A Hero’s Journey: The making of a Taekwondo Black Belt

A Hero’s Journey: The making of a Taekwondo Black Belt

If you have ever read Joseph Campbell (and if you haven’t, go do so!), you will know that he writes about mythology. Campbell says that all myths from all cultures fall into one or more archetypical structures, one of which is the monomyth, or the hero’s journey. He himself summarized the concept of the hero’s journey in his introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

In a hero’s journey, there are several elements, most of which are present in some degree: The Herald, The Call, The Crossing of the Threshold, The Belly of the Beast, The Road of Trials, The Gatekeeper, The Mentor, The Protector, The Temptress, The Conflict, The Death and Rebirth, The Boon, The Return. A hero’s journey pretty much follows that pattern, and we will use one of the best-known contemporary hero’s journey stories to illustrate it, The Lord of the Rings:

  1. The hero hears the call. The hero is Everyman and something happens in his life. Usually, he hears the call from the Herald, who is someone that tells him something that calls him to adventure. In LOTR, for example, Gandalf tells Frodo about the One Ring and says that he must take it out of the Shire and to the elves at Rivendell.
  2. The hero may delay taking the quest, but eventually he “crosses the threshold” and takes the first step along the way. In LOTR, Frodo leaves Bag End and sets out with Sam, Merry and Pippin – these three are his first Protectors. Upon leaving Bag End, they encounter the Ringwraiths and this constitutes the first trial of many on the Road of Trials.
  3. During the quest, the hero is joined by one or more mentors and has one or more protectors to assist him – in LOTR, this is The Fellowship of the Ring. The mentor and protector may be one and the same, such as Gandalf. The hero learns from the mentor(s) and encounters challenges posed by Gatekeepers along the way. He must defeat the Gatekeepers and overcome the challenges, which become increasingly more difficult. As he does, he becomes stronger and wiser.
  4. Along the way, the hero may encounter the Temptress, which is a metaphor for distractions and temptations that may cause the hero to abandon the quest. In LOTR, this is Galadriel, when Frodo is willing to give the Ring over to her.
  5. Eventually, the hero reaches the point of Final Conflict, the goal of his journey. Here he confronts someone or thing with great power (The Final Gatekeeper) and using what he has learned, defeats or overcomes the final obstacle and is successful in the quest. In LOTR, this is Frodo’s reaching Mount Doom and destroying the Ring. During this, the hero dies (in reality or symbolically) and is “reborn” with greater powers and knowledge (the Boon), which he then uses to improve the world and the lives of the people around him. The argument can be made that the hero, at this point, actually starts off on another leg of the journey, and that the quest never ends.

Hero’s journey stories abound, because the theme is essentially life: the struggle for self-improvement, continually facing and overcoming obstacles and making the world a better place. LOTR is just one example; one can look at Star Wars (Lucas knew Campbell and was heavily influenced by him), the Arthurian saga, Beowulf, the story of Jesus in the Bible, The Matrix and thousands of others. Even the oldest known written story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is a hero’s journey.

Well, this is all nice, you say, but what does this have to do with Taekwondo? The answer is that all martial arts training actually follows the structure of the hero’s journey very closely. Let’s see how that happens, using Taekwondo as an example like we did LOTR above.

First, we have our potential student in his role as Everyman. The student receives the call from a herald in some manner. Perhaps they encounter someone who trains in martial arts who sparks their interest, or they see an ad for a school, or they see a movie and decide that they want to do that, or they read a chapter in a book where martial arts is described. The student looks around and finds a school to their liking, in this case one that teaches Taekwondo. They then “cross the threshold” by visiting the school, meeting the staff, doing an introductory lesson and finally deciding to join the school.

They are then joined by the instructor and the other students, all of whom will play multiple roles of Protector, Mentor and Gatekeeper. The other students, in their role of Protectors, will serve as a “support system” to the new students and will help them be successful. The more advanced students may teach them some of the curriculum under the guidance of the instructor and thereby serve as mentors. The instructor is the main mentor/protector and also the gatekeeper – the student must face the challenge of promotional testing to the instructor’s satisfaction in order to move on to the next level.

Each successive level builds upon the preceding levels and adds more complexity in the techniques, forms, sparring, etc. For example, in Songahm Taekwondo (my style), the White Belt student must present a form that is 18 moves long and demonstrates a representative sample of the basics learned: five hand techniques, three stances and two kicking techniques. When they promote to Orange Belt, they learn a form that is 23 moves long and includes a lot of the White Belt basics plus new hand techniques, stances and kicks learned at Orange Belt. This follows the concept of the challenges faced on the Road of Trials – each new belt is more difficult than the ones preceding.

