Have you ever been faced with a challenge that all but brought you to your knees? One that tested every ounce of grit, determination and courage you had?
Often these types of challenges are not something we volunteer ourselves for (at least not knowingly). And yet, we find ourselves immersed in them with no other choice but to reach deep within to find within the strength we need to persevere and make our way through.
About six and a half years ago, my martial arts practice pushed me to my limits. It was an experience that almost kept me from continuing in my journey — a journey that ultimately led me to be promoted to first degree black belt this time last year. I look back on it now with gratitude for all that I learned. And I recently came across an article I wrote when that test was finished.
I want to share it with you in the hopes that reading it will somehow help you to connect to your own powerful reserves — so that you can find within yourself the strength you need to face anything life throws at you. I hope you enjoy it.
Waiting outside the dojo, I quietly prepared myself, breathing slowly and deeply. I adjusted my mouth guard over my teeth, feeling like a horse trying to acclimate to its first bit. After my name was called, I was ushered into a circle of black belts standing around a plastic red padded floor until I stood face to face with my opponent. Our heads were swallowed up by the protective foam of our sparring gear, exposing only eyes, cheeks, noses and lips. Before me stood one of the most intense sensei’s I had trained with. It was not the first time this man had pushed me out of my comfort zone.
After bowing to each other, we began to spar. I threw a few of the punches I’d practiced every week in karate class and managed to get some kicks in. But for every strike I made, it seemed my sensei threw at least three more. I continued to circle, launching a few more tentative jabs here and there. The black belts surrounding us were shouting encouragement, their voices merging into chords of indistinguishable tones.
And then I felt a sharp blow to my face. I instinctively curled toward my stomach and felt a burst of fluid that was not yet visible. When the blood appeared, the sparring session was stopped and a hand appeared with a wad of Kleenex in it. As I cautiously dabbed at my nose and wiped my eyes, someone asked me if I wanted to continue.
I heard myself say yes. Squinting through the sweat that was dripping from my forehead and feeling my heart beating in my face, I raised my gloved fists higher and took a few more shots.
Before I knew it, I was taken to the ground. I was vaguely aware that there was at least one, maybe two other black belts in the sparring match now. As I grappled on the ground, fatigue set in. I struggled to escape the choke hold, forgetting everything I had learned and feeling like a spider’s prey wriggling and writhing to escape while the grip became tighter. And then, thankfully, that part of the test was over.
I walked into the bathroom to pull myself together, feeling bruised, bloody and beaten. Outside the door were others waiting for their turn to test, friends who through our shared experience somehow became bonded in a way that transcended language. I knew that if any of them had emerged from the dojo looking the way I did, I may have lost my nerve and my courage. So I had to find it in myself once again.
In the moments that followed, I sat exhaustedly pondering the experience I just had and waiting for the next portion of the test while people continued to give me Kleenex and hugs.
“Why didn’t you just quit?” I was asked in the oral part of my test. I stood facing a long table of black belts that stared back at me with inquisitive eyes. I would be asked that question many times in the coming days by friends and family who thought I was a little nuts to willingly participate in an activity with such a high probability of physical pain.
After a few moments I realized why I had to continue, despite the blood, the tears, and the exhaustion. It was the same reason I kept coming to karate classes all those years, the same reason I left my cushy job to start my own company, the same reason I picked myself up and kept at it after failed marketing attempts as an entrepreneur.
“I wanted to see what I had left in me,” I replied. And though what I had left in me on that momentous Saturday morning landed me in a headlock I could not escape from, I learned a lot about myself and life as well.
We will always be faced with challenges and opportunities. Some of them may feel daunting. They will push us to our edges and summon up every last bit of strength and fortitude we can muster. And we may find ourselves on the ground (literally or figuratively), feeling defeated and fatigued. In those moments, when we look inside ourselves we will find courage we didn’t think we had – even if only to stand up and be knocked down again.
Each time we rise to our challenges, we learn a bit more about how to handle the next one. Having been in the grip of our own fear and experienced the disorienting confusion that panic and adrenaline brings, we can learn to be in the midst of chaos and find our calm.
Here’s what I learned from my sparring experience that I intend to apply to all parts of my life:
- Keep your hands up. Children taking karate are encouraged to see their arms as the bars of a cage. “Keep the tiger in the cage,” they are told. This does not mean that we need to learn to become withdrawn and reserved so that others cannot see or interact with us. Rather, it means that we need to learn to love and protect who we are and deflect the jabs and punches of a society that will at times entice us to act in ways that are not aligned with our true selves.
- Breathe. When we become panicked, our breathing gets shallow and our brains do not get as much oxygen. We literally go out of our minds, unable to access the reserves of wisdom we always possess. Breathing allows us to inspire – to take in spirit, to regain our connection to something bigger than ourselves and allow it to guide and inform us.
- Take responsibility. We are never victims. In life’s most dire circumstances, much can be taken from us, but we will always have the ability to choose the way in which we respond. We can see life as a battle in which someone always seeks to defeat us, or we can choose to experience it as an odyssey made up of a series of epic adventures that allow us to become our own heroes. Just as I signed on for karate and knew that the testing experience would push me to my limit, so too do I sign on for life – knowing that with every challenge is a gift, every seeming adversary a teacher.
- Choose peace. In any conflict, our responses can range from fear and even desire to inflict pain to peace and willingness to practice love. When we become too attached to defending ourselves, being right, or winning we stay on the lower rungs of the ladder, engaging in behavior that escalates conflict.
However, when we step up a few rungs, we move from a point of view to a viewing point, one in which we can identify what is important not only for ourselves but others as well. In this manner, we can transform conflict into collaboration.
When we seek to understand what is most important to everyone involved, the energy that was previously fueling fear can be redirected into something that promotes peace. In my sparring match, I stayed on the lower rung, more identified with fear of being attacked than acting in ways that could promote peace. As a result, I cut myself off from the inner wisdom and knowledge that would have allowed me to deflect my opponent’s blows and redirect his force in a way that could have ended the conflict.
Next time, I’ll be that much more prepared. I will know what it feels like to lose my center and choose a different response. And though I may not be able to practice my sparring every day, I can choose to rise up in whatever circumstances I find myself in and help others to find the resilience in themselves to do the same.
Just beyond the borders of what we believe to be our limitations lie vast and unending reserves of strength, courage, ingenuity and love. May you discover and unleash it in yourself and everyone around you.
With much gratitude to The Center for Humane Living for all I have learned about karate and myself.