watched it later all he could see was that he was off balance at times, and clumsy. He didn’t see the wealth of knowledge that he demonstrated, or the intensity of his spirit, or the tremendous contributions that he has made to his Karate club. He only saw the flaws.

Goal Fatigue

Black belt

There’s a second problem as well:  goal fatigue. For years you focused on the goal of black belt like a hawk tracking its prey. Now you have it, and the absence of a new goal is deflating. Second degree seems a long way off, and if you get it, then what? You begin to realize that martial arts mastery is not a precisely defined goal, but a lifelong challenge. It feels overwhelming. Maybe you decide that 1st degree black belt is good enough. Your motivation to attend class vanishes. Maybe you drop out altogether. Many do, sadly.

1st Degree = Basics

What people need to understand is that a 1st degree black belt does not mean that you have mastered the art, can do all your forms or techniques perfectly, or that you’re an accomplished fighter. 1st degree can be compared to middle school graduation. Seriously. 2nd degree would be your high school diploma, 3rd degree your bachelor’s, 4th degree your master’s, 5th degree your PhD – in martial arts that is typically “master” level – and beyond that would be advanced research and professorship.

So 1st degree only means that you have learned the basics of footwork, balance, stance, etc, and now you are ready to begin learning the good stuff. As you advance you will continue to improve your basics. Even a master is still improving his basic stances, punches, kicks, locks and throws.

Every master I know makes mistakes. Well, except for one or two living legends who have been training for fifty-plus years. And most likely they make mistakes too, but they’re experienced enough to flow immediately into something else, thereby covering their mistakes.

So the idea that a 1st degree black belt practitioner should execute a flawless test is absurd.

Traveling in a Huge Circle

The dan levels seem to indicate a series of platforms, each higher than the other. That’s an illusion. In reality it’s more like walking a huge circle – circumnavigating the earth, perhaps – and each time you return to your starting place you realize that you’ve improved tremendously since the last time you were there. As you continue to travel the circle you notice and understand more, until you finally pierce the veil of “curriculum” and arrive at a place where you move based on principles, creating your own techniques on the fly. (I’m not fully there yet – after decades of martial arts study I’m in the borderlands of that place).

If you think of martial arts as walking a huge circle, you’ll never suffer from goal fatigue. You won’t receive a promotion then quit, because there is no fixed goal. You simply walk the path and revel in the joy of discovery. Perhaps this can be thought of as another expression of the circular motion principle in Hapkido.

As T.S. Elliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

That is the process of martial arts mastery.

Wael Abdelgawad, Founder
Hammerhead Hapkido

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