What Black Belt Means to Me

“The martial arts are ultimately self-knowledge. A punch or a kick is not to knock the hell out of the guy in front, but to knock the hell out of your ego, your fear, or your hang-ups.”

– Bruce Lee

I began my training in the martial art of Tae Kwon Do in July 2013 – I remember it clearly, as the weekend I had planned to attend my first lesson was the weekend of the 2013 TAGB TKD World Championships. As a result, my first introductory lesson was the weekend after the big competition due to all the students and instructors attending the event. My instructor to be, Mr Martin Williams 6th Dan, told me about the event and that his club was closed that weekend due to their participation, but that I should come along and have a go the weekend after. I vividly remember thinking to myself at the time that there was no way I’d be competing, let alone be competing at the World Championships; the biggest event in the organisation.

I was very clear about my intentions going in; I wasn’t going to fight and I wasn’t going to compete. I was a complete pacifist at the time, and my motivation for wanting to give it a go was simply that it looked like fun and I thought I’d be good at it. In truth, the motivating factor that made me get up off my arse and find a club was that someone had posted a classic Bruce Lee video to my Facebook wall, and it inspired me to desire that level of greatness. It was a compilation of his different skills, from lighting matchsticks in mid air with nunchucks and his infamous 1-inch punch. From the moment I concluded my search for local clubs, bizarrely finding Mold to be my closest which is a good 45 minute drive from where I live, fate took control and the rest is history.

To say that Tae Kwon Do has changed my life would be an understatement of epic proportions. I met my soul mate through my club, and we now have two beautiful children together. It’s changed my whole outlook on, and approach to, life. It’s made me a better person in a multitude of ways, and for all the change it’s brought to my life I am truly grateful. Further to all that, it has provided me with a close knit circle of thoroughly decent human beings who are dedicated to helping raise each other up to higher and higher standards, with perpetual dedication, love and support. The people I have met through Tae Kwon Do are some of the most wonderful human beings on the planet, and I am privileged to call them my friends.

The most important thing that Tae Kwon Do has done for me that has been a catalyst for my personal growth has been to introduce me to myself. I know who I am better today than any prior point in my life. I know who I am, and more importantly I know the components of who I am. I know my fears and insecurities intimately, even as deeply as I know my capacity for love, compassion and servitude. I am rounded as a human being because of the deep level of self-knowledge my art has taught me. I know who I am in good times and bad times, I face adversity on a regular basis and that keeps me hungry and humble. I have such a profound level of respect for the people around me, and I  have a deep level of understanding of vastly different types of people and cultures as a result of the principals behind the punches and kicks I’ve been drilling for the last 3.5 years. As with the words of Bruce Lee in the quote at the start of this blog, the opponent is not the man stood across the ring – it’s the man within.

This is a concept my parents and some of my colleagues struggle to understand. Unless you have engaged in some form of martial art, it’s unlikely you’ve come across the life lessons that teach what is required to understand this. One of my favourite quotes is, ‘adversity introduces a man to himself’, and in my opinion, this couldn’t be more concise or more profound. The truth behind this one statement has the power to shatter your world as you know it… only for it to be reborn like the phoenix from the ashes. You know that people you talk to don’t get it when they say things like, ‘so you like fighting’ or ‘you just like beating people up’ – nothing could be further from the truth. A more accurate appraisal would be that I thrive in testing my level of skill and knowledge in a high risk environment because I know that to fail is to learn, and learning is the only way transmute the current version of myself into something better. I am testing my nerve every time I make myself step into the ring – I am facing my fear and my insecurities with that one simple, defying act. I am fueling the fire of confidence and knowledge of self by relentlessly feeding it my fears, my ego and my insecurities.

This coming April in 2017 marks a penultimate point in my journey to self-knowledge as a man and as a martial artist. This April, I grade for my Black Belt. For most, the minimum amount of time it takes to achieve this is 4 years, largely dependant on how much effort you put in and how often you grade. I have been driven to succeed since day one. Following my first class, I would go home and practise the most basic movements for hours at home to try and get the techniques down for my next lesson so I could turn up ready to learn more. I entered my first competition at yellow belt in October 2013, and came away with two gold trophies for my efforts. So much for never competing…

Today, 3.5 years later, I sit here a current World Champion and British Champion, along with several other titles from regional and national competitions across the country. I am lucky enough to have shelves (yes, plural!) filled with trophies and medals from my last 3 years of competition. I am honoured and privileged to have been taught by some of the best Tae Kwon Do practitioners in the World, often training with or under World and National Champions. The people I have trained with and under the instruction of, have helped me immeasurably to become the man I am today; instructors, students and competitors alike. They have provided the proving ground on which I was able to test myself against the best in the business, and the quality instruction that has guided me along the right path when I have wandered wayward. Everyone around me inspires me, filling me with gratitude; that is a truly beautiful place to be.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of people get their Black Belts over the last 3.5 years, and it’s been a wonderful vicarious experience for me to watch and be a part of their individual journey’s – as they have been, and continue to be, a part of mine. Becoming a black belt means different things to different people. For some it is just something they want for display – like a trophy that they can point to to prove how amazing they are. For others, it is a deeply symbolic achievement that says more about the person within than it necessarily says about their ability to kick people in the face.

For me, being a Black Belt comes with a high level of responsibility to respect and serve those around you; whether you like them or not. It is the difference between existing on a meandering and random trajectory through life, and living with purpose and meaning. It is a reminder that I need to do better tomorrow, regardless of how well I thought I did today. It is my commitment to serve and to make a positive difference in the lives of all who pass through my life. It is commitment to constant and never ending improvement, to mastery and excellence. It is my reminder to never give up, and to see the lesson in everything. It is my heart wrapped around my waist, it is the symbol of passion and purpose that I wear with pride and humility. It is the balance of my calm and my rage, my love and my hate – we are all composed of yin and yang, and it is balancing the two that delivers us to self-knowledge and acceptance of who we are and what we have. It reminds me to be grateful every single day – for the beautiful people in my life, for my health and for the important lessons life teaches us; be they easy or hard. I do not prey for an easier life, I work hard to ensure I have the ability and skills to endure a challenging one as I know that it is through challenge that we grow to become greater versions of ourselves. It is a symbol signifying a deep level of self-knowledge, and of understanding that bridges the chasms between our joys and our fears.

For me, being a Black Belt has nothing to do with the colour, the material or being able to kick people in the face. It represents integrity, perseverance, respect, self-control and courtesy. It represents never giving up, even when you feel like there is no way out, and nowhere to go. It is a deep level of strength more powerful than any muscle could ever be, yet it is as soft as a feather. It is the ability to mould to fit any challenge, and the knowledge that everything in life happens for a reason – each experience a package of lessons ready to be learned.

Yet, despite all this, I know that getting my Black Belt is just the end of the beginning. Like learning to drive and getting your licence, the real learning happens out on the road on your own after you’ve passed your test. That is when you find out what you’re made of.

My journey in Tae Kwon Do and in life has only just begun.

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