Getting your Shodan is like being a recent graduate. It is the culmination of a long process of dedicated study. Hours of practice, and lessons learned from your teachers. No wonder we feel so accomplished. The graduate gets a diploma, and a degree. We get a black belt, and a most precious hakama. And, for the most part, we change. Somehow, a week or two after the test, our technique looks different. We feel different. We are different. Is it some sort of realization? Some weight lifted? Is it that we are free from the pre-test anxiety? I don’t know, but I don’t think so.
Six months before the test (or whatever time frame it was, I’m just using this for the sake of the argument), before the anxiety and before starting to really prepare, we were not this cool. After those six months we have grown more than the normal curve would have give us credit for. Something happened beyond the normal progression that comes from honest, focused practice. We tested. We performed technique not just in regular class, but with Sensei’s eyes fixed on us. With a public looking at our movements, our assertions, our mistakes. We performed technique when it mattered.
Now, I know what you, patient readers, are thinking. Shouldn’t each technique we perform be done because it matters, each time? Because each time it is a matter of life and death. Aren’t we practicing true budo? Yes. Each time we make a cut with our swords it should matter, because each time it is a question of life and death. But, testing makes things different. We are more focused, more aware, and feel more responsible to perform well. To show Sensei that we’ve learned, that we can. To make him/her proud.
And then, the change happens. And I think this happens at each kyu test, even if it is harder to perceive. But it is in the Shodan test that this change is especially noticeable. I felt it in my technique. My peers mentioned it to me. I think that, if only for this reason, one should test. Not for the rank, or the black belt, or the hakama. Just for the chance to make this jump and reach to this, even if just a little, higher level.
I know some deshis that decided to delay their Shodan test as much as possible, or who have not tested even after more than 20 years of practice. Two people come to mind; although, I do not know their real reasons. They come to practice every day with no black belt and no hakama. I bow to them because, even though my rank is ‘higher’, they are still my sempai. I have suggested, more than once, to one of them to test. I stopped when I realized that it is not my place to do so. I thought that this technique ‘jump’ after testing, if anything else, is well worth it. But it is not my path to follow. It’s theirs.
I was talking with Chuck Mensh regarding this subject. He mentioned that Yamada Sensei once told him that testing was like a lottery. Some deshis would benefit from the test and improve suddenly, while other would stagnate. This suggested to me that my theory was on the right track. It also left me thinking about the deshis who lost the lottery. What causes this outcome? Is it a matter of the consciousness with which one trains? A matter of what one’s search is in aikido?
When we stop testing we don’t stop growing. David Reinfeld told me that he thinks we should keep testing after Shodan instead of getting a new rank given by promotion. He thinks that testing will help improve our technique. Meanwhile, Sharon Dominguez remembers when Harvey Konigsberg Shihan was promoted to Godan (5th degree). Sharon says she saw Harvey transforming after the promotion and how Harvey’s technique made a big jump. In my case, being promoted to Yondan didn’t feel the same as passing the Shodan test. Maybe my next promotion will come when I’m ready to make this big leap.
Now, the jump from kyu to Shodan brings another issue to mind. What do we know now that we graduated? Besides the alphabet, I think very little. I dread taking ukemi during a Shodan test. A Sandan test? That’s fine. But the deshi who is testing for Shodan has not ‘jumped’ yet (if he is a lottery winner, that is!) Most likely there is brute force replacing unbalancing the uke. After the ‘jump’ happens (if it does), the deshi can feel and understand that the way is open. That the opportunities to learn are there.
It’s all unrealized potential. The recent graduate has a thin résumé with no real work experience behind her/him. A recent graduate has something that those who didn’t follow her/his path are most likely missing. So does the recent Shodan. And that something is this: getting a Shodan matches perfectly the definition of a recent graduate: somebody who knows nothing, but who is ready to learn.
(All photographs Copyright © Javier Domínguez, 2014)