A Black Belt Life

"Fighting is winning. Don't give up. Don't ever give up. 
You beat cancer by how you live, while you live, and in the manner in which you live. 
So live, and fight like hell." 
 * Stuart Scott, July 19, 1965 – January 4, 2015


Every day you are just a little bit closer to your own ending, your last breath.
So, what are you doing about it ? What if that day was tomorrow ? The problem is that you think you still have plenty of time for all your hopes, wishes and dreams. The reality is that you may not have the time you think you have, or at the very least, enough time.

I am at best a novice martial artist, however, I am in the game and learning. It is not logistical for me to be on the mats 3-4 times a week, but I study, I think, and I study videos when I am not at the academy. Jiu-jitsu is a very complex art, it is a life long understudy. For me, studying human movement is part of the process, it is rewinding film over and over studying the pieces, breaking things down and chunking them into digestible pieces before building them back up into complex forms. To be clear though, being a martial artist is more than just a journey on the mats and in the school, it is a journey that exists in your mind, in the community and in your family.

Presently, I am a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu when I am in my school, but I strive not to be a blue belt in life, though many days I fail. This is perhaps the deeper and more important teachings of the Masters. One simply cannot be on the mats 24 hours a day, and so one's jiu-jitsu mentality must transcend the mats and the academy and be reflected in one's life, in the community and those you interact with daily. No matter what your belt color is on the mats, one must portray "the black belt way" in life.

It is about the journey.  Just as in life, everything is about the journey, but we get distracted. We get drawn away from the journey and its purpose by the intoxicating meanderings and lies of the media, of the drama of the day, the 9-5 work day slog, and of the other life fluff that glazes our consciousness. Perhaps it is by design that we are distracted, for if the journey was clearly laid out for us all it might be meaningless, It might be too easy. The prize would be guaranteed, the wisdom achieved by the journey would be meaningless.  The journey would have no mystery and it would be free of the side roads and detours that take us off the path where the painful stuff lies, the good stuff that changes us. It is those side roads, at their ditches and potholes, that harbor the pain, the misery, the disappointments that force us to course correct, to back track to find our way again onto the main path to our journey.  The trouble is, we never really truly know if we are on that path, but we let our gut and our heart guide us if we are wise, for they often show the way. Just like when you were tempted to sneak that extra cookie as a child from momma's cookie jar, in our guts, we know when the path is right and when it is wrong. It is in us all, it's speaking to us daily, but are we listening clearly enough? Life is about choices, and then executing those choices. At any moment we can choose the right way or the easy way. In the silence of a painful lonely night, when we are feeling all alone, we should be able to hear the truth and know the path, but are we listening ? And perhaps more so, are we willing to endure the pain to walk that path day in and day out ? If it's too easy, question if you are doing the necessary work and engaging the right lessons. Make no mistake, there will be pain, there must be pain or there is no growth. So what kind of pain are you willing to endure ? What pain will you choose to face to get to your dreams and goals ? That is the tough question, what pain are you willing to endure to get to that place of joy and peace? 
Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) only has 5 essential belts, though the masters might argue the only one that matters is the first one, the white belt because that is where the good stuff is harbored and borne from. And, perhaps more importantly, it is the belt that recognizes the initiation of the hero's journey, one filled with the most fear, the most curiosity, the most excitement, the most challenges, the least expectations but the greatest rewards. 

For some it may take a lifetime to get that black belt, but for most, they will not make it. The odds are very small that one will eventually have a brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) black belt tied around one's waist, it is a longer process than many other of the arts. Life choices will get in the way, injuries will derail us, focus will diminish, children, work and spouses will all tug at our time.  Just try to remember to endure, for the black belt is not the pinnacle. Ask any black belt and they will share that the true journey may in fact really begin there.  In BJJ there is an old story that there used to be only two belts, a white and a black.  And it was the journey, day in and day out, where the white belt was tugged, pulled, twisted, getting dirtier and more gray every day. It only became seasoned by the sweat and blood and tears until only after great adversity and pain it turned black with resolve. It is the journey, just as in life, we become our finest self after enduring the hardships. 
As in BJJ we all start life as a white belt. The goal for most is to earn the black belt, a thing representing a status where wisdom and peace are supposedly found. A status where lessons can be shared and brotherhood grows deeper.  As in life, it may represent a another circle of life, a new beginning to start again, a kind of second level white belt.  A black belt is not attained alone. The belt is colored by the sweat and pain of our brothers and sisters, who afford us the opportunity of the struggle with them to better ourselves. It is a grappling with our mistakes, our misfortunes and our misgivings and the graciousness of their forgiveness.  There will be pain, just as in the journey of life, there will be pain.  As the lessons and skills of BJJ are imparted, embraced, learned and perfected we rise up in belts, just as in life from toddler to adolescent, to adult and to a senior citizen. Senior is a precious word, it means "holding a high and authoritative position". It means they are seasoned with pain, tears, faith, disappointment, defeat, victory and eventually the wisdom of life's teachings. Make no mistake though, not everyone gets to these grand levels, in fact, few actually make it. Many get stuck somewhere in the blue-purple belt of life where some lessons are learned, others are conceived but not executed, and others are ignored because they are just too painful to endure.  The same goes for jiu-jitsu I have been told; it is struggling day after day, week after week, year after year with the hard truths and the realities of life that get us to wisdom. But just showing up doesn't get us there, we have to engage, we have to sweat and bleed and quash the ego to get there, in jiu-jitsu and in life. I am guilty as charged, I can do better, I can do more. But I would like to say to my brothers and sisters walking the journey with me, that I do not think that all of the lessons in jiu-jitsu occur on the mats, so be sure to let it seep into your life, your kids, your family, your interactions and life choices. I think that is the secret.

