Sunday, September 1, 2013

Solace and Compassion: Black Belt Thesis

Originally Submitted Jan. 2012
(Edited version)


When asked to write this piece about my experiences here as a student of Master Florin Fratean, I was tempted to take the easiest path and speak of my experiences and 'adventures', my accomplishes and failures in the school itself. However, of everything I have experienced, learned and been taught - the various techniques, patterns, sparring, board breaking, tournaments, playing the rolls of referee and judge, the physical conditioning, and the health benefits – I came to realize all of these features (bonuses really) are most definitely measurable and testable; as they are clearly observed and literally tested during the Belt Testings.

I could talk of Master Florin as a great teacher and instructor, as I'm sure many will (and there is a great amount to be said and written about this, to be sure!) However, I decided to take the less traveled path and speak of my experiences in Taekwon-do outside the school. To speak of Taekwon-do's spiritual nature. (And yes, I am aware this might make you cringe at first).

Taekwon-do. The most obvious translation is “The Way of the Foot and Hand.”
Tae - “to break with foot”, Kwon - “to break with hand”, and Do... I believe it is the “do” that is most important. The “Do” is borrowed from the Chinese Dao, or Tao, meaning the way or path or route to something. The Tao is the fundamental nature of the universe, and I think that is important to note, for I believe it is this fundamental nature of the universe that this martial art ambitiously reaches for.

The gist of this piece is Taekwon-do's value within myself and outside the school in the world we live in.


I have been questioned by some as to why I am tattooed.
All of my tattoos have deeply personal and spiritual significance. Each has a story to tell.
Our greatest moments of growth are often during our most painful experiences. The only difference between myself and the “un-inked” is that I wear my scars on my sleeve; literally in my skin.

I have a large dragon-tattoo on my back. (A painful 25 hour ordeal). A good friend of my wife from Taipei, Taiwan, tells me that, in her culture, the dragon as a tattoo represents a sort of protection from harm and fear. However, it isn't that the dragon is tattooed on one's body that give it its power but that it exists within one's heart.

It is with humility that I share part of my history, my story of my tattoo, not to brag or show off. Quite the opposite. I have been asked once, why would I get such a large, painful, and expensive piece when nobody would see it? But that's the very point; it is not for anyone else. It is an outward expression of an inward conviction. It is solely for myself.

The Asian Dragon can represent many things, often symbolizing power, strength, courage, and Indomitable spirit (Baekjul Bulgul). However, in my case its significance is far beyond this common symbolism. This tattoo is a summation of my spiritual journeyi to date and these last three and a half years as a student of Master Florin in Taekwon-do play a very heavy influence.


I have always been aware of a deep spiritual nature in Taekwon-do.
No, not religious. Religiosity would be its opposite. And no, I do not mean “spiritual” as in New Age hocus-pocus. My understanding of spiritual is a simple but vitally important one. Spirituality teaches us how to cope with ourselves and with others. Really, it is nothing more than Solace and Compassion. (Even the Atheist benefits from a spiritual health. Religion has little to no place in what I speak of).

I think it is for this reason since the first day I walked in this school as a white belt, up to and including today, that two particular points caught my interest and continue to capture and hold my attention.

Guk Gi (Self-Control) and Taekwon-do's 5th oath (“I shall built a more peaceful world”).

These two features blend extremely easily with spirituality;
Solace (for the self) and Compassion (for others).

Solace is the Fruit of Guk Gi

Clearly Self-Control applies to learning when to reign in our power1. Most especially during sparring. To have the ability to use only 50%; to not go 'full out'; to hold back from outright fighting or 'brawling'. Even to control our emotions and our temper. We must not allow our anger to override us.

Its opposite is just as true. We see this during board breaking. In this case we want to attempt to release 100% of our power. It is still, never-the-less, control.

But I believe Guk Gi can and does extend far beyond these examples.
I believe Solace is the fruit of Guk Gi...and for me, there are other applications of solace.


I worry about the future. This has always been a problem I’ve struggled and battled with. I worry about my financial stability, about my family's health, my kid's schooling, my wife's business, my job, my friends, my relationships, my well-being. And when I allow that rogue beast Worry to roam free, it does nothing but further feed and breed Fear. (No, not fear in the sense of being afraid of something or someone. But fear in the sense of Fear itself).

Too often I fall into the trap of living in the Past. Analyzing whether this or that choice or decision could have changed where I find myself today. When I open the memories and doorways to the past I run the risk of flooding myself with regret for what might-have-been.

When I spend my energy worrying about Tomorrow and regretful for Yesterday, I do nothing but destroy my Today. The illusion is that our Today – our Now – is a tiny hairline separating Yesterday from Tomorrow. The truth of the matter is that there is no future and there is no past, but only an eternally endless Now.

Alan Watts likened the practice of living from our center to martial arts, where we are encouraged to “stay always in the center position, and stay always here”. He says, “If you expect something to come in a certain way, by the time you reposition your energy, it is too late. So stay in the center, and you will be ready to move in any direction”. When living from your center, in the now, he adds, “you stand a much better chance of being able to deal with the unforeseen than if you keep worrying about it” 2

I have found practicing the Tuls (patterns) in Taekwon-do extremely “centering” and a near form of Meditation. The concentration and focus clears the mind, forcing me to forget everything but the Now, returning the balance.
I do not miss the point of every pattern (at least to my limited knowledge) begins in one position and returns to this same position. A centering. A balance point.

