How Learning to "Suffer More" Alleviated My Suffering

by Jason Dodd

There's something about a nicely broken in black belt that reminds me of how lucky I am to get to be one of the "old men" in martial arts. I'm beginning to understand more fully the grit of the seasoned fighter stepping into the ring years past what most on the sideline would consider their prime.

I was a freshy minted green belt in karate when I met a man who would so simply and profoundly explain a mystery of life that I would experience and understand more fully with time. He made his first trip to Florida in the summer of 1997. His name was Iwao Tamotsu, and he was the man in town from Japan who traveled halfway around the world to teach a karate class and stay for a week.

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I wouldn't see him again for four years. The next time I saw him, he was back in Gainesville to visit again, and he tested me for my black belt. This time, he wasn't just a karate expert. He was my teacher, the man I had trained under for many years, a man I greatly respected. During sparring drills when it was his turn to duck, I pulled a swift case of being in the right place at the wrong time and punched my partner square in the face. I accidentally gave him two black eyes.  

Another four years passed, and he came back to visit again. Our Soke Sensei, or head teacher, was a well-known calligraphy artist in Japan. My training partner Tak and I decided we would like for him to paint. We took him to the art supply store, and he grabbed a big, oversized brush and a few large pieces of rough cut parchment paper. Then, he picked out some ink and a grinding stone.

The ink came from the store in finger-sized pieces of dark black chalk crayon, along with a small oval grinding dish, where the ink gets ground into a grit with water to make a thin, brushable mixture.

We took all of the supplies to the dojo, and spread them out on the mat. Soke asked me to make the ink. He handed me the ink and dish, and told me to sit in seiza, or a resting, kneeling position and begin grinding. I learned quickly that you had to use both hands and grind hard to make the process work. For half an hour, I sat there, hovering over the dish, grinding so much that I was dripping sweat.

He took a swift test dip in the ink, and draw a few characters on a piece of paper. The ink was a light gray color, not dark enough. He looked at the ink and said it wouldn't do. He said, "You need to suffer more." So, I did.

I sat at that ink bowl until my feet cramped and then fell asleep. When the ink was dark enough, he told me I was finished. I was glad he was finally thinking what I was thinking.

He took the dish and dipped his giant paintbrush in the hard-earned ink. He stood over the parchment and drew a Japanese Kanji character that translates to "peaceful or renewed heart." He gave it to me, and I hung it in my dojo.

I saw him every year for the next four years. Each of those times, I was visiting Japan. By this time, my Soke Sensei had watched me grow up for more than a decade. That fresh green belt owned his own karate school. I saw him again every year for weeks at a time for the next five years. I hadn't realized it at the time, but my Soke Sensei was teaching me about much more than the physical act of training karate. He was training me to fight well and with skill in every aspect of life.

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I had the pleasure of a meaningful friendship with my teacher through my experiences with losing spouses to divorce and death, battling to keep my academy afloat, and what seemed like one stiff punch square in the face after another with scoring very few points in between. I'm thankful that he had prepared me for them, whether or not he knew it at the time.

If you're doing martial arts right, each belt you earn will have to be worn in over time until it gets to that special state we call "salty." The thing about salty belts is that they are a bittersweet badge of honor for suffering and grinding out whatever obstacle or experience is standing in front of you. Working through and conquering battles and phases of your life can feel like the same experience. You learn to appreciate the end result of a long, hard grinding process. It makes even the simplest things more precious and honored.

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I still have that painting in my dojo. Every year, I drag it out and show it to my students to honor my teacher. I want them to know that suffering is a worthy battle. I want them to expect to be refined by their experiences, every hard earned win and loss. It's the commitment to keep going that makes it all worthwhile.

I still jump in the ring from time to time to keep up with the push of the upcoming fight, but I get the most pleasure from giving a young martial artist a tough match against an old man. I consider it my distinct honor and duty to continue the legacy of my Soke Sensei, and make sure all of the young ones know the value of being transformed into a one-of-a-kind work of art -- by being willing to sweat it out and suffer more.