Black Belt Grading Essay - Rick
My name is Rick Johal, and I am 38 years old. I am a training martial artist, which is a defining characteristic of my personality that guides my personal compass in life. In a few weeks, I plan to grade for my Shodan, which is my Black Belt in Goju Karate.
As I think about the upcoming grading, I reflect on my Karate journey. I consider my biggest achievement in the Dojo since starting my training, what being a Black Belt personifies to me, what drives me to be a Black Belt at this stage of my life, and ultimately, my goals after participating in the grading.
Although I have been training at the Dojo for the past eight years of my adult life, my relationship with Karate started much earlier in my life, at the tender age of ten. It would then take over twenty years before I returned to the Dojo to continue my martial arts journey.
My journey back to the Dojo as an adult, and my Sensei, was a long and uncertain one. When I was a young boy, I would describe myself as a scared emotional young man. I never aligned with any type of sport and often avoided any physical activity. I strayed away from any sort of conflict or risk, staying in my safe zone, almost to a fault. To combat my fears, I would spend countless hours in front of the TV, playing video games or watching cartoons.
My avoidance of physical activity concerned my mom and siblings, as they tried to find some direction for what they called an "unguided missile of a boy.”
My brother was the first to start trying to address my fears. He searched for anything to provide me with discipline, focus, and a means for physical fitness. He scouted soccer clubs, basketball teams, and football groups, all while trying to convince me to join something, anything. However, each time I joined one of these activities, I always ran away after the first or second attempt, never giving the new opportunities a second thought. I never felt like I truly fit among my peers.
Finally, my brother found a small Dojo on Scott Road, just minutes from our home. He met the Sensei, felt the vibe, and saw the many students participating in Karate. He claimed it was "a different caliber" to what he had been searching for previously, and immediately came home to tell my mom he found a place to guide me. Little did my brother know, the Dojo meant way more than just a guide.
You see, I identify as a gay man, which is something that has shaped how I felt and continue to feel about my place among my peers. As with many other children who identify as LGBT, there is often a constant sense of fear and difference between the self and others. I always felt like the other children were different from me. I feared I would be outed for this shameful aspect of my identity, which made me feel like being a gay man was somehow wrong, broken, and unbalanced in some terrible way.
From what I can recall, I remember the Dojo being a place of safety for me. It was different from the other team sports I tried and quickly ran from. I remember feeling comfortable and a sense of relationship, community, and family within the walls of the Dojo. I enjoyed learning, loved being with my peers, and had a deep level of respect for the individuals called Senpai and Sensei. The space fostered a sense of individuality among a peer group, all while participating in-group activity. Most importantly, the Dojo provided an environment where I could feel a sense of belonging with my peers. Even though I was not aware of it at the time, this connection to my peers was paramount for me as a child.
I spent the next few years learning Karate while managing the inconsistencies of my identity. I would spend hours outside of the Dojo, continuing to be misguided, while at the same time feeling a sense of safety and calm while training Karate. Eventually, after receiving my green belt, the balance between my personal struggles and time in the Dojo spilled over, and I left Karate for the next 12 years.
Even though I was away from Sensei and my Karate home, I always knew I wanted to return. The brief lessons I learned in the Dojo always stuck with me. I would practice my basics on my own, remember how to count to 10 in Japanese, and routinely run my Katas. This continued until my mid-to-late teenage years, always clinging to the dream of returning home.
However, my struggles in life intensified. In high school, my grades faltered, and I barely graduated. Leaving high school, my uncertainty in myself and years of fear caught up to me. I started to decline and found solace in drugs and alcohol. I escaped and drowned my fears, hoping that I would find my place.
With this, the tiny light of returning to Karate started to fade and nearly disappeared.
Luckily, when I was 19, I had enough, and after facing the edge of a cliff, I decided to give life a real shot. I stopped using drugs and started to focus on my studies. I chose a career to pursue, and I found myself. While I grew, the tiny light calling me back to the Dojo started to brighten once again.
As I excelled in university, memories of my time in the Dojo started resurfacing, giving me a sense of value in myself. At 23, I returned to the Dojo without any particular intention. The moment I stepped in, the familiar smell, the fish tank against the wall, and all the hallmarks that I had forgotten came flooding back. Most notably, my Sensei was there sitting in his office. His reaction shook me to the core. Sensei remembered me by name and my progress. “Johal, you got to Green Belt. I remember you.” Overwhelmed, I quickly left after this interaction and an invitation to come back and train. Nevertheless, the hope of returning persisted for the next 10 years. At the age of 30, I finally returned as a student while working as a full-time social worker and studying to be a trainer for healthcare staff self-defence. Coincidentally, my healthcare training session was held at none other than the Academy of Martial Arts, which was my Dojo.
I was ready for what would happen when I entered the Dojo for the second time in 10 years. Sensei greeted me once again and offered me to come back and train. This time, I could not say no. As I restarted my training, I was shocked by how much of my childhood training had persisted after two decades. My basics returned with a flurry, and my katas flowed through my movement. However, I also realized the amount of mental exercise that accompanied Karate.
