What is Black Belt Anyway?

O’Sensei said over and over again, “build a peaceful and beautiful world inside ourselves.”

Shodan is often referred to as a beginning rank in the Japanese martial art of Aikido. After five or six years of intensive training as an undergraduate ‘kyu’ student, you might be encouraged by your teacher to prepare for black belt. What this really means is that once you pass your test and receive your rank, you get to start over with a true sense of beginner’s mind. The day I was asked to get ready for my black belt I remember thinking: “all that effort just to go back to square one?”

The shodan process did not begin very smoothly for me. I remember that frigid Saturday morning in the dead of winter of 1982 riding my bike to class. An unusual tranquility permeated the air and the streets felt strangely deserted. Maybe it was more about how I felt inside my skin as I pedaled up the steep icy hill. I locked up my bike and entered the dojo only to discover that the heater was broken and the mat felt like an ice rink. I never warmed up that day, but I did receive an invitation from my teacher to prepare for my black belt test. I should have been gleeful, but in truth I remember feeling a little numb. That is until I got the next piece of news explaining that she had decided to take a sabbatical for a year, leaving the dojo to pursue other passions. I tried to not make too much of the news, but I wondered what studying for black belt would look like without a teacher.

My preparation began in my mind’s eye as I endlessly examined my strengths and my weaknesses on the mat. Over time senior students stepped in and shared their knowledge in their own astute ways. One of them offered a diamond of an insight that I use to this day: “When facing a sword coming at you at light speed, breathe it into your soul. That’s how you control the blade.” It didn’t fix the abandonment feeling I felt facing black belt without a teacher, but it did help me learn to wield a sword effectively. In the long run, my teacher’s leaving could be interpreted as: “you can do this, have a little faith.” While I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of going at it alone, ultimately it laid the groundwork for my appreciation of independence and self-reliance.

One month before my exam I broke my big toe. To make matters the other black belt candidate was an athletic superstar. No matter what I did, I couldn’t escape the daily comparisons of our talent: he having it, me wanting it. Mary returned home about a month before our tests and on that long anticipated day friends and family gathered. The defining moment of my exam came when a guest instructor, Bernie Lau Sensei, was asked if he would like to see me demonstrate something. (That’s how a test operated in the 1980s, invite a stranger and ask him what he wants to see.) Quiet for a moment, he cracked a twisted smiled and pulled an eight inch live blade out from under his hakama. “Lets have uke attack her with this,” he requested.

My uke came forward to receive the knife. I knew that Lau Sensei was unaware of the warped history my uke and I had shared. He couldn’t have discerned that Joe was a former boyfriend who was furious that I’d called it quits just months before. I had exactly one second to embrace my fear and deposit it somewhere else. I had one second to assess that I could get hurt here. Worse, I could hurt him. I had one second to get control of that explosive violent feeling flooding my veins, extend my ki through the four walls and take that tanto away…again and again. In the three minutes that followed I am proud to say no blood flowed.

Up to that point in my training history I was addicted to rolling and falling, but I wasn’t very clear about why. My shodan test gave me the gift of courage, but it didn’t resolve the issue of what to do with my life. The jobs I had taken in the first four years of my practice: advertizing manager for a local news rag, barista girl and counselor for troubled kids were shaped around my training schedule. I knew I was pushing my luck at being an effective real estate agent when I would tell prospective homebuyers that I couldn’t show them a house until after class. But sweating my tail off nightly on the mat, I could ignore some of the ways my life wasn’t working efficiently, like how and when was I going to select a meaningful career path and what to do with a my constant low-grade anxiety?

About that time a firecracker of a women-bright energy and bright eyed moved to Seattle and joined our dojo. Like me she trained most everyday and we began to train after class, investigating our movement methods and our philosophies of practice. It was her words that helped to jump me to the next level. “Aikido study goes as deep as we want to take it, don’t you think?” she offered. She felt that some students enjoyed the training for technical efficiency and aerobic satisfaction and oh, add martial valor. “Seems like for us, it’s a path of personal growth.” She pointed out that every time we stepped on the mat, no matter what, we are looking at ourselves from the inside out. The question is always there: When are we violent and when are we compassionate? As the conversation deepened over the next few months we saw how we could use our training to look at our depression and our anxiety. She reminded me that one of black belt training friends wrote a piece:" I am Not Suicidal When I sit in Seiza. "

A year later at my nidan exam there were no live blades present, but something quite profound did show up. No one said ‘now’s the time to immerse yourself in your stuff”, but in that six-month period of intensive preparation, the senior students reversed my techniques repeatedly. Nothing worked on or off the mat. I tried to drive my training partners through the floor with my elbows and hips and out of nowhere, memories of the abandoning parent or a taunting fair-weather friend filled my head. When I tried to blame a partner for not understanding my intentions, I was overwhelmed with anger then shame. Sometimes I found solace in naming the discordant feelings: “Those clanging bells! What a tale their terror tells” says Edgar Allan Poe. Ultimately I discovered that facing all the unfinished business looming like a floating ghost forced me to just stop, look and surrender. My willingness to acknowledge the truth of things turned out to be the only way I could tolerate living in my skin. Through practice maybe I could learn to appreciate how I let myself be in the world. The shodan test celebrated my courage to stand in the face of a live blade. The nidan exam( and every rank beyond) has invited me to study my authentic self –experience how the repetitive daily practice coaxes the inner work to happen on it’s own.

I have this golden-eyed, black panther cat Zoe. His name means ‘spiritual integrity’ in Greek; I named him hoping to set a template on him. He came to me uncomfortable with everything. With a defining elegance, he struts his ebony coat around the living room as though traveling down the finest catwalk. But everything freaks him out. And forget about picking him up. The vet said, “Some cats are just like that.” But I just keep trying to enfold him in my arms. Most of the time he’s not very enthusiastic about this. Regardless, I’ve tried to be with how he is and not try and morph him into a lovey-dovey creature. It’s been almost two years. Just this past month he found his way onto my bed late at night and nuzzled his nose on my cheek. That lasted for about five seconds before he turned his back, galloped across the room and curled up behind the couch. So yes, he’s a changed cat that gets to hang out in a safe place surrounded by loving people. But he’s still scared of his shadow. I still pick him up.

We never know what’s going to happen on the mat and in our lives, but we do sense that when we move to the right spot or simply find the ‘ zone’ state of mind, miraculous moments arise. Some days when we bow to the aikido calligraphy and sit in seiza, we sense that radiant connection to everything in the room and intuit the perfect throw in our mind’s eye even before we begin to train. Of course there are days when it all goes to hell: our Aikido sucks and we can’t get ourselves out of a paper bag. But we learn to work with the miserable failure of it and we know how to get up, dust ourselves off and extend our hearts one more time. The Dan process invites us to see ourselves for who we are.

Kimberly Richardson