Let’s call it 2001, maybe 2002. I’m testing for one of the lower color belt ranks at the School of Love. I am among the most junior of the testing group in the Shuri Ryu system, but I’ve been training in the martial arts longer than any one of the rank-promotion candidates.
Among the testing group is a senior student, a gifted phenom going for her brown belt. None of us has really realized how much we are counting on her to set our course, to lead the group through the rigors of the test, until we’re told during warm-ups that she has the ‘flu and won’t be coming.
We flounder. We hit the floor in perfect disarray. Our Sensei’s disapproval is palpable when she tells us, in the first twenty minutes of basics, to pull it together.
I am in agony. I feel a responsibility to step up and take the lead. In a different setting, any one of the other students—even the missing student—could be my junior. Duty, rank, responsibility weigh on me. The group is looking for a center that can hold. Shouldn’t I be that center?
In equal measure I feel the weight of the test I showed up to take: the junior rank, the techniques I have practiced and memorized, the struggle to maintain beginner’s mind in this new style. I want to commit to my student self, I don’t want to step across the line to be the leader of the pack.
Then it comes to me, a perfectly formed sentence typed across my mind. “If I am different, the group will be different.” I don’t have to take on more than my share. But if I change my way of being—not taking the lead, but being both fully present and completely different—it’s likely that something else will shift. And then something else, and so on, and so on. Change moving through the group like the ripples off the proverbial butterfly’s wing.
This is why we take these tests: not so our teachers can see us throwing the punches and kicks and blocks they’ve already seen in a hundred classes. It’s so we can have these flashes of insight where training mirrors life, our foibles set up to strike us down, and we rise above them.
Sometimes when I think I have to fix everything, when I think I’m the one who has to step up and save the day, I remember that all I have to do to make a situation different is to be different myself. If I change, the world around me changes. I don’t have to change it all. I just have to change me. Most of the time, that’s challenge enough.