The Journey is Worth It
So you want to have a black belt.
Who doesn’t? You’ve been training a long time. Working on your kicks and katas, stances and conditioning harder than anyone. You show up for class more than anyone else you know, and the idea of wearing the black belt itself dangles like a carrot in front of your nose. It has become some iconic mark of perfection where all of your disordered skills somehow come together and you reach spiritual and physical fulfillment in a way that your amateur self could have never dreamed.
As people who train in the martial arts, we are used to the idea of regular marks of progress such as belts and sashes to represent our growth in the art. They are sign posts that say to us, “over here, I had this level of skill, but over here you can see I got much better.”
The truth is never quite that black and white. Many people, people who train hard and sacrifice much, think of it as the end result of a period of time training. They think that it signifies people who have somehow “graduated” from the earthly concerns that modern martial artists face. Above reproach, beyond the law, and certainly removed from the worries and cares of daily life.
Isn’t everything easier on the other side?
It would be fun, wouldn’t it? But that’s not how things really work. Here in reality, where at least 85.9% of us actually live, it doesn’t get any easier once you don the mythic black belt and strut around for the world to see.
It actually gets harder.
And it should. Regardless of your particular style or discipline, you now represent what should be their upper echelon, the elite warriors of fitness, martial skill and willpower. To the lower belt students in your school, you have elevated to the status of a role model, like it or not. Someone to be like.
“If only I can get that far and be like them, then I can wear a dark band of cotton around my waist too.”
And, to be fair, the black belt only means these things if you actually embody them. It also means more responsibility, and more accountability for the things you say and the way you act around parents and students. Or at least it should.
Plus, shouldn’t your material get more difficult at each level, forcing you to your absolute limits before you are able to break through and forge your own path? If you’re not pushing your limits regularly, then what are you doing? Just running around and kicking the air doesn’t seem very beneficial in a larger sense. After all, there’s cable and Netflix and parties at bars. You could be a best-selling novelist by now. Or a club DJ in Dubai, swaying in the desert sky.
But that’s not you. You like the grit and sweat of a hard mat floor. You like hitting the heavy bag and the endurance testing of conditioning rounds. You like working applications and sparring practice, even after your shins and elbows are bruised and bleeding.
You practice quietly by yourself, and often. You’re getting better, you can feel it, and then sometime after your last rank advancement, your teacher drops a bomb on you. You start learning your new material, and it’s hard. Not just hard, it seems impossible.
And it’s weird. It doesn’t make any sense. But it shouldn’t should it? After all, you just learned it. You can’t be expected to make sense of something that’s brand new. But it feels like this stuff was written in a different language. Tiny and stupid, fumbling all over yourself again.
Like when you first started. The first time you walked through the door and tied a lighter piece of cotton around your waist to begin your training. That’s what it should feel like every time you go through a rank advancement in a martial art like Kung Fu. It should feel like you are starting all over, this time with a different set of tools, in a different language.
The constant renewal is good for your soul. It will strip you of the ego that you have built up along the way, and leave only humility in its place. It will shift your perspective to a higher mode of thinking, so that you can fit your parallel selves together into one framework and place all the material you have learned into its proper context.
It will give you appreciation for all that came before. Now you tend to be able to see your early training as the gift that it was, and to know the kindness of the teachers that brought you this far. You see only stair steps that allowed you to climb up into the heavens and glimpse the face of the unknowable vastness that surely awaits you as your reward for all your hard work.
This is what it is like to be a black belt in Shaolin-Do.
The original Shaolin monks did not have a graduated belt system like we are used to in the West. Mainly they divided people only amongst acolytes, disciples, masters, and grandmasters. An entirely new generation of monks could grow up between your points of demarcation. Because for them the titles were unimportant, only the skills mattered. Read that last bit again. And again.
That was the real legacy a Shaolin monk could leave: his knowledge. It would become archived and passed on to other temples. Entire styles were written down and taught to others, so that your contributions could be shared with the world. So if this is your voice and your lasting opportunity to speak, what do you have to say that’s worth saying?
In Shaolin-Do, our belt system was adapted to fit modern uniforms and teaching styles, but the depth of material it requires very much mimics the old ways of how they taught in the temples. A dedicated student can work their way through the colored belts in the first couple years and make it to black belt, sure. But this only represents the tip of the iceberg.
As we say to each other after each test, “Now, your real training begins.”
For each level of black belt afterwards, there is longer to wait between testing cycles. This is in part because of the sophistication of the material you are taught at those levels, but there is another aspect to it as well. Now that you wear the belt, more is required of you.
Again, that is as it should be.
Because it never takes all of that time for you to learn the belt material. That wouldn’t be right at all. If you have a good teacher, you can learn the stuff you need to master much faster than that. Learning is one thing, performing is another. The more you practice, one thing tends to stick out about your new material. What becomes harder is understanding it.
I have found that the higher levels of training rely more on using the mind to work out puzzles, or training the higher concept of the mind-body connection, more so than the early material. Early on we were working on purely physical things. “How do I kick?” “Where do I block?” “Why do I keep getting punched in the face?”
This is why we call them basic skills.
Later, we focus on stretching out the mind and trying new things. Pushing your brain to accept foreign information and collate it into something useful. Learning how to adapt material on the fly and push yourself into a new level of development. Not just physically, but now it starts to become mental and spiritual as well. You are pushing the envelope of your innermost being, stretching against the restraints that hold you back from your true potential.
This is what makes a black belt, not the cord that keeps your pants up. You have an irresistible urge to make yourself better, learn more, and develop every fiber of your being. It’s not the belt, and it’s not the training. That was simply the path that got you here.
Know what a real black belt is? It’s you.
Michael Sandham teaches Shaolin-Do Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Lakeway, TX. He routinely punches people in the face. Come find your path at:
Shaolin Martial Arts LLC
2009 Ranch Rd. 620 N #740
Austin, TX 78729