What a black belt means to one person differs from what it means to another. To me, becoming a first-degree black belt was a self-admittance of being normal — and then shooting for the stars. It meant actioning past obstacles, avoiding complacency and never falling prey to aimless sleepwalking. The requirement of continuous and intentional forward motion was startling, loud, humbling, cumbersome, energizing.
3.5 years (2-3 hours a night, 5-7 days a week) after stepping into my first Taekwondo class — I earned my first black belt with my name emblazoned in Korean characters. I hurried out to buy my first black dobok which has been a huge honor to wear — and those who wear it understand.
I was finally among the best.
GETTING OUT OF THE COMFORT ZONE
Then I stepped foot into my first black belts only class on the following Tuesday night and I realized I was starting it all over again. Being the newbie on the black belts only mat was equivalent to being the new kid in street clothes on the white belt mat. That first class and then the long path between then and now was a humbling, honorable and frustrating one. It was an arduous commute where I was trying to stake my claim, own it — and persevere to rise again.
Yet I kept falling backward — perhaps due to injury, perhaps due to feeling clumsy in a room full of precision — and perhaps moreso due to my inability to memorize anything and everything. Parenting and lack of sleep can do that to you.
This second road was a rougher one for me; it took me almost double the time to rise from first degree to second degree than it took to earn the initial belt. Yes, I had some work commitments and a couple of pregnancies and baby rearing to-dos thrown in there that could account for the time stretch — but perhaps the largest explanation for the delay was my self-insinuated expectations. There was a greater emotional weight and a deepened respect for the art – leading me to not just be someone who memorized the Hapkido and the Taekwondo kicks and the forms, but to really earn my place as a higher belt; I knew I’d be thrust into coexistence with the excellent.
And as most of us know, shame and honor are leading characters in the Korean culture.
This isn’t to be misunderstood as self-imposed debilitating perfectionism – but it was crucial to me to be the best that I could be — and that would become a big educational theme in my second-degree pursuit. I aimed to give it my all and deliver a performance on a night that would make my Grandmaster, Masters, instructors and myself proud. To earn a place among the upper degree cohorts. It was a big undertaking for me, cementing the motivation to train my hardest.
But with the attempt of training to be the best I could be arrived the question of when I should test. Will I be better next year from the hours of repetition and training — or will I grow weaker from injury and age? The emotional weight vest of self-expectations juxtaposed alongside a reality of an arguably more physically feeble body that has already fallen prey to a variety of permanent injuries was a real struggle. Even a month ago, over a period of 2 weeks after a bad landing, I questioned whether I should test.
This preparation for my second degree has been a challenge. And at many times dispiriting.
But here’s what I decided. I would prepare the best I could, injury and all, and do my best. It would allow for internal nourishment, spiritual growth and a continued dismissal of mediocrity and complacency. As long as I kept moving, I learned and accepted that that was growth to me. And as long as I was committed to the continuance of growth, I was ready to test.
So this road of travel over the past 5-6 years has taught me a lot about what a second degree black belt means; it has been about internal nourishment and trying to be the best version of myself, spiritual growth and finding a foundation, making a change and being of service — and most importantly, staying humble.
And of course, never allowing room for complacency. To me, living a life complacently meant you were living a slow life. Or a fast death. However, you should perceive it.
INTERNAL NOURISHMENT AND BEING THE BEST VERSION OF YOURSELF
Over years of training and with each birthday, I have been caring less about failures and falls and losses — realizing they’re all pit stops on the road to success and serve as accidental educational centers. Whether it’s a bad grade in school, a business deal leaving you with a financial loss, a tournament embarrassment, a personal relationship leaving you with emotional bankruptcy – your only failure is earned when you give up or stop trying.
With each day of training, with each day of trying, with each fall, your mind becomes stronger and with heightened dexterity — and your halts, slowdowns and reassessments become real learning points.
