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Being a Black Belt: Making room for those behind you.

What does it mean to be a yudansha (black belt) in a smaller dojo? When you cross that threshold, what does that transition begin to feel like? It is turning out to be different than I really expected. I had spent awhile thinking through what it means to be a black belt and had landed on the idea of being a beginner again. In many ways, especially in the learning of Aikido, that is definitely true… you know enough of the basics to start learning the connecting fabric that underlies the art. But there are parts of it that seem very different.

In my dojo, I’ve been a more senior student for awhile because we are relatively small and junior, but now… now I’m ACTUALLY a role model; I’m a teacher. I feel the weight of that responsibility very differently. I now represent the idea of Aikido to people who come in the dojo. I’m now teaching for real and having to represent our lineage to people. I am a conduit for the learning of my teacher. Maybe that isn’t so much of a stretch from some parts of my past life as a first kyu… but its definitely different in my mindset.

And more than that… the difference now is that I need to make room for others to step into the roles that I had played previously. I need to let others grow by doing what I used to do. I have to let them take care of Sensei’s hakama, and be in charge of organizing events. I have to let them have responsibility, and be ready to help them when they fall short without doing it for them, or getting angry and thinking that I could have done it better. More than before I have to be the one that shows them through my actions what it means to be an Aikido student, including by letting go.

This doesn’t seem so surprising as I type it, and yet it is really hard to leave behind the roles that I have played before. Just like when you first become a supervisor at work and have to learn to let others do the work, I have to learn to let others step up. I have to make room for them to do so.

So for anyone wondering what it really means to be a black belt, at least in our small dojo… it means letting others take on leadership roles and letting others learn to fall and fail and then being there to pick them up when they do. It means letting others see you as an example of what to do… and being prepared to be that example. It means figuring out what you want Aikido to mean to you so that you can show that in your training and in your actions off the mat. The fabric of the black belt isn’t so much a belt… but the connections that you can make for others as they try to learn. The ability to weave technical, social, and philosophical thought to demonstrate the Aikido that you represent. It means working hard to figure out what Aikido is for you, finding something, and sharing it with others so that they can grow…while still being a strong representation of your teacher; blending you and your lineage.

I am struggling with these new roles, but I will get there. It’s only been 8 weeks after all :-).


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