When It’s the Right Time for You to Be In the Right Place

Peaceful place

I’ve spent some time away from taekwondo both physically and emotionally. I’m still recovering from what I now realize was a fairly traumatic change at the beginning of the year and accepting what is my new reality. I suppose it’s my own fault for letting myself get so emotionally attached to taekwondo, the affects it had on me/my thoughts/my actions, and the good thing I had going with it for years since you know…attachment leads to suffering…those platitudes that sound good, but our heart never listens.

There are certain aspects of my old taekwondo life that I can’t get back, but there are others that I could recover by leaving and joining another dojang. There are also some benefits to taking an extended break from it entirely to figure out what I want to do.

I went to class last night (not without a little feet dragging and thinking ahead to what I wanted to do when I got out). I was greeted almost immediately by one of my recent black belts and older students. This young man was soon leaving for college and had wanted his instructors to sign a framed photo from our April black belt test. The fact that he had been carrying out that picture and a black permanent marker for two weeks waiting to get everyone’s signature made me smile and broke my heart a little bit. Of course I signed it. We took a picture together, and then by request, he and I went through Koryo Two, the first black belt form he learned. (Black belt readers, I really mean the universal Koryo. Read why we call it Koryo Two in this blog post.) I felt a little shaky and out of practice–that’s what happens when I do my forms once a week at the gym, ha ha–but I enjoyed helping my student further his black belt practice.

The rest of the class seemed like it was designed to remind me of why I’m exactly where I need to be. The Universe was sending me a message saying, “This may not be where you want to ultimately be, but for now, this is the right place and the right time.”

I ended up teaching the entire time alongside our senior instructor, and I felt myself completely relax and enjoy myself. I led warm ups and a few drills and spent the sparring portion of the class running around the matches yelling good naturedly at the students. I always seem to toggle between being a responsible sparring coach and the goading little devil on their shoulders. I spent the last ten minutes of the class working with students on their forms.

During one of the sparring matches I got to see my aforementioned college-bound student make a perfect connection between poomsae (forms) and sparring, and as a an OD professional and taekwondo instructor, I couldn’t have been prouder.

“You should try using a sliding side kick, like in Koryo Two!” he yelled to his brother and proceeded to knock him across the room with a kick to the chest. He was referencing the stepping side kick in the middle part of Koryo, and smartly used an opportunity in the sparring match to apply his practiced technique.

“Ooh, good way to apply your learning! You made the connection!” I shouted. I couldn’t resist geeking out a little bit.
“Yes, ma’am!” he responded with a smile and continued chasing his brother around the room. (That’s for the critics who say poomsae has no realistic application. That was a mighty fine sliding side kick.)

I’m not where I need or want to be for my training, but I’m where I need to be for my students and for the other black belts. I can pick up training elsewhere, but I’m not ready to give up the rapport and relationships I’ve built. Besides, jumping around and kicking kids is pretty fun.

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Taekwondo Is Always There

love martial arts

Due to feeling ill, work deadlines, the inevitable siren song of TV and wine, and most recently heavy downpours, I’ve been out of taekwondo for about two weeks. Perhaps it’s for the best as I’ve needed some time off to sort out my feelings. After my last post I received a wonderful, heartfelt comment on my last post from a reader with the recommendation to take a little break (Thanks, Toby!). I always feel refreshed after a break from intense activities in my life whether it’s my job, exercise, taekwondo, or lately my efforts to secure a literary agent for my memoir. Soon I’ll return to class to see if it’s done me some good.

I’m in taekwondo limbo right now. I don’t want to be one of those people who did taekwondo for a while and then quit, leaving it in a compartmentalized box of my past. I don’t see myself stopping at second degree although that seems to be a typical pausing point for many black belts. I’m not sure how long my current training situation will continue or how I would adjust to something new. What I do know is that I can’t let go entirely, nor do I want to. I can’t get back what I had with my former school, but I can adjust and adapt and be creative about keeping taekwondo top of mind and an important part of my life.

