The awe, respect, and yes, even the fear of black-belts is something I still remember from when I was a white belt in the Taekwondo chapter of my life. Now, as a student entrusted with a black-belt, I appreciate the opportunity to be part of a community where people of diverse backgrounds and varied futures come together to share in building common virtues in themselves and one another. Being a representative of our school, its students, instructors, and the Taekwondo community is a gift for which I'm deeply grateful.
In the quest of Sam (Third) Dan, a reflection of the present includes some very vivid moments I recall from my early days in the Dojang. Among those is my first day of Taekwondo when I met Master Soumesay. I had already seen him earlier when my father brought me to enroll in the classes. I admired Mr. Soumesay (as we all called him) through the window overlooking the
Dojang from the waiting room above. His positive energy and natural teacher’s disposition was as striking as his sidekick. The students seemed to be having so much fun learning from him, and equally important, so did he teaching them. We made momentary eye contact when he looked up as he scanned over his domain. I just kept staring, wondering what it would be like to be him. There was a portrait of him in a shirtless pose in the hallway. His skin oiled just enough to glow, his ripped muscles sculpted to perfection, and of course his famous tattoo of two dragons perched in perfect symmetry facing one another on each side of his chest. It was one of the few times I ever remember seeing him without a smile, offering a glimpse at the intense waves beneath his calm surface. Yeah, I definitely wanted to be that guy!
When people look at my portrait in our hallway, I wonder if they have the same musings as I did about Mr. Soumesay? It’s hard to imagine while I still muse at the portraits of our instructors and black-belts, admiring the greatness in each of them, wanting to be like them all in some way. Our Dojang, or “place of training” impacts the students’ understanding of what Taekwondo means to them. It’s the very first real contact they have with Taekwondo even before meeting their first instructor. The lighting, colours, portraits, all contribute to the energy and ambiance. If Taekwondo was a house, the Dojang would be the entrance, and so entrance to the Dojang would be the doorway before the entrance. What we see, hear, feel, and sense at the entrance sets the tone to the entire place, or jang, we come to know as a center for our learning, and source for our development. What should my first steps into the Dojang be like now? What's my mindset as I enter? What do I bring? What do I "check at the door"? The first step is now more pivotal than ever before. My awareness to this is more lucid than ever, and as I advance in Taekwondo I anticipate an even greater awakening.
After extending his hand to shake mine and asking, “What’s your name?”, Mr. Soumesay asked me the most important question to ask anyone about anything they do.
“Why do you want to learn Taekwondo?”
“Well sir,” I thought silently, “I want to be like that boy in the Karate Kid movie.”
Really? As shallow as it seems, it was true. I saw myself as the victim that wanted to be the victor. How do I say that without admitting to being a victim? So I settled for, “I want to learn how to fight.” - forgetting to say “sir!”
He smiled as we usually do when we hear an unsurprising answer, almost amused, and gave me my first lesson. Mr. Soumesay demonstrated a series of jump squats from one end of the Dojang to the other and back. It looked so easy when he did it, as if the floor was a spring beneath his feet. He leapt across and back like a frog, returning in just a few seconds. He pointed at the trail he laid before me, and said, “Now do that.”
I figured there would be a bit of this “Wax On, Wax Off” stuff before I got to the cool part, so I got into a low squat and off I went frogging my way to the other side of the Dojang. I finally got to the other side after what felt like ages later in what seemed to be twice the time Mr. Soumesay took to do the whole thing. He must have seen my pause. He looked like he always knew where I was, and what I was thinking. I could see his amusement as I looked back at the ocean I had to cross to get back. He smiled, waving me back, and off
I went. When I got back, he smiled again, pointed back at the ocean and said, “Keep going.”
And so I kept going, pausing every so often, and more often as time went on, amazed at how something so difficult was so easy to him. The pain was excruciating, but I didn’t want to look weak, and so I kept pushing and pushing until I went from persevering to paralyzed. It must have taken every drop of strength left as I creaked into a standing position. I had lost track of where Mr. Soumesay was, what time it was, how many squats I had done, and of course, my breath! Yet there he was when I looked for him, looking back at me as if he was watching me the whole time. His amusement clear as he patted me on the back saying, “Good job, Ali”. He couldn’t say my first name easily, so he called me by my middle name Ali. From that point on, the challenge was absolutely addictive. With a teacher who walked the talk and had my back, it felt like I actually had a chance.
My current instructors and mentors at Authentic Taekwondo all walk the talk, and always have my back. They first lead by example in every aspect of what they teach, patient with my regular pauses and paralysis while fully supportive of my efforts.
