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Arlette Black Belt Essay for blog
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This article was submitted by my student, Arlette T. Smith, as part of her requirements for Shodan (First Degree Black Belt) testing conducted in November 2021. It describes her personal journey from martial arts beginner to advanced practitioner, and how it affects her private life and professional career as a social worker for over four decades.

Arlette was a Court Appointed Social Worker at the Judicial Council of California, working with at-risk youth and their families. Much of her responsibilities included performing community safety or offender assessments, providing forensic evaluations, custody and guardianship recommendations, mediation or parent coordination, and expert testimony in civil or criminal matters.


Arlette T. Smith

November 2021

My journey with martial arts began in April of 2013. Four years later in 2017, I wrote an essay in which I described how I had come to the awareness that karate was about more than just self-defense. My perspective had matured in that I was now able to perceive the holistic nature of karate which encompassed four equally important aspects (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual), impacting not only on my karate practice but also on the efficacy of my functioning in both my personal and professional life.

April of 2021 marks a full eight years since I began my journey into the world of martial arts. I am now testing for the rank of Shodan, of a Black Belt. I find myself asking what does that really mean? More specifically, what does that mean for me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as I continue to navigate my personal earthly journey through these turbulent times?

I could just go with the Google definition: “A Black Belt represents an achievement through years of dedication and commitment. It symbolizes hard work, self-discipline, and perseverance,” and just stop there, however, that would be superficial. There is an enormous difference between having a Black Belt and being a Black Belt. I prefer to take it one step further by stating that just as I believe karate to be a way of life, in concert with that notion, I also believe that a Black Belt should be a demonstration or symbol of the principles and/or character a person possesses that governs their way of life.

We are living in exceedingly difficult times not only nationally, but also worldwide. Never has humanity been so divided on issues relating to politics, health, climate, diversity, etc. The list can go on forever. It is so easy to fall into the fray and lose oneself in this atmosphere of chaos, sometimes becoming a part of the problem ourselves in some of our actions and reactions. It is during these times that I make efforts to focus on the elements which I believe encapsulate what it means to be a Black Belt, to assist me in comporting myself in a manner not only beneficial to myself but also to other individuals in the population.

The journey towards not merely obtaining but also becoming a Black Belt begins in the dojo, the place in which the training of body, mind, and spirit for the student of karate begins. The goal strived for is not only for self-improvement but also for improvement in interactions with others, in the dojo as well as in the outside world. I would be remiss if I did not also mention that by the time one becomes a Black Belt, one should view the dojo not as being just a class with other students in it with whom one has no connection other than that they all attend the same class. The members of the dojo become family to one another. There exists a spirit of support for one another, which is exuded in the strong belief that the success and progress of all members supersede that of just one individual member.

Outside of the dojo, being a Black Belt during these turbulent times necessitates the utilization of tools learned during practice in the dojo. Physically, conditioning promotes fitness as well as provides a healthy outlet for stress. Mentally, the ongoing practice of learning how to focus and utilize intention is instrumental in filtering out the myriad of distractions that are pulling people in many directions through news, social media, the ongoing pandemic, and daily tasks. Emotionally, the emphasis on self-control and self-discipline learned in training helps one to remember to press the “pause button” before launching into the destructive and impulsive verbal/physical behavior that is unfortunately so prevalent during these times.

Lastly, karate not only addresses physical, mental, and emotional aspects but its holistic nature also encompasses a spiritual component. This includes awareness, on the part of the individual who has truly become a Black Belt, that being a Black Belt is not about bravado, feeling that one has learned all that one needs to learn, or projecting an image of being better than or stronger than anyone else. There is an old saying that “The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.”

Being a Black Belt and not simply just having a Black Belt brings along with it an awareness that there is no place for the ego but rather for humility and respect for self and others. By this stage, there should be an internalized and clear understanding that in the walk of the Black Belt, the process of continuing to learn does not cease and that the perpetual goal should be geared not towards self-interest, but in living one’s life in a manner which supports the betterment of all, even in challenging times.

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