When Does Taekwondo Learning Stop?

WTF Black belt.jpeg

When we start learning Taekwondo, we begin at white belt!  The uniform is crisp and clean-sparkling clean!  Our white belt is bright white!  Every day is something new! A new kick or a new stance.  The learning is so exciting!  

Over time we progress through the colored belt levels.  We learn new poomsaes.  We learn hand techniques.  We practice and test.  And then practice and test some more. Eventually after years of practicing, we test for Black Belt!  And when we pass our Black Belt exam, we have made it!          We have finally made it!  We are a Black Belt!  Woo hoo!  

black_belt.jpg

Unfortunately many times when a student gets to Black Belt, they quit.  This makes me very sad because they are missing out on the rewards of learning Taekwondo.  They are missing out on putting all the pieces together.  They are missing out on their Taekwondo practice becoming more purposeful and more meaningful.   It is as if they believe that being a Black Belt is all there is to learning in Taekwondo! And that's too bad because it is at Black Belt that real Taekwondo learning begins!  The years of colored belt practicing, testing and advancing are just Taekwondo foundation building.  The real Taekwondo learning begins at Black Belt.

The first class I attended after passing my First Dan Black Belt exam, I lined up behind a long line of higher Black Belts.  There were Fourth Dans (Masters) and Fifth Dans in the class!  I looked at the higher Black Belts and I realized how much I did not know!  I realized that I was just a young child in Taekwondo even though I was 40 years old!  I was no longer an infant but still only a child in my Taekwondo learning.  It was at this moment that I became very humble. The strutting I had been doing after passing my Black Belt ended forever. 

After many years of training, I still have so much more to learn.  I look forward to putting more pieces of the puzzle called Taekwondo together.   

So,what is the answer to the question, "When Does Taekwondo Learning Stop?" 

The answer is that the learning never stops, it continues for the rest of our lives.

Master James Thamm

 

 

So, What's the Point?

what's the point?.jpg

So, what is the point to learning Martial Arts?  Why spend so much time practicing? Why spend so much time learning? Ask anyone who trains in martial arts and the answer will be different for every person!

I started learning Taekwondo almost 20 years ago because my son (who was 8 years old) was learning it and I had alway wanted to learn a Martial Art.  I did not have any visions of grandeur.  I never thought of becoming a master, I just wanted to learn and keep learning.  This was the reason I started and continued.

 This was the break I did for my Master exam. I had the bed of nails made, those are 10d nails!

This was the break I did for my Master exam. I had the bed of nails made, those are 10d nails!

Now, my answer to the question "What's the point?" has evolved.  I train in Martial Arts to make myself a better person and to keep my brain active.  It allows me to focus on the specifics of the technique with no distractions-being mindful.  While training I am in the moment, not thinking of anything else.  At my age, I have no desire to compete in sparring nor forms, but I do desire to get better in my techniques.  But, if one day I have to defend myself, hopefully I will be able to do that.

Now this question can be asked of everything in life. "What's the point to eating well?"  "What's the point of being polite?" "What's the point to reading?" "What's the point of exercising?"    These type of questions can be endless. 

Again there may be many different individual answers to these questions but one answer that may apply to everyone is : we do these things to be better people. We eat healthily so we have better health, and with better health we feel better.  And maybe if we feel better we will treat other people better.  And if we treat other people better we help to make their respective lives better.  It is like a "domino effect" and our lives get better at the same time! 

And, that's the point! 

The Belt

belts.jpg

On Saturday, during the Black Belt exam, I tied a student's belt because it was not tied correctly. He looked at me with an expression of "what are you doing?".  Years ago, I was invited to train with Grandmaster Jung of Korea. Grandmaster Jung was one of the first Black Belts awarded when Taekwondo was unified as the official martial art of Korea.  The first thing Grandmaster did when he walk onto the mat was re-tie everyone's belt! The funny thing is that we felt it was an honor that he tied our belts, and we all were glad to have this humble Grandmaster tie our belts so that it would be done correctly.  So, yes there is a correct way to tie the belt.   

