THE PATH OF THE PROTECTOR – Sue Perrotto Black Belt Essay
“You’re a girl … You’re short … You’re weak.” I heard those phrases repeated in one form or another for decades, but it didn’t take decades for me to believe they were true. I was the kid who was always picked last for teams, the one who couldn’t do a chin-up if they tried, the runt that the bigger kids took advantage of – all because of the power of those phrases.
Now don’t get me wrong … I’m no shrinking violet. Professionally, I was never afraid to set goals (pretty high ones), face a challenge, and work my butt off to achieve those goals and overcome any challenges en route. But even well into my adulthood there was still an element of fear on other levels … some of which I didn’t even realize.
Fear is what brought me to the dojo. An old college stalker re-surfaced, and even though he was back East, I still felt vulnerable and unsafe. A family member who is a police officer suggested that even though I probably had nothing to worry about, it might be a good idea to take some kind of self-defense course. As fate would have it, a co-worker of mine studied martial arts. I remembered that he taught a class once a week and asked if I might join. Though he agreed I’d benefit from some self-defense, he told me his class was, as he put it, “a bunch of ruffians training in a park.” Thinking I’d be better off in a safe environment, he hooked me up with NPMAC. He said it was a hike from Burbank, but it was worth it. He was right.
I had no idea what to expect when I stepped onto the mat. As I waited for my class to start, I watched the higher levels train. Bodies were dropping, flying, and contorting into shapes worthy of “The Matrix”. I was both impressed and intimidated at the same time. There was no way I could do that. Nope – not gonna happen. Then my class started and after we bowed in, I heard new phrases that held the key to later prove me wrong:
I believe in myself … I am confident … I can accomplish my goals.
I believe in what I study … I am disciplined … I am ready to learn and advance.
I believe in my teachers … I show respect to all who help me progress.
Though these seemed to be very nice positive affirmations, those phrases took much longer for me to believe. I felt awkward and uncoordinated, but (and this is a big but) even so, I learned a couple of techniques and was able to stop an attack in that very first class. That was pretty darn cool…
I continued to learn more “simple” techniques to protect myself and though I had no problem projecting my voice when I said, “Back off!” I didn’t really believe I had it in me to stand my ground against an attacker. However, all throughout, my teachers and fellow students were incredibly positive and encouraging. As the weeks passed, I began to see the strength and power of physical structure. Then another concept was introduced: being “in Earth” wasn’t purely rooted in physicality, it’s also a mindset – and one informs the other. Wait … what I believe can affect and be manifested in the physical realm? My brain was broken.
I began to realize there was an incredible depth to the training that was being offered. And by the end of the 9 months I spent in the Earth realm, knew that I not only wanted, but needed to continue on this journey. From that point on, each realm has presented its own special challenge … sometimes physical, sometimes mental, and sometimes even on a base emotional level.
In the Water realm, not only did I learn the importance of moving at a 45-degree angle, I also realized the value of gaining distance and time to be able to not only get out of danger, but also deal with a threat effectively. And furthermore, the value of taking a step back translated off the mat as well. At work, I found myself stepping back and analyzing intense situations to gather information, rather than just reacting to them and possibly fueling the fire of conflict further.
The Fire realm presented a different challenge. To be successful, I had to rely upon timing, connection and fiery momentum – no problem – to move into the attacker’s space – big problem. Moving toward an attacker was really unnerving, and I just couldn’t do it. It was frustrating the heck out of me, so I took a private lesson. Was it my footwork? My timing? Nope. They weren’t perfect by any means, but it turned out that they weren’t the root of the problem, either. My teacher explained that the problem wasn’t in my feet – it was in my head. To take an attacker’s space, I had to let go of the fear associated with being a small woman, and trust both the techniques and myself. Once I began to actually believe that my size and gender weren’t an issue anymore, not only did bodies drop and fly, but I also began to learn that being small was an advantage. What an amazing lesson…
An even bigger lesson came in the Wind realm: learning to disengage. Letting go and not struggling when attacked is completely counter-intuitive to me. But during the course of my physical training, I finally saw that the more I “muscled it”, the less successful I was. And yet again, I saw the parallels in my personal and professional life… how if I relaxed and didn’t try to force an outcome, I was more successful with less effort. That’s the amazing thing about this art form … the infinite amount of layers to it, and how it manages to be so applicable to daily life outside of the dojo.
As I continue to train, the challenges are growing in depth and intensity. My brain still gets broken almost every class… but I love it. I love that I’m continuing to grow and learn on multiple levels, and for the first time in my life, I not only have the confidence and tools to protect myself … but also to someday protect others as well.
The person who stood on the stone at the entrance of the dojo 3 years ago is not the one who stands there now. The words of the Student Creed are no longer simple positive affirmations; they are reminders of inner-strength. And if I forget, I have the great fortune to be surrounded and inspired by amazing people who have stretched me to what I thought were my limits … and showed me that I was nowhere near them. As a result, not only have I become physically stronger (though I haven’t tried to do a chin up yet), but my spirit has been strengthened as well.
Yes … I AM a girl … and I AM small … but I AM STRONG.” I truly believe in those phrases and in myself. I have To Shin Do and my teachers to thank for that.