As I sat on the flight waiting to take off today I was thinking back to a great class I took while visiting Master’s Taekwondo in New Westminster, British Columbia. Master Young Suh invited me to train with his class, and after he worked us hard for an hour, he had us close our eyes and he spoke inspirational words to us.
Before and after every taekwondo class at Grand Master Kim’s OMAC our Masters and Instructors make us repeat a number of Korean words and phrases that are meant to inspire us, to keep us humble, and to keep us motivated. A number of these came to mind as I remembered the words Masters Suh spoke to us.
As I think back from where I started it is amazing how far I have come. When I first started in taekwondo I would hear the words of the Masters and try to remember them. Now, several years later, I spend a lot of time thinking of the implications of the phrases rather than the actual words.
Mu Shim is Korean for empty mind. Tae Kwon Do certainly has a spiritual component to it, but just like anything else we do it is difficult to learn when our minds are cluttered with the worries of our day to day lives – work, school, taxes, bills, dating, family, and whatever else stresses us. All of these must be left outside of the dojang, so that we can focus on what is most important in the gym: taekwondo.
Of course, this is not an easy skill to pick up… emptying our mind of clutter is difficult in the best of cases. As with every other skill we must learn to do this, and there is not one single way to achieve this. When I sit on my knees, back straight, hands in my lap and meditate I close my eyes; I picture water – a clear lake or ocean without waves, just the calm ripple of the water moved by a warm breeze. I then picture a plank of wood, floating lazily at the surface. I do not know how I discovered this, but it works wonders for me. I can then begin my class with a clear (empty) mind. Master Suh suggested we picture a blank wall or slate. As I said, there is no single way.
Cho Shim is Korean for beginner’s mind. It is easy to be humble as we embark on our journey in taekwondo, but as we climb higher it is easy to lose sight that we all have a lot to learn. The more open your mind is, the easier that is. Just as younger children learn better than adults do, the lower belts – newer students – learn more simply because they start with a blank slate… no pre-conceived notions of what they are supposed to be doing. As we progress along the journey, however, some students know enough to make them believe they are good enough.
As I have told my son a hundred times, you cannot know what you do not know. However far I may advance – in taekwondo, in computers, in life – there is still more to learn. I may know some of what I need to learn – for example, a student may know what patterns (patterns) he must learn to test for his next belt… but knowing what they are does not mean that they know them.
As well, one of the dangers of taekwondo is that once we get into a habit it can be hard to break. It is possible to learn a stance, a pattern, a kick the wrong way and continue to do it that way because that is what you learned. We must remain humble and remember that when we are shown something that we are doing wrong it is not meant as an attack, but to help us to improve. Just as egos can prevent us from learning, humility will open the mind to recognizing our mistakes and improving ourselves.
Oh Il Sam Sa!
Oh il sam sa means looking back three times a day. While we must live in the present and focus on who we are, we must take the time to reflect on where we were, and what we have learned. I try to do this three times a day per Grand Master Kim’s advice, but if I fall short of that I certainly reflect on where I came from regularly, in taekwondo, as well as in my professional and personal life.
In my office I have a rack that holds all of my colour belts – White, Yellow, Orange, Blue, Green, Purple, Brown, Red, Black/White, Black/Red, and Black. When I bought the rack and put my first belts into it – with the exception of Black I would only put a belt in after I had earned the next one – it was to mark my achievement, as I progressed through the levels it was gratifying to see the empty slats fill up. When I achieved Black Belt Excellence I thought about putting it away… all of the slats were filled, and I had achieved my goal.
The rack hangs in my office today for different purposes:
Firstly whatever belt I achieve, it is important for me to remember that once – not all that long ago, really – I put on a clean White Belt and took my first steps on the journey. While the other belts I have are higher on the rack, the bottom is White – and that is the foundation for everything. I could not perform any of my Black Belt patterns if I did not remember that when I wore a White Belt and Yellow Belt I learned how to punch, kick, block, stand, and move.
Although there are many others, the main patterns that we learn in taekwondo (which are the basis for everything else, and are universal) are called Tae Guk. There are eight (8) tae guk patterns, numbered accordingly. Yellow Belts must learn Tae Guk Il Jang (Number 1) to progress to Orange Belt, and so on. What I did not know – not because nobody told me, they did – is that when you test for Black Belt you must know all of these patterns, but as I had not performed Tae Guk Number 1 in over a year, I had to relearn it – and all of the rest of them. The second reason I keep the rack on my wall is so that every so often I will take a break from work so that I can review. I will concentrate on my White Belt, and in my mind I will perform the patterns so that I will not forget them. I will go through all of them until I am satisfied that indeed I have learned them properly.
Black Belt Excellence!
There is no belt in taekwondo that is an end goal. Each belt is a goal, but when that goal is reached there is always another one to work for. The only end goal is Excellence… becoming the best that we can be, and then trying to improve upon it at all times. If we continue to strive for excellence then the bar is continually raised not by others, but by ourselves. No matter how good we are we must always strive to be better; this is another lesson that I learned from my Masters and Instructors.
In the past I have faltered occasionally – it is easy to let your training lapse when family, work, and friends ‘get in the way.’ It is easy when injured to take more time off from training than we need to heal. However I came back, and will strive to do better. I am sure I have said this before, but now that I am back ‘in it’ I will not falter again. I will continue to train to achieve not only my goals, but my end goal. That is what taekwondo is all about.