We define black belt in all sorts of ways – commitment, courage, humility, humanity. And across the world you’d be hard-pressed to find two people who agree exactly on what it means.
Is it a perfect technique? A demonstration of mental toughness? An ideal of perfection?
It is all of those things, but ultimately it cannot be contained by them. At the end of the day, each of us defines black belt for ourselves.
As black belts, just as human beings, we are all much more than just the sum-total of our past experiences. And the martial arts is a great reminder of this fact.
We make mistakes, we forget important details, we miss opportunities, and yet somehow we’re able to continue to practice.
We hit personal goals, have peak experiences, do more than we though we could, and yet we keep raising the bar to keep satisfaction just out of reach.
We are not the mistakes we’ve made or the experiences we’ve had. We are not our successes, any more than we are our failures.
We are whatever it is we tell ourselves we are.
And interestingly, this doesn’t begin at black belt…it begins at white belt.
At the moment we start our training, we have a chance to step away from thoughts that have defined us in the past and reformulate who we want to be.
We get that gift and that responsibility by “beginning anew”; it’s by virtue of shifting our thoughts about what defines us that we start to reconfigure who we might be.
So in this way, becoming a black belt is no different than the rest of our training. You define it for yourself, just as you’ve done all along.
As you know, some people choose to define it as a “tough fighter” or a “tournament champion” or an “alpha male or female”. If that’s it for you – if that’s as far as you want to go with it – then I think you’re missing a great opportunity for a bigger shift.
It’s not just chance to stand at the doorway and peer through. It’s a moment when we can cross the threshold.
So we can say, “Black belt for me means I’m becoming a better father.” Or “black belt for me means that I am going to be self-confident person, I’m not going to let dark thoughts dominate.”
Or “black belt for me means independence – I no longer need to allow the negative things that others say into my sphere”.
Or “black belt for me means emotional control, where I don’t lash out with my moods or my temper”.
So the big question today for our graduates is…who – and what – do you tell yourself you are?
Because that determines quite a lot about how the world shows up for you.
Are you meeting challenges the way you say you are, or are you falling back on old familiar ways?
Are you keeping first things first – prioritizing your most important values and principles – or are they subordinated to your conveniences?
For us at Brooklyn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we are always working to be a force for good in the world. To recognize and remember that being present, aware and compassionate has a real value in our daily lives, irrespective of the currency or attention that our culture may give to them.
That’s who we choose to be at the end of the day, and the martial arts is how we’ve chosen to enact that. We may not hit the target 100% of the time, but we are always aiming at it.
The choice we ask you to make today is to decide in advance who and what you want to project into the world. Then let that guide your decisions and actions and interactions.
Considering this deeply is one of the best ways to shape your life, to make a contribution, to live well, to leave a legacy, to impact others.
If you want to be a force for good – or anything else – then make decisions from that place and your actions will inevitably show your intention.
It is not, as you know by now, very easy. Challenges abound – staying mindful, regulating your mood and emotions appropriately, treating others the right way. There are shortcuts and false promises all around, and your past exerts a powerful gravity on your present.
But the amazing thing is that this process is open to all of us – in particular, this approach to martial arts supports you. We support you.
Now maybe the notion of black belt is the first time you’ve considered looking at yourself this way, or maybe it just further supports your investigations in this area.
You can decide what you want to be, just like you can decide what kind of black belt you are. But try to remember that your martial arts practice is a chance to joyfully and frustratingly update your definitions on a regular basis. And that’s something of value for everyone.
3 thoughts on “Defining Black Belt: BBJJ Black Belt Graduation Keynote, November 2016”
When I started Jiu-Jitsu, I didn’t understand why black belt was such a big deal. It was like a blurry goal some ways away, a place I might not ever get to. Years later I still haven’t reached it but I think I’m starting to understand more of why it matters. Skills you get from the teacher, but most everything else – lot of what matters – you get from yourself. Really appreciate this message!
Thank you for sharing this message. It resonates now more than ever…keep up the work you;re doing!
Folks were talking about this speech long after the graduation…and re-reading it now, I understand why. Thanks for publishing it. I’m sure I will read it many times again.
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