Since last posting anything I have been promoted to black belt. It has made me think about all those times I have searched out, either on the web or in person, other black belts to hear about their experience on this journey. Sometimes it was a pleasing find, hearing edifying words from respectable and eloquent documentarians on the trials and joys of their path to black belt. Other times I would find frustrating and annoyingly unappreciative individuals that acquired too cheaply and quickly their rank and have a superficial understanding of what I focus my energy and efforts on daily. But to each his own, and maturity comes with time in.
My path to reaching black belt (not that this is a destination by any means, because I am in this for life regardless of what hangs around my waist) is the product of 16 years of training. Sometimes difficult, sometimes taxing, all the time enlightening. Training for me has offered many things, most significant of which is a vehicle through which to understand the world. But what I want to share here is a belt-by-belt breakdown of my experience for reference to any BJJ pracitioners out there, so that they can look at it (mistakingly) thinking it may offer insight to what they can expect on their path. Did you catch that parenthetical “mistakingly?” Because every individual is so very different, each experience will be somewhat, if not dramatically, different from mine. But here it is anyway:
The first belt after white in the system, for me was very dramatic. I already had a black belt in traditional jujitsu, so one might think getting my first rank wouldn’t be quite so significant. But the difference in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and anything else I had ever done had proven to me the amazing nature of this martial art, my home within the system, and effectiveness redoubled by Royce Gracie’s recent wins in the newly formed UFC at the time. This was in the late 1990’s and Helio Gracie would be the person to award me my blue belt, along with some of my training compatriots and best friends at the time, most of which would continue the journey with me for the next decade and a half.
Blue belt was exciting and eye-opening. The possibilities were endless and brand new techniques were all over the place, even as geographically-challenged as my friends and I were. We would drive all over the place when money would allow to see a BJJ teacher, whether he was black or brown or purple belt. Back then, purple belts were amazing to see, and very rare. We got to train under Royce several times at seminars before he eventually asked if we would be interested in becoming a Gracie Academy Training Association, since that is where he and Rorion were at the time together. And when a few years later, Royce began his own Network, we would be among the first of his affiliates.
Blue belt is truly the hardest belt to get rid of. You spend a great deal of time in this one. I did at least. Stripes were seldom, and many years went by in blue belt, with some years earning me a new stripe and others leaving me relegated to my previous year’s rank. About 6 years I spent at this rank, but I was happy training and proud of every stitch of that belt. And it wasn’t as if anyone around me was passing me by, so I was content with training for training sake. Also, the geographical challenge and slow steady pace of my rank achievements led me to develop a deep understanding and appreciation for basics which I still impress upon my students to this day. Like Royce says, “If you don’t know the basics, you don’t know shit.” Blunt but accurate in so many ways.
Additionally, the chess game and all the metaphors were popping up constantly. Aside from the practicality and effectiveness of BJJ, the ability to see natural laws in action with substance and energy was springing up like a well inside me. This didn’t, and doesn’t necessarily for anyone, lead to tapping more guys out, but what it does for you in the long run on and off the mat is the most valuable resource you will ever acquire in training. Understanding something deeply gives you insight to the inner-workings of the universe I feel, and this is how jiu-jitsu spoke to me.
Purple is a roller coaster. It was for me anyway. The early days as a purple belt came fast and furious and I realized soon why so many say it is one of the worst belts to have. At purple you don’t get an inch of slack from the brown and black belts as well as having blue belts after you to say they tapped a purple belt. I worked the hardest in this belt, and matured a lot.
The upside is that by the time most people hit purple, they have a firm foundation, and the creative juices really begin to flow. You begin to see possiblilities in each move, understand how to really transition more smoothly, and simply put, by this time you should start feeling more fluid. You may still get pulled into someone else’s game, and shaken a bit, but it is a gut check for your ego. I experienced a world of frustrations, and too many moments of pride; each of these emotional reactions were imaginary and fleeting in the grand scheme. Not many purples quit training, and it is because the innerworkings of jiu-jitsu start to reveal themselves and you see the art for what it truly is: infinite.
And then there is brown belt. Perhaps the best belt to have, as it carries nearly the prestige and respect as a black belt, with the other black belts giving you the pat on the back as a member into an elite club, and the lower ranks looking toward you as a sagacious veteran. These aspects are nice, but not nearly the main feature of this rank I enjoyed.
After a brief period of adjustment and relinquishment of that sturm and drang of the purple belt, I began to find a freedom at this point in my training. The flavor of this freedom was of the nature that allowed me to shuffle off the armor of ego and tension. The fear that comes with comparing oneself to one’s peers faded (not completely disappeared but faded), and I gave my self many new permissions. It is a wonderful feeling to give yourself permission. I’m talking about permission to make mistakes, to deviate from the prescriptive traditions of your teachers and predecessors, and permission to be great. Permission to feel afraid and not to buckle under the fear, and permission to appreciate your good points without being narcissistic. The effect this has on your training and practice and life in general is magical. With all transformative moments in life, it needs to be reigned in at times because it can be nothing short of an intoxicating feeling, and intoxicants can lead to wrecklessness. This may sound abstract or obscure, but when it happens maybe you will know what I mean.
I will take this moment to say that with every belt I got emotional. I cried when my partners and I got our blue belts that day from Helio, Rorion and Royce. I bawled when I got my purple, out of appreciation and exhaustion of Royce nearly killing me on the mat. I cried from the unexpected surprise of getting my brown belt from Royce. And black was no different except that maybe I cried a little harder. It was a rough year in many respects, and of course a long road to get to that day. And for it to be in such similar fashion as when my jiu-jitsu family and I all got our blue belts together, felt full circle.
I am not on the same path anymore. I have begun a new journey and the details of it reveal themselves to me each day. I am growing to be a better teacher and practitioner, and hopefully a better person through refinement of my art. I feel like this is the job of a black belt.