The Beginning In the End – Lessons From My Black Belt Demonstration

Years of training come together in a single moment.

I stand in the center of the gym floor with five of my fellow students. Each of us is about to test for black belt in Taekwondo.

Friends, family and fellow students watch as we take our places. Sitting at the judge’s table in front of us is a panel of high ranking black belts – including not just the head of the academy, Grandmaster Connelly, but his instructor as well.

It’s time to show what I know.

heaven and earth
the beginning and ending
of all things
is the same
(Chon-Ji – 19 steps)

In the days leading up to the demonstration, people asked me, “Once you get your black belt, then what?”

Black belt is seen as the pinnacle of being a martial artist – the end goal. Reaching that level is a big accomplishment. But there’s more to it than that.

***

We begin with our patterns. Starting with the ones we learned early on, we work our way up to more advanced forms. With some, the techniques are strong and crisp. On others, I make mistakes and forget steps. But I get through them all. I complete the final pattern and hold my position.

Each pattern represents a step along the way. And I’m proud of how far I’ve come.

strong as a bear
quick as a tiger
each step
a foundation
(Dan-Gun – 21 steps)

a journey of education
step by step
reforming
mind and body
(Do-San – 24 steps)

Every ending offers a time to celebrate, to appreciate the hard work you’ve done. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

***

Running through our basic techniques, we punch and block to the rhythm of our count.

Hana, Dul, Set, Net, Dasot …

I sound each number with a shout, echoing the force of my movements. I feel the power of each technique. I feel strong.

Before the test, Tim, one of my instructors, told me to be as loud as possible, to send the message of confidence to the rest of my body. It worked. I’m thankful for his advice.

honor truth
brought by those
who have traveled the way
become awake
(Won-Hyo – 28 steps)

Every ending comes about not just because of the work you did, but also from the input of countless others. They helped you grow and succeed. Be grateful for all they gave to you.

***

My partner moves forward in a punch. With a series of quick movements, I deflect his attack with a block, send a kick toward his stomach, and follow through with a palm-strike at his chin. Had I intended to make contact with each move, he wouldn’t be standing anymore.

But I’m careful with my attacks. I am present enough to control my stikes. I’m able to keep my partner safe.

And in that presence, I find myself enjoying the day. The test is hard and demanding, but I’m having fun.

here among
material elements
grounded
in body and mind
(Yul-Gok – 38 steps)

Every ending is a one time event. Savor the experience. Be present and enjoy it.

***

One. Two. Three. I select a set of solid pine boards from the pile and hand them to the two senior black belts who will hold them.

With the boards in position. I take a step back and take a breath. And in one movement, I move forward and launch a side kick at the boards.

Boom! My foot passes through them like they weren’t even there.

Gathering up the broken pieces, I marvel at the power I put into the kick. I’ve never considered myself athletic or muscular. Just a few years ago, I could hardly break a smaller board, let alone three full size boards at once.

Yet I just did. I broke them ease. And I walked away wondering if I should have tried four boards instead of three.

I can’t believe how much stronger I am now.

one quick strike
straight and true
pierces its target
(Joong-Gun – 32 steps)

sagelike power
from learning
from within
acts outward
(Toi-Gye – 37 steps)

Every ending offers a chance to see where you are. Marvel at the progression you’ve made. Take ownership of it.

***

With my part of the demonstration complete, I sit back and watch the other people test. Four of my peers go for their second degree black belt.

Their patterns are more complex. Their combinations in sparring have greater power and variety. Their kicks are quicker and more effective. I can tell they’re performing on a level far beyond me. It’s exciting to see what I have yet to learn.

I remember a year ago when I attended my first class with the advanced students. I’d just gotten my black stripe – the level before black belt – and was feeling proud of where I was. But the opening warm-ups alone made me realize how much of a leap I had yet to make to the next level. And when we took our places to bow at the start of class, I stood at the end. I was the lowest rank. I was a beginner.

That feeling returns as I watch those testing. Despite reaching black belt, I still am a beginner.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

much to learn
beginning again
as a budding flower
(Hwa-Rang – 29 steps)

Every ending is a beginning. It’s part of a greater journey. So look toward the next step. Get excited about the learning and growth that lies before you.

***

the tide may go out
but ever the ocean
remains
(Choong-Moo – 30 steps)

The day comes to a close with a bow to our instructor, and I head home. The demonstration is finished.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back to train again.

###

9 thoughts on “The Beginning In the End – Lessons From My Black Belt Demonstration”

    1. Thanks, Tom. And that end is also a beginning. I’m sure they’ll be a lot more lessons and stories from Taekwondo in the years to come. 🙂

  1. Congratulations, Josh! Well done. May your journey continue to stretch and bless you in good ways. Thanks for the reminders to continue to learn and grow. — Barb

  2. What a beautiful story. You had me hooked every second and you showed the beauty of martial arts to a point that made me want to try it myself. Thank you for this moment and congratulations!

  3. So beautiful! I want to learn
    sagelike power
    from learning
    from within
    acts outward
    (Toi-Gye – 37 steps)

    It spoke to me 🙂

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