As the student trains, there come times when it seems like the goal will never be reached. They struggle with the requirements for a rank and at times think that they might as well quit. This is overcoming the Temptress and gaining confidence to succeed.

At the final colored belt testing, the student will demonstrate all that has been learned. The testing will be difficult both physically and mentally (the Final Conflict), and when the student is successful, they will earn the rank of First Degree Black Belt and will be “reborn” in a new role of leadership (the Boon). The next leg of the hero’s journey then begins.

The first leg, from White Belt to Black Belt, was learning the basics of Taekwondo. The next leg is learning the art of Taekwondo. The student will now start assuming a larger role as mentor to new students. As the student now progresses through the Black Belt ranks, they will become instructors in their own right and start assuming additional roles as Gatekeepers. But as all of that happens, they continue to train and learn and progress on their own personal hero’s journey. Their forms become much harder and more complex. The demands on focus and detail increase. As an instructor, the Black Belt student is somewhat like a candle, which consumes itself to illuminate the darkness; every once in a while, the Black Belt needs to refocus on their own training so that they do not burn out and lose sight of their own goals.

Eventually, the rare student will progress far enough along the journey that they reach the rank of Sixth Degree Black Belt. At that point, a new “Final Conflict” begins to occur, as the student is now considered a Master Candidate. There are increased additional requirements and harder training to be overcome, and eventually the student succeeds and is inducted as a Master Instructor (the Boon for the second leg).

The Master now assumes a new role: instructor of instructors, or mentor of mentors. They are leadership by example, showing what can be accomplished by honor, integrity, courtesy, desire, discipline, dedication and perseverance. And they begin the next leg of their hero’s journey, that of advanced mastership, until eventually they become a Grand Master (the Boon for the third leg).

And the journey does not end….

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The entirety of my martial arts career consists of two years of Judo in school in 5th and 6th grade. It has always been a secret wish of mine to start again at some point (though not necessarily Judo) but nothing ever came of it.

Now I am 29, quite fat and entirely untrained.

I wouldn't be in any hurry and I have no illusions of ever becoming great at it.

Is there hope for me? Do you have any tips or recommendations?

You wouldn't really kick my ass, would you?

Might as well ask, what would be a good place to start for a fat middle-age guy?

What kinds of people come to you for lessons? Is it primarily kids whose parents want them to learn discipline/confidence/self-defense? Is it adults who are looking for a way to keep fit? Is it people looking to use it, maybe people who want to complete in point sparring or mixed martial arts? I mean, I'm sure it's at least a little of everything, but what types do you see the most of?

Can knowing martial arts really help a woman fend off an attacker who is much larger and stronger than her? I have a friend who is a black belt, and her husband (who is much bigger than she is) used to laugh at the idea that she could fight off a guy his size if she had to, and she insisted that she could. Luckily, she's never had to, so I don't know if she's right or not! Is it worthwhile learning martial arts for this purpose?

Has the increasing interest in MMA made you realise the ineffectiveness of having ability in only one discipline, at a competitive level?

On the street, are you confident you could fend off an attack from any one person who hasn't trained as hard as you have?

Is there any sort of quick, easy exercises you can recommend? Occasionally I get the urge to exercise, but it passes within minutes. Something cool and martial-artsey might be able to hold my attention for that long.

I'm another 40-something who would like to take up some kind of martial art to stay in shape. After the recommended check up with a physician, what would you say was the best way to assess my level of fitness?

How much contact training do you do?


Quote Originally posted by Feirefiz View post
The entirety of my martial arts career consists of two years of Judo in school in 5th and 6th grade. It has always been a secret wish of mine to start again at some point (though not necessarily Judo) but nothing ever came of it.

Now I am 29, quite fat and entirely untrained.

I wouldn't be in any hurry and I have no illusions of ever becoming great at it.

Is there hope for me? Do you have any tips or recommendations?
I started when I was 16, had to lay out when I was 19, restarted at age 38. I turn 61 in December. You're never too old.

Make sure that you can handle physical exercise. Start slow, work your way up; your instructor will help you greatly if you sit down and work out a game plan with him/her. Don't rush it - you have the rest of your life to do this.

If you'll PM or email me and send me your zip code, I'll see if there is a school in my style near you. I can probably make a introduction to the instructor if there is.