That’s why after my ballet barre class at the gym, I did all my color belt through black belt forms. Quick reminder—my school does Palgwe forms rather than Taeguk, and you can read a description about each one in The Poomsae Series. We also have the rarely practiced “Koryo One,” which is learned at bo dan and “Nopei,” which is learned at fourth Dan (I talked my Master into teaching it to me last year.)

I kinda didn’t want to. It was raining outside, and I wasn’t looking forward to the drive home. I had to go to the bathroom. I was hungry. But I knew I needed to run through my forms to keep my mental and physical memory fresh. I knew I needed to do my forms just because.

As I moved through my stances, blocks, kicks, and strikes, I had an odd sense of both feeling something that was deeply ingrained and familiar and also a little shaky and unusual. I move in a very particular way when I do forms. It comes out when I’m striking, sparring, doing self-defense, etc., but that essence is more detailed and prominent when I’m doing a form. I’m certainly not used to doing these movements while I teach a class at work (I’m a corporate trainer), when I torture my core and legs in ballet barre class, and not really even in Body Combat class even thought I use that class as way to tweak my technique. The mindset is different. The mental presence is different.

I only spent about 15-20 minutes in the darkened gym aerobics room practicing my forms, but I felt reconnected to something that has been slipping away these past few months. I could see the way my body moved in clinging gym clothes as opposed to my loose doboks and was able to pick up on small details. I had quiet time to correct myself and refresh my memory. I stored away little nuggets of how I would teach (or more often than not, re-teach) these forms to my students.

I was doing taekwondo, and I didn’t need a school or a uniform or a belt to make it so. Running through my forms was a quick but powerful reminder that I may not practice and train taekwondo as frequently as I used to, but I can always keep it alive and thriving within me.

Falling Out of Love Can Be a Slow, Sickening Process

forever over.jpgThe first time I entered the UT Southwestern medical school library for a class in my library science graduate program, I KNEW IN MY BONES that I wanted to be there. I wanted to work in a medical library, and I was on FIRE.

And I did. After an internship at that very library and a year-long stint at an oil company I landed a job in the medical library of one of the largest hospitals in my metropolitan area. It was my dream job…until it wasn’t. After several years I realized that I had to leave. There were a number of reasons beyond my desire to leave that job, and out of respect for the company I’ll keep those reasons private. As much as I KNEW I wanted to work at UT Southwestern I KNEW IN MY BONES that I had to quit this hospital library job.

It was a heartbreaking realization and a yearlong process to find another job. I told no one other than my parents of my deep dissatisfaction and desire to get out. It was difficult to suffer in silence and alternate between the nervousness of changing to a new environment and the dread of staying where I didn’t want to be any longer than I had to. I didn’t love or even like my job, or the library profession itself, any more. I wasn’t progressing, and I knew I would stagnate and regress if I stayed there. But what would I do if I left that job? I got a master’s degree in that field so I could land a job like that. As much as I want to eschew profession as part of one’s identity, that job was a part of who I was.

Luckily I landed a job within the same healthcare company in the training and development department. It wasn’t easy at first. There was a learning curve and poor management (those people are no longer with the company). I wondered more than once if I’d made the wrong decision. I had zero experience in org/leadership development, but I worked hard to learn and carve a space of my own in that department.

Fast forward nearly eight years later, and I don’t regret it at all. I’ve grown up in that job emotionally and professionally. I developed new talents and skills and have flourished. I’ve had more opportunities and more exposure in the organization, and it has proven to be MUCH more lucrative than staying in the library world. (Hint to companies–pay your young librarians more. Maybe they’ll stay longer.)

I tell this story to make my point that falling out of love is sometimes a slow process with aching, ever-growing clarity. I didn’t hate my old career or anyone involved. No one did anything wrong to me. It just wasn’t a fit anymore for who I was at that time or who I knew I had the potential to be.

