Blind Spots

We all have ’em

Last night, two of my fellow Shodan(s) – first degree black belts – came to the dojo. Unfortunately my dojo sensei (head instructor of a school) missed them. Of the three of us, I am the lowest in seniority but my dojo sensei left me in charge so I didn’t quite know about the etiquette of the situation. We all managed just fine.

There were more sensei(s) than students. We traded off teaching duties. I multi-tasked like crazy. I worked one on one with a student while listening to my peers give feedback to the other student. If I overheard feedback on something that the other student was doing I looked for it in whoever I was working with. And for awhile I put myself out there.

We dismiss our new beginner after an hour and then for the final half hour of class we focus on a student who’s been with us awhile. At that point last night it was three yudansha (“black belts”) to one student. I became a student for awhile. I had already told my fellow Shodan(s) that I needed them to look for any blind spots that I might have. After that first hour my peers had a side by side comparison – a student who I’ve taught for the last three weeks and myself. There are things I need to work on for myself, things the students need to work on that I have been blind to, and yes, things that both the students and I need to work on.

I’ve drifted away from our style’s standard in a couple of techniques. I was blind to a few things that the students need to improve in. Those two students are happy and doing well for their respective ranks, so obviously I’m not a complete failure. It’s just that having another pair of eyes (or two other pairs of eyes) helps tremendously. Ideally we’d have the dojo sensei there, but for a season that’s going to be intermittent. But in the meantime, I know who I can count on to point out what I’m missing. Yes, my peers who came last night, but even more than that – all of us yudansha know we can count on those who are higher ranked than we are.

If our organization’s chief instructor for our state had visited my dojo last night he’d have seen everything my peers did and more. This is not a bad thing. Feedback means everyone will improve. An outside pair of eyes brings a different perspective, and it’s even better when those eyes have seen decades’ worth of students come and go. Not to mention those who are more senior to me, including my dojo sensei, are quite familiar with everything that goes along with being a newly-fledged sensei. Is it any surprise that some of our yudansha are managers in their professional lives? They have the “soft skills” in spades, and believe me when I need to pick their brains about that I do.

It would be the height of arrogance for me to think that now that I have that pretty belt tied around my waist I know everything and can start my own dojo (school). I have my foundation, yes, but until I build more on that foundation I’m not equipped to take someone to Shodan. I’m still wet behind the ears.

A couple of days ago I watched two videos of myself presenting the same kata. The earlier video was taken at my test for 2nd kyu (2 ranks below 1st black). The other was taken at my Shodan test a few months ago. I had to pause the earlier video two or three times because I was rushing the kata back then. On the flip side I saw a couple of things in the later video that I need to work on in the weeks to come. My overall impression was that I didn’t really understand that kata all that well back then. I suspect that if, five years from now, I take another video of myself doing the same kata I’ll see just as big a gap, if not bigger.

Even videoing myself has its limits. I know some things to watch out for, I know some of my habits. But I’m lacking experience and I will need help along the way. There is absolutely no substitute for someone who has years more training on me being right there in real life, 3 dimensions, telling me exactly what it is I need to do to improve, learn, and grow.

We all have blind spots as teachers and students. Those blind spots exist to allow others to share their experiences. We need people who see things through a different lens, especially mentors. I need that input to keep going on this journey. Shodan to me means my bags are packed and I’ve taken the first step on the path outside my door. I don’t want to be stuck there, never seeing what’s down the road, never picking up souvenirs, and never being able to help a fellow traveler because I haven’t the foggiest idea of what lies beyond what little I can see from my doorstep.

What You Missed

You see me greet your child with a smile before class. You see me wave and smile at you when you pick up your child after class. Here’s what you don’t see…

Soon after you left a family came into the dojo. You didn’t see their smiles or hear the happiness in their voices.

You didn’t see me take something I learned in a seminar and adapt it for whoever happened to be in class that day.

I don’t really blame you for not seeing me wince when I demonstrated a technique. I did my best to hide discomfort from an injury I sustained during the rare times when I get to be a student.

You missed me advising an older adult student on how to adjust their stance to work around a stiff foot that was injured a long time ago.

You didn’t see me teach a class that included different ages and ranks, juggling their needs and making sure that everyone learned something valuable.

You didn’t see the look of pride on my face when your child demonstrated that they had memorized their new kata.

You didn’t watch your child fearlessly spar with someone older, bigger, and more advanced in rank. In fact your child deliberately chose that student.

You didn’t see your child’s reaction to the news that they are going to be testing for their next belt.