The pains and disappointments in life are like injuries in jiu-jitsu. They hurt, they stop us, they challenge us to drop out and quit. Injures somewhat mirror the five stages of grieving (ask any serious jiu-jitsu student), denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. I would tag patience and grace onto those five stages.  Our injuries, on the mats and in life, look us dead in the eye and ask us if we have what it takes to continue and rise, to climb out of the ditches and get back on the road forward, the road we trust with our gut and our heart. Some people never get out of the ditch.  For some, there have just been too many derailments and it is too painful to one more time climb out of the ditch and with humility and disappointment get back up and step onto the road and raise our brow to the horizon and not give up. Those that accept these challenges move forward, they move up a stripe or belt, and sadly those that lay back down define the limits of their jiu-jitsu journey, and arguably, their life's journey.  The struggles and pains in life ask us to move to the edge of our comfort zone, for it has been said that if you are willing to live at the edge of our comfort zone, to accept the pains of life, you will find your true life begins at that edge. The good stuff is as the edges.

So where are you in your life ? Are you a blue or purple belt ? Are you on your way to brown? Are you progressing in life through your belts and embracing the lessons, or are you stuck in some aspects of your life ? Are you merely showing up in life or are you grappling through it, moving forward and upward ? Are you fighting the progress of each stage, each level and each belt, maybe hearing but not listening to the lessons ?  Are you too fixated on the next belt, the next goal or are you engaged in the lessons of the moment ? Perhaps that is what those little white stripes should mean, to keep us focused on the lessons of the moment, and not the next belt. Are you stuck in the ditch, finding yourself in the same one over and over, repeating painful lessons ? Are you a black belt father but a blue belt spouse ? Are you a blue belt emotionally yet a black belt intellectually? Maybe earning some stripes in certain parts of your life is in order. 

As on the mats, as in life. Our life begins at the edge of our comfort zone. Will you embrace the lessons ? Are you hearing and listening ? Are you executing or going through the motions? How are you living ? Are you living ? Or, are you merely existing ? What pain will you chose to endure daily to reach your goals in life ? It has been said that cemeteries are filled with the greatest riches never sought.

On your last day, you will want to have just one more day, one more sunrise, one more laugh, one more kiss, one more hug, one more chance to climb out of any one of a myriad of ditches you left yourself in along the way, wishing you could go back just one more day and redeem yourself, struggle a bit harder and reach a little higher?  So, what are you waiting for, today could be that last day. Get busy living, or get busy dying, but get busy.  Don't die with a white belt in any aspects of your life. It is not the belt you wear on the mats that counts, it is the belt you wear out in the world while engaging mankind that truly matters. The only belt you can portray is the one you have presently earned and the integrity, respect, honor, and kindness with which you live your life and present yourself. It is really truly about the "belt" that you walk around with in the lives of others that matters. If you walk with the Bushido belts of rectitude, courage, benevolence, mercy, politeness, sincerity, honesty, loyalty, character and in compassion, love and kindness then you have arrived and are a teacher. With these belts your life will be more fulfilled.  But more importantly, you are once again permissoned to be a student.  These are the teachings of the masters, the teachings of Bushido, the teachings I am trying to embrace on my life's journey. These teachings are about life, not just martial arts alone. Work towards your black belt in life, today and everyday, because tomorrow just may be the day you take your last breath, your last day on the mats. Work hard, leave all you have on the mats, and on the mat's of life, each and every day. 

I write largely for myself, a manner of talking to myself and keeping myself aware and attempting to grow. To this end, I embrace the reasoning of Hunter S. Thompson,  "One of the few ways I can almost be certain I'll understand something is by sitting down and writing about it. Because by forcing yourself to write about it and putting it down in words, you can't avoid having to come to grips with it. You might be wrong, but you have to think about it very intensely to write about it. So I use writing as a learning tool. "

Through writings like this one, clearly, I have plenty of self-work to do. 

As on the mats, as in life, I am grateful to walk beside you my brothers and sisters.  Thank you for catching me when I stumble, and thank you for offering me your kindness and grace when I struggle and stagger.

“The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside of us while we live.”- Norman Cousins

-Shawn Allen,  Blue Belt . . .  on the mats

Gracie Barra, Downers Grove (under Prof. Carlos Lemos Jr.)



* Initial story quote was by Stuart Orlando Scott (July 19, 1965 – January 4, 2015) was an American sportscaster and anchor on ESPN, most notably on SportsCenter. Well known for his hip-hop style and use of catchphrases, Scott was also a regular for the network in its National Basketball Association(NBA) and the National Football League (NFL) coverage.  -From Wikipedia, read more about Stuarts life there.