(A cross post from Feeding Edge)
Last sunday 7th December 2014 I achieved another life ambition and graded to receive my Choi Kwang Do Il Dan (1st Degree) Black belt. What is interesting about this is that the ambition and reason to get a black belt has turned out to be very different in almost every way than my initial thoughts. So this is not a post to say "look at me aren't I clever" which is what many qualifications need to be for. Instead it is about a transformation and a journey and a whole set of other ideas.
As a kid I thought martial arts looked amazingly cool. The 70's posters of Bruce Lee and the occasional glimpses of stylish fighting on TV certainly left their mark on me. We didn't really have much in the way of martial arts near my home. I also, and this might sound strange, wanted to avoid learning them because the techniques were so potentially deadly. I never experienced full on physical bullying for very long at school as I was always willing to fight back if need be. Being relatively mild mannered it was usually a shock to a potential bully if I retaliated. I thought I might learn things and then turn to the dark side and go and use them, or go all vigilante.
As I got older I then wished I had started younger and was probably put off by the fact that the later I started the less high a level I would be able to attain. If it was worth doing something I wanted to make sure I was really really good at it. All very odd reasons and excuses not to do something.
My friend Jamie and I got a self defence book from out local library when we were 8 years old and occasionally practiced what you do if someone came at you with a bat or a knife. It was all very informal, and a bit scary but us would be super heroes had to learn some stuff :)
Zoom on a good few years, I was feeling very overweight (and actually very overweight) and I also wanted predlet 2.0 to get a chance at a martial art that I never had. Something father and son could do together. I thought there would be no chance for me of rocking up at a place of fighting in the state I was in, so strangely I trained for about a year to get ready to go and do a martial art. That and the tech I used features in the article I wrote in Flush The Fashion in 2012
A leaflet in Predlet 2.0 school bag for Choi Kwang Do got my attention. It was coming up to his 5th birthday and I was intrigued as Choi Kwang Do looked like something new. I like new!
The trepidation and nervous excitement with which I took myself and predlet 2.0 to our first session is something I will no forget. 40+ years of wanting to try a martial art but not, plus a year of getting in some sort of shape and learning some fight moves so I didn't get whooped straight away all bundled together.
Within seconds of walking into South Coast CKD and meeting Sabunim Webster for the first time, and all the other students and instructors I realised how completely and utterly incorrect my perceptions of all martial arts had been. Everyone was calm, happy and above all friendly. I had nothing to worry about with respect to getting beaten up or schooled in front of predlet 2.0. CKD just isn't like that.
So having stepped into an art with thoughts of gaining some sort of prowess, a degree of domination and aggression to get something, to win something... all that was suddenly not what I wanted to do, nor happen and we were in a place where that was not what it was all about.
This particular AHA! moment is only the second such one I remember. The first was when I suddenly realised what you could do with computer code and how it all worked, from just one little concept. It is when something clicks, and the excitement that there is a world of answers out there waiting to be discovered and visited. That set me on my career. It led to a degree in Information Technology, twenty years in IBM with some amazing people and equally amazing projects and firsts in the world. It still keeps me going to day and is the cornerstone of Feeding Edge Ltd.
My CKD aha moment has not had quite so many years to bed in but is unfolding nicely. The learning in Choi has proved to be so much more than just punches and kicks. It has been, and continues to be constant personal challenges.
We all learn how to defend ourselves in what is a very dramatic, fast and potentially deadly way. That though is just a small part of the journey and experience. We learn to help our own bodies physically and mentally improve. We have have think faster, think and operate calmly under all sorts of conditions. we learn how to help other learn. Teaching and sharing is done in a completely positive way. We all aim to point out the good things, offer a tweak in technique or attitude, then strengthen with more positive comments. That creates a virtuous circle. It means all the things we learn feel good. Frustration, anger, pressure to conform etc all are out of the equation. We all push ourselves just a little bit more each time because it is a safe environment to explore what we can do. As there is no competition, there is no need to hunker down into the particular ways in order to survive.
The family nature, and subsequent family involvement in Choi (all 4 of us do it now) was a major stabilising factor when we upped and moved house. Whilst we had to say goodbye to South Coast CKD we got to say hello to Basingstoke CKD and to Master Scrimshaw. (Master is a term used for anyone with a 5th Dan (i.e. 5 levels of Black belt) or above). That family atmosphere and friendliness we experience on day 1 applies everywhere. So it is alway great to meet and train with new people, but you do know it is going to be good and welcoming.
As months pass for each belt rank we all learn a piece of syllabus. Each thing we learn builds on everything that we have learned before. At a grading you show you belt syllabus. You don't go to a grading unless you do know it. So gradings are not exams, they are not there to trick you but to offer a place to focus on what you know. Before you know it though 3 or more years of training, of experiencing the art form, of practice and sharing lead to a Black Belt grading.
This is where I found myself last Sunday.
I would say that most people, even if they are not into "fighting", action movies, or martial arts get what a Black Belt can mean. It is, rather like a university degree, a qualification. It is not obscure, in that clearly it is about physical effort. It is not a quota system either, you do the work, you can achieve a black belt, but you do have to do the work, for real.
I was excited and nervous, but very focussed on getting to the black belt grading. I wanted to make sure I had prepared mentally and physically for it. I received lots of help and focussed training from Master Scrimshaw and my fellow students and assistant instructors. So there we are lining up doing the same pledge and principles we do in every class. I am thinking about everything that led me to this point. Yet I am not thinking about me and what I needed to get out of it. I felt pressure in that I did not want to fail, or mess up, but I felt an overwhelming need to do this for everyone who I have trained with, taught, shared time with in Choi. I was expecting to switch to my "performance" persona and brain. The one that I go to on stage on when doing TV. That is a kind of focussed mental state but directed outwards and towards the subject and to the crowd. That, however, did not happen. I wasn't there to put on a show. Instead I felt something else. It was as if the original aha moment came back. I was very much there and doing the grading, making adjustments when the automatic elements were not tweaked quite right, but I was also off experiencing the potential. I had some time to ponder all this as I was grading with some people who were doing their 2nd and 3rd Dan black belts. This meant we all did my stuff in each section then I stood down whilst they continued to do 2nd Dan, then finally the 3rd dan was left to do his thing. Keeping warmed up, keeping on task was tricky because I tend to have always just carried on with things, as we do in class. Short breaks then intense action. Whilst watching them and seeing what was coming in the next few years I got to understand that it was the aha moment and joy of the future journey, of learning more and those constant achievements that felt so unusual. I then related to it back to my passion for tech and for understanding where it fits in the world and where it is going. I had always though my tech aha moment was purely in the past but I realise that it happens to me every day as I explore the future.
When the grading was done and we stood lined up Master Brophy, who brought CKD to the UK, built it up and whom we all owe a lot too, explained to us that the Black Belt is not just a test of memory and physical ability, as he explained it is also a test of character and much more I felt I had a true understanding of his words.
It is my black belt, it has my name on it, but it is not just my qualification to crow about, or to wave to prove my worth (as we have to do with school and university qualifications). It is the sum of life experiences that have led up to this point, it is a the sum of all the effort of all those who I have trained with in whatever capacity. It is the start of the next part of an even more interesting journey. It is an indication that anything can be overcome and just getting on with it, applying a positive attitude to things, not getting disheartened just works.
So this is a constant and eternal thankyou to everyone. as we say in CKD Pil Seung! (certain victory).