As I try to prepare myself to test for godan (fifth level black belt) in a few weeks, I've been reviewing more than twenty-seven years of training, looking at every drill and technique and asking myself about it.
And what I find is that I don't know much about karate. I look at my jodan uke (upper block, known to some as "age uke", rising block) and wonder if my shoulder positioning is right, if I've been doing it wrong for over a quarter century. I'm not sure which way my hips should move when I turn my body in the most basic kata series, the Taikyoku. I've been working with the bo staff since I got my shodan (first black belt) in 1995; I'm not sure how to hold it.
I can remember a time when I knew a lot about karate. It lasted about thirty seconds...
Back in 1995, after a couple of false starts and a bit of organizational politics, my sensei informed me that I was going to test for shodan at the next opportunity. (I wasn't asked if I wanted to test, mind you; I was told that I was going to New York and that no excuse would get me out of it. Sometimes that's how it goes.)
So I trained to get myself ready, and went up for black belt promotion. I wasn't sure of myself, but I was able to show everything I was supposed to know without any major mistakes. I managed to give my speech without tripping over my tongue, and I survived a vigorous hour and half of kumite against black belts.
I passed. I felt good. Sore -- I would ache for days -- but good. Hell, I felt great. Kaicho Nakamura called my name, and I stepped forward. I was getting my BLACK BELT! I really knew karate!
As Kaicho tied the belt around my waist, he said, "See me afterwards".
Oh, no. What was wrong??? I'd screwed something up after all! They were going to make me do some remedial work, make the promotion probationary or something, maybe even take the belt back. Pop went my ego.
And so ended the thirty seconds when I really knew karate.
Well, as it turned out, I hadn't screwed up. (Well, not badly.) They'd gotten the embroidery on the belt, my name in katakana, wrong. No big deal, they mailed me a new one a few weeks later.
But spelling my name wrong on the belt was a very effective cure for new shodan disease.
Almost eighteen years later it's hard to imagine ever having that feeling again. Part of that is because I've broadened the horizons of what "karate" means: I've begun to try to learn a little about its history and development, I've studied functional anatomy to better understand how the body moves, and I've had to start to understand how to teach the art. As my understanding of what "karate" is broadens while my knowledge grows only slowly, it becomes clear that what I know makes up a smaller and smaller fraction of what there is to know.
But another part of it is continually looking back at the techniques I've learned and thinking, "well, what if I did it this other way? Or this way?" -- realizing that I don't even know the stuff I do think I know.
That might not be the best approach for a beginner. If you're a white belt, focus on figuring out one way to throw a decent punch and stick with that for a while. But at some point, you'll have to go back and examine it, try to make it better, maybe see different ways it could be done with different trade-offs of speed versus power. And once you start doing that, you may never again think you really know about karate.