I went to bed the night of May 17th, 2019, mentally preparing for the impossible: I was going to test for shodan the next day. But I never made it to that test: my father passed away in the early hours of that morning, and I walked away from the dojo for a time. When the dust had settled, I put my heart back into training, and with utmost kindness, senseis Mike and Todd approached my wife to offer a make-up test for us.
This is how we came to stand before the testing board on June 27th, the two of us at the center of a very empty-seeming training floor. We presented ourselves, breathed deep, and got to work.
The examination was harrowing, as we performed our forms, defensive techniques, throws, and kobudo drills in front of eight seasoned martial artists. I made mistakes, mostly the stupid kind where I knew better. This seemed to delight sensei Todd, who grinned ear to ear every time it happened. "Do you know what you did wrong?" he asked, rhetorically. A lot of it was nerves, but under the testing board's scrutiny a number of errors came to light. For one thing, when I'm doing kata, I bring my cross-blocks too far across to get a louder, beefier slapping sound: I'm doing this with all my forms, which will take a little bit of effort to fix.
Just before 8PM we were granted black belts, bringing to an end one of the best, but most difficult, days I've spent under that roof.
But while the examination shook my expectations, actually being shodan feels radically surprising despite (or perhaps because) it's exactly what I expected.
For years, I've believed that when I became a black belt, nothing would change. I was training the same karate that I would be after the test. I would be the same person with a black belt that I was with a brown belt. The materials would not change, my expectations would not change, my goals would not change. The critical change in my mindset that let me stop being a quitter and start being a martial artist was, ironically, letting go of my dream of being one: without the ghost of some hypothetical, perfect me to compare myself to, each small step on the road became something I felt I could achieve.
But somehow, I didn't expect that four years in I would remain so unsure of myself. I didn't expect that I would still be afraid to speak up even when I know the answer to one of Sensei's questions, or that I'd get so worked up during testing I forgot how to do an 8th-kyu kata. I didn't expect that at my core, these worrisome and frictional atoms of my being would remain so fundamental to who I am.
I remember walking onto the mat the class after earning yonkyu, with that impressive purple belt around my waist. I remember bowing and thanking my classmates as they congratulated me, and thinking: jeez, I don't really know what I'm doing, though. It was okay, I reassured myself: I had six months to figure it out before I might be testing for sankyu. That's when I really needed to get it together. As I graded up, junior students would more often turn to me for advice: how does this defense move work? How do you turn at the end of that kata? Where do I hold the arnis stick? I'd second-guess and prevaricate, terrified at the idea of giving someone the wrong information. None of the senior students I'd asked on the way here got anything wrong, I thought. How could I live up to that?
I'm starting to learn that sometimes it isn't about knowing enough, it's about believing enough. Being ready is, it turns out, really hard. I've learned that I can do a kata ten times a day for weeks and still screw it up when somebody's looking at me. And maybe there won't really be a time when I stop second-guessing. But either way, I've decided, it's still too early to worry about.
Fundamentally, shodan is not a master rank. That is mythology built up during Hollywood's love affair with martial arts during the 1980s. Shodan is, simply, the first real milestone on the journey. The road we choose as martial artists is one which does not have a destination, but has many ends. We may give up, or lose our determination, or die before we get where we want to go. And all shodan really means is: well done, friend, you've made it; you are sufficiently trained to study Karate.
Onegai shimasu, sensei.