Whether we know it or not, our social existence is dominated by feeling accepted or unaccepted, OK with the world, or ashamed of some mistake, flaw, or failing. How we negotiate these currents of acceptance and disapproval determines much of our lives. One inspirational example of transforming shame into presence occurred with my friend John in 1968.
In 1965, at fifteen, I took up Shotokan Ryu Karate, a traditional Japanese system brought to the United States by Tusutomu Ohshima in 1955. Shotokan is a strict, hierarchical system requiring enormous discipline and years of rigorous training. As you gain knowledge and expertise, you advance in rank through five levels of white belts, three of brown belts, and five of black belts.
In those days, every six months the leadership offered testing, where senior members evaluated junior members—gathered from the many Shotokan Dojos (schools) in Southern California—for possible advancement. The most exciting and challenging of these were the black belt tests, where brown belts would try for the coveted black belt, and first, second, third, and fourth degree black belts would try to move up to higher levels.
In 1968, my friend John and I were both testing—me hoping to progress from brown belt to black belt, and John from first degree to second degree black belt. During such tests, students must demonstrate practical knowledge of technique, display fighting skills in ritual combat, and perform their choice of fifteen Kata, which are traditional forms comprising up to eighty or ninety movements, ranging from the most simple to incredibly complex. Black belt candidates were required to master and individually perform one of the nine most complicated Katas in front of Mr. Ohshima, a panel of judges, fellow students, and onlookers.
John had chosen a particularly difficult Kata, and he’d been practicing it dutifully, but practicing by yourself and at your home Dojo was quite different from doing your Kata in front of Mr. Ohshima and the Black Belt Council. Almost as soon as he started, John made a critical mistake and stopped dead in his tracks. There was a palpable sigh from the crowd, and everyone felt a rush of empathic embarrassment.
John dropped his head, seemingly hearing nothing. Then he slowly raised his eyes to look steadily at Mr. Ohshima, took a deep breath, bowed, and started over. He faced the black belt panel as before, but this time instead of announcing his complicated Kata, he chose Heian Shodan, the first and most simple of all the Kata—the first form that beginner white belts learn when they join a dojo. John performed it perfectly and powerfully, demonstrating complete commitment and warrior focus.
The room palpably relaxed into admiration for this humble response to a humiliating situation. John was fully attuned to the spirit of the moment, and was awarded his second Dan Black Belt that day, probably as much from his social wisdom and humility as for his technical skills. Everyone in the audience basked in the aura evoked by his elegant response.
Humans are acutely sensitive to approval and disapproval, especially as we interact with other people. We need to know where we fit in the groups that are important to us, and strive to be in harmony with social environments. The minute we walk into a room, our brains react, automatically scanning the scene and figuring out where we fit in.
If we feel snubbed, ignored, or dismissed, our reaction is pretty much instantaneous, flooding us with feelings of shame, doubt, embarrassment, or outrage. If we feel welcomed and embraced, particularly if someone shows an exquisite understanding and support of our place in the group, we’re likely to have a relaxed sense of well-being—a feeling that all is right in our world. If, like John, we adjust from shame to presence, we inspire those around us.
So take a tip from John. He transformed his humiliating moment by staying present, accepting responsibility, and creating an amazing example of warrior humility and spirit. I remember that moment as beautiful and inspiring, an exemplar of rising courageously from shame to equanimity and transcendence.
Oh, and yes, I tested and was awarded my black belt that day.
Image Credit: Jennifer Vilches