Redefining Black Belt

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DunnWe define black belt in all sorts of ways – commitment, courage, humanity. And across the world you’d be hard-pressed to find two people who agree exactly on what it means. Is it a perfect technique? A demonstration of mental toughness? An ideal of perfection?

So I’m going to step out on a limb here and say black belt means whatever I say it means…to me

Growing up I had all these problems and all these horrible experiences, and I thought I was defined by them. I told myself that I was a certain way because I was using those old experiences as my reference. But during my early years in Karate, and then in Kung Fu and later in Jiu-Jitsu, my instructors pounded into me the notion that I am much more than just the sum-total of my past experiences.

If I didn’t do well in a sparring session, Sifu would tell me that I needed to let that go before the next session. When I misremembered the kata, Sensei would remind me that my mind needed to be clear for the next iteration. When I missed the armlock, Professor would let me know that the next one was coming up if I was open enough to look for it.

So it wasn’t until I realized “Oh, I’m this other person – I’m not just those problems or those experiences,” that I felt that it was possible to define myself for myself.  Then the question became, “Well, if I’m supposed to define myself and I’m not just the sum-total of my successes and failures, then what – how? – do I really want to be?

We are whatever we say we are to ourselves. This is my point about black belt. Sure, some of you have already thought about this, but for some of you this is a new concept, and it’s pretty liberating. We can step away from some of the thoughts we’ve had that have defined us and reformulate who we want to be. We can suddenly say, “Oh wait – at any given moment I get to choose who I am in the world.” We get that gift and that responsibility just by virtue of shifting our thoughts about what defines us.

Black belt is no different. Yes, there is the technical expression of form, movement, knowledge. But beyond that, I define it for myself, just as you have to define it for yourself. As I alluded to before, some people choose to define it as “tough fighter” or “tournament champion” or “alpha male or female”. If that’s it for you and that’s as far as you want to go with it, then I think you’re missing a great opportunity for a bigger shift.

Along these lines, we can say, “Black belt for me means I’m a better mother or father.” Or “black belt for me means that I am going to be self-confident person, I’m not going to let those dark thoughts in.” Or “black belt for me means independence – I no longer need to allow the negative things that others say into my sphere”. Or “black belt for me means emotional control, where I don’t lash out with my moods or my temper”.

What do you say you are? For me, I’m always working to be a force for good in the world. That’s who I choose to be at the end of the day. When all my problems are going on, it’s a good barometer to judge myself with. Am I reacting to this problem the way I say I am, or am I falling back on the past, comfortable, familiar, good-ol’-me?

The choice I’m making is to decide in advance who and what I want to project into the world. I want to be a force for good, so I make decisions from that place, and it’s all because that’s who I say I am to myself. I don’t always hit the target, but at least I have a target and I’m always aiming for it.

That process is open to all of us – this approach to martial arts supports you. We support you. Maybe black belt is the first time you’ve considered looking at yourself this way, which is how it was for me. You can decide what you want to be for yourself, just like you can decide what kind of black belt you are.


For more about our larger project of cooperative Jiu-Jitsu and martial arts training, visit the Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (Brooklyn BJJ) website here.

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