Thursday, July 23, 2009

No Samurai, Me.

Had a belt test for iaido/akiken last weekend.

I’m not sure exactly how I did. I know I’ve been promoted, but the test took place during a karate class, so there wasn’t time for the head of our dojo and my instructor to confer. The actual ‘award’ was put off ‘til tonight. I don’t know whether I’ve moved up another kyu rank in the brown belt range or up to shodan, the first black belt rank. I know the latter was the goal the dojo head (shihan) was hoping for. I won’t know until after work whether I actually measured up that or not.

I don’t actually test very well. I have a severe nervousness problem. It seems to have nothing to do with how well I know the material. I could know the moves sleepwalking, yet when I have to perform in front of a group (or even be on-the-spot for just the sensei or shihan) my heart pounds and my stomach liquefies. This test was in front of the entire school and went on for about forty minutes. It alternated between the kata that just the aikiken class knows (mostly the seitei) and waza that the karate class is learning (Toyama-ryu battodo). The class participated along with me in the batto drills, but I was still at the front. It was really nerve-racking.

The funny part is that I don’t really have nerves getting up in front of people in other circumstances. Leading a meeting or making a speech doesn’t give me trouble. I’m not sure what it is about martial arts testing that makes me so self-conscious and nervous. I want to do well, sure. Everyone does. I don’t believe getting belts is the goal of martial arts, so if I ‘fail’ it isn’t like it’d change anything or cause me to quit.

The same thing happens to me at tournaments. I don’t freeze up, but I get really awkward and stiff, hesitant even… and it can be really obvious. I tend to be confident in most other situations, so this is really, glaringly, uncharacteristic of me. I didn’t do well, in my opinion, though shihan was complementary of me…. And I do know I got some form of promotion.

We have over time had some of our higher-ranking students drop from class so we are without a dan-ranked (black belt) student. Our shihan really wants to have a black belt back in there. On the point of technical proficiency (if I’m not being watched) I’m probably in the ballpark. But much of the point of earning a rank is that you can perform the material in any circumstance, from a cold start if necessary. I obviously have trouble in a certain situation—being under a critical eye. Typically repetition, training, training, training, is the answer to most of the issues and hurdles for practitioners. The idea is to get your body to the point that it has memorized the techniques pretty much without your mind being involved. And your mind is able to utilize mushin and just tune everything else out. I’m not sure repetition will get me to mushin. I’m not sure what will. This appears to be deeply rooted problem in my confidence. I never get a chance to breathe, relax, and move with a no-mind mushin state because as soon as the test starts, the relaxation becomes impossible.

It may be purely a confidence thing. Although I don’t get nervous in the literal sense playing video games, there can often be a huge difference in how well I play a game AFTER I’ve beaten it. Like there’s a surety of play when you know there’s nothing in the game that you can’t get past. This might be something like that. Although I put no stock in getting a black belt for myself, and I certainly don’t see that as the goal of my training, there may be a part of myself emotionally that will settle the fuck down after I have my black belt. A confidence that comes with having gotten ‘all the way through it’.

Contrary to popular belief, a black belt is not any sign of mastery. It is a symbol that a martial arts student is ready to begin his REAL training. That he has the fundamentals down and can perform them correctly, consistently, with confidence. A dan rank is just the first step towards truly learning one’s art. Most martial arts would probably not consider a practitioner as being a ‘master’ (if that word can really mean anything when the master himself usually doesn’t consider himself such) until they are up into the sixth dan and beyond. Normally you can’t lead a class on your own until you are fourth or fifth dan.

The nervousness I’m describing is really common in martial arts. Maybe not as crippling for most people as it is for me. But tests and tournaments both engender fear and anxiety that is necessary for growth I think. Martial arts are supposed to be training you to react to dangerous, even life-threatening situations… in addition to their other benefits. A dojo is hard-pressed to accurately simulate the emotional side of a dangerous encounter. You always know your instructor or fellow students do not want to injure you. There will never be a lethal weapon actually wielded against you. Even in the so-called reality training classes, lawsuits and civility mean you wear lots of protective gear when weapons or actual striking are brought into play. The fear preceding a test or tournament is a way of feeling something akin to combat fear. Like warriors preparing for a battle, you want to ‘survive’ (do well) and not ‘die’ (embarrass yourself). And wow, when you suck during these times, you’ll almost wish you DID die. Death in a test or tournament is really a long drawn-out affair as you walk back off the floor, everyone’s eyes on you (or obviously trying NOT to look at you!).

I’m not hopeful for a shodan rank. Given the black belt criteria I gave above, I do not meet that standard. I am unable to perform consistently. It would be interesting to know if I’d be just as awkward in a dangerous sword encounter… not that that will actually happen in this day and age. The times I’ve actually been in a fight (or close to getting in one) in real life, I did NOT feel this way. Adrenalin pumping readiness, yes. Bowel-loosening fear, no. So there may be enough of a difference between potential combat and a test that my mind actually divides the emotional nuance really clearly. Or maybe it is just that in a fight I’ve never felt all that threatened.

All I can do is continue to train.

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