And that’s how I feel about my taekwondo school. I’m not in love anymore. I continue to go to class out of some lingering, dwindling sense of loyalty, identity, familiarity, and fear of political repercussions if I quit in a public way. I’m afraid to leave because of possible repercussions, but I am not growing. I’m bored. I don’t like the new location. My potential is stunted. I don’t see a “lucrative” future in terms of training and opportunities. There are other reasons for my dissatisfaction, but like my old job, I want to keep those reasons private out of respect for and privacy of the other people involved.

One could argue do we have to be “in love” with everything? No, of course not. A job is a job. We don’t have to all “follow our passions.” I like my job, but my main passion is paying off my mortgage. I don’t have to love taekwondo; it could just be an activity I do once in a while…but that’s not my history with it. I fell hard and fast. I was in deep.

I know this drastic change in my relationship to taekwondo has affected my mood and emotional waves this past year as I have withdrawn from my involvement in the school’s current version of itself. More often than not, I don’t look forward to going to class. I don’t care anymore. As a result (possibly), I get more stressed out and overwhelmed in general more quickly, and I’m on a shorter fuse. I let myself become more emotionally involved at work, which I detest because I’ve always enjoyed a relaxed sense of detachment from the more silly parts of the corporate world. I’ve lost a big part of my identity that has been such a positive force for the last several years.

I do have my moments of excitement and happiness. I enjoyed very much getting to lead a black belt test we held in April. I had a lot of fun with my fellow black belts and students this past week. Taking an old familiar taekwondo class and getting to wear my black belt and uniform is a lot different (and still more emotionally fulfilling) than the Body Combat class at the gym. Maybe I just need an extended break, like I took from work a few weeks ago…but I know that will just be a bandage over a larger, deeper problem.

But it’s just not the same. What we had for the last several years (our camaraderie, our shared goals, our school) is gone, and part of my challenge this year has been accepting that loss and finding the positive in what exists now. But do I have to accept it? Did I have to just accept that library job (and salary) and say, “Okay, this is my career for the next 30 years”? I’d like to think that I’m still a black belt and retain all the mental, physical (although that’s dwindling because my training is minimal), and emotional prowess that comes with it, no matter where I go or what I do in life. I’ll always be a black belt. But I might be a black belt without a home.

The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed)

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I have a poster in my work office that reads, “A black belt is a white belt who refused to give up.” This is a popular phrase in the martial arts world, and it’s popped up a few times on my blog.

I’m kind of annoyed at myself for buying it. Every day it hangs over my head, reminding me of my power, potential, and the expectations set upon me, even on the days when I just don’t wanna.

I’ve had a lot of days lately where I “just don’t wanna.” I was pretty burned out personally and professionally at the beginning of the year. I feel like I’m finally coming out of that fog, but I’m not out entirely. All the while that stupid poster has been there, glaring down at me and reminding me that I can’t give up. I’m resentful of that. What if I do want to give up? I’m tired of having to be my own savior and champion and foundation…but here I am with my f-cking black belt.

The motto is also a reminder of my roots. As a white belt I was open-minded, eager to learn, and willing to take on challenges. You probably felt the same way as a new student or when you first started a new job. Lately as a black belt I’ve felt overwhelmed, jaded, and secretly toying with the idea of quitting. It’s helpful sometimes in class to revisit taekwondo fundamentals, skills we learned as white belts. Practicing simple blocks, strikes, and kicks has a calming effect.

In some circumstances  quitting, giving up, leaving, letting go are appropriate responses if it means choosing a new and better path. There’s nothing wrong with that. “Refusing to give up” sometimes means making a change or taking a new opportunity that takes one in a different direction. I don’t want to “quit” my current situations, but I am actively seeking a change.

What gets me through taekwondo classes and the work I’m currently doing is reminding myself of why I got involved in the first place and how much I enjoy helping people. What gives me hope is that the same discipline and determination I display in the dojang can help me take control and change other situations in my life.