Historically the student received one belt, and it was white. And through the years of training, it would get darker because of the sweat, blood and dirt that the belt accumulated. This was how a student knew who was the higher rank, the dirtier the belt, the higher the rank.  Historically, it might take years to go from one rank to the next. 

Grandmaster Jung told a story of how his master showed him high block, and he was told to practice only this! For six months this is all he did! When his master thought he was ready to progress, he learned a new technique.  Imagine if that way of teaching was done today!

Today people are impatient, and students want to know what they need to learn so that they can advance. This is why the colored belts were developed, so that a student would know where they are in their own learning.  Traditionally, when a student became a Black Belt, that was their only Black Belt. The idea was that through the years the Black Belt would wear down, turn grey and then back to white, completing the "spiritual Taekwondo circle".  The founder of Aikido, O Sensei, had a belt that had turned to grey from being used so much.  This is why I took the bars off my belt after I became a Master in Taekwondo, I wanted this belt to be my last belt, so that I would continue that tradition.

The belt is wrapped around twice to make one belt loop around the student.  This symbolizes the unity of the mind and body as one.  There is a top and a bottom to the belt.  The bottom is the edge of the belt that is stitched together (though some striped belts have two edges that are sewn together).  The knot of the belt looks sort of like an abstract heart, with the folds going together into one.   When the belt is tied correctly, it looks like this:

black_belt.jpg

It may take a long time to practice tying your belt, but please practice.

Master James Thamm

 

 

Gratitude

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving after a turbulent Presidential election.  No matter for whom you voted, everyone in this country has something for which to be thankful.  We have so much. 

Even the poorest Americans have more than the dreams of the rest of the world.  Think about this: more than 800 million people in the world do not know from where their next meal is coming!  Here in the United States, 1 in 4 children go to bed hungry with not enough food in their family home.  Now I am not trying to bring you down, just trying to change all of our perceptions on how great we all have it. 

So, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, no matter how hard your life is or has become, wake up Thursday morning and every morning there after and look for reasons to be thankful.  It will change your perception on your life.  And it may even change your life.

The Dalai Lama once said he is a "professional laugher".  This is a man who lives in exile; he watched his country be attacked and could do nothing to save it.  He has no possessions, but he laughs all the time!  This is what he says about why he laughs:

 I have been confronted with many difficulties throughout the course of my life, and my country is going through a critical period. But I laugh often, and my laughter is contagious. When people ask me how I find the strength to laugh now, I reply that I am a professional laugher. [...]
The life of exile is an unfortunate life, but I have always tried to cultivate a happy state of mind, appreciating the opportunities this existence without a settled home, far from all protocol, has offered me. This way I have been able to preserve my inner peace.

If we are content just to think that compassion, rationality, and patience are good, that is not actually enough to develop these qualities. Difficulties provide the occasion to put them into practice. Who can make such occasions arise? Certainly not our friends, but rather our enemies, for they are the ones who pose the most problems. So that we truly want to progress on the path, we must regard our enemies as our best teachers.

For whoever holds love and compassion in high esteem, the practice of tolerance is essential, and it requires an enemy. We must be grateful to our enemies, then, because they help us best engender a serene mind! Anger and hatred are the real enemies that we must confront and defeat, not the “enemies” who appear from time to time in our lives.

Of course it is natural and right that we all want to have friends. I often say jokingly that a truly selfish person must be altruistic! You have to take care of others, of their well-being, by helping them and serving them, to have even more friends and make more smiles blossom. The result? When you yourself need help, you will find all you need! On the other hand, if you neglect others’ happiness, you will be the loser in the long run. Is friendship born of arguments, anger, jealousy, and unbridled competition? I don’t think so. Only affection produces authentic friends. […]

As for me, I always want more friends. I love smiles, and my wish is to see more smiles, real smiles, for there are many kinds—sarcastic, artificial, or diplomatic. Some smiles don’t arouse any satisfaction, and some even engender suspicion or fear. An authentic smile, though, arouses an authentic feeling of freshness, and I think the smile belongs only to human beings. If we want those smiles, we must create the reasons that make them appear.

