Second Degree, 50 Years Old

I have made a career of speaking to groups of people, but none are as special as you are to me. And none are as meaningful and memorable. I’m honored to have Master Meanie here and simultaneously sad that he has only a couple days to be among this amazing community that I’ve been with for more than four years. And thanks to my family and friends in the VIP section.

During my tenure as a 1st degree black belt I learned three lessons and discovered three truths. The first lesson I learned was that I had a lot left to learn.

The second thing I learned was left-handed one-steps.

I often feel as if the left side of my body belongs to someone else. If I were choosing sides for any game, I would choose my left side last. The left side of my body is a necessary evil to prop up my right side–useful for cosmetic symmetry, but otherwise it just gets in the way. I am not and “ambi-turner.”

But the left-handed one-steps (along with an injured right shoulder) have given me an opportunity to explore the other side of me.  I had to cross over to the other side of the tracks that run down the center of AllanTown. What I found there was…surprisingly familiar. A mirror image of myself. My right side began to teach my left side what it knows. A conversation was begun. Communication channels were opened. I’ve discovered my left side isn’t bad, just different.  And if my left side is awkward, timid, and embarrassed, it is more so from neglect than anything else.

While I have always considered my right side to be “dominant,” that’s really a misnomer. Because in a way it is our weak sides that actually dominate us. And really it is our perceived weaknesses that dominate us by cutting us off from all the unexplored parts of who we are and all the unused resources we harbor on the “other” neglected sides of ourselves.

My third lesson is that being a black belt is as much about revisiting old skills as it is learning new skills. A successful martial artist does not have a “been-there-done- that” attitude. The successful martial artist cannot get bored. This doesn’t mean doing Chun Jee (mindlessly) over and over a hundred times. It means doing it one time (mindfully), and always doing it better than the time before. I often say that the most innovative poets are those who see the world as if seeing it for the very first time. Maybe that’s what being a black belt is too. The more you know the more freedom you have to forget what you’ve learned, and re-learn it from a whole new perspective.

You begin to understand how every skill we learn is a scaffold allowing you to reach some higher place. Holding your stance a little deeper. Lifting your knee a little higher. Getting through the left side of Saju Maki. None of these accomplishments are an end in themselves, but a means to an even greater end. You begin to see how mastery is not a destination but a dance.

Three truths have remained constant from white belt to black belt and beyond. The first Truth is that Success is not the absence of mistakes, it is the presence of excellence. Bowing onto the mat is your opportunity to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Stand up straight. Focus. Relax. Breath deeply. Kiyop loudly. Be present. Your martial arts practice is not something done to you; it is something that you do.

The second Truth is that, as a rule, growth and self-awareness can only be found somewhere outside your comfort zone. Like limits of a growing city, expanding and swallowing up the nearby boroughs, my comfort zone has grown from a quaint hamlet to a thriving metropolis. This expansion was gradual and imperceptible at the time. But from my 2nd Degree perspective I can look back to see how much the city limits of AllanTown have grown, and I can look ahead to see how much more is possible.

Truth number three. Master Morris uses the term “imprinting” to describe how we can envision ourselves moving like one of our fellow practitioners. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever imprinted Ethan Morris. Now imagine everyone else here who has inspired you in some way, through their skill or their commitment or their concentration or their smile or the way they help others or their family dynamic or the way they show up to every class.) By exhibiting excellence yourself and opening your eyes to the excellence in others, you establish relationships , on and off the mat, that impact your world for the better.

My main goal for the next stage of my practice is to stop worrying about all the things I do not know and start wondering about all the things I’ve yet to learn and accomplish . Amazingly enough, worry and wonder feel the same in your body. The same butterflies and uncertainty. You cannot change the feeling, but you can change how you name it. Maybe being a 2nd degree black belt for me will simply mean transforming worry into wonder. Skill-wise my aim is to add more vertical height to my jumps. To become more proficient with wrist-locks, throws, and escapes. To increase the power, speed, and accuracy of my kicks. To add more combinations to my sparring.

I also plan on practicing smarter. I will rely less on strength and more on technique .I want to incorporate greater breath control and relaxation in my movements. I will continue to increase my flexibility and balance with yoga, and increase my core strength and awareness through Pilates. I will continue to hug my kittens and get to know my tennis ball, really well.

Which is a good segue as I conclude with a few thank-yous. Thanks to two master instructors in their own respective disciplines, Amy Dowling and Donna

Hollingshead, who have allowed me to include yoga and Pilates as an essential part of my TKD practice.

Thanks to all of my fellow martial artists. Your feedback and friendship make my practice and my life complete. Typically the black belts are lined up in the front row with our backs turned. We are there, in part, as a model for the lower belts, but you may not be aware of how inspiring you are to us.

Thanks to the other black belts. There is no time to catalogue all the things I have learned from each one of you. I hope by now you know who you are. It is a slippery slope to start naming names, but here goes. To Lisa Phillips, who has been my friend, and official Bobbsey Twin, from White Belt to White Russian. To Tony Morris, Batsheva Meiri, and Michael Fortini whose guidance in our Master Mind group has helped me channel all the positivity of my practice into my personal and professional life.

Thanks to Mark Meiri and Ethan Morris, who have taught me a lot by explaining things verbally, and even more by simple example. Michael Dickinson, David Kareken, and Thabiti Sabahive: What can I say? Your lessons have been as meaningful and memorable as they have been, sometimes, painful. Whenever any one of you say, “Hey, Allan, check this out…” I know I’m about to receive a month of knowledge in a 5-minute lesson.

The official staff, Amy Dexter, Elizabeth Goyer, Michael Dickinson, and Tony Morris. All of you are exemplary practitioners and effective teachers. You are like the Martial Arts version of The Justice League: Each of you is a super hero in your own right, but working together you seem unstoppable and invincible.

And if the Sun Soo staff is the Justice League: who else is Super Man but Tony Morris. It takes a brilliant businessman to create a thriving, sustainable business. But it takes a visionary to create a thriving, sustainable community with the potential to grow into something larger than himself.

As for my family. Now, y’all know I am their father and I may be biased, but I think I have three of the coolest kids on the planet. Each of them is inspiring to me in his or her own right. I’m lucky to share a martial arts practice with my two boys. I must thank Simon and Ethan for a thousand one-steps in the living room, forms work on the back deck, and sparring in the kitchen. Those of you who are able to practice with family members have some idea what a once in a lifetime opportunity that is. Ethan was the child who first started at Sun Soo and who inspired the rest of us to join  as well. Testing for this 2nd degree black belt with Ethan will give us a common bond that will last both our lifetimes.

In our family of five, we have created a sort of sixth member, an entity made up of a little piece of each of us, and named JESGA, from the first letters of our names from youngest to oldest.

So in honor of my family I will break my boards in JESGA order. In all but the last I’ll be breaking through 2 boards at once. In honor of Jameson’s gymnastic acrobatics I will do a right jump spin sidekick. In honor of left-handed Ethan’s love of spinning breaks that look good but have questionable real-world application, I will do a left-footed spinning axe kick; in honor of Simon’s historic double-jump front kick, I will do a single jump front kick. In honor of my wife Ginger finishing graduate school, a left-handed hammer fist. In honor of myself, a right-handed knife hand. And finally, I will do a step-behind side kick power break through three boards, in honor of my other family, all of you at Sun Soo, who have been my friends and my inspiration both on and off the mat.