So I’m going to keep the poster in my office. Every day it’s a reminder of where I came from and who I can be. It’s a reminder that if I’m not happy with my current circumstances I have the power to change them. I can control my responses, just as I do in the dojang.

We were all “white belts” at some point. What makes us black belts in martial arts or in life is the desire to keep learning, improving, making changes, and designing our own destinies.

Little Black Belt is FOUR!

number 4

My blog turns four today! Thank you for reading and commenting on my posts. I’m glad I could reach people all over the world and share my love of the life changing martial art taekwondo. During the past year I went through a major change at work, learned the mystery of  a lingering health problem, and passed my second Dan test. To celebrate my blog’s birthday I’m sharing my favorite posts from the past year. Enjoy!

1. You ARE Something (Other People Believe It, So It’s About Time You Did) (April 2017) A new opportunity at work teaches me about valuing myself as much as others do.

2. The Best Birthday (July 2017) My master and fellow students make my birthday one of the happiest ever.

3. You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For (August 2017) A speech at a work event teaches all of us about the power of stepping into who we really are and what we can really accomplish.

4. So I’m Eating Meat Again: a Cautionary Tale of the Rules We Place on Ourselves (September 2017) I realize that my foray into vegetarianism triggered a latent eating disorder and I take up hamburgers again.

5. Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice (October 2017) I see a lot of parallels between black belt leadership and the leadership skills I encourage people to develop at work. Just like being a good taekwondo student and instructor, being a good leader takes diligence and practice.

6. Saying Goodbye to the Parasites In Our Lives (October 2017) A little microbe I named Plankton and the relationship I had with “him” taught me that sometimes it’s harder than we think to give up things that are ultimately harmful to us.

7. Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan  (November 2017) The day before my second dan test I reflected on what it means to pass the test and the responsibility attached to actually wearing the belt.

8. Being Okay With Where You Are (November 2017) A yoga class and a botched board break teach me that it’s okay to be forgiving of myself and accept where I am and what I’m capable of doing moment to moment. (And you can do that too!)

9. Why I Teach (Even Though I Want Everyone to Leave Me Alone) (February 2018) I have a love/hate relationship with teaching and presenting, a skill I’ve cultivated both in the workplace and in taekwondo. I seem to have a knack for guiding, coaching, and inspiring people, but damnit, sometimes I just want to be quiet and not talk to anyone for a week. My blessing is my curse, sigh.

10. You Know More Than You Think You Do: What I Learned from Practicing “That Old Japanese Form” (The Poomsae Series Part 14) (February 2018) This post marked the end of both The Poomsae Series as we know it for now and the end of a treasured student-teacher relationship and the lesson I was able to carry with me.

Thank you for reading. Let’s make it another good year!

Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan

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Tomorrow, after two years of hard work and training, I test for second dan. The obligatory post-test Veuve Cliquot Champagne and cupcakes are chilling in the fridge. The dobok I will wear is clean and folded. For once I don’t feel the twinge of any lingering injuries. I feel prepared and confident in my skills and warmth and joy that my family will be able to witness this next step in my taekwondo journey.

Getting second dan has a more subdued feeling to me than getting first dan did. I can’t explain it right now and probably won’t be able to until I’ve lived in my new rank for a while (that is, if everything goes as planned and my knees don’t decide on sudden mutiny). Maybe it’s because I’ve been distracted by a busy month at work, or maybe I’m just more aware of what I’m in for this time around.

Our Grandmaster has said that you’re not really a black belt if you just test, get awarded the belt, and then quit, which is the fate of so many martial artists, especially younger students. Those students have performed color belt techniques, and that’s it. They stop before they even begin the learning process that comes with being a black belt. I am the only one from my “graduating class” who is still attending our school.  When I got my black belt a lot of well-meaning people asked, “Now what?” as if that were the end rather than a spot on a continuum of training. I don’t think I’ll be asked that question this time. Most of the people I know have realized that taekwondo is an inherent part of my life. (How could they not, since I talk about it ad nauseam?)

