What it Means To Be A Black Belt

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Times were different when I started my martial arts journey. I was 10 years old and had some trouble in school dealing with a bully, but back in those days, if you had trouble with somebody picking on you, you were on your own. So, one day I was pushed to the boiling point. I had had enough, and I retaliated. I found that squaring off and making a stand helps when confronting a school yard bully, but a punch to the face can resolve months of teasing and physical torment really quickly.

Apparently, since nobody paid attention to the bullying I was receiving throughout half the school year, the actions of defending myself made me the aggressor in the eyes of the principal of my school. I was then pulled from my Catholic grade school and put in a public school, which is something I requested years before. Once I settled in to my new school, my father called an acquaintance he had from his high school days, who taught Taekwondo, and that is where my journey started.

The year was 1980 and I was ten. Back then, my father told me, “If you want it bad enough, you have to work for it.” So I did. I rode my bicycle downtown in the summer of that same year, where I saw my soon to be Sa Bu Nim who led the Modesto Society of Self-Defense class that was training in the park.

Back in the 1980’s there was still a lot of mystique surrounding the martial arts and a ton of movies were being produced both overseas and in the U.S. I remember gazing upon the class with awe and admiration wanting to be them so badly that it actually gave me butterflies in my stomach. I spoke with Sa Bu Nim after the class had ended and agreed to his philosophy and code of conduct.

Before I knew it, I was in a uniform and being put on display in the store front area of Modesto’s downtown. There I stood doing downward, upward blocks and straight punches in the front of the Dojang for 3 months, while children and passersby would gawk at me. The phrase, “How bad do you want this?” kept ringing in my head, and I have kept it ringing to this day.

The years went by, and I remained a model student doing everything asked by my instructor. One of my most challenging obstacles was practicing at home on off days. I have found that when you’re young, you don’t realize the lessons being taught to you at any given moment, and that self-discipline from independence is actually building character. You only dread the self-study because it’s boring and tedious.

I continued on for two years past our original agreement of a four year, Black Belt program, hoping that all my hard work would pay off. I kept going for another two years after that, showing determination and perseverance to my Sa Bu Nim and after eight long years, still nothing.

The overall experience was very disheartening and you would think that I would have given up because he was the only Korean martial arts school in Modesto at the time. All other schools would have started me back at white belt, and I wasn’t about to go through that again. Eventually, I found another school in Stockton, California. It was about a 40 minute drive each way, but I was determined to get that Black Belt and was willing to do whatever it took to get it.

Master Mark Tierney listened to my story and understood what I was going through. I was willing to learn a newer system governed by the World Taekwondo Federation and a different fighting style than what I was used to, and before too long, it finally happened. Master Tierney tied that Black Belt around my waist as I presented my essay; I haven’t been the same since.

I have never stopped my martial arts training, although I took a break from teaching in order to go to Chiropractic College. Just prior to that, I attended Acupuncture College in San Francisco and taught for Mark Tierney’s master, Grandmaster D. K. Shin. This was my third master now, and all had completely different styles of teaching. All of this contributed to my martial arts education, although I didn’t recognize it at the time. The first eight years I started as a student, the following four I was an instructor in training.

Now seeing both sides, and realizing that once a student always a student, I was discovering that all the years I spent as a colored belt was truly a path through the entryway of my martial arts career. Once my Black Belt was obtained, I stepped through the entry way and into a vast ballroom to which there was no end.

Fast forward to the present day, I now have a martial arts school of my own. I run it the way I want it to be run, which opened up a new facet of the Black Belt experience. Being a successful school owner is not as easy as some may make it out to be. In my professional schooling, I was taught how to be a Chiropractor, but not be a business man and entrepreneur. The same goes for being a Black Belt. You can be the best martial artist in the world, but the most horrible business person the world has ever seen.

However, there are two sides to this; the business owner makes sure that the bills are paid, the building is maintained, and the supplies are in check, as well as keeping the school clean and presentable. The school owner, as the Head Master, is making sure the students and parents are happy, that they are getting what they want, and that they understand what being a martial artist is all about. I have always referred to the element of charisma as the art of shaking hands. The first lesson I teach all of my students is how to properly look someone in the eye and offer a firm handshake conveying honesty and sincerity.

On the path to being a Black Belt, you will experience many more blows to the ego than to the body. I guess that is why most real martial artists are humble and have balance in their lives. Life’s lessons have an ebb and flow to them, swimming against the current only makes you tired and frustrated. Learning from what pushes against you, and in turn pushes from behind, determines the strength and fortitude and mastery of life itself.

