The transitional seasons of Autumn and Spring are my favorite seasons. I’ve already mentioned how in October 2021 the changing leaves of Autumn reminded me of the transition I was about to undergo: namely, my test for Shodan (first degree black belt). In that same blog post (written a couple of months later) I related that I was enjoying “winter mode,” a time of active rest. These days the frenzy of Spring blooms parallels the growth I am discovering in my karate.
Trees change themselves in very deep ways before, during, and after winter. I’ve spent the last few months in process too. I’ve been working on my upper body by using weights and I’m continuing to condition the rest of myself. Of course I’ve tweaked my practice/workout times as I’ve done many times before. I wasn’t too happy with a few things I did during my test so I’m fixing them. In addition I am learning two new kata (forms). But something deeper has changed. I feel more comfortable in seminars (still online for me). Learning new kata is getting easier although directional dyslexia still makes that process interesting. I’m starting to actively develop my kumite (sparring) during my practice time instead of just throwing myself into a “fight” and hoping for the best. From one of my new kata I’m learning about movements that, yes, serve a purpose, but they are also transitions to something else. I’m hoping that will help my sparring. The explosion of flowers on the trees has made me more keenly aware aware of the beginning of this new phase of my karate journey.
Many people both in and outside of the martial arts world think that if one has earned a black belt one is a master and “knows karate.” In other words, learning stops when you tie on that pretty new belt. Balderdash. Shodan, or first degree black belt, literally means “first level.” A friend once told me his sensei said “black belt” means your bags are packed with everything you need for your own journey. Both before and after my test I’ve been told pretty much the same thing by my own sensei, with the addition that I’m now responsible for the pace and direction of my further development as a karateka (one who studies karate). Many of the yudansha (“black belts”) in our organization have made it clear that if I need help with something or want to know more about something all I have to do is ask.
Being able to ask for and receive help is vital. Yes, I am now called “sensei” (teacher) and that means I have all the responsibilities that go along with that. Let me make this clear – “teacher” implies a relationship. I don’t think of “sensei” as a title so much as an expression of my duty. I am responsible for teaching what I know and for the development of any students who are under my care. That could be for a few minutes of a class, an entire hour, or for all the classes during the course of a few weeks.
Due to various reasons the dojo I belong to has only four karateka and now isn’t the ideal time for us to seek expansion. Starting in mid May my sensei will need me to shoulder a good bit of teaching until sometime this coming Fall. I think the world of my two kohai (lower ranked students) and am honored that for a season I will have a significant impact on their development. I hope to see them each advance a rank or two in the coming months. Since we began to meet sometime in mid-July I’ve gotten to know these two students quite well and I’m looking forward to guiding them in their journeys. And who knows – maybe we’ll have a brand new beginner or two just to give me an additional challenge. Bring it. I know I can yell for help if I need advice, an additional instructor, a substitute instructor, or even a guest instructor.
Every once in awhile over the past few months it’s just been me and my sensei in class. I have come to treasure those times. Since early 2020 the focus was push, push, push for my Shodan test and I had an extra year of that. Now I’m seeing the “flowers” of all that effort. There are some really fun things that my sensei can teach me now that I’m at this stage of development. I’m not talking about secret magic woo-woo stuff that only “black belts” get to learn. It’s just that some things are easier for more advanced belts to learn and that’s where I’m at now. Of course there are things I don’t do perfectly and I have some areas that need work. But the ideas and the questions and the exploration of concepts are all coming more easily to me now. And I see that my sensei is enjoying teaching this brand new Shodan.
I hope some day to be in my sensei’s position. I hope some day I’ll see one of my students earn Shodan and beyond. My future students will be the fruit of the early springtime flowers that I’m seeing in myself now.