-- The Dalai Lama, in an excerpt from his book "My Spiritual Journey"

 
And maybe, just maybe, we can all turn our gratitude into action, it might cause a chain reaction. Our gratitude might just infect someone else with gratitude, and they might infect someone with gratitude.  And on and on.  Happy Thanksgiving.  And Happy today, too.

 Cartoon by Leah Pearlman

Cartoon by Leah Pearlman

The Key is Trust and Acceptance...

I am 57 years old, I have been a runner for 32 years, and the reality is I probably will never be able to do a split- and I am okay with that.  Don't get me wrong, I have tried!  

My first master would hit my thighs with a Jukdo  (similar to the one pictured above) to "encourage" me to go lower when trying to perform a split. If I was not stretching hard enough in class (in his view), he hit me across the back of my shoulders with the Jukdo as well.  But, I was doing all I could as a 40 year old male!  Sometimes it seemed that the Jukdo was going to be worn out on my body!

I have tried to stretch, pull, and contort my legs so that I may kick higher, and get lower to the mat, but the reality is that it just may not be possible for me to make big advancements in my stretching.  Running shortens leg muscles and I am not going to give up running, so I accept that I may not be able to side kick someone in their face.  So, should I give up trying?  Should I give up Taekwondo? 

Never!  I still stretch but now I do not tear my muscles as I did before (I can actually walk afterwards!).  I accept healthy guidelines within my stretching.  When I guide students to stretch, I apply those healthy guidelines to the students as well.  There is no need for the Jukdo!  There is trust.  I trust myself to give my best effort and I trust the student to give her best effort.  

No longer do I "beat myself up" for not being able to touch the mat with the palms of my hands.  I no longer do I feel embarrassed that I cannot do this:

I  trust myself to give my best effort, and I trust the student to give her best effort.  We all have different starting points.  We are all trying to get to the same destination-a better us.  Sometimes it takes a little longer for some than others, but it's okay because every step forward is just that-   a step forward!  

Once we can trust ourselves that we are doing the best we can within a healthy boundary, then the acceptance of our best effort will bring us to a better us.  That does not mean we stop trying, but instead it means we try and do the best we can within our own limitations.  We keep moving forward knowing that we are moving forward.

The peace that comes from accepting our limitations and also our abilities makes us happier and healthier.  Will I ever do a split?  Maybe not, but it's okay, I can still kick powerfully low!  And that is my ability: to protect myself with a powerful kick to the shin or groin.  So,  although I still try to achieve something I cannot do (and may never be able to do), I spend more time working on perfecting the things I can do very well!

The penguin cannot fly, but the penguin can swim wonderfully.  The hawk can fly beautifully but the hawk cannot swim like the penguin.  Both work on being better at what they can do, because it is crucial to their survival.  Master Russell said this to me, "Sir, why would I test you on kicks I know you can not do?  What does that prove?  I want to test you on what you do well!"  

So, let's apply this philosophy to our way of living: let's do our best on the things we have trouble with, but let's capitalize on our abilities and gifts in order to make a us all better individuals.

Master James Thamm

 

You're a Black Belt?

That's the question I have been asked very often, "So, you're a black belt?"  And when I answer, "Yes",  then the second question is, "Have you ever had to, you know, kick somebody's butt?"  And to that question, the answer is "No, I have not.  I try to avoid bad situations."  And to this answer, I am often met with disappointment, as if my fighting someone validates my study of Taekwondo.  And that is the point of this week's blog.

In the book, "The Art of War", Sun Tzu writes that "to win 100 battles is not the acme of skill, to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."  If we examine what this master General is saying, we see that his belief has real benefits.  In the military, a battle means loss of life, and the loss of resources, and the possible loss of territory-anyone can do that.  In civilian life, a battle could also mean a loss of life, and the loss of resources.  Any hothead can pick a fight anywhere.  

But, General Sun Tzu continues, to win without fighting is the real skill, but not many can do that. The benefits are substantial: no loss of life; no use of resources; no loss of territory.  And it is the same in civilian life, the benefits outweigh the conflict.  But, to walk away takes a strength that not many have.  It is being able to turn off the ego in order to be in touch with our inner strength and knowledge.  And the outcome in both situations is peace.

