The nature of the blog posts in my online martial arts diary are, by their nature, more self-centred than my other entries. Though I readily admit that I am a mostly self-obsessed blogger, I am also aware that at least some of my other blog posts are a bit more applicable to the experiences and worldviews of others.
But being a martial artist is a very special thing; it is being a warrior as much as a scholar, and it requires a lifestyle of its own in order to be fully effective. It seems that it generates a lifestyle more than actually demanding one should one be in the correct mindset already. Anyone who is naturally predispositioned towards a relatively Spartan lifestyle will find it an easy transition
This isn’t to suggest that being a martial artist requires the kind of living that even Franciscan monks would find unworkable: it is simply the understanding that the body needs to be respected as much as the mind, which means being disciplined in eating habits, sleeping and resting. Strangely enough I was introduced to this concept with Dragonball Z long before I became a serious martial artist. The character Goku always believed in interspersing his training with rest and going fishing every now and then, whereas other characters trained themselves into pieces. It is only now that I am learning that my body is not being difficult in order to be facetious: if I am tired, then I must rest, and if I can’t concentrate because I am too tired, I should not be at training. But for the first four years of my training (and much to the consternation of both of my Sensei) I insisted on training all the bloody time and ended up with a broken coccyx and long-term sciatica issues. Thankfully the lesson was learned young and now I know that only I am responsible for the health of my body. While it is a lesson I know, its not necessarily one I always apply.
Which brings me to my grading on Saturday. The above preamble is to demonstrate the nature of the beast, that the time spent between each grading has to be spent well in order to accomplish the next belt. All the belt represents is another stage of understanding, not an accolade. It has taken me more than five years to realize that.
So, the grading then. The morning’s training was grand, filled with exciting new interpretations of Nafunchin kata (a kata which I now favourably view), some Sanchin testing (always the fun times) and some good old-fashioned basic drills. But where I started to stumble was in the session just before grading, the part with the combinations of techniques into sequences, often taken from kata that I already know. For some reason I started to blunder, and unfortunately once I start making mistakes I tend to panic more and then make more mistakes. After twenty minutes I was starting to run around the inside of my head screaming and flailing my arms about. It may have been because I was this close to grading, maybe because there were Sensei and uchi-deshi prowling everywhere and each one had to correct me as they came past. A part of me wanted to plaintively defend myself, to say “I swear I know this, I’m not this stupid I promise,” but there’s nothing worse than someone who cannot take responsibility for their failure so I kept my mouth shut. Anyone who knows me knows that this is a formidable task.
Then it was grading and I sat sweating over my techniques (suddenly I had forgotten heian shodan) for two whole hours. I know I didn’t want to go first, but going last wasn’t ideal either. Its not that the grading was long and I was worried I’d pass out before it was over, but because I was getting progressively jittery as I waited and waited. By the time it was my turn (I went with the last group) I had been through cycles of “I can do so much better than these people” and “Twenty months since my last grading isn’t enough. I’m not ready.” These are not fun thoughts to have racing around the inside of my skull like Nascar drivers taking very loud left turns. Perhaps this is why I rushed through some of my kata, and got into a flat spin when I messed up something as simple as a rising block. And I tried, I really did, to go slowly, to be confident and steady and strong. But the whole thing slipped away from me, and before I knew it the damned thing was over. And then there was that dreaded “can we speak to you afterwards” thing.
Now I’m someone who dreads opening voicemails. Perhaps it doesn’t speak well to me, but I assume that anyone who specifically looks for me is doing so either to chew me out or give me bad news. Maybe its because I received one too many snippy voicemails from my parents or because I might have a persecution complex. So when the Sensei who were grading me called me up afterwards, there was an understandable panic that mostly involved the words “oh god I failed” with other words interspersed. But the panic was for nothing, as I sat down and had a frank discussion of my training with Sensei Mary, Sensei Mario and Sensei Jagger. From what they saw in the grading, my stances and movement needs some work. Yes, everyone needs to work on it, but mine was far below what it should be at brown belt level. While it is clear that I understand what is going on and can string things together, my mental understanding does not match my physical understanding. This might be because I was graded too fast, or because I was allowed to race ahead without sorting out the basics necessary to doing advanced kata. I had learned Seisan and Kurunfa before I left Grahamstown, kata that I really shouldn’t have been spending time on when my Saifa was so woeful.
Their concern for the problems in my training, and their respect of how particular my journey is, was most touching. That Sensei Jagger thinks I have true budo spirit is possibly one of the highest compliments I’ve ever been paid in my life. That they care that I progress and want to help me make it happen means more to me than many, many things. Their dedication to their students, even those not in their dojo, is unbelievable. It makes me want to be a great Sensei one day, a true teacher.
And I leaked a little, but they were understanding of that too. I was very strung out, having obsessed over the training since March. I was physically exhausted because while I do train, I don’t eat or sleep properly and my body is not as strong as I’d like it to be. I was mentally shattered after waiting two hours to grade and then butchering my one chance to show that I’d absorbed something in the twenty months since I’d last graded. So I cried a little. And they understood. That is what makes them Sensei, not just instructors.
Grading is an exhausting process, but it is not always an inspiring one. This grading has inspired me to train harder, and train better. I have to accept that I have to start again, and be willing to train alongside white belts and take baby steps. For someone who is constantly fighting their ego, this is not easy for me. It is easier, though, than going to the adult class and not showboating because I am higher graded and some of them complain far too much about the difficulty of a kata.
This grading was another marker on a long, difficult, frustrating, beautiful, rewarding journey. I hope that I can apply what I have learned from it, and that I will be given a chance to try again in November. I don’t think I passed (I will find out this week) because I don’t feel my technique is up to scratch. Sure, there were people who are also brown belt who I feel were useless, but that’s their journey, not mine. And defeat is only bitter if I swallow it, so if I do fail this grading it might be a better incentive to train harder than passing. Sometimes failure can do that for me, though it has often put me off something in the pass. I’d like to think, though, that five and a half years in I am dedicated enough to work through the failure and get better. And like Courage Wolf says: