I remember helping teach a kids class a couple years ago at Redwood Dojo. Sensei Didi called all the students around to ask the question, “Do you think anyone can become a black belt?” The question was intended as a way to challenge the students to think about their own practice and the dedication it takes to become a black belt, but, of course, as a then brown belt, the question challenged me to think about my own practice.
At the time, my own answer to myself was something like, “Sure anyone can become a black belt if they work hard enough, but I don’t think I’ll ever be a black belt.” My thinking was influenced by a couple of factors. First, I had begun Cuong Nhu in 2006, not to earn a black belt but to get in better shape, learn more about self defense, and have fun while doing it. I had accomplished this and knew I could continue to grow in these ways whether or not I had a black belt; my rank just didn’t feel important.
However, in retrospect, it’s clear to me that much of this answer also came out of fear: the fear that I wouldn’t be good enough to get a black belt no matter how hard I worked, the fear of the limits of my own body and mental stamina, the fear of the responsibility of being a black belt and therefore being a teacher and model to other students.
Growing up, I’d always loved sports and had been fairly athletic; though none of my athleticism came naturally to me. I was always that kid in P.E. classes who couldn’t for the life of me follow the aerobics instructor’s footwork or learn dance moves. I was good at softball because I had pretty good hand-eye coordination and fast reflexes, but I was cut from the varsity basketball team my junior year because I am painfully slow, and I can’t jump.
Ironically, it was my decision not to be afraid that, in part, led me initially to want to learn martial arts. When we first started our little cohousing community in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, I heard a lot about how dangerous this area is, and my community mates expressed the belief that one would be crazy to walk around alone at night. This still seems like a terribly sad way to live, and I made the very conscious choice at that time that I didn’t want to live in fear, that I wanted to be able to walk around in my community and interact with the people who live here. Of course, I don’t want to be naively unafraid, and, as a woman, I’ve had to confront these fears again and again throughout my life when I’ve decided to walk alone at night regardless of the neighborhood’s reputation. I knew that learning martial arts would not only increase my physical abilities and strength, but it would also make me more confident in general, and it seemed like a good approach to addressing that sense of fear.
So here I am, facing my black belt test, and I find myself confronting all those fears that made me think that I’d never be at this point. I would like to be able now to make the same conscious choice I made in the past—to just not be afraid, but somehow this seems more challenging, probably because I bump up against my fear every day in training; I compare myself to others, and, a perennial perfectionist, I’m very hard on myself: “Why is everyone else getting this technique so much quicker than me?” “I’ll never be able to jump as high in my flying kicks as these teenage boys!” “What if I’m not in good enough shape? What if I get hurt?” I’m sure everyone is nervous for their black belt test, but I find that facing this test raises all kinds of other issues for me: I have to confront my sometimes difficult relationship to my body and my body image—am I skinny enough, strong enough? I have to acknowledge that I’m getting older and am not as springy and physically resilient as I was as a teenager. I have to consider some of the sexism of our culture that still says women aren’t supposed to fight or can’t be as tough as men. I have to forgive myself when I’m not perfect or when I struggle, which is often.
But I keep going; I keep training. Even though I still have these fears, I’ve decided to not let the fears control me. As a result I’ve gotten stronger and more in shape, and all those things I once upon a time thought I could never do don’t seem so scary anymore. For instance, as a white belt I could not fathom that I would one day break boards. I also used to hate sparring because I was afraid of getting hurt, and my incredibly competitive nature was perpetually annoyed about always losing. However, as I’ve gotten better at it, I’ve come to absolutely love it. I actually think I could spar every day happily. I enjoy the challenge and learning that comes from sparring someone better than me, and I feel my confidence in my abilities growing all the time. In general, I feel a lot more in my body; though I still have to continually combat my tendency to over-think everything. And I’m still having fun, which is probably the most important part.
As the date of my black belt test approaches, I can’t help but be nervous. I know this nervousness is natural; after all, getting a black belt is supposed to be hard. But I have been trying to channel that nervousness and fear into doing the work required to be successful. I also know that I have already come an incredibly long way, and so I want to hold on to the spirit of my earlier self in remembering what is most important: not the rank but the skills, confidence, and health that come with the rank.