If you try a fight one way and it leads to an embarrassing demise, for example — or a flying side it and it lands you with ligament and meniscus obliterations – you reassess your strategy and make that loss an illuminative lesson. You try different angles, speed. Or you stop doing something entirely and then focus on what you can do well. It’s just like any process gained through life – finding what works for you and what doesn’t. Careers, friends, partners, food groups — and then staying loyal to what does.
Be efficient in your training and in life.
Fine-tune your greatest traits, then discard the rest. Simply put, self-betterment is about figuring yourself out.
Consequently, you see your forces of invincibility and your reparations of weaknesses bleed outside of the mat and into all areas of your life. The workplace, the schoolyard, your personal relationships. With each fall, you build yourself up. With each new tear down, you’re stronger. Get familiar with pushing past the pain period! It’s what will set you apart. Perfectly analogous to the way our muscles and bodywork, in the literal sense.
My intent in this second-degree path has just been to nourish myself, to embrace being a learning junkie, to grow. It has been about the simple action of taking a step in the right direction, any action – with intention. I’ve learned that any forward movement per se is the antidote to fear — and in so doing, software upgrades are allowed — boosting your system whereby you’re led to intellectual richness, physical strength and perpetual mental agility.
Grandmaster Chong, every day, is a learning junkie. He’s a 9th degree Grandmaster who continues to train as a student every day in Taekwondo, Jiu Jitsu, Escrima and Kendo.
He walks through the fundamental and rudimentary lessons of martial arts practices, bowing before the mat. He’s a testament to a “student” being one’s highest calling.
Falls don’t matter. Embarrassments don’t matter. Quitting matters.
Life has no guarantees – so always remember to nourish yourself first so you can keep on trekkin’.
SPIRITUAL GROWTH: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PLAYING WITH THE BEST TENNIS PLAYERS
Of equal importance, this second-degree path has been about deliberately surrounding myself with people smarter and better than me.
In our global environment that’s increasingly competitive and moving at an exponential rate, it’s crucial to not only stay in the game but to stay in charge and stay on top. Our world and our life in it is about balancing a diet of life’s externals, its contaminants and its stresses – and developing methodologies to dodge from any hurtful ramifications.
Taekwondo has been the perfect climate and metaphor for that. Taekwondo is a martial art where there is pressure and a fast pace; there are opponents and stressful situations. Therefore, it’s critical to set your goals and internal GPS high. Go through each day on the mat and in life with purposeful, ambitious and zealous intention. Strategize.
And how do you do that?
You do it by surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you, wiser, more experienced – and those also of a healthy competitive mindset. A tennis match so to speak.
In schools, you have your teachers, your coaches – in college and grad school, you have your professors and your peers. At work you have your bosses, your CEOs, your CFOs — and on the mat you have your Grandmaster and Masters and the best athletes and intellects of the school. Surround yourself with them. Go find your Grandmaster, your mentor, your Malcolm X, your Yoda. They won’t be finding you.
If you feel like you’re on top of the game with nowhere to go, that leads to complacency and a life of futility where “ignorance is bliss” is embraced. Aim to avoid that route — but instead, inject yourself into situations where you’re constantly inspired and learning.
You need the inspiration to maintain tenacity — and you need the tenacity to be the fighter who falls down 10 times and gets up 11. Being surrounded by the best and witnessing the pinnacles of physical prowess and grace and perseverance are things to be embraced and necessaries that enable you to see that you too have the power within to overcome anything. By being among the best and by being taught by the best, you’re always on, always thinking, always turned on, always inspired.
It’s always critical to have people ahead of you. Not just to keep you humble – but to deliver access to opportunities and visions you didn’t have before.
So many people are searching and seeking. For answers, for reasons, for validation, for happiness, for feeling. And people may turn and become artists, writers, athletes, religious fanatics in that pursuit. Some turn to yoga, tai chi and meditation. Some may turn to drugs and other addictions.