I was proud to “get” my black belt. I was excited and happy during my test, and I don’t want to take away the importance from that moment. It was a very important point in my life and an accomplishment I’m very proud of. But the first time I put on my belt just meant…it was the first time I was putting on my belt. I wasn’t really living and performing as a black belt yet. I couldn’t wait to show up at the next class and start learning “black belt stuff,” and I’ve been in a learning mode ever since then. 

The learning has only intensified. I feel like I’m testing for my black belt every day in class, meaning, living up to the potential and responsibility of my rank. There are lower ranking techniques I still have yet to master, and every time I do “black belt stuff,” I’m looking for ways to improve my practice. I’ve learned volumes about teaching and by default, have learned more about taekwondo technique by teaching it to other students. Teaching has helped me better understand the “why” behind what we do and ways to make what I do stronger, faster, and more effective.

Being a black belt has taught me so much beyond new forms or advanced self-defense techniques. It’s helped boost my confidence both in the dojang and in the workplace, plus patience, adaptability, leadership, and oddly enough, more compassion, especially since I take responsibility for the students I help guide and coach. When I’m facing a difficult task at work or in the dojang (and sometimes in those tough physical therapy workouts), I think, “Come on, Black Belt, you can do this!” My belt isn’t just something I wear around my waist a few hours each week. It has become a part of my psyche and identity. I’ll be a black belt for the rest of my life.

I’m excited about my test tomorrow and recognize it for the important event it is (and that Champagne tastes really damn good, so I’m equally excited about that)…but it’s just one event in that never-ending continuum. I’ll show up to class on Monday with the same big dumb smile on my face, eager to learn and ready to keep practicing. Eventually I’ll be a second dan, and I look forward to the journey.

Oh Crap, I’m Testing For Second Dan

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If all goes according to plan I should be testing for second degree black belt in less than three months. Uhhh….How is this happening now? It seems like time is going too fast! What happened to the last two years?? I’m not ready; I still have so much to practice!!

The irony isn’t lost on me that my test is tentatively set the same day as Saint Jude Thaddeus’s feast day. St. Jude, for those of you not playing Little Black Belt Catholic Edition at home, is the patron saint of desperate cases and impossible situations. I’m gonna need all the help I can get.

So what’s happened in the past two years?

My personal and professional lives have changed and in some ways become more complex they were two years ago, but I know I’m in a much better emotional place. In 2015 I was getting over a difficult breakup and dealing with a very painful acute injury. The six months between bo dan and black belt were lonely and frustrating. Over the past two years I’ve had many ups and downs, and so far I’ve landed more on the “up” side. I have taekwondo to thank for that.

One of the main changes has been my transition not only from a color belt to a black belt, but also from student to instructor. My grandmaster and masters adopted me as a de facto instructor whether I really wanted it or not. (Don’t worry, I wanted it) There was never a formal invitation. It just kind of happened, and the seeds had been planted before I even tested for black belt. My main instructor threw me into simpler things like refereeing when I was a bo dan (black belt candidate). He added more responsibility as time went by, and I got a taste for it. I started showing up to help at lower ranking classes and belt tests, and pretty soon I started showing up every day the dojang was open. They couldn’t get rid of me at that point.

These days rarely a class goes by when he doesn’t throw some assignment at me, and for the most part I can run with it without needing too much guidance. I’ve even taught a few classes by myself. I seem to have a knack for it (being a training and development professional doesn’t hurt) and I put the same effort into my craft as I do in my day job. Both of my “jobs” are based around building relationships and communicating, or at least that’s how I approach them. I think of myself as a caregiver at work and at the dojang. The kids like me, and the parents like me too so that makes my life easier.

