Exercising Perfect Control

I got hit hard in a class the other day. It was an illegal target–my chin–but I also dropped my guard. I was stunned, turned in a circle to shake passed the hit, indicated to my partner that I was okay, and returned to the work.

In sparring class, there’s a lot of partner work, and to complicate the learning, we always switch partners. Depending on how many learners are in the class that day, we get to spar with several partners in an hour.

Working with partners of varied abilities, skill levels, and histories with giving and receiving contact allows us all to moderate our approach, speed, pace, and more importantly, energy. If someone’s energy is low, you learn to lower yours. If someone’s energy is high, well, you might catch up!

In the dojo, we don’t fight, a subtle word that can be used by the uninitiated. Dojos are “places to learn.” There we practice. Martial arts is a practice. I’m trying to live this in front of my oldest son who is at another dojo, little fighter that he is. It’s not like I go to Thousand Waves to fight. I don’t go to learn to fight. Frankly, I go to learn how not to.

I’m used to fighting. After all, I’m a black man. I grew up on the South side of Chicago. And I was born fighting. I mean that literally. I spent the first six weeks of my life fighting without stopping. I came home from a neonatal intensive care unit tired of fighting.

In the dojo though, I learn how to be as non-violent as possible. I go to self-defense classes and I’m moving through our curriculum. I learn how to fight, but my personal spiritual integration is in the other direction. And sparring is a window into that. You take contact. You get hit. You give contact. You adjust so that you are learning how to meet the challenge. “How do I give as little power as possible, especially since I’m not threatened in our dojo? I’m safe and my partner is helping me. We’re here to learn.”

Our senior-most teacher said to us once that sparring is an exercise in perfect control. I love that. It’s true. You use as much power as needed for the situation. So for me, I’m learning how to yell when my inclination may be to punch. I’m learning to walk away when I want to yell. I’m learning to hit when I’d rather hit, kick, stomp, and rip (…a combination technique, if you will).

When one act accomplishes the need, don’t do two things. Practice perfect control. This is becoming my way of being, especially since I started training three and half years ago. If I can do one thing and end a situation, I will. If I have to act in three ways, I will not act in six ways. I’ll both reserve my energy and I’ll practice perfect control. That’s the learning.

While in sparring class, after turning in my “damn-that-hurt-circle,” I knew my jaw would have more to say later. I had to eat after class and it took a long time to chew on one side of my mouth. I muttered how old I was, too old in my view to start getting used to being hit in the face. Two days later, my teeth recognized themselves again and I was cool. Then, I wrote this post as a memorial.

I’m in class tomorrow. Keep my guard up. When hit, monitor energy. Keep practicing perfect control. If you see me walking around with a rear guard up, it’s because I’m practicing. Encourage me. Don’t tease me.

I may not be a good student, in that moment, if you do.


When I started one of my latest continuing educations a few years ago, it was in a dojo, “a place to learn,” and in our dojo–like most American dojos–there is a belt system. Our dojo, Thousand Waves, has a large and wonderful youth program where hundreds of youth learn Seido.

In addition, dozens of adults with disabilities train through TW’s adapted program and dozens of non-martial artists come to learn self-defense skills through the dojos programs. In each of these, gauging competency is important, as is being rewarded for it. So, we have belts.

While I appreciate the belt system–really, I need it for different reasons–there were no belts in traditional Japanese karate. I like that because participating in martial arts is a means of pursuing integration of my physical, spiritual, and mental strength. Karate, for me, isn’t about belts but practice.

Now, the belts serve a purpose. They allow me to go through our structured curriculum at my pace, assessing my own needs. The curriculum builds in ways for me to know when I’m ready to test for a belt. But, by then, I’m not testing for a belt. I’m receiving a belt, but I’m testing to assess my effort and my practice to a point.

I read once that in the earliest Japanese arts, white belts were the only belts, that they weren’t associated with ranking in the earliest martial traditions, and that the longer a student wore that white belt, the dirtier it became. The belt aged as the artist did. By tradition, martial artists clean our gi’s, the outfits we train in, but not our belts. Your belt contains your energy, your effort, and your history with the art.

You never wash it or otherwise disrespect it because you’d be disrespecting your energy, effort, and history. It’s a part of the practice, a part of the way you learn to discipline yourself, respect yourself, and develop your art. I call this spiritual work.

The belt, then, gets dirty with use. Folding in a bag, tying it and tightening it around your waist for 2 or 3 classes a week, letting it rub the floor as you learn how best to fall–all of these movements, in a traditional sense, changed the nature of the belt. In that older sense, the fibers ripped with wear, the strands pulled apart over years of use. What was once white would, slowly, became black. You can imagine that white belt reflecting a number of colors on the way, no?

White turning yellow with the sun. White fading into gray. White smudged with brown flecks of dirt. White turning into black. Running barefoot down New York streets–the way Kaicho trained his earliest Seido students–the sun reflecting against a multi-ethnic group of students, rain or snow shining against the dull and moving group of people punching and kicking and offering guttural groans that weren’t decipherable to the uninitiated.

The blackness would emerge over years of practice, over failed attempts that in a martial sense were never failure. Blackness would skid across fibers, be indistinguishable from effort, identical to energy. Blackness would come through the repeated kicks you’d receive from your fellow karatekas who worked with you to show you how to form a weapon. Blackness would line the fabric of that once white line, never cleaned and only used and used and used.

I’m not “a black belt,” a modern way that people who aren’t martial artists speak of those who wear those dingy-but-not-so-dingy straps. The image with this post is of my master teacher, Sei Shihan Nancy Lanoue’s belt. I have a green belt, hope to move to advanced green in a couple months according to our curriculum and my practice. Gauging our curriculum and my schedule fairly–and my ambition to stay ahead of my oldest boy–I have about 3 years between advanced green and the first degree. In one way, it’s complimentary to say, “You’re a black belt.” It is a compliment because it can be a remark of integration. You become your practice. You become a black belt.

In another way, it is a misreading of the historical effort a person put into the martial way. You’re not a black belt. You’re a person. The belt is the image of the person you are. You put it on. You take it off. You better respect it. But you wear it. You’re a person with a black belt. In that way, I think, the belt is still available to be sullied by the next class, the next kata, the next senior teacher.