While you were busy taking pictures after your child’s belt test you missed the quiet conference held among the “black belts” in a corner of the room. We received feedback about our students. In the months to come we will be adjusting our teaching.

I gave your child a flyer about a special event and I emailed you. You and your child missed the event. In fact you’ve missed all the special events we’ve had since your child started – including potlucks, seminars, tournaments, and, sadly, your child’s friends’ belt tests.

You see my black belt with the cool embroidery but you have no concept of what it means to earn it – or what it took to earn it. And you don’t know this, but I am still striving to learn and grow in my art.

You have no idea that I started karate when I was older and more heavyset than you.

You’re still sleeping when I get up to practice.

You haven’t seen all the tears that flow whenever there’s bad news about a member of my karate family.

And you have no idea that us “black belts” would much rather help you learn karate alongside your children than see you zip off to who knows where. We do know this is the norm for most students in our dojo but that doesn’t mean we don’t wish it were different.

Parents… Adults in general… I am far more than a rather expensive babysitter. Please don’t take me for granted.

Disclaimer: This comes from several years of observation and is not tied to my recent change of status and subsequent responsibilities. If you recognize yourself in this either as a parent or a sensei it’s because everything I’ve written about is all too common.

Spring – New Growth, New Beginning

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.

In Spite of X / Because of X

A few weeks ago I visited “X” in order to reflect on everything that had happened since the last time I had seen X. OK, ok, I didn’t do all that much reflecting. I grumbled and grouched. I even yelled, “I succeeded in spite of everything ‘X’ threw at me!”

Eventually I grew quiet but my heart was still burning with hurt and anger. I went away from X.

Your own “X” could be anything – material or immaterial. X could be an event or a series of events. X could be a person or people who stood in your way. X could be a broken down building with a splintery floor and no air conditioning. X could be an injury or other debilitating condition. X could be a combination of all of the above. X might not even exist anymore except in memory.

Before I go further, I acknowledge that if your “X” is a person or group of people your trauma might run so deep that you might consider this blog post to be “toxic positivity.” If that is the case I apologize and recommend you stop reading. Seriously – I am not qualified to address deep trauma and this blog post is only about stuff that is, at most, aggravating, frustrating, and maybe even stupid.

After visiting “X” I decided to visit “Y.” Y had played a role in my success and still contributes positively. I was hoping visiting Y would get my mind off X. As I “sat with” Y, I relived some very pleasant memories. Yet X still niggled at me. As I left Y, I realized X had given me an appreciation for something else – “Z,” if you will. Z is a good something else. Z has its flaws, yes, but without the experiences with X, I wouldn’t appreciate Z. I’d blow up Z’s flaws, making mountains out of molehills. Perhaps because X made me realize how good Z is, X indirectly contributed to my success.

A few days later I realized that X is a mirror that I can look into to see myself as I was then and as I am now. Was I perfect when X was part of my journey? No. Did I contribute to the negativity? Yes. Did I do the best I could in the face of X? Yes. I dare say I learned and grew because I appreciate “Z” all the more. It’s not pleasant to think about X, I wish X had never intruded on my journey. But X was there and it’s up to me to learn the lessons X had to teach me.

It’s difficult to be in the middle of an “X” and see any benefit. It’s quite likely the next time I encounter an “X” I will again contribute to whatever negativity is present. I’m only human and nobody likes it when their buttons are pushed. I seriously doubt I’ll see any benefit to the new X until maybe years after it’s done slapping me around. Or – maybe I’ll respond better. Who knows?

What I do know is that my success means more because I went through what X threw at me. The adage, “A black belt is a white belt who refused to give up” implies that the way isn’t easy, it will have obstacles, and one will want to give up. I don’t think that I ever wanted to give up because of X. But that’s me – maybe others would have at least been tempted to give up if they had faced my particular X.

I also know I do not wish to be an “X” to someone else’s karate journey. But I probably will. I might hit too hard while sparring. As a fledgling sensei I am afraid of mishandling situations, frustrating students, and setting the bar too high for someone’s rank. I’m pretty sure I’ll botch a few calls when I get to referee at tournaments, and I know I’ve missed points as a judge. I struggle to keep my ego in check, to not show off. I have been and will be an arrogant jerk and/or just plain stupid on occasion. “Grouchy” is often my middle name. There are so very many ways I could be a hindrance to someone else.

