Completing the First Step

April 30, 2000

"Line up!"

With that single command the test had begun. I raced to my spot on the floor. Once there I stood firmly at attention. My focus both inward and outward. Four and half years of training, four and half years of blood, sweat, and tears, four and a half years of my life was coming to an end. If I were successful, the end of the day would see me a black belt in karate-do.

Four and half years earlier I had begun a journey towards myself. The external, visible part of this journey could be seen in the movements of my art as I moved back and forth, across the floor, in time with the shouted commands from my sensei. The internal, personal part of this journey could not been seen by anyone by me.

The warm-up exercises completed and the test moved into kihon, or basics. The ritualized movements to the steady tempo of half barked commands was familiar and new at the same time. Well-practiced patterns of muscle and mind seemed to happen without thought, without impetus. The mind of no-mind. Mushin. The primitive mind takes over, freeing the higher mind. The focus and concentration act like a lens to sharpen thoughts and ideas. The sweat acts like a lubricant for the gears of the mind.

The basics are completed and my mind is clear and sharp now. All the worries and troubles from the outside world have ceased to exist. I have completed the transformation from my outside self to my inner self. I am lose and free, ready for the challenge ahead.

Kata, the forms of karate-do are next on the schedule. The sensei invites someone to start and I spring to be first. I assume a starting position in the center of the floor. Composed and calm I prepared inwardly for the kata I've chosen to perform. The kata is only several dozen moves, some fast, others slow. In my mind time stops, all external stimulus is gone. The kata is my beginning and ending. I start where it starts and I end where it ends. I finish, remembering and not remembering the preceding two minutes. I know that I have performed one of my best katas. Returning the line to wait while the others completed their forms I feel more completed than ever before.

Self-defense is next. Working with partners, grabbing, holding, and breaking free and grabbing again. The shared energy between two people, united and opposed, in one purpose. Ying and yang. Positive and negative, opposite and the same. When you are on, and your partner is on, the result proves that the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole. The physical forces are great, the air crackles with the meeting of our two spirits. Giving yourself completely to the waza, or technique, is the only way to complete it. Total trust in your self and the other. Only by utter giving up control can you be totally in control.

The test concludes with sparring. For me the toughest test of self, for it requires that I go to places inside myself that are darker, more feral than what I want to admit exist. In order to dominate the match I must first dominate my own fears. The feelings skate dangerously close to anger and they frighten me. The struggle in the ring is matched by the struggle within me. In order to win the point I have to accept that I have defeated the other. My success is equal to their failure. It is only sport, but it mirrors the outside world. It is the only time that I feel the pressures of living in today's competitive world intrude on the sanctuary of the dojo.

The test is completed. My body is now tired and spent. I have given my whole self to the challenge and for that reason I cannot fail, regardless of the outcome. The review panel retreats to discuss and weigh our performances. In previous tests this is where my belief faltered and I questioned myself. Today I don't have these doubts. I have finally mastered my need for control and given it up to the Tao.

Finally the review panel returns and we line up again. We have all been transformed by the experience. The metal of our spirits has been strengthened on the forge of this test. Sensei calls my name and I move quickly to a spot in front of him. With great emotion in his voice he extends his hand to meet mine and congratulates me on successfully completing my first step towards spiritual maturity. The rush of emotions floods through me. I managed to complete the ritual of passage and return to my spot. The same spot I started in hours earlier. I am the same and not the same.

The boy-man who began this journey over four years before is now a man. The enormity of my accomplishment overwhelms me and I cry. I cry tears of joy and tears of ecstasy.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.