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January 2017

142. How to Wear Your Black Belt – Part I (Humility)

Yeesss!  Today I made You-dawn-sha!

I am now an 85th Dan, a Masta’, a Stud-Muffin!

“Attention K-Mart Shoppers, the Stud-Muffin has entered the room, please look for the blue light for your personalized shikishi”.

Sorry.  You ain’t none of those and neither am I, and I’m the Sensei with almost 50 years behind me with black belts in 3 different martial arts forms and senior teacher status in 2 of those.

Making Yudansha (graded dan) which starts at Shodan is, if isolated and taken strictly on its’ own, a great, repeat, great accomplishment and puts the wearer of the coveted black belt in a rarefied part of the atmosphere; but I’m a “Big Picture” kind-of-guy and in the greater scheme of things it is just another step on the way to a higher plane of existence.

I keep statistics and in the 19-odd years I’ve run my own dojo I have logged about 1,000 people who have either kept me on the phone for 30 minutes of discussion, come to visit the dojo, tried out a free class but never came back, actually signed up but never paid anything, signed up and paid money but didn’t last the first 60 days, or who signed up, lasted long enough to get a promotion or two and then quit.

1,000 people out of which I have a total of less than 20 or so active black belts and a dozen or so who would live at the dojo, if I let them.  So if one considers that the real education doesn’t start until Shodan (the term after all means 1st step) then the percentage of people who actually start the trip to Yoda-hood (and then stay with it long enough to really accomplish something with the accrued skill sets) is about 2/10th’s of 1%.  In case you slept through your high school algebra class, that’s not real high even if we’re generous by using the commonly cited statistics form various MA magazines  (of all dojo and all MA styles) of about 5%.

So why can’t you consider yourself a stud-muffin (or studlette-muffin in the case of the ladies) if you are part of that <5% who has enough self-discipline and desire to commit to and stay with a long term study like Aikido?

Humility is why, plain and simple.  Remember that Budo is all about self-improvement, about taking our natural potential and maximizing all that we can be (with the expenditure of enough hard work paid for with blood, sweat and tears), improving mind-body-spirit and by unifying them, our becoming a whole that is greater than the sum of the original parts.

Take a look at one word, “Spirit”.  It has little to do with the mind (that’s all about intellect) and it has little to do with body (that’s all about the physical).  The spirit and its’ improvement in making us a better person, is all about really old fashion things; ethics, humility, self-discipline, morality, honesty, not doing things in excess, the golden rule (do unto others…..), and all the complicated topics Aristotle writes on in Nicomachean Ethics which states in simplest terms that in order to in order to become "good", one should not simply study what virtue is; one must actually be virtuous in one’s daily activities at all times, whether those activities are comprised of issues of reputation (how one acts in public) or character (how one acts when you think that nobody’s looking).

Notice that nowhere in there are any terms like arrogance, abuse of others, taking advantage of others, demanding worship, ordering a junior student to give your left foot a tongue bath, or emotional cannibalism.

This is especially true of the halo effect that sometimes happens when we make black belt; we get a halo, or a small handful of lower level student body (kyu ranks) we just came from puts a halo on our head whether we want it there or not.  In other words we become overly impressed with ourselves (we believe our own press clippings) or the kohai begin to look up to us like a child looking at their father or a teeny-bopper looking up to the latest rock-star hero (or we imagine that they do, thus making us a legend in our own mind).

Humility, humility, humility is the only thing that keeps the new black belt from going ballistically egomaniacal (or as the pundit said, “drinking our own bath water”).

Making “First Step” to someone like me who has 50 years on the mat is nothing other than a sign that now I can really start to teach you some neat stuff.  It doesn’t mean that you are anything more than a beginner or that you are more than one small step removed from the kyu/colored belt that you used to be.

So, in order to keep that ego in check and enlarge your usable quotients of humility (and humanity) remember three things;

First, Shodan translates as “first step” so in reality, you are still a beginner with much to learn and you are a very long way from understanding all there is about Aikido and martial arts in general,

Second, since you are just a beginner, a newly minted black belt, then you don’t know what you don’t know.  In and of itself that should be enough to keep that ego in check and approach every class with an empty tea cup.

Lastly, the black belt means that someone helped you climb the ladder to get you there so you have to return the favor in the same positive fashion as the people who helped you.  Failure to do so means that few black belts above you in rank will likely want to waste any more personal time on a walking ego-trip.

Humility will get you much in life and make you many friends.  It’s one of the more important qualities we all look for in friends, spouses, ukes and the Sensei.

L.F. Wilkinson Kancho

The Aikibudokan, Houston, TX

January 2017