What do we mean by "level?"

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What do we mean by "level?"

Postby HanshiClayton » Sun Dec 21, 2008 5:57 pm

What is “level”? What are the milestones that indicate an increase in level? Is it just how high you can jump?

Let’s assume that we are all still on the path to higher levels, and that none of us has reached the top. A touch of humility won't hurt us.

I have seen some developmental stages that I associate with changes in a person’s “level.” Some of these changes seem more important than others. I thought I’d lay them out and see what reaction others might have.

There are numerous little level changes that one sees in beginners as they internalize their basics and gain experience in elementary fighting. At first, a beginner is preoccupied with gaining mastery over his own body and basic techniques. An increasing appreciation for timing, for instance, is one dimension of a beginner’s level. This strikes me as an example of the non-important application of “level.” This is just where we all start.

A much more important change in level occurs some time around late brown belt stage, when the eager student suddenly stops asking when he can test for black belt. Instead of being eager for the promotion, he slips into a mental state where he wants to delay the test because his technique isn’t good enough... he isn’t “ready.” Many sensei cite this change as the sign that the applicant has reached a black-belt attitude toward the art. This seems like a significant change in “level.”

A new shodan is sometimes very humble, but they can also be rather full of themselves. They are terribly proud of their shiny new belts. I let them strut until it wears off. When they settle down and start learning again they have made the transition to nidan.

There is another transition, which I associate with the sandan promotion. Some time around the tenth year of practice (or so) the student makes the transition to thinking like a teacher. Instead of being focused on training himself exclusively, he becomes more preoccupied with the progress of the junior students around him. Any black belt should be able to take over a class and lead the drills, but in the sandan level we see teachers who can adjust the class to fit the students, and who can communicate effectively with students of different ages and experience levels. This, too, seems like a significant change in “level.”

A little later, at a stage I think of as yondan or godan, one begins to lead an organization. Instead of nurturing yourself alone, or your students, or your dojo, you become active in the nourishment of multiple dojos. You begin to make contributions at the organizational level. We often reward this level with the title "renshi."

At a higher “level,” the student’s awareness begins to extend beyond the dogmatic teaching of one style into new areas of research. He makes a transition from custodian to researcher and leader. He realizes that it is possible to make new contributions to the art, either by creating new knowledge or by reorganizing what has gone before. Senseis often break away from their teachers at this point. This stage tends to be associated with godan or rokudan, and often with the title "kyoshi."

I think there is yet another level, around rokudan or nanadan, where one’s perception has risen to the point that one can see karate as a whole, with stylistic differences taking a back seat to fundamental similarities. In the kata forums of this web site I have written "perspective" topics, such as this one about Empi. Each one examines how a specific kata looks across multiple styles of karate. That research has given me a wider perspective than just the concerns of my own style. Part of this level is a growing appreciate of where karate stands relative to the other martial arts. One begins to understand how parochial one's interests used to be.

Another aspect of "level" has to do with a person's emotional maturity. We can all recognize the immature individuals, but there is a something beyond mere "maturity," too. At a certain point you realize that you have outgrown the reason you entered karate. Whatever insecurity once led you to tie on a white belt has faded with the years and you can hardly remember it anymore. I guess that's "level," too. Some kind of emotional distress has been cured there. Karate changes you.

And if the world is as romantic as I’d like it to be, the ultimate level would be the one where all else fades into the background, and the only thing of interest is mastering your own body and your own technique, but with the difference that fifty years of experience can make. When he was quite elderly, Master Funakoshi awakened from a dream one night. He was very excited. “I finally understand the front punch!” he exclaimed to his astonished uchideshi.

If Funakoshi was having epiphanies at the age of 80, then I guess our journey isn't over yet. There are still milestones ahead for all of us.
Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D.
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