Last Friday I tested for shodan and I Just thought I would share this experience with all of you. Not that I think it is of much interest to anybody but it will do me good to tell you about it
. It might however help some young newbie with BB-syndrome into realizing what this whole thing feels like.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's step back to the early 80's where a young scrawny kid first heard about a karate-club opening for business in his schools gym. At that time I had of course seen 'Karate Kid' and I was (as so many others) breathtaken by its debth (OK - it WAS the 80's remember?). Accompanied by a couple of friends I went to the gym on the night were there would be an introduction and decided to sign up. For five years I practiced and progressed through the colored belts. In the end I left the town with a brown belt and the black piece of cloth within reasonable grasp.
Unfortunately I could not continue my karate in the new town I went to. There was a dojo of the right style but they were very big on sparring so the one time I went there I got my sorry bum severely beaten. Needless to say I didn't go back. It simply wasn't what I was looking for. I then discovered a kendo-dojo! I had for a long time been fascinated by the cool equipment and especially the Japanese sword, so I threw myself into this new art with all the enthusiasm a young man can show. After two years - one with VERY intense training - I was a 2. kyu in kendo and a 3. kyu in Iaido. Then rather suddenly It dawned upon me that kendo simply isn't my game. The whole competition-aspect was putting me of, and I decided to quit it. At this time I was beginning to think that I would be the eternal 'almost-BB'. The type of guy that simply cannot see something to the end.
About a year later I decided to join an aikido-dojo. I was immediately hooked. After a few years I however had to take a break to start working, start a family and at the same time trying to finish my masters. A rather stupid decision in hindsight, but alas - that was what I did.
January 2000 - the date escapes me - but I was on my way home from job rather late one evening and I was sitting in the bus pondering my life since I was pushing the big 30. At this time it hit me like a bolt of lightning. NOW was the time. I would get back into Aikido and I would NOT stop again. Then started a long and hard struggle. Both my kids have been sick quite a few times - as toddlers often are. My job ate a lot of my time in some periods and finally I was still struggling with my unfinished masters. All these disturbing elements forced me to be very thankful for each and every training session that I could attend. Sometimes only two or three times in a month - sometimes just as many in a week. The benefit of this is that I have developed the ability to work very hard on getting the maximum benefit from each session.
Slowly I worked my way up through the kyu grades until finally last year in December I suddenly felt the time was ripe to ask my sensei if I could grade for shodan at the annual easter seminar. He said yes!
Immediately I started working on a program for the grading. I picked an uke and we began practicing my program now and then. The last two weeks before the seminar should be the climax of my preparations but then all hell broke loose. First my assignments at work exploded and I had to put in extra time and effort leaving me all drained and tired each evening. Next my kids got the fever and for 10 days took turns of being so ill that we had to keep them at home. My wife took her part of the work, but I also had to spend quite a few days home. I shall spare you the details but finally it became Monday again. Both the kids were okay, My holiday had started so - in short: I could leave for the seminar.
I was happy - and i delved into the practice enjoying it immensely. Then - Tuesday morning the accident happened. One of the visiting Japanese aiki-ka's accidentally struck me right in the forehead with his bokken during ken-tai-ken. Very hard and point first - kind of like a tsuki. I was out blank for a short time - a few seconds I think - and when I came to the blood was pouring down my face. A doctor helped me clean the wound which fortunately enough didn't require stitches. I was patched up and told to stay off the mat for the remainder of the session. That afternoon I skipped practice but the next morning I went in there again. Iaido went fine - ken-tai-ken and ken-tai-jo went fine but at the very first tachiwaza technique (shihonage) I realized that I was suffering of a slight concussion. I left the mad dizzy, a wee bit nauseous and VERY disappointed. Once again I skipped the afternoon and Thursday I once again tried to do iaido and weapons work, but I had to stay away from tachiwaza. Many people were nice enough to tell me horrible stories of bursting capillaries in the brain, strokes etc. following from blows to the head... Needless to say I was a bit sad at this time. I saw the grading slip away from me and tried to come to terms with the fact that maybe I would have to wait another year.
Thursday afternoon I was feeling much better - I still took it slowly - avoiding most of the tachiwaza and all of the high falls, and then - I was called up as uke for sensei. What to do? How do you say no to a Japanese 7. dan? you don't. I went in there and I must admit it was less than enjoyable. Especially since I knew he usually use the same uke twice. After the technique my head ached a bit again and I hurried off the mat. For the next technique sensei look around in dismay since I had eloped and finally chose another uke. I later persuaded a Japanese speaking sensei to explain to sensei why I had left the mat.
Friday morning I was feeling much better - sensei was obviously not angry with me and used me twice as uke for very soft techniques with no high falls and each time asked me if it would be okay. It was - I felt good. After the morning practice I ate a light lunch and put on a fresh gi. Then the big moment arrived. Suddenly I was actually sitting there on the mat next to my uke trying to remember which technique I was planning on doing first. We were told to start and I simply bowed - got up - started - and forgot all about the many people watching. I enjoyed myself and loved the fact that I was actually doing this. Then suddenly it was over. I sat down and waited through a load of 2. and 3. dan gradings until it was time to get the verdict. At this time I almost didn't care anymore. I was so relieved that everything in the end fell into place, and the sensei from my dojo had already told me that he like what I did which was the highest praise I could get. Usually he's not big on compliments
Then came my turn. Two minutes with a couple of 5. Dans telling me that in my next grading they would like to see a little more variety, but apart from that it was good. So - yes - I had passed the grading.
Finally - more than 20 years after I first walked into a dojo - I had actually earned the much coveted black belt. I was proud and happy but the strongest feeling inside me was a big hollow empty space. I had reached my goal but in that instant I realized that this was just a day like any other and that Saturday morning practice I would be just the same person and my aikido would still be developing towards a goal I will probably never reach.
That was my shodan tale. Long and windy, but maybe - just maybe - someone will enjoy reading it. To all of you out there reaching for your shodan I offer this advice: just go ahead with you practice and try to find the joy in each session in the dojo. That is the true gift of practicing aikido - not receiving the right to wear a piece of black cloth.