I think I can illustrate this idea from my life.  I was in the car business for a long time, and consequently I had a "demo" to drive for free (yes it is a great perk!).  Since most of my car business career was with Subaru, frequently I would drive something with a turbo and these cars are fast!  Zero to 60 miles per hour in 4.9 seconds fast!  Often times I would pull up to a red light, and I would be next to some other sports car, and the driver would glance my way, nod, rev his engine and give me the impression of wanting to race me.  Now I would be in a car that only a Ferrari or Lamborghini could beat from a standing start, so I knew I would win.  But, I never raced one of those guys.  

My son, would ask, "Dad, why?!? We will crush him!"  And I would answer, "If we already know we would win, why bother?  It's too dangerous, too risky."  I knew I had won the race by not racing because I had nothing to prove.  It was the man challenging me who had to prove that he was faster than me.  It was the many challengers who were insecure about their cars, and what that meant about themselves.  I knew I had the faster car, I did not need to prove it, and so I was the stronger person.  One time my son responded, "But Dad, he doesn't know that we are faster!"  And I said, "Yes he does, that is why he challenged us. And what's more important is that we know we are faster."  

In the 1970s television show, "Kung Fu" a Shaolin master is asked this by David Carradine's character, "Master Tae, What is the best way to deal with force?"  He answered, "As we prize peace and quiet above victory, there is a simple and preferred method…. Run away."  And this is what studying Taekwondo and becoming a Black Belt has taught me.  I do not need to show people the things I can do, I know what I can do, I would rather have peace.  Learning Taekwondo has given me the inner strength to walk (or run) away.  

One of the Tenets of Taekwondo is "Self-Control" it is my goal to always exhibit this.  I have learned how to do some amazing things, but if I never have to use my skills, I have won.

Three in one...

Periodically, we are going to post a blog entry in order to help our students, parents and friends on life, ideas and of course, Taekwondo.  We are a Taekwondo school and there are ideas present within Taekwondo that can benefit all of our lives.  

Taekwondo is so many things to many different people.  For some people Taekwondo is a sport, for some it is an afternoon activity, and for others it is a martial art way of life.  So, is there a right way to view Taekwondo, or is Taekwondo all of these?

I think Taekwondo evolves in our life, just as we evolve.  We may enroll our children in Taekwondo because the child needs a physical activity, which is exactly what I did with my son!  He was 8 years old and he did not like any of the team sports, so I told him he was going to learn a martial art.  Since we were within walking distance to a school, I enrolled him into that school. The funny thing is he loved it!  And since I was waiting on him, I decided to take class as well.       I figured it would be a good way to "do something I have always wanted to do" (I grew up watching David Carradine in  "Kung Fu" in the early 1970s) and spend time with my son.

So, Taekwondo started out as just activity, but then we started listening to the ideals of Taekwondo found in the Tenets of Taekwondo: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self Control and Indomitable Spirit.  And then I started to try to live these tenets of Taekwondo, and I started expecting my son to live these tenets as well.  And, as time went by, Taekwondo became a way of living.  The respect we had in the Dojang we carried with us everywhere we went.  When school was hard for my son, we remembered "perseverance"; when rude drivers had cut me off, I remembered "self control".

And, as time went on, Taekwondo became a sport as well.   Of course the school we attended had "intra-school" tournaments which he participated in, but things changed when my son competed in the AAU forms competition.  One year he won silver and one year he won gold.  He practiced for a few hours a day for months leading up to the competition.  And so in our lives (me as a parent) Taekwondo was now a sport.  We traveled to different schools for competitions.  My son competed and I cheered him on and celebrated his success.  We became a Competition Taekwondo family! 

But, as we practiced Taekwondo through many years, the art took on a new meaning. Taekwondo became a part of who we are, not just what we did.  As I became a Master in Taekwondo and my son became a Master in Taekwondo, the art became like our blood-it was in us.

Like the Sam taeguek at the top of this entry, I think Taekwondo is all of these things at different times in our lives.  And then even when we are not doing a poomsae (form) or a hand technique  we are seeing life through Taekwondo.

Have a great day!

See you soon!

Master James Thamm