A 15-year public high school English and History teacher, high school administrator, and teacher trainer, Rachel Balkcom has spent her career seeking sources of effective education and facilitating youth work around systems change. She has served as the Director of both youth activist and teacher training programs through schools and non-profits and currently serves as Education Director at the Denver office of City Year, a national organization dedicated to reducing the dropout rate in the nation’s most challenged public schools. Rachel has been training at BQC since 2008 and also enjoys gardening and writing fiction. She and her life-partner, BQC Instructor Ian Sanderson, live with five chickens and a dog on a tiny urban homestead in Northwest Denver.
Letting Go Control In Order to Create Life
A Black Belt Essay by Rachel Balkcom
A Black Belt Essay by Rachel Balkcom
By age 35, even if we’ve had some discord and tragedy and betrayal—evidence that change is constant—some of us think we’re essentially who we’re going to be, that we’re fully cooked. We think we know what we’re good at and what we’re not, what we’ll do in the world and what we’ll leave to others—people who were born with different aptitudes.
To Shin Do allowed me to see that this set of assumptions was inaccurate, that the potential existed for me to make calculated, deliberate choices about who I was and what I was capable of. Earlier in my teaching career, I used to confront my students, who asserted that nothing in society would ever change. “On the contrary,” I would assert, “you may be assured only of constant change in our systems and in your life. The opportunity exists in your ability to manage, coax, shape that change.” At the time, I was thinking of justice in the outer world. I laugh as I realize now, that I was the one who had to heed those words—and apply them to my inner world.
In each of the last three elements of my training, I have confronted a shift that was, to that moment, the most significant internal transition of my life. Each shift has been an iteration of the same dynamic moving within, and each time, I resisted change until it exploded, leaving me better for it, more whole, re-formed—after I changed my positioning in relation to practically every other thing in my life. The recurring themes have involved control: the faulty assumptions that the mental can make order of and therefore subdue the physical, emotional, spiritual; and that if I ease my stringent efforts to control my own safety, I will undoubtedly be harmed.
I have begun learning to let go control, to trust—in myself, in others, in a force that integrates the self with the world. I have realized that in the letting go of control, paradoxically, I have more power to create my life. Letting go creates freedom, and freedom creates power. By trusting, we can more fully create the things we want, including goodness for ourselves and even others in our lives.
In the fire element, I first fully realized that I had operated with the understanding that I could control life by intellectualizing it, and that if I let that go, I believed, I put myself in significant harm. It was impossible for me to succeed in fire unless I turned my brain off and practiced using other realms as the impetus to action. In my personal life, trust emerged as a primary challenge. Letting go of control and connecting with those around me was the answer to both challenges. I fully accepted my love for Ian and allowed myself to admit (trusting in both of us) that I want to be with him until the end of life.
In wind, I became frustrated that I couldn’t move freely, be free, and I reverted to patterns of trying to understand in order to solve the problem, to flex intellectual muscle to keep myself safe. I had to stop thinking and move, fitting in like a current in a river, trusting that the way would reveal itself. In my personal life, I accepted a position that, I hoped, would bring me closer to the job I really wanted. I meditated in order to remind myself that the right position would develop, that—although I couldn’t see or control it—the answer was imminent.
In void, I struggled even more overtly with my ability to trust myself in order to let go control. Again, I was challenged to let go, be free, thereby paradoxically engaging in self-protection. In this iteration, it was clear that self-trust had everything to do with my sense of self-worth, and I struggled with feeling like I was good enough. I looked at other practitioners who engaged in the art as though it were second nature and thought, I’m not that. I can’t do that. I can’t discern or move that way. Inspired lessons by both Keitoshi and Aitoshi demonstrated that I could choose to trust myself, giving me opportunity to prove (to myself) my own self-worth. In my new position at work, I more authentically adopted agency over my own influence, standing confident that I am the right person, with the right experience, for the job.
In each of these phases, free response was challenging. I struggled with trusting my own body to know what to do in the moment (rather than trying to think it through in the half-a-second I had to discern). I struggled with trusting my connection with another person to help me ride the wave or fit in. I was challenged to trust myself and my capability, to leave off the self-judgment and know the right answer would be revealed.
It is the path I describe that allows me to see that I deserve to wear a black belt, to train with Ian and Jane and Kim. That I have learned, some of the time, to let go control and to trust myself to freely create myself is the most significant shift of internal being of my life, and my aptitude is shown in the way I live, which goes far beyond whether I can always flawlessly respond on the mat.
Since I started in the art, I have solidified relationship with my life-partner, bought a house, and arrived in the kind of job I’ve wanted for years, which allows us more financial security than we have had. My parents moved to town, I healed relationship with my sister, and my entire family spends time together once a week. I have found success in creative pursuits of which I didn’t think I was capable. I see connection between To Shin Do and all these life effects. To Shin Do allowed me to decide what to do when faced with change, shaping it to create myself anew—seeing it not as something done to me but recognizing that my response shapes who I am and my life. As I achieved internal freedom, I was able to create life with increased power and intention.
On the last testing night, I had prolonged moments of letting go, of not-judging and not-controlling, of freely responding in appropriate ways. A student’s mother approached and commented on my fluidity, my grace in training and thanked me for engaging in this art as a female. The next day, a friend and peer told me I am someone she would like to emulate within the art. Apparently An-Shu once said that when challenged by self-worth, we might pay attention to what others say about us. While I am confident in the value of the internal shifts I have created through the art, perhaps I have to admit that the internal shifts are now often evident on the mat as well.
To Shin Do has re-created my entire life, my sense of my own potential; it has removed perceived limitations and freed me. Even as I recognize that development isn’t always pleasant, I welcome the continued challenge and growth possible within the art. I look forward to my ever-growing sense of self-worth and ability to actively create my life.