In one of the first few classes, Sensei asked me to do 50 push-ups. At the time, I could barely complete three push-ups in a row. I started the difficult process of doing 50 push-ups. I would do one or two in a row and then collapse down on my face, all while Sensei stood in front of me patiently waiting. I was overwhelmed and counted each push-up…45, 46, 47, 48, 49, and 50. Sensei looked at me and said, "You did 50 push-ups, well done." But then he followed up with a sharp demand, "Do 5 more, without using your knees, as fast as you can." I dropped to the ground and did five push-ups, stronger than any of the previous 50 push-ups. "See," Sensei explained, "It's all in your head. Remember, you are more than what you think you are." This simple yet astute observation buried itself into my mind and carried me forward to one of my biggest achievements at the Dojo: getting my Yellow Belt.
Grading and receiving my yellow belt was a significant achievement because it shifted my perspective on training. Although I had returned to the Dojo, I doubted and feared my ability, thinking that my time in the Dojo would only be a seasonal return. However, I continued to train, relearning my basics and kata, conditioning my body and mind. Four months later, Sensei invited me to grade for my Yellow Belt.
Entering the Dojo for my first grading after 20 years, I embodied the opposite of fear and doubt. I was calm and confident. I leaned into the process and gave it my all, representing how important the Dojo was to me. The feeling persisted even after I left the grading. I was excited and ready, knowing that my past fears and insecurities did not have to get in the way of my newfound connection to martial arts. With that, I knew I could go the distance and one-day, grade for my Black Belt.
It has been almost 8 years since I graded for my Yellow Belt and now ready myself to grade for Black Belt. As I enter this space of preparation, I think about what being Black Belt personifies to me. I consider three great martial artists that mention what Black Belt represents as resonating with my experience. First the Founder of Goju Karate, Chojun Miyagi, in his Book “Karate-Do: My way of Life (1998),” mentions that a true martial artist embodies humility and self-discipline in the pursuit of a Black Belt. It is about not only physical skill and ability, but also embodying the values of self-control, and perseverance.
For me, Miyagi’s words speak to a Black Belt personifying a continued effort of controlling my fears and persisting through the challenges that life has thrown at me, while at the same time staying humble in the presence of my peers and teachers.
Similarly, the Founder of Shotokan Karate, Gichin Funakoshi, emphasized that earning a Black Belt required more than physical training but also mental and spiritual development (Funakoshi, G. 1973). This speaks so closely to my experience with the lessons that Sensei taught me in the early years of my adult training. Proving my worth as a Black Belt, represents a continue effort to refine my mental and spiritual fortitude.
Finally, Bruce Lee, believed that while Black Belt represents a high level of proficiency, it should not be seen as an ultimate goal. Rather, a Black Belt is a starting point for further development (Lee, B. 1975). To me, Lee’s emphasis on a beginning reflects my goal of continual growth and development continuing after my Black Belt.
Expanding on Lee's sentiment, I reflect on my reasons for pursuing my Black Belt at this stage in my life. One reason is the recent milestone of starting my own family, which marks a significant shift towards building my own identity separate from my birth family. At 38 years old, I feel like I am just beginning to live as an individual, and I want to excel in the things that matter most to me. Karate, as mentioned earlier, is an integral part of my identity and my journey to become a Black Belt symbolizes my personal growth and development.
Another reason why I aim to achieve my Black Belt now is to give back. As a Social Worker, I am committed to using my life to support others, and I find leading classes and mentoring others in the dojo particularly fulfilling. Achieving my Black Belt will allow me to have greater influence and provide more support to my fellow students and allow me to find more opportunities to teach and support other students.
Regardless of the outcome of my grading, I will always be a student of the dojo. If I receive my Black Belt, I will focus on elevating to Nidan, and if not, I will continue training until I reach the level of becoming a Black Belt recognized by my Sensei. My lifelong goal is to train Karate and find ways to elevate and mentor junior students within the dojo.
Upon reading the words in this paper, I have come to the realization that Karate is an integral part of my identity, and it is a lifelong journey for me. As long as I remain true to the values of the dojo, my Karate goals, and my commitment to training, I am certain that I will never fail. Although I know that I will face challenges and be pushed to excel beyond my limits, I am determined to persevere and never give up. Unlike when I was a child, I will not run away from my fears, but rather face them head-on. Failure is not an option, and I am fully committed to training, growing, and excelling to the level that my Sensei and fellow peers have set for me.
I would like to take this moment to express my gratitude to all those who have supported me throughout my journey. Firstly, I want to thank my family and friends for their unwavering support and encouragement to continue pursuing my passion for Karate beyond the Dojo. Their backing has allowed me to find a space to express myself and share my love for this martial art.
I also want to thank my fellow Karate peers for the relationships and sense of community they have provided me with. Through their friendships, I have found a sense of belonging that was missing in my life for so long. I am grateful for their support and companionship on this journey.
To my Senpai's, I am indebted to them for their ongoing guidance and patience. Their humble approach and teachings have supported my development to this point, and I am grateful for their presence in my life.
Lastly, I want to express my deepest appreciation to Sensei Robert Intveld. His teachings have far exceeded my expectations as a martial artist, and he has played a crucial role in shaping my identity as an individual, a man, and a professional. His example of looking beyond the four walls of the Dojo to build a better community has inspired me to strive for a better world. Thank you, Sensei, for everything you have done for me and for others.
Funakoshi, G. (1973). Karate-Do Kyohan: The Master Text. Kodansha International.
Lee, B. (1975). Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Ohara Publications.
Miyagi, C. (1998). Karate-Do: My Way of Life. Kodansha International.