This isn’t really a skills test. It’s a life test, isn’t it?

Rough feet from three hours on the testing mats

When I woke up this morning with my mind and muscles exhausted and sore, contemplation of yesterday took up much of my mind and has continued to throughout the day. It was a big one for me.

My team and I catered a soup and sandwich function for 220 guests that we delivered at 10:30am, which meant that we started making sandwiches (250 of them) at 7:00am, and were wheels up by 9:45am. After the drop off and setup we headed back to the kitchen to clean, after which I snuck in a quick nap, a snack, and a few minutes on the computer before heading out to a bigger challenge than the morning’s time-crunched sandwiches; my green belt test for Kung Fu.

I’ve been practicing Kung Fu for 3 years now, with one 8 month break. During this time I’ve gone through two belt tests.
The tests get longer as the belts get higher. In our Kung Fu system (the Moh system) every time a student tests for a new belt they are required to demonstrate the specific techniques for all previous belts, then the requirements for the belt you’re actually testing for. All Katas (forms) are performed and then the sparring component is completed.

That meant that for yesterday’s green belt I demonstrated the technique requirements for the yellow, orange, and green belts, performed 2 Katas twice each, followed by 20 minutes of (almost) continuous sparring (several 10-15 second breaks happen throughout). My test was a full 3 hours. Black belt tests in our system last approximately 8 hours, with a full hour or more of continuous sparring.

I’ve been dreading it.

When performing and practicing Kata and techniques I feel smooth, quick, powerful, fluid. I love the patterns and the mechanics of the art, the science and simplicity. Its beautiful and inspiring. It feels as if I could only practice Kata forever and love every moment of it.

Sparring is the opposite. I feel clunky, uncoordinated, slow. There is no flow, no intuitive movement. So deep is my dislike that I’ve been actively working on changing my inner dialogue from “I hate sparring” to “I am learning to spar” so to not set myself up for failure, and its not an easy dialogue to change.

Facing sparring in a test situation where I can’t stop often and ask questions, work on a particular move, or just concentrate on offence or defence has put a pit in my stomach for the last week. In class I’ve often been overwhelmed with a flurry (a small one) of blows that’s put me in a state close to tears, and when I tested for yellow belt I almost cried during the sparring portion. During this last week a common thought has been, “I’m going to cry and I don’t want to in front of my teachers”.

On my drive to the training space yesterday I was stuck in an ugly circular thought pattern of sparring and crying. Trying to break the pattern I started to analyze the reasoning behind the whole thing. That’s when I had a lightbulb moment.

They want to push you to that overwhelmed, frustrated, helpless point. That’s the goal.

This isn’t out of malice, or tradition, or some antiquated thought that you must go through this trial to be worthy of a new level. It’s literally life or death.

Kung Fu is largely a defensive art. Do no harm. Walk a mile to avoid a fight, but when one starts don’t back down an inch. Nonetheless, terrible things can happen to good people even if you’re doing everything right. In a real life situation the fight is for your life and no one is going to give you 30 seconds to calm down or rest because you’re tired. So if Sifu (teacher) can continually push you to that point, the mind learns to adapt. Thresholds get higher and a person can learn to deal with the physical pain as well as the emotional overload in order to survive the moment.

As such it doesn’t matter what level I’m at. I could be a blue belt practicing at a black belt level in sparring and the goal will always be to push me to a breaking point. This is in order to save my life should that worst case scenario ever come to pass.

The test goes even deeper than that.

If I can prevail this, I can achieve anything.

After this test, does that report at work seem so daunting? Are 250 sandwiches before 10am such a big deal?

What about the really important things? The impossible decisions that I’m faced with. If I can endure a multi-hour trial that pushes my physical, mental and emotional limits, maybe those impossible tasks that life occasionally throws will instead seem only improbable and therefore possible?

As soon as I realized that (15 minutes prior to testing) The pit in my stomach eased though I still didn’t relish the idea of crying in front of my Sifus. These are two men whom I see as not only teachers; they are mentors, confidants and friends. This type of trial puts me in a position of vulnerability that generally only my most inner of inner circle friends see. Though if you can’t trust your mentors with that much of yourself, are they really mentors you should have?

Yesterday afternoon I was shown what I’m capable of. It was much more than I thought.

And I didn’t cry, though it was close for five minutes or so.

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