Rabbi Niles Goldstein is the author of The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior. In his last post he wrote about approaching spiritual learning as a martial artist. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
I recall a time in my life when I was tempted to give up, to walk away from something that I loved very much. As I think back on it today, stamina was the only thing that got me through the experience. In The Challenge of the Soul, I cite the important role that the martial arts have played in my own spiritual and rabbinic development, and how they can help us–through their practice and principles–to strive to become warriors of the spirit.
In my very traditional Shotokan karate system, you can only test for your black belt once a year–and it usually takes five or six years before your instructors will even allow you to participate in the exam, which takes place at the very end of a Special Training retreat. I’d put in those many years of practice, and my time had come to stand before my senior instructors and demonstrate my abilities as a karate practitioner. I was anxious, excited, and highly motivated. After half a decade of discipline, training, and knowing my place in the pecking order, I felt ready to be evaluated by my teachers.
By the time Special Training was over, I was exhausted, drained on every level of my being. I have come to see now, years later, how that was the point of placing the black belt exam at the end of our retreat. How do you test to see if someone truly has heart? Not at the start of our practice, when everybody is fresh, but at the end, when most of us are about to collapse and want nothing more than to go home and sleep. Who can push past their limits? Who can reach deep within themselves and successfully retrieve whatever remnants are left in their reservoirs of passion, skill, and determination? Who can uncover and display their lev, their innermost character and commitment?
After having trained regularly and intensively for a year to perform at my peak level and try to pass my exam, I gave it my best. I, along with the other black belt candidates, spent most of the day being observed on how well we performed in three key areas: basic techniques, forms, and sparring. At the end of the day, when the senior instructors called out the names of those who had been promoted, my name was not on the list. I had failed to pass. It’s hard to describe how despondent I felt after having put in so much time and effort, and having my desire thwarted. I would have to wait an entire year, according to the rules of my system, before I could try for my black belt again.
The days and weeks that followed were filled with self-pity and self-doubt. I wanted to quit. What more did my teachers want from me, and how much harder could I train? With the passage of some time, I knew that I couldn’t give up. I’d put too much of myself into karate, and it had given me back so much in return, especially during my highly cerebral studies in rabbinical school. One of those gifts was humility; I had to accept the fact that in the judgment of my senior instructors, I just wasn’t yet ready for my black belt. That knowledge hurt, but it propelled me forward. I had faith in myself–in my skills and my heart–and I regained the desire to continue my training. If I couldn’t get past this blow to my ego, I didn’t belong on the dojo floor.
“I’m glad you didn’t take the easy way out, like so many others,” one of my favorite teachers told me. “You just have to jump right back onto that horse and start riding again. The trail hasn’t gone anywhere.” While I had instructors to help me and to guide me by their example, it was absolutely clear to me that I had to overcome this challenge alone–of my own initiative, and harnessing my own powers of resiliency.
I passed the exam the following year and earned my black belt.
The guidance and support of others can be essential as we strive to overcome life’s obstacles. In the end, though, we alone are the final arbiters of the paths we take and the choices we make. Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that we are “condemned” to this freedom; others believe that it is in the decision-making process itself–that place of ambiguity where nothing is certain yet all is possible–that we as human beings find our highest natures. If we do not want that freedom to atrophy, it must be exercised, like a muscle, again and again. Each conscious moment presents us with a multiplicity of options, a maze of alternatives. How we choose to face and respond to them shapes our souls and directs our steps, and makes us models for those who follow us.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein’s book The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior is out now. He is blogging all week on MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.