Forget Black Belt. What kind of White Belt are you?

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by James Eke

Times have changed since I first started training in the martial arts. When I first started training as a child over three decades ago, a person with a black belt around their waist was usually someone we could trust and look up to, or in the very least, someone we knew could prove that they deserved what was holding their uniform together.

Since then people have made it so that you can pay them money and go away for a weekend and become an instructor in a system. Others have done pretty much the same thing in making belt ranking something you just have to pay money for and you’ll get it. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t put the time in. It doesn’t matter that you are less than honest. It doesn’t matter that you set yourself up as something you aren’t. It doesn’t matter that the belt for you, the rank, is something about power and ego and business instead of what it should be: integrity, respect, selflessness, compassion, discipline, honour, loyalty, decency, and dedication.

For some, rank is something to hold as being proof that you are better than everyone. That you have all the answers. That you have something that others don’t possess.

My experience however, is that rank is more about admission of what you still need to learn and humble, honest admission that you have much further to go.

I’ve been very blessed in my time training and have been granted black belt ranking in a number of systems over the decades from some truly great martial artists. The one thing I have never done, even as a youngster in the martial arts is rest on my laurels. I’ve never seen the black belt as being anything altogether special; just the obvious result of a whole lot of hard work, admission of faults and constant work to improve and find not just more answers but more questions that need answering.

The one thing I have never had much patience with are those who grandstand over rank. Do you honestly think that you are any different than you were yesterday when you were the rank you had, compared to a day or two after you have been promoted? Yet you see it all the time. Especially these days where we seem to need others to give us a pat on the back and tell us we are awesome whether we really are or not.

For me, it has never been about what kind of a black belt a person is (or for that matter, what kind of blue, purple, brown or whatever belt). It is about what kind of white belt they are.

This may not make sense to some of you but the reality is that for me, despite having instructor ranking in more than five martial arts I don’t see myself as something special for having it. I don’t boast about my ranks. I don’t expect people to think I’m special just because I have been lucky and blessed enough to know, train with and be certified by some legends of the martial arts. For me, every time I come into my Academy (or leave), I bow and say thank you, usually out loud, to my teachers. This way I always remind myself that what I do and what I give comes not from me but as a gift from someone else. I remain humble. From there it is up to me to prove my own worth.

When I train, I never do so with the thought in my head that I am a great martial artist, or that I am a ‘whatever’ rank in this or in that. What I say to myself every single time that I train is, ‘what kind of white belt am I going to be today?’

White Belt? Yes. White belt.

I am honest with myself enough to realize that rank is something that is given at most by another to show that you have worked hard, progressed, suffered and endured. Sometimes it is given simply to show that you have kept going. In the end, rank is at best the opinion of another person about where you stand. That to itself though is nothing special — any rank doesn’t mean anything if the person wearing it treats it like it is something more than it is.

What kind of white best am I going to be today? Asking myself this is admission to myself and the universe that I am not perfect. I don’t have a monopoly on the truth. I don’t have all the answers. I am still a work in progress. I still have a long way to go with a whole lot of hard work to do.

With time if you keep it up you will invariably get rank in the martial arts. It just happens. You will spend more time if you train for your whole life as an ‘advanced rank’ than as a ‘beginner rank’. Really though, what is a beginner and what is an advanced practitioner?

Myself, despite training in the martial arts almost my entire life and looking back from the age of 47 years I have to admit to myself that I am still a beginner. Do I know more than a lot of other people, sure, but mostly because I have somehow kept on this path all of this time. I know the trail, I can point to the mountain peaks, I can warn you to look out for the mud around this bend but I myself am still on it, still slogging away, still looking around me, still learning, still growing, still fighting. Every. Single. Day. I still though, know a whole lot less than a bunch of others who have been walking this path or others close by for longer than I have.

Nobody has given me anything in this life. It has been a fight. I’ve never given money for a rank or made arrangements to get something that I didn’t deserve. I have what I have because I realize that the true nature of the martial arts and for becoming a warrior is in the realization that it is about hard work over a long period of time.

More than that, I realize that the greatest thing that I have ever done in this lifetime and in my training is in wearing a white belt.

A white belt is open to everything and bound by nothing because they admit that they know nothing and have a universe to learn and grow from.

A white belt is brave because they don’t know what is going to happen — they trust the process, have faith in their partners and teachers because they realize that without them they would be lost.

A white belt is honest because they know they have a far way to go, they know it will be tough sometimes, and the universe itself will try to see if they can be led astray and in the end this honesty is their shield against everything that will come against them.

A white belt is humble because there are always others who have more answers than they do and they know that they are going to learn from everyone around them and that without the people that make up their world on the mats there is nothing.

A white belt is respectful because they know deep down that it all begins and ends with respect and that this beautiful art is nothing without it and that the people around them will be key to their own development.

A white belt is selfless because they know that the moment their ego gets involved they will be shown just how little they actually know and that true growth in martial arts, or life, demands a letting go and admission of just how little we all know.

An old man once told me that when someone receives their first rank in the martial arts they will run through town telling everyone they come across, with their chest puffed out and their uniform on; the second rank they get they will still go through town, this time walking, uniform on, telling those who will listen;  by the time they get their brown belt they will have their new belt holding their uniform hoisted proudly over their shoulder telling only their friends; by second or third degree black belt they will now have their uniform hidden in their bag with their belt, walking humbly on their way home, asking everyone they meet how their own days went, helping everyone they can. I love this story. I was told it when I was probably about 15 or 16 years old and it made a lasting impression on me.

What it says to me is that we all are slaves to the ego and opinions of others but what we need to be striving for and what true martial artists should be is something far better. We should live our lives in humble service of others. We should know that just because we may have rank in this or rank in that doesn’t make us anything special — in fact, if we have trained and were trained properly we should be far different than what the world would expect of us, if what it expects is someone who believes a belt or a piece of paper defines or gives anything to us.

I will always be a white belt. Every day it is a struggle to see and prove that I am worthy of that white belt. Certainly other things will come and go as happens in life, but what could be greater than to live your life as a beginner, open to the world, learning from everyone and everything, finding answers and questions that need answers, working hard, researching, developing and becoming not some lofty ego-filled fool but a true and humble person who simply wants to keep going on this path with a worn and beat-up white belt around the waist, seeing what there is to see and helping everyone and everything along the way?

James Eke is head instructor of the Eke Academy of Martial Arts in Victoria, BC, Canada and author of the books Warrior’s Way: A Guide to Lifelong Learning in the Martial Arts and Warrior’s Way Martial Arts Training Journal, both available on Amazon.

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