It’s a little reassuring to know that if I find myself being an “X” to a fellow karateka it’s an opportunity for both of us to learn and grow. I wish everything could be smooth sailing all the time, but I’m human. That doesn’t excuse any wrongdoing on my part, it’s just an acknowledgement that perfection is impossible. Fortunately, karate does teach us self discipline. More than that, we learn how to work through our own shortcomings, both mental and physical. We learn what it means to be our best selves.

Maybe time will soften the emotions whenever “X” enters my thoughts. I don’t think I’ll be visiting “X” again anytime soon – I feel those emotions have been released and have more or less run their course (at least for the time being). I can always remind myself of how much I appreciate “Z” because of “X,” and how appreciation of “Z” has contributed to the success of my journey thus far.

For further reading (I stumbled across these books very soon after visiting “X”):

Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee by daughter Shannon Lee

Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore

How Does It Feel to be a “Black Belt?”

On hearing the news that I earned my Shodan (1st degree black belt) sometimes someone will ask me how it feels to be a “black belt.” Mostly this comes from friends who are not themselves martial artists. Sometimes a fellow karateka or other martial artist will ask. No matter who is asking this question they all have at least one reason and, at some level they want to show their interest in my experience. Maybe they’re making polite conversation and acknowledging my success. Perhaps it’s curiosity with a tiniest smidgen of envy. Some enjoy comparing their own experiences with mine. Sometimes it’s a kohai (a student who is lower in rank) who is anticipating their own future achievement. A few people challenge me to look deeper and really think about my feelings regarding this milestone.

Let me back up to 10/15/21, the day before the test. I drove out of state with my parents to get to the motel near the hombu dojo (headquarters for the karate organization I belong to). This was a rare treat due to the pandemic and we were very glad to have had our third round of vaccinations against COVID-19. We chose to drive through a rural area to bypass the traffic in a major city. All along the way I noticed the gorgeous fall colors. The sunlight through the autumn leaves was striking. The trees were in transition. Something in me resonated deeply with this. I felt like I was in transition too.

A couple of days after my successful test the trees started letting go of their leaves. I felt like I was letting go of some things too. I let go of the stress of training for a test that might be cancelled again. I had already been disappointed by the cancellation of the 2020 Dan-rank (“black belt”) testing. The uncertainty of whether or not the test would happen in 2021 was one of the first leaves to blow away. I also let go of some of the intensity in my personal practice time and restructured my workouts back to normal (versus training specifically for the test). I feel like just as the trees are preparing to rest, I am too.

That’s not to say I’ll goof off – I most definitely won’t. After the test I allowed myself two days of rest then I was back on the mats for the first class after my test. But it’s very restful to be in “winter mode.” I have time to learn more, to fix the things I need to fix, to take time to learn my new kata(s) (forms) well. This is now my journey, and right now my idea of making the most of this time is to tinker, to recalibrate, to adjust, to delve deeply into bunkai (application of forms), improve my kumite (sparring), and most of all to just enjoy this stage in my training. Now that I’m not training for the test I’m back in “learning mode” and it’s great.

Being in “learning mode” doesn’t mean I won’t be teaching! I have already covered for my sensei since earning my new rank. But that’s nothing new, really – I’ve been substitute teaching and assistant teaching for years. Long-time readers of this blog know that I have plenty of experience teaching karate. So what’s different now that I have a pretty black bit of cloth around my waist? Um, they call me, “Sensei,” (teacher) now, not “Senpai” (more senior rank). That’s pretty much it. Or is it? I admit I feel like I’ve come into my own and I like having the formal credential that acknowledges I know the material well enough to teach it.

There’s a full-length mirror in the locker room and for awhile my reflection with the beautiful new black belt startled me a bit. “Whoa – that’s Sensei Joelle!” I’d think to myself. I’m starting to get used to my reflection. It didn’t take me long to get used to being called, “Sensei Joelle.” I think perhaps my awareness of being in transition helped.

I told my sensei I was super excited to be able to learn and grow for awhile without a test looming around the corner. My sensei told me the soonest I can expect to test for Nidan (2nd degree black belt) is two years. I very nearly said a bad word. It absolutely does NOT feel to me like two years is enough to prepare for Nidan. To be honest I don’t think I would have done as well on my Shodan (1st degree black belt) test if the test had been held in 2020 as planned. I feel the extra time was very beneficial to me. So there is a silver lining to this infernal plague after all.

It all worked out. In spite of COVID-19 I earned that belt. Or maybe because of COVID-19 I earned that belt. Stay tuned for my next blog post, “In Spite of X / Because of X.”