I believe General Choi deliberately encouraged this symbolism of centering; reigning in our runaway imaginations – not dwelling on the past and not worrying about the future, but always returning to this state of centeredness.

I believe the trick is to borrow this learned wisdom as we practice it in our patterns and apply it to our lives on a daily level. It can only make us better and stronger.

I have found the Patterns bring me a tranquility; a peace of mind during difficult times; soothing as a meditation and finds for me an inner peace. I can remember during that extremely stressful time (May – June 2009) when we sold our old house and purchased our new home, practicing the patterns in class was the only time I enjoyed peace of mind.


I shall build a more peaceful world”

This is a difficult one. I am sure nearly everyone would at least in theory agree that this is a good and noble oath... but it is easier said than done. The question is, how do I attempt to accomplish this?

Within the gym it manifests itself with respect for others, humility, and most importantly, I believe, teaching and mentoring the young (whether directly or through example). For the young are the future.

Tao gave birth to One,
One gave birth to Two,
Two gave birth to Three,
Three gave birth to all the myriads things of the universe.3

Kanji (text) from tattoo

Without a somewhat long explanation, the simplest way to explain this saying is to say that Truth is progressive. It is not a static thing. It is a living, growing, and evolving thing. Failure to see or realize this is to ultimately fall victim to religiosity.

I had spent my entire education within the Roman Catholic school system. Nearly my entire youth was spent in conflict with a rigid institution based upon inflexible Tradition. Although I hold value in Tradition – it allows us to have an identity, something to call 'home', a culture – when dealing with an overpowering tradition for no other purpose but its own, it becomes oppressive and flies in the face of truth. Unchangeable, immutable, inflexible Tradition is a dead and dusty thing.

It was so refreshing to see Florin's Ultimate Martial Arts Centre's motto on their vans,
Where Tradition Meets the Future”.
It is the values of Tradition yet with the living openness for growth, learning, and evolving! And for me, coming out of years and years of struggling conflict, it was like a breath of fresh air!

I shall build a more peaceful world”
These are powerful words.
It is this oath that must transcend the boundaries of the gym. I see this as living Compassion.
But rather than ask how might I accomplish this, maybe I should ask what stands in peace's and compassion's way?

What is an obstacle to peace?

Worry, anxiety, Fear of what might yet be. Fear kills the Future; murders its potential; slays the perpetual Now, for it is in the Now that Fear's price is paid...

Fear is my greatest enemy.
It is a battle I’ve fought my entire life and one I continue to wage war with.
I have battled and struggled with worry, anxiety, and Fear for far too long. One of the driving reasons why I choose to study the martial arts of Taekwon-do was to at least attempt to combat this internal Fear. Through Taekwon-do I can see this desire and growth with the meanings of its belt colours:

  • White is innocence.
  • Yellow is the fertile earth from which a plant sprouts and take root.
  • Green signifies the plant's growth and its reaching towards the sky.
  • Blue signifies the heavens and sky towards which the plant matures into a towering tree.
  • Red is the colour of the plant's first fruits. Red indicates danger. The student has sufficient skills to inflict injury to an opponent so must exercise caution and control. The red also acts as a warning to opponents.
  • The Black belt is the exact opposite of white. The black colour represents the student's ability to overcome Fear and triumph over Darkness.
The Dragon of my tattoo represents a striving for this fearlessness; the confrontation and triumph over this Darkness. Darkness is not only the absence of Light, but includes triumph over ignorance. (And Fear is the child of ignorance). But defeating this Darkness – overcoming this ignorance – sometimes means actually embracing the unknowable; potentially one of the most divisive issues on this planet; Peace's greatest obstacle.

To me, Compassion towards my fellow man, woman, and child outweigh one's belief. And this, quietly, caringly, must be carried out into the world. We must teach and mentor the young. We must teach them how to think, not what to think. We must choose education over indoctrination. We must become humble ambassadors to the world.


I'll end by asking a question.
Once I remove everything that I have learned from Taekwon-do that can be measured and graded and tested in class;
Once I remove myself from the school;
Once I remove my uniform;
Once I remove my belt;
What is it that remains within me?

I believe the answer is solace and compassion.

In my soul I carry the spirit of the “Taekwon-do Dragon”. It is alive and well and lives and breathes in my very heart. It is what allows me to find confidence and peace within myself and compels me to show compassion and hold hope for a better and more peace filled world.

The symbol of the Dragon I literally carry in my skin, and it is this that I carry out into the world.

1 I think it's important to avoid confusing “power” with strength.
I believe “Power” is composed of 5 elements: 1) physical strength, 2) speed, 3) accuracy, 4) technique, and 5) belief.
Only when all of these elements are joined together do you truly find your “Power”.
When sparring (either in training, practice, or tournaments) the rule is 50% Power. (It shouldn't be full contact). The reasoning is that (I think) sparring in Taekwon-do is a points-system, not a brutal “knock-them-down-drag-them-out” sport.
However, that leaves us with the problem of how do we know what our “100% Power” is if we cannot use it in sparring? The use of board breaking is to demonstrate one's “Power” without inflicting it upon another human being or opponent. That is why, I believe, we do board breaking.

2 Candance B. Pert, The Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine (New York: Touchstone, 1997), pg. 27

3 Excerpt from Tao Te Ching, verse 42, by Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism
i I had mentioned that this Dragon-tattoo is a summation of my spiritual journey for me in which TKD played a large influence, but not the only influence. If there is interest in learning more about the meanings and symbolism behind this tattoo, please feel free to visit my blog site and read more at

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