Rite of Passage

I am still so caught up in that moment, that perhaps if I take the time to write about it, pausing to choose the right words and visualize it with enough detail to describe it accurately to you, my fellow traveler, maybe my brain will agree to archive that particular book and get back to the details of today.  (Because after all, I still have “mom stuff” to take care of.)

The moment I’m referring to happened last night, during what I can only describe as a rite of passage.  For a couple of months, I have known that Test Night was coming for myself and those in my martial arts class who were ready to advance to the next belt.  We’ve all been practicing, putting in long hours and lots of sweat in order to remember all the stances, forms, and steps.  For weeks, I’ve been excited for this night to come, and then it was here.

Yesterday, in my rational mind, I was fine.  I knew I was ready.  This is what we have been working on, this is what all those evenings of classes were moving toward, and really, what’s the worst that can happen?  Supposing I dropped the ball and failed on an epic scale, I would merely be at the same level I was before Test Night, so no worries; it would take a catastrophic screw-up for that to happen.  Rationally, I thought I would pass with flying colors.

Emotionally, however, I was nauseous.  Thinking about vomiting.  Talking myself down off the ledge.  A whole different story than the rational side of my brain.  A huge part of that apprehension was not knowing what I was getting into.  Our instructors had been preparing us, but they had also emphasized heavily how this was a test.  Best performance, highest level of ability, total effort better be on display this night.

They also, jokingly — I think — put the mop bucket in a convenient location and pointed it out before class, suggesting we use the bucket and not hurl on the floor if it came to that.  I must admit to a slight degree of trepidation at that announcement, thinking back in gratitude over a more advanced fellow student’s advice to eat a light lunch and skip dinner until after the test.

The first half of the test was spent sweating, literally and metaphorically, hoping I could make it, praying I wouldn’t embarrass myself too badly, pep talking all the way about breathing and endurance and this is what I’m here for.  This is why I train.  This is the direction my martial arts education is taking me, and I will be fine.  Never mind my lungs sucking for oxygen or my calf muscles locking up or my stomach muscles refusing to hold that plank another second.

Then, there was the moment when it all started to become fun.  At some point in time, I realized I was ready, that I could do this, that this was one of the things I was meant to do.  My fear and nerves took a back seat and my endorphins were throwing a party in my brain.  This was too much fun, and while the challenge remained to be better, do better, and try harder than ever before, this only brought the level of engagement up, without the worry of not being able to rise to that challenge.

There was a short rest for me, while I watched the higher belts taking turns breaking wooden boards.  This is something I had never done, and hadn’t thought I would be ready to do.  Board breaking was something required of higher belts, more advanced students, an ability that serious martial artists are equipped with and have trained for, and I was not aware that I had reached that level.

Yet, the instructors began calling up my peers, those who are training at my level, and I became aware that one of those boards figuratively had my name on it.  Tonight, I would be breaking my first board, or walking away with it unbroken.

That was the moment I recognized this Test Night as one of my rites of passage.  Wikipedia defines this concept like this:

  1. “A rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person’s transition from one status to another.”

When I walked into this room, I was scared, nervous, talking to myself about how hard I’ve worked for this and how much I love this and how it will all work out okay.  Throughout the test, my emotions and physiology had fluctuated, rising and falling, starting out timid and hesitant, slowly building in confidence and sensing victory and achievement.  At that moment of facing a wooden board, they stuttered again.  In my mind, this was the break it and make it moment, or the fail to break it and fail to make it moment.  This was a significant transition.  Whereas before I had done everything up till then that I had been tested on, I had never even attempted to break a board.  This was the second where I knew with everything in me, that I could not afford to even consider the failure to break that board.  All my mental preparation had to visualize my foot passing through the wood and out the other side.  Any other mental scenario meant surrender, creating a back door of doubt where it would be possible for me actually walk away with that board unbroken, and that is not what I came here for.

