Monday, July 27, 2009

Shodan It Is.

So I went to the dojo on Thursday night during an aikido class. Much of the sword drills we do are an adjunct of aikido training, so I was thinking it was logical to award me whatever promotion I was getting at that time... and not take up additional karate class when I was tested.

Turns out the weekend test was only part one. On Thursday night I was asked to suit up, and basically work at the head of the aikido class. Additionally there were vocabulary questions (stance/position names mostly) directed to me... and of course plenty more opportunities to screw up. Which I guess didn't happen.

I came away from the class-- and an overall seventy or eighty minutes of testing-- with a shodan, the first rank of black belt.

Oddly, it didn't really click with me. I mean I'm happy I got it of course, but it didn't really register with me as a significant accomplishment. Looking at it, I think there are a number of reasons, it just kind of sucks that they seem to override any sense of personal triumph:

One, I really DON'T put a lot of stock in belts. In 'traditional' sword schools and the branches derived from them, there are no colored belts. The classic sword uniform is a pair of hakama (wide pleated) 'samurai pants, and a white or black kendogi/iaidogi top that resembles a karate gi superficially, but has wider sleeves. The top tucks into the pants and has a four inch wide belt that is wound around the body three times or more. The hakama are then pulled up over the bottom of the jacket AND the belt and has its own set of ties... all to the end of holding the saya (scabbard) very firmly. That wide belt doesn't have different colors depending on your rank... it isn't even usually seen except a tiny bit in the vents at the side of the hakama. All students wear the same belt OR the belt color means nothing depending on the rules of the school. In our class because we are part of a karate school (and for cost reasons) we wear the same gi as the karate classes. Our teachers also feel it is beneficial for us to have belt-indicated ranks the same as the rest of the dojo. It makes us feel part of the organisation and we don't have to just have a white belt on the whole three years it takes to reach black belt. But in my head, even before taking up a sword, I have been conditioned to understand that belt colors are really more guideposts than goals unto themselves. So this black belt is not lacking value to me, but it doesn't represent a specific goal either.

Two, as stated in an earlier post, getting a black belt in many ways is the beginning of your training. It is an old maxim that the more you know, the more you know you don't know... or something like that. I feel the additional learning and the increased responsibility in a more profound way than I do the accomplishment.

Three, I don't really feel I deserved it. I am absolutely not able to second-guess my instructors, but as most of us tend to be, I am most critical of myself. And I just see all the work I need to do, not what I've done.

Four, there are who have been in this class longer than I have that are now all ranked lower than myself. I feel incredibly awkward to be in this position. I am empathetic to their having been passed by. I have had a class session now with this rank, and the students there were congratulatory and all that, but none of them were the ones with significant seniority. I know this isn't my 'fault' or anything that I really should be concerned with, but my empathy still makes this tense for me. This aspect of my ambivalence towards my belt will be cured with time as we all settle into the new order... but it is still pretty uncomfortable right now.

A lot of what got me my promotion I think, is what westerners would call 'spirit'. Basically, I'm the only student who acts like they would take a sword or a stick in a confrontation, not totally panic or spaz out, and kill or injure someone to protect myself.... or rather I'm the closest to that. I'm not technically perfect, I'm not imbued with an icy calm. I think my instructors can just see flashes of that, so there's a path there that I've been set upon now.

Some people might say my reaction to my belt is actually the correct one. The Japanese themselves would probably say my attitude is proper. Grateful, but not feeling worthy. People around me, that I've told about the promotion, don't really get it. They understand my reasoning, but they think I should just put that aside, and 'enjoy the moment' or something like that. My attitude towards this isn't any kind of put-on or false humility and nobody has suggested that either.

When I was in my last class I saw myself in a dojo mirror with the black belt on for the first time. It did look good. I had to get a longer belt and the one shihan traded out for me fits exactly right. Seeing myself like that there was some... I dunno... 'satisfaction' or something. A quiet something, but it felt pretty good.

Like EVENTUALLY I will get used to this.

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