Usagi Yojimbo and the BJJ Black Belt

****This is a re-post of a blog i wrote over 4 years ago, for my old blog at Dig Deep Brazilan Jiu Jitsu, but it’s about a samurai rabbit, so how could it NOT be relevant?
  Now to be fair, I haven’t had my black belt for long, so I’m certainly not saying that  I can make definitive statements about what “being a black belt” is like.  I’m not even sure at this point that I can definitively say what it’s been like for the short time I’ve had it.  Which is to say that, so far, my Black belt has been defined by uncertainty.

Upon receiving my black, I certainly didn’t feel like I’d “arrived” or that I had completed a mission,  but instead I felt like after exploring the ridiculous number of rooms in a grand mansion, I had found an impressive, important looking door, and once I had stepped through it, found myself at the edge of a wide open field.  Wasn’t I supposed to spend my life in the mansion?   Wasn’t that the point?  If now I look back at the mansion, it seems very plain indeed.  Just a house.  A solid, functional, practical house, but certainly not the expansive castle that it had first appeared to my limited scope of understanding.  It’s not like I had intentionally been looking for a “home” to spend the rest of my days, but rather, because of the commonly accepted view of this achievement,  I simply assumed that there would be one when I reached this point in my journey.  Upon arrival I realized that though culturally the goal certainly carried weight, experientially I was no  different than the day before.  The house was a good, safe, insulated place to learn the rules, but the true goal was the path that lay beyond it.

Which brings us to my favourite samurai rabbit, Usagi Yojimbo.
Look at this rabbit.  Admire this rabbit.

Now Usagi was one of my absolute favourite characters as a kid, which is sort of amazing, because I don’t think I ever read one of his comics, but instead only caught him in guest appearances in my other fave, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Recently however, I ordered something like 20 different collections of Usagi books from the library and absolutely devoured them.  The last few months, what with opening my own school, getting students ready for grading, and getting ready for my own Black belt presentation have left me mentally exhausted, and the adventures of a wandering samurai rabbit were exactly what I needed.

An interesting by-product of this escapism has been a growing appreciation for the path of this masterless samurai, or ronin, (yes i know I’m talking quite seriously about a rabbit, but suspend your disbelief with me for a moment) which is defined asshugyosha, or the warriors path of learning.  To unpack that a little, in times of peace, many feudal lords in Japan couldn’t afford to employ large numbers of samurai, and so these ronin,  were forced to seek jobs as bodyguards (yojimbo, translated) or mercenaries, or in the case of Usagi, they chose to follow Shugyosa.   This is the open path of a wanderer and in Usagi’s case it kind of plays out like the Lone Ranger, or theLittlest Hobo ( I apologize to any non-Canadian readers and younger folk who didn’t grow up on this show), going from village to village, solving problems and helping the underdogs who are being trampled by those that in their hunger for power, abused those in their path.    Along the way, Usagi seeks to improve his skills and himself, spiritually.

All this talk of this bunny’s path in life is surprisingly inspiring for me.  I’m not a big competitor, (and certainly not young enough or in the proper phase of life to go for that kind of lifestyle), and so my path in BJJ has not been defined by racking up wins at the various belt levels, and I’m finding that now, more than ever, I’m having to clarify what the hell it is I’m doing in this Art.  BJJ has been a template and a framework whereby I’ve sought to improve myself as a person and as an artist;  building effective Martial skill, and constantly striving to improve my character.  I don’t feel like I’m building skill simply for the sake of building skill, but rather as a path; that by traveling it,  I would be refined.  To be constantly in a state of unrest, always “wandering” and moving forward, never content to simply camp and be comfortable.

The feedback for positive progress in my jiu jitsu is so minute at this point; tiny angles, timing almost beyond perception, distribution of weight in a fleeting second, that it makes commitment to the plateaus an imperative (Mastery by George Leonard goes into this in depth).  My choice to follow this path isn’t determinate on daily success, but rather, daily success is determined by my choice to follow this path.  Everyday that I keep showing up is an investment in both the betterment of self and my incremental, progressing understanding of an art too deep for me to completely fathom.

I’ve often used the Black belt to represent a point where you’ve learned the rules to a really complex game, and now that you’ve got the gist of the thing, you can really start playing.  I remember reading an interview with Roger Gracie, who is arguably one of the greatest practitioners of BJJ alive, wherein he stated that after he had received his black belt he could “now really begin to learn jiu jitsu”.  This is from one of the most dominant competitors of all time.  To me, this just shows that no matter how good you are, you can always get better.

So, while there is a plethora of information available about how to get better and the best way to improve, and the 7 things you MUST blah blah blah blah, it would seem, at least to my limited understanding, that the most important thing is that you simply keep showing up.   I know, I know, I should write a book.  It would fly off the shelves (what with it being only one page, a stiff breeze would do it).  The truth is, if you’re questioning your commitment, or you’re tormented by so and so who is always tapping you, or you’re looking for some kind of approval to make up a deficit in your life, you’re probably going to quit once you reach your goal.  If you want to attain the level of Black Belt to prove something to your peers or because you think it will imbue you with special powers (which it does of course, flight is awesome) then what you will mainly feel when you finally have that belt  (or get that degree, or receive that promotion at work) after the initial euphoria wears off,  is disappointment.  And that will suck.  Learn to love the path for the path itself.

This is, of course what I now have in front of me.  That even though I’ve found the transition to Faixa Preta more jarring than I expected, I am now more than ever commited to running a marathon, and not a sprint.  So now, without a tangible goal, I proceed into the wide open field, just one more rabbit with a sword.  Or something.


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