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White Belt Mentality

Sheridan Taylor

In which our hero reiterates the importance of mental flexibility through metaphor. 

There’s a repeated, and mostly ignored, concept in the martial arts: white belt mentality. The white belt mentality is staying humble so you can learn from anyone, anywhere, anytime. Or maybe everyone, everywhere, all the time. Same thing, I guess.

Yeah, okay, maybe you don’t care about the martial arts. If you haven’t figured it out by now, everything I write comes back to the same theme. So, hang on until the end.

The white belt is the start for martial arts that use the belt system. When you’re a white belt, you’re probably the least knowledgeable martial artist in the school. At white belt, though, you make the quickest and most progress. You know the least you ever will, so every lesson is progress. You learn something every day, even if all you learn is how much mat burn stings.

Being a white belt is both empowering and humbling. In order to keep learning and progressing, a white belt knows everyone else knows something they don’t, so they try to learn from everybody. That’s the white belt mentality.

Eventually, people lose white belt mentality. They get better, lose less often. They think they know what they’re doing, and sometimes get cocky. But they’ll inevitably go up against someone who’ll show them how little they know, and that’s where their character is revealed. Some ask for help. Some get angry.

Pretty natural. When we get better, we can hide our insecurity behind false pride and stop asking for help. That’s ego. Ego is vanity. Vanity is fear.

 I’ve seen higher belts not ask for advice from lower belts that beat them. Their ego gets in the way and they get all butt-hurt. They limit themselves because it hurts their ego. I’ve seen higher belts avoid sparring with lower belts because they’re scared of losing. They limit themselves because they’re scared of embarrassment.. If you don’t let your ego get in the way, accept you’re not perfect, but can always strive to be, you can’t be embarrassed.

Martial artists with white belt mentality don’t care if their opponent/partner is a white, black, or plaid belt. They want to improve. Martial artists with white belt mentality enjoy it when their opponent/partner beats them, because that’s an opportunity for growth.

Martial artists with white belt mentality realize it isn’t possible to lose if you’ve learned. They stay curious, and rather than get angry if they lose, they ask, “what did I do wrong?” I ask “what-the-hell-did-you-do-there-and-how-did-you-do-it?” It’s all hyphenated because it comes out as one word while I’m laying on the mat hoping I’m not having a myocardial infarction.

Martial artists with the white belt mentality stop worrying about the goal and focus on the journey. To them, every day’s their first day, and they’ve a chance to learn and grow and improve. Someone with a white belt mentality sees the world differently. They never stop looking for opportunities to grow in every aspect of their life.

Yeah, that’s where this was going. When I was lost in mental illness, I was unable to accept I needed help and needed to make changes. Because I feared stigma. I feared change. I stayed stuck in pain and darkness because I left my white belt in the closet.

White belt mentality ties into the concept of mindfulness for me. Mindfulness has played a big part in my recovery. Today, I have an opportunity to learn and improve. Who knows what I can learn today? Excuse me, I have to go find my white belt.