Every ten years or so, I step down from a respected black belt position and build my way back up from white in another style. It took me a while to understand why. But age, despite what is said, comes with some lovely benefits, such as perspective.
Happens that the way up is really what martial arts is really about. The humbling defeats, the struggle against your own plateaus, the apparent mercuriality of the technique. In this long journey against yourself, going up the ranks in martial arts is the ultimate metaphor for life.
Today, for example, I got humbled by a lower belt who took a bad move I made and got me to tap. But on the same session I also pulled off some nice moves against a very competitive partner, tested some things against a beginner (moves that may be ready to be used against higher ranked opponents) and even made some progress against a higher belt (he still caught me, but I did did better than other times).
It was an hour of sparring, but taken the appropriate time to ponder, it was worth weeks of observations, thinking and learning. For at the same time I had the chance to experiment with old and new ideas against resisting opponents and experiment my real progress in a more realistic situation than if I had just tried to judge it by myself — in theory or in a demonstration situation. Fighting doesn’t allow for those. No vapor, no dissimulation, no self-judgement is allowed. And if the habit of coldly assessing your progress is scary, it’s also an extremely important skill to develop.
In life, we run away from these moments. We shy away from the circumstances that will determine our progress or not. Because it’s hard to swallow the idea that sometimes hard work just isn’t enough, or that progress is never linear, or that in order to assess your improvement you need to at the same time find ways to measure your absolute and relative moves, since your opponents are also trying to get better.
But more than anything, says like today show that if you want to keep doing that in the long run, you need to surround yourself of people you trust, and learn to have fun — even in defeat. Actually: especially in defeat. Cause those are the moments where the biggest insights spark in front of your face.
One of my favorite moments of today, for example, was a move I’ve been trying for months. Then yesterday my coach did it to me and by being victimized by it, I finally understood what was missing. And today I not only got it to work, but I made it work against a higher belt.
Fighting is a metaphor for everything. For every effort worth making, every journey worth journeying. Going back to the beginning helps you see it even more clearly, because when you’re smaller than the obstacles, the impact of your discipline and resolve are much easier to see.