The entrusting me with teaching others in moments where I still believe I have yet to improve myself. It reminds me of the saying, "We rise by lifting others". I am learning the joy of participating in the learning of others. My focus is to exude that joy and energy that make the classes both fun and challenging for the students, so that they may also develop the love for learning Taekwondo as my instructors instill in me.
Another vivid memory I have of my earlier days in the Dojang is the day I first sparred an advanced belt. His name was Jason, a red belt at the time. He was the Fast and Furious. Jason was the highest ranking student at our club. He moved with a predator’s stealth, and everyone knew of his legend. All the students that lined up to spar him looked like sheep lining up at a slaughterhouse knowing their turn to face their doom was coming up, and inevitably, so was mine. As my turn approached, I could feel my pulse go from a regular heartbeat to practically bursting out of my veins. Jason never lost, and he relished every kick and every punch with loud confident kiaps. Three points is all that was needed to win, and it seemed like three seconds was all Jason needed for that. With every check in his win column, he built his iconic distance between himself and the rest of us. Finally, it was my turn next.
I was a green stripe, still many levels away from Jason’s red. It would have felt better if Jason was a black belt because the black belts tend to carry themselves with a sense of concern for others, which gives them a mentor-like aura. While they definitely project more strength and confidence than all other belts, to us the coloured belt sheep they appeared more like shepherds than a wolves. Jason definitely appeared to be a wolf. It didn’t look like he was there to teach us. It looked like he was there to chew us up and spit us out. His red belt practically dripped with all our sheep blood! I’m ever grateful for what happened as we bowed and began our first match.
It certainly didn't felt like three seconds. It felt like one! It was over before I knew it, which is not surprising given that I totally expected to lose. I may have even figured it was pointless to fight and prolong the agony.
Just take your loss Muhammad and move on to the back of the line. Yes, I’m grateful for that experience. I bowed, and was at the relative bottom of Jason’s barrel. Another number. Another check in his win column, and yet another check in my loss column. His quickness and commitment to his attack was stunning, matched only by my quickness and commitment to losing.
We matched off a few more times, and each time the result was more or less the same. The “Jason Match” became like a puzzle that hit a point where I knew if I could just find one piece, I could solve the puzzle. I replayed the match in my mind for hours until it went from a relative second to an eternity of thoughts.
Finally, the missing piece presented itself. The answer was in the same thing that struck me when I first observed Mr. Soumesay, the same lessons I learned from the oceans of squats over which I sailed over. At last, “Wax On, Wax Off”-ing came to a cool convergence. I wondered then if Mr. Soumesay already knew this. I realize now that he knew it all along. I couldn’t wait to try it out!
Like so many aspects of Taekwondo training, sparring is a cornerstone that brings together other aspects such as patterns, and kibon steps. It was a regular routine in Mr. Soumesay's classes, though the lessons learned from it could be applied in many a non-routine way. As an aspiring instructor, it’s my goal to raise awareness of the many applications the various aspects of
Taekwondo have to life, so that the universal virtues we aspire towards inside the Dojang are carried beyond its walls. From the “Wax On, Wax Off” to the cool stuff, when the puzzle pieces come together, they make this martial art a great path, and a great way of life.
It wasn’t long before the next Jason Match would came up and I prepared for it by going over all the other previous matches.
Through this reflection, I was able to identify the opportunities, and visualize how I would capture them. When the moment finally came, a simple movement executed with precision and confidence changed the Jason Match forever.
Like many fighters, there was a pattern to Jason’s strategy. He would leap towards his opponents with a big roar, and as we would all cower into a defensive position, he would launch his attack from the many options we offered him in our retreat. No one ever attacked, and if they did, it was a half hearted motion with little to no confidence. His attack would come immediately after bowing, giving us no time to get comfortable. I simply waited for my moment, and as Jason leaped towards me, I lunged forward with the power of a thousand squats and threw my sidekick just above his belt. He crumpled like an empty soda can and crashed to the floor. It took less than a second, but echoes until today. What started with a roaring kiap finished with a gasping exhale as the wind got knocked out of him. Mr. Soumesay cheered louder than anyone else, which was easy since the rest of the audience was in a state of shocking disbelief - like Jason.
From that moment on, I only wanted to spar Jason. We sparred many more times and became good buddies. He went from being the lone wolf to being part of the pack and helped me become a better student. I can’t say enough about the appreciation for something that has to be truly earned instead of handed over. The Jason Matches were as much about earning Jason’s respect as they were about earning my own self respect. They were about appreciating all the squats, and repetition of hundreds of kicks, stretches, and patterns. By understanding each student’s aspirations, strengths, and fears, I hope to bring them experiences through which they may gain an awareness of their limits and opportunities, and challenge themselves to new heights.
It's no surprise that I left my training after achieving Il Dan like most students do. I may have learned some of the techniques. I could definitely fight the physical fight. I could even be victorious in sparring, and look cool doing it wearing my blackbelt.
