“How long does it take to become a black belt?” That’s one of the most common questions beginners and parents of beginners ask me. Did I ask the same question when I was poised to wear the keiko-gi for the first time? I believe I did. Back then, I was as ignorant and as eager as a spring beaver. I was tactless, too. Okay, maybe candid to the point of tactlessness.
Looking back, I appreciate what it is to be a beginner.
And I would have liked to begin again knowing what I know now. So, for the newbies on the block, those who are on the verge of stepping onto the mats and starting aikido, please spare me these few minutes to consider what beginning means to one who would like to always be beginning.
As a white belt, you are not expected to know everything. You can ask a lot of questions without feeling like you should know the answers to them by now. You can commit a few awkward gaffes and it is understandable, because you are a beginner. To begin is the best place for you to be. Why? Because in the kyu grades, you are in the safe zone. You will always have someone more senior before you for guidance and mentorship. There will always be a senpai to show you the ropes of how things are done, how to do the exercises correctly, and how to navigate the social structure within the dojo.
To be in the kyu grades is a privilege and an honor. You are the future of your chosen art. It is important to get the basics right because the right basics build a strong foundation. Houses that last for centuries have been built on rock and stone and sound basic foundations. You are building your house, you want to make it last forever. Ahead are all the endless possibilities of how you want your house to look like!
But first, you have to get down and get dirty.
You dig post holes and place cornerstones and pour concrete. And, no, you will not be at your best, nor will you look good when you do your lopsided rolls so ungracefully that you feel you will never be as good as that person over there. Because one of the most memorable humbling experiences you will ever have the fortune to encounter is how to roll. You start from the ground up – with the basics.
In “The Sound of Music”, Maria, the leading character of the movie begins teaching her charges music with “Do-Re-Mi, the first three notes that happen to be”. All melodies and music are based on a few notes that make up symphonies to drive you to tears. Just as almost all written words and novels that drive men to commit great acts of courage or foolishness, are based on the alphabet.
In aikido we learn basic exercises. These exercises are the skills we need to be able to complete what is an aikido technique. For example, we learn how to protect ourselves when we fall. We learn rolling and falling and stepping out of the line of attack and walking and standing and keeping our centers. We learn all this, and more, and we repeat them over and over again.
I can hear my past white belt self say: “Huwatt??? Ikkyo again? Tenkan again?”
Kyu graders will not understand the wisdom behind the repetitions. We are so in a hurry to get ahead that we fail to see the principles behind the actions. When I was a beginner, the repetitions bothered me to no end. It took me a while to grasp that in the endless coils of repetitive basic exercises are everything and anything you really needed to know to get ahead fast. Repetition has its hidden treasures. Patience, being one of them.
To be in the kyu grades is to be tempered in the art. You are broken or made. You are the gem in the rough, to be cut, heated, polished and set. Some may drop off and give up at a certain point, make up an excuse to miss practice; or persist and continue. When I was starting out, there was quite a number of us in the batch. Along the way to shodan, a few had fallen by the wayside, gotten lost, given up and made up excuses; plus a few who had persisted and stayed. Do you suppose it changes when you reach shodan? No, it will still be that way.
You will be tempered. You will lose a few, but you will also treasure those who stayed the path with you. And you will still remember how it felt to do your first front roll.
That exercise in humility will be your guide in teaching other newbies. So what would I say to that question beginners and parents of beginners ask of me? I would say: Don’t be in a hurry. Enjoy every minute of it. Savor the reps, treasure the time and give it as much effort and dedication as you can give. Treasure all your partners and their special qualities. Keep your heart and mind open to learning. Keep a keen eye for observing the obvious and a keener one for the almost unseen. Keep a sense of humor and a sincere humility at all times. Let the exercises teach you. Because, in your repetitions, they will.
There is the crucial tempering of the spirit to be done. This starts at sixth kyu, day one, and it never stops .
I do not know if they will understand me, because it is the journey of the practitioner that is the real gem of the process. I do not know how to communicate exactly how transformative the training is from the most junior of beginners to the most senior of aikidoka. I can only personally attest that I am not the same person who began aikido many many years ago. Most of the formation as to what I have become today has been a product of all that life had in store for me tempered by the day to day training in aikido. I can also honestly say, I like my present self better than my past self.
This article was submitted exclusively to Aikido no Sekai by Stella Fuentes. You can also submit Aikido or Peace related articles to Aikido no Sekai via email: email@example.com.
Stella Fuentes started Aikido in 1994 in the Philippines and obtained Shodan in February 1998, Nidan in February 2004 from Hombu, Japan. She has a dojo in the Philippines, which is presently maintained by her brother since moving to Woodbridge, Virginia in 2007. She currently holds the rank of sandan, and is an instructor in Dale City Aikikai.
She worked in the field of peace and conflict transformation while in the Philippines, using Aikido as a medium of understanding and instructing basic peace/conflict concepts and strategies.
She is a homemaker, and the better half of Paul.
(Please also see: “Follow Your Own Rhythm, Listen to Your Own Drum“)