After the test, every single one of us was physically drained, exhausted both from the workout of the two-hour test and from the weeks of mental preparation leading up to it, but every single one of us was wearing a look of confidence and triumph.  Huge grins of relief.  Gratitude.  With it behind us, we were free and clear to celebrate the achievement, the level of commitment and dedication that it took to bring us to this point.  Slowly, through one night of mutual sweating to another, we had gone from strangers and first time acquaintances to friends, comrades, a unit.  One where we cheered each other on and wished each other good luck and told each other “You can do this” or “You’ve got this.”   The veteran higher ranks helped those of us in the lower ranks and when one class member forgot a series in a form, our fellow class members waited and only moved forward when we could all move forward together.  This is camaraderie and friendship and support.  This is what it looks like to grow stronger and more confident and more capable with others in step beside you on the same journey.  This is what it looks like to know there are others stronger and more confident and more capable because they have already stepped on the same path I’m walking, they have been where I am, they are farther along; and that is why they are beside me on this Test Night.  Mentoring, teaching, encouraging, showing us lower ranks the way to climb, the way to look out for each other, the way to inspire.

After months of sweating together, the knowledge that my fellow martial artists were in this together as a group, in spite of the different colors tied around our waists, that we each were silently and sometimes vocally cheering each other on, made this Test Night a ritual.  Made it significant.

To an on-looker, someone who wandered in off the street, all this may have looked impressive — or it may have seemed silly.  To one who hasn’t been there and partook in the investment and witnessed the dedication and the courage, all this may have seemed out of touch with reality, something that has no bearing on our daily lives outside the dojo.

But to one who has been there, has been part of that class and has pushed through the temptation to be tired and to not show up tonight and to give it a little less than the best, and to that one who is testing to see what they are truly made of, all this was a rite of passage.

I congratulated my team mates.  I took long drinks of water and packed my gear and helped sweep up the wood splinters from off the floor.  Slowly my heart rate was returning to normal and my breathing was becoming more relaxed and the sweat was drying from my hair.  But the weight — or perhaps the incredible weightlessness — of this transition stayed upon me.  I felt different.  I felt like I could conquer the world, or maybe just save it.  I felt accomplished.  Confident.  Humbled.  I felt like I had danced with giants and mingled with greatness.  Not because of any one person or any one single accomplishment and certainly not because of my own contribution.  But because as a group, as a team, we had all come together in this place to mark an event, to make an occasion, to make something important visible.

Courage.  Dedication.  Commitment to our art.  Determination to push through, to overcome challenges, to be challenged.  And to do it together.

I bowed to my instructors and thanked them on my way out.  I told them this was a significant moment for me, the first time I had broken a board (in case you were wondering, yes, it broke), and that I would see them tomorrow night.  They assured me I had done well.

The symbolism of this whole evening, along with the adrenaline rush and the twinging muscles, kept me awake long into the night.  If this is what life is like, a picture of our journey through this time and space on Earth, how am I doing?  If we travel together, in packs, giving our best, encouraging, supporting, loving on each other; telling each other, “You are strong, you can do this, you are loved and supported, you are courageous” ; if we grow together and inspire one another and look out for our team mates; if we are testing before an Instructor who has given us the tools and skills and shown us the way to pass this test; if we are seeking the approval and the commendation of “You’ve done well,” then how am I doing on this life test, on this rite of passage?

Nights like last night, Test Night in my local martial arts studio, give me a glimpse of that bigger race.  Nights like last night are a hint, an echo, of the more profound and more significant journey we are all walking.  Nights like last night, where I am surrounded by good will, courage, and a commitment to give it my best, give me the determination to live those moments in the larger world, offering what I have learned in that school to my fellow travelers outside those doors.  To be the encouragement, to say the words, to lead by example, to mentor and support and dare to be bolder and do hard things that may otherwise tempt me to stay small and timid.  Nights like last night are a rite of passage that transition me from where I was before to a little closer to where I intend to end up.

May we all be so blessed as to have those rites.

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