I used to be a karate student. I began studying Okinawan karate when I was 17 years old. I loved it. It was hard, challenging, it pushed me to my physical and psychological limits. And after four long hard years I finally earned my black belt and wore it proudly in the karate dojo.
I found myself not progressing
Less than 12 months later, I found myself teaching many of the classes to the lower ranks. It was kinda fun… for a while. But I soon found myself not progressing. My Sensei at the time said to me that after black belt one’s rank is based more on their contribution to the art and the amount of time they train rather than on technical skill or progress. I found this answer frustrating and, to be quite honest, unacceptable. While I was good, I certainly didn’t think of myself as great or even qualified to teach. I wanted more. I wanted to continue to grow my skills. Yet, my instructor was quite adamant about me (and the other black belts in the school) not venturing outside of the art of karate. I didn’t understand why. Afterall, the art I was training was the synthesis of three previous styles of martial arts.
If the founder of our art studied multiple styles, why wasn’t it OK for me to do the same? Like something out of medieval Europe, “Blasphemy!” is what I heard. “How dare you! Who do you think you are venturing outside our style? Do you think you are better than the founder?”
What could be more exciting than earning a black belt?
Earning a second one!
I remember secretly confiding in one of my karate black belt peers who was about 18 years my senior that the truth was that I found the journey from white belt to black belt far more fun and exciting than actually being a black belt – that in many ways, I longed to put a white belt back on again and learn something new. I was surprised to discover that he completely agreed with me.
Even though I was only 22 years old back then, I deemed this “blasphemous” attitude as mere dogma and set out to evolve and diversify my martial arts skills. Since I had been studying karate, a very rigid, linear, hard-style of martial art, I decided to try a style I thought was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I decided to train Aikido. Based on what I knew at the time about Aikido, it was very much the opposite of karate. Aikido was flexible instead of rigid, circular in nature instead of linear and more gentle on my body instead of hard like karate.
A Quick Lesson in Humility
At my first Aikido class, now more than 12 years ago, I remember stepping on the mat with perhaps a wee bit more confidence than some of the other new students. After all, I was already a black belt! Not in the art of Aikido, mind you, but at least in karate. For the next 90 minutes I found myself being repeatedly instructed by the senior students to relax. “Lighter, softer,” they would say. “You’ve got to loosen up. You’re going to tire yourself out very quickly expending all of that energy.” Strangely, the other new students in the class were not being told the same things I was and didn't seem to be having any of the difficulty I was having.
Then one of the senior black belts said to me, “You’ve studied karate before, haven’t you?”
“Yes!” I respond quite proudly. I was glad that somebody acknowledged my skills.
“It would have been better if you hadn’t!” He teased me. "You have a lot to unlearn."
What!? I was shocked, even a little hurt (or at least my ego was). Why would he say that? I assumed my karate training would have helped me learn Aikido faster? Several months later after continued Aikido training, I finally began to realize what this gentleman was saying to me and why. It reminded me a lot of the famous “empty cup” story.
The Empty Cup
A great martial arts teacher was visited by a young, well-known and respected university professor. "I have come a long way to see you,” he said. “I have heard that you are a great Karate Master, the Art of Empty Self. I have so many questions for you. I, myself, have studied very hard for many years to understand the essence of what you teach. Can you tell me the meaning of Karate? Of Empty Self? How it can bring peace to the world? What is the secret of this teaching?"
The Martial Arts Master was serving the professor tea as the professor rambled on with question after question. The Master poured the visitor's cup to the brim with tea… and then, kept on pouring. Now, the tea was running off the table onto the floor.
The professor watched bewildered until he could no longer restrain himself. Finally, he shouted, "Can’t you see the cup is full! No more will go in!”
"Like this cup,” the Master smiled, “your mind is full of questions and seeking answers! Until you empty your cup, no more can go in. Likewise, until you present me with an empty mind, you cannot learn or receive anything."
Growing my skills by starting over
The decision to leave my karate school, take off my black belt and strap on fresh white belt in Aikido was my way of “emptying my cup.” Don't get me wrong, I still love karate. It's a great art! I still practice my kata almost daily, but Aikido has opened up my world, giving me a whole new way of looking at martial arts, self-defense, and even self-mastery. Aikido certainly isn't better than karate or any other martial art. It's just different.
If you have grown bored with your karate training, feel stifled and wish to diversify your martial art skills with a complementary, yet radically different art, or are just looking for something new and different, then I would encourage you to come join us in Castle Rock.
Train with us in Castle Rock
Our dojo is just 25 minutes south of downtown Denver and 35 minutes north of Colorado Springs. We have students from these areas and everywhere in between coming to train with us several times per week. Come find out why people from all over the Denver metro and Colorado Springs areas are willing to travel to Castle Rock several times per week to practice Aikido with us. Contact us today so that you can come try a class for FREE, meet our talented instructors, and friendly, excited students.
We look forward to meeting you.