All that being said, I still consider myself a student first rather than an instructor. As long as I have higher ranking black belts and masters above me I look to them for my training. I feel like I still have so much to learn and practice, including teaching methods. Maybe I am too self-conscious about my own taekwondo skills to consider myself an adept practitioner because I know what excellence looks like. I know there are things I can improve, and I’m frustrated when my body simply can’t do the things I know are technically correct.

Before you say, “Oh don’t be so hard on yourself,” let me be clear that I’m really not berating or being hard on myself. I know I do a good job and have gotten pretty skilled in the last few years, but once in a while I have a kind of out-of-body experience and wonder what the heck a goofball like me is doing with a black belt. Once in a while it seems weird to see myself in my instructor uniform and belt. Is this who I am now?

Years ago my instructor reminded me that we need challenges or else we become stagnant. I have certainly not become stagnant, even when I’ve hit plateaus or have felt burnt out. I work hard in every class, and I’m always trying to apply something new that I’ve learned. I’m still having fun, even on the difficult nights, so I think I’ve answered my own question as to whether taekwondo would fall by the wayside with my other previous passions that were right for me at the time until…well…they no longer were.

The nice part about being a black belt is that it’s allowed me to be a bit retrospective and work on color belt skills that I now see with a black belt’s eye.

Here are some other things I’ve learned in the past two years as a newbie black belt:

  • I love sparring. It’s kind of like how I enjoy tennis—I’m not great at it, but it’s just fun to do and an incredible workout. I hated sparring so much as a child that I was relieved when my family stopped training. It’s kind of neat how I grew to love it as an adult and even be able to coach and teach other students sparring techniques.
  • Damn, breaking stuff with my hands is a cathartic experience I have never known before or since.
  • Even when I’ve felt frustrated, angry, burned out, or tempted to quit I know taekwondo has been too good of a force in my life to walk away.
  • I love teaching. It’s truly a delight and something I never considered that I would experience when I was an anxious, lonely white belt trying to get my life on track.
  • I hate jump spin kick and always will to my dying breath. I’ll jump snap kick a joker in the face, but I’m not turning around in the air for nothing. My body don’t play. #sorrynotsorry
  • I am a fierce little poomsae queen, and Keumgang (the form I had the most difficult time learning and now one of my favorites) was made for dramatic shorties like me. Y’all wait, a new addition to The Poomsae Series is coming soon! YAAASSSSS!!
  • I love coaching at tournaments even though they are long, incredibly exhausting events.
  • I love helping at belt tests, but I’m always nervous that I’m going to do something dumb. I usually do.
  • My black belt mentality has seeped into how I carry myself in daily life. I’m more outgoing, more engaged with other people, I’m quicker to stand my ground when necessary, and I don’t take little annoyances too seriously. According to my boss, I’m funnier too. Even when I get upset I’m able to power through it just as I can with a challenging fight, tiring tournament, or difficult teaching experience. I’m also even more of an organized monster than I was before.
  • Taekwondo is the best thing that’s ever happened to me and THE main element (along with a few others) that changed my mentality, outlook, and life for the better. There was life before April 1, 2013 (my first white belt class as an adult) and my life after. Life after White Belt has been much brighter and happier.
  • There’s a lot more that I’ve learned, which is why I started this blog in the first place. Happy reading. 🙂

The anticipation for my second dan is different than what I felt before I tested for first dan. First dan felt like a major transition. This seems more like a continuation, adding more depth rather than breadth to my practice. I need more practice on the skills I know I’ll need to demonstrate, and I hope on testing day I have the same eerie calmness I experienced the day of my first dan test. I feel a different sense of responsibility since the expectations as an instructor will increase. I’m excited, but in a different way I’m not sure I can explain at the moment.

I definitely feel even more at home now than I did two years ago. That’s a nice feeling. And rest assured, cupcakes and Veuve Cliquot are happening after my test this year. It’s my black belt tradition.