However, I had not yet understood Taekwondo, and was far from being Mr. Soumesay, being a blackbelt.
I look forward to facilitating the growth of students whether by extending a hand, or giving them a hand by way of applause through their moments of falling down, getting up, and breaking through.
I recall coming to Taekwondo wanting to learn how to fight, to be a victor, to get a blackbelt - the cool stuff. Mr. Soumesay taught me to appreciate squats and struggles - the "Wax On,Wax Off". Each and every belt and stripe along the way was a reason to celebrate, for the journey was as much to be enjoyed as the destination.
As I approached Il (1st) Dan, I still saw success as a destination. The goal was to acquire a black belt as if it was an end, only to realize that Il Dan was not the end. It was just the beginning. It was like my first lesson from Mr. Soumesay. While I wanted to be Mr. Soumesay, he wanted to show me how to sail over any ocean, practically having it carry me forward.
Ironically, what brought me back to training was the desire to see my son become a blackbelt - as if I already knew what it meant. It was only once my training resumed did I realize having a blackbelt did not mean being one. All my past fears caught up to me again as if they were waiting for me to notice them, snarling in their amusement - like wolves. The feeling of being a victim sheep started resurfacing all over again, but now I felt even weaker, frailer, and just as committed to losing.
Approaching Ee (2nd) Dan was perhaps more difficult since it involved such a long absence from training, and upon my return I had to reconcile the fact that I was much older. Memories of the acrobatic moves were so distant that there was some wonder as to whether I was even the same person. Injuries occurred more often, more than twice as much; took longer to recover, more than twice as long; and obviously, I was more than twice as old. Was this the grey lining in my silver cloud, or had my silver cloud been overtaken by the grey storm?
So many at my age seem to be graying. Like sheep lining up at a slaughterhouse, they move with little to no hope for a better future; expecting, perhaps wanting, their end to come soon. They face struggles with a solemness that reminds of how the coloured belts faced Jason. Committed to losing, and losing quickly. Cowering away from challenges, practically offering themselves to the wolf. I found myself standing in the same line, waiting for my inevitable end, again, wondering if I'd ever find the missing piece to my puzzle.
Ee Dan was the Jason Match all over again. Only now I was twice the age, and had to be twice as determined! This time it was a match of the mind, and just like in previous ones, the support of my instructors, mentors, and peers saw me through. Master Gibbs' intensity matching Master Bosshart's calmness. Master Tom's focus on perfection matching Master Joseph's easy going nature. Master Tracy's pragmatic approach to keeping it real. Adib Farah the "big brother", Tony Chan the "elder", and all the high performance students who raise the bar. Then there's Master Farah, who brings it's all together like the hub in a wheel, connecting with everyone at their level to move us all forward.
For Ee Dan, passing the test was not just a physical challenge at a moment in time. It was arriving at a reality from which I would never go back. No more fear, no matter what. Let there be a thousand wolves, for I would no longer be a cowering sheep. I would sail over them with a kiap, appreciating them as springs that are there to help me leap further. I truly do enjoy them now. Appreciating my Jason Matches has helped me to see that Jason was not the wolf he appeared to be. He was the necessary student I needed to learn from in order to become like Mr. Soumesay, to truly be a blackbelt. Now I see a clear difference between having a blackbelt and being a blackbelt.
To have a blackbelt is to see oneself as the sheepdog, or shepherd to the wolf. The goal is shallow. Trading in the commodity of fear and danger. Trying to exchange it for gaining a sense of safety and security. To be a blackbelt goes beyond that. It requires one to see that the sheep, the sheepdog, the shepherd and wolf are all part of the land. All of them have fears, and aspirations.
All of them seek safety and security. Some focus on fears, others on aspirations. The goal is to care for them all.
As I approach Sam (3rd) Dan, I feel a positive momentum stabilizing within, thanks to the sum of all previous experiences. I look forward to learning alongside my fellow students and instructors by accepting more of a contributor's role in the Dojang. My aspirations are to broaden the impact Taekwondo has on my journey, and that I in turn may have on the journey of others.
It seems so long ago when I first looked back across the Dojang to jump squat back, as it also seemed to achieving Il Dan, and finally to get to this point. As the saying goes, “We didn’t come this far, to just come this far.”. The people whose images I've seen in the portraits along the way have all guided me along the path like road signs to the traveller. My aim is no longer to be like one I see in a portrait, but to utilize what I learn from what I see in the portraits to actualize my own potentials. I'm content not knowing how long it will take to get to the destination, for I'm enjoying the journey. Moment by moment. Each step being a celebration of the last. There will always be another step to take, and I’ve never been more grateful and excited to take it.