Back on the Mat

A year and a half ago, I earned my black belt in To Shin Do, a martial art based on the Japanese Ninja arts. I was introduced by my kids who dragged me onto the mat despite huge reluctance on my part. Six years later, I was still somehow a bit surprised to find myself with a black belt tied around my waist. But I stuck with it because I learned a lot. A lot about self defense but also a lot about life.

Training can be intense and requires long term dedication. It’s a path you walk over the long haul. Achieving the Shodan rank (1st degree black belt) is obviously a big deal. It’s often also a stopping point for people. It was for me—because the idea of getting on the path for 2nd degree seemed daunting and long but also because I wanted to explore some other things in more depth—namely yoga and meditation. And I thought I was done with the To Shin Do path.

Turns out I was wrong. While I enjoyed the other things I dipped into, there was a depth of learning and insight I wasn’t finding. And so I decided it was time to return to the dojo.

I’m reluctant even now to say whether I’m committing to Nidan—2nd degree black belt. But I’ve stepped back onto the path. It’s a long one—two years minimum. Even though Nidan is the next destination, what really matters is the journey, the steps and learning along the way.

In this martial art, the study from 1st to 2nd degree is all about, as one of my training partners puts it, “it goes wrong but you don’t.” On the mat, it’s the deliberate study of what happens when your first defense against an attack doesn’t work. It’s about staying in the fight, about recovering, about persevering, about gathering your wits when things are going downhill. About tolerating the discomfort of uncertain outcomes, about moving through it. It’s about staying in the moment, about dealing with what is right here and now whether you like here and now or not.

They say when they student is ready, the teacher will come. I find this to be true over and over again in my life. I seem to be coming back to the mat at the very time I need these lessons. In recent months, I’ve started to see the tyranny of perfectionism in myself.

For whatever reason, the strategy I developed as a kid was to be “good” and not make mistakes. That can be productive to some degree, leading to motivation and success. But it also has the downside of avoidance of things that might lead to failure. Or it can lead to so much shame over mistakes it’s hard to learn from them. Avoiding risk means lack of growth and limiting oneself. I have just started to understand how this has limited me personally and how my fear of failure translates into fear of failure for my kids, thereby limiting the risks they’re willing to take because I’m afraid for them to take them. My anxiety over perfection becomes theirs. And so it is that I open myself to the deliberate and conscious study of my own relationship to failure.

We all make mistakes, right? The reality is IT WILL GO WRONG. No baby learns to walk without falling down and we don’t expect her to. We drop balls and plates. We forget meetings. We say the wrong thing. We yell at our kids or our spouse. The entire scientific method is based on trial and error, experimentation. We can learn as much from what goes “wrong” as what goes “right.” And yet somewhere along the way, though I could give lip service to the value of mistakes, I started to have trouble allowing them for myself . . . . and my kids . . . and others in my life.

It feels terrifying to me sometimes, to do something wrong. And now I’m thrusting myself into it-goes-wrong-by-design. The beauty of the dojo mat is that it is a tiny microcosm of life. It’s place I can study my responses and reactions, where I can, in small doses, notice what it feels like to have it go “wrong,” to see what feelings come up. Do I freeze, panic, distance myself, give up, get frustrated, want to quit? Yes, all of those things at various times. In tiny doses, I have the chance to try it again, study what happened, slow it down, speed it up, ask my coach or my training partner what they are observing from the outside.

As I move through life, taking on new work and new experiences where inevitably things will go wrong, where I will feel confused and incompetent and uncertain, I pull on the lessons I learn on the mat to illuminate life off of it.


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