Another epidemic that I have found in being a school owner is my newer students, and even my current students, have this sense of entitlement. Whether it is the student or the parent who is at fault, ultimately, and eventually, the responsibility falls on the student. Nobody owes you anything; we do not celebrate mediocrity. If you win, great! If you lose, then learn from it and then keep moving forward.

Just because you try hard does not ensure that things are always going to go your way. Adversity is a great teacher and keeps the universe in balance. This makes you stronger and more resilient. Being a recipient of the “I participated” award does not make you great, nor does it make you a winner.

A simple truth about success is that it comes in many different shapes and sizes, but one thing is for sure, success doesn’t come without effort. It also demands swallowing one’s pride and doing what you don’t want to do, in other words dealing with failure or embarrassment.

You need all those experiences in life. They help you gauge how much you want to succeed, or just do nothing and find contentment with being average. This separates the Black Belt recipient from the common man.

There is one last lesson that I explain to my students, as I build their Black Belt repertoire. It is the psycho-dramatic aspect of being a true martial artist. Earlier in this chapter, I touched on the first lesson of shaking someone’s hand.

This is a most important starting point, because let’s face it, kids these days don’t hardly look you in the eye. Its confrontation and it goes against the bubble of entitlement that they’ve led themselves to believe. I teach them that when you touch someone, you affect them. When you shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye, they know that something is happening. No words have to be spoken. They know you are confident and sure, an alpha, if you will.

My next lesson is the fighting stance. The proper use of this posture (height of the fists or in Hapkido, the arch-hands) demonstrates poise and position in relation to the opponent. Why is this lesson important, you might ask? Because bullies come in many different forms, but they all expect one thing, a submissive victim, not a dominant aggressor.

So on the day of their first lesson. I don’t teach them about punching or kicking, grappling, or arm bars. I teach them how to look in someone’s eyes, shake their hand with respect, or get into a fighting stance and mean business. This has everything to do with martial arts and being a Black Belt, eliminating the threat before it even starts, simply by being you, the student I have trained and person you have become.

As we reflect on the trials and tribulations of growing up, relationships, careers, and challenges, we stretch across the span of a lifetime, hoping to leave some sort of mark on the world and to never be forgotten of the deeds we have done. I chose to be a Black Belt and agreed on the tenants that were laid before me. We step on the mat and feel the floor beneath our feet. We learn to punch, kick, run, and tumble. Eventually we fly. That is the path of the Black Belt.

This carries over into the everyday life of the Black Belt and what it means internally and externally. On the outside you carry yourself with poise. Martial artists always stand as tall as they can. Their appearance is clean and well kept. They address their elders as sir or ma’am and others with respect. They exhibit a stature that you notice across the room, and they have a formidable presence that inspires those around them.

The Black Belt knows that perfection is only a goal and can never be obtained, but it doesn’t stop them from trying to achieve it. They strive for excellence in every aspect of their lives, learn from their mistakes, and move on to greener pastures, rather than dwelling in the barren lands of the past. The Black Belt can laugh at themselves instead of others, and are protectors of the weak. The true martial artist is a good friend, companion, son, daughter, father, or mother. They are true to their teachers and conduct themselves with good conduct and integrity; a student eternal, who rejoices in life, a protector of what is good in this world standing against those who oppose it.

Obtaining a Black Belt is a somewhat short experience, but becomes a never ending life lesson. It took me eight years to achieve my first Dan Black Belt in the art of Taekwondo, and soon after, a first Dan in Hapkido. It takes less than one-tenth of one’s life to obtain the prize, but it will take the rest of your life to figure out what the true worth of it really means. This takes perseverance.

There are not many things in this world that hold as much value, or have such deep meanings, as does the Black Belt. It is an ornament of achievement and color of infinite space. Yet in its simplicity, asks nothing more than honesty from those who wear it.
What does it mean to be a Black Belt? It is a simple question with complex overtones. It means so much to so many, and so little to those who don’t understand it. I am a Black Belt. I kneel down every time I put it on to pay homage and respect to my masters who passed down the knowledge to me.

It wraps around twice to represent body and mind, with a final knot in the center representing spirit. I form a triangle with my hands and place them on the floor. I touch my forehead to the triangle’s center and bring unity to my soul. I stand, I bow, and I train. That is what being a Black Belt means to me.

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