As martial artists, many of us are goal-oriented people who are highly motivated to strive towards the next belt. This is one of the strongest and most unique selling points for martial arts compared to other sports and physical activities.

Photo of coloured belts

The structured nature of the ranking system in ju-jitsu and many other martial arts is particularly attractive to some personality types. It’s also a great way for kids to know what they are working towards, and to celebrate and feel proud of their achievements when they get there, before they move onto the next step on their journey.

However, it can also be a double-edged sword. As students progress up the belts to the senior grades, achieve their black belt and maybe become instructors or school owners in their own right, the open mindset they had when they started can recede into distant memory. The more you help lower grades or teach classes, the more time you spend imparting knowledge and skills, rather than directly soaking them up. The more techniques you learn, the less you may feel is left to learn.

I think it is fair to say that anyone who has been training in the martial arts for a while has come across the arrogant person who thinks they know it all, that their way is the only, best, or correct way, and any deviation from their pre-conceived notions are wrong. Often these people may not be a very high grade, but they take satisfaction in imposing their way as the only permissible approach.

There is a well-known Zen Buddhist koan (parable) which illustrates the problem nicely:

Nan-in, a Meiji-era Zen Master, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could restrain himself no further. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

Like this cup, Nan-in said, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

The key, then, to develop not just in martial arts but in life, is to always keep your cup empty. Always keep an open mind. I call this the ‘white belt mentality’. The white belt mentality means that you always, figuratively, wear your white belt, no matter what your official grade may be. Always seek to gain new knowledge and understanding. Be a sponge. Listen actively and attentively to others who may have different experiences and approaches than you do.

Some instructors take this literally in that they will wear a white belt when training or attending seminars. I like to wear my white belt in my mind, but like to try new things, experiencing new martial arts as a beginner, in order to gain broader perspectives and a deeper understanding. This approach can serve you well in life in general, not just in the dojo. These days, lifelong learning is available to most of us at very little cost, we have untapped resources only a few key strokes or screen taps away, and a seemingly endless supply of free resources, cheap online courses, and other avenues for self-development and self-actualisation.

No matter what stage you are at in life, how senior or successful you are at work, or how gifted you may be at martial arts, always be conscious of keeping your cup empty. Don’t be the know-it-all, stay humble, keep an open mind, and remember – always wear your white belt.