Taekwondo has become my foundation. As a sport and as an art, it consumes me — and I am addicted to the feeling it transports. Taekwondo has been the approach for me that gives me the foundation I need — emotionally, physically, pragmatically.
And more importantly, it has given me a spiritual walk – which allows me to appreciate life, things, gifts.
As we have seen, the more material success one achieves in life and the higher up one goes, it often leads to one losing their spiritual guide and soul — and it’s more difficult to find what makes one happy. Taekwondo’s practice, its teachings and its inculcated moral code disallow for that. External successes and material wins now give me peace and appreciation — not an insatiable appetite for more.
I’m evidence for what can happen when you embrace commitment at any age.
When you seek a foundation on a random weeknight. I vividly recall that first night when I trepidatiously walked into this Taekwondo studio; it was the moment I laid my first foundational brick. And that night has proven itself to be the most important night for me (as well as the nights I wed and gave birth).
On another note, meritocracy often isn’t seen in other aspects of life. We’ve all seen that. But it resides here on the mat. I love the challenge and the feeling of getting better – I love when your own success lies in your own hands.
As a woman, it’s an invigorating feeling to feel good at what you do — to feel strong and powerful. And know that by working on it, you will get better. As a woman and especially as a mother, it’s so important to show this revelation, this possibility to my children.
MAKE CHANGE AND BE OF SERVICE
Being of service is an essential key in every area of life. I see Grandmaster Jun Chong and Master Mason Williams serve as missionaries in what they wholeheartedly believe in — and their moral responsibility and generosity to pass it down. They are of service, daily.
Being of service in any way, on and off the mat, touches the lives of those you know and those whom you may never see. But perhaps the greatest visibility is how it makes you feel about yourself. They’re all small steps in changing the world.
Help others succeed. Be Superman. Use your prowess, clout and strength and put it toward good things.
It’s also something I see Crystal doing every day. Volunteering her Saturday mornings at 6 am to drive out to the valley to help me. Meeting me at the studio at 7 am to hone the techniques before our 8 am black belt class. She knew I was a prisoner in my own home with 2 small children — so she intentioned to ease the process for me. She aimed to earn nothing. Not money. Not accolade. No favors. Nothing. But in so doing, it makes me want to pass that baton — and so on and so on.
Helping others is humbling. And since all matter in this world is interconnected, it gives you the ability to heal the world.
My second-degree path has also been about expressing gratitude daily. You are here because of your health, your parents, your teachers, your cohorts, your nutrition, your shelter, your plain ol’ good luck. Realize that and say your thanks. With that always comes the continuance of that and more.
I express gratitude for certain things specifically.
I’m grateful for my body, my mind, my family, my friends, my education and career, my limbs, my freedom from illness, our democratic world.
I’m grateful for my father for always setting the example of the necessity to grow and learn – things outside of your realm. He is one who always acknowledged that life (and medicine) were all interconnected so it was crucial to learn all the spokes.
I am grateful for my husband and my mom, my sister and my children – for always encouraging me and cheering me on. I started Taekwondo at a later age and have been obsessed and committed to it in a way hopeful (and perhaps naive) girls in their teens or early 20s are committed to a hobby they hope to make a career. And I was never mocked.
And I’m endlessly grateful for Grandmaster Chong for serving as the pinnacle of discipline, mastery, invincibility, growth and humbleness – and to Master Williams not only for his empathic support — but for his philosophical and obsessive compassion for Taekwondo – and his self-insinuated obligation to keep the Jun Chong name and brand and Taekwondo itself residing on top. He seeks to preserve the legacy.
I am grateful for Master Mason Williams, Master Phillip Rhee, Crystal, Jonas, Armen for being the branches of a luminous tree that Grandmaster Chong rooted for us.
And of course for Gywnn, Lily and Nico for training and pushing me as we enter together this next realm of growth.
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” – MLK, JR.