I think that an interesting way to look at martial arts would be to think of it as a teacher. I once read a book that talked about personal 'master teachers', which were described as more esoteric and intangible things, such as emotions, id, and ego, but seriously, if you think about it, martial arts can also be thought of as a teacher.
Every time I step on the mat, I learn something. First I learn the obvious things that everybody else can see, such as kicks, throws, kata, and whatnot, but I also always learn something about myself, as well. Not everybody can see what I learn about myself, but I can see it, and I make it a priority to take those lessons and apply them to my life.
There's something about my martial arts journey, though, that I find sort of amusing, and that's my semi-obsessive want to know for sure that I've become a martial artist and not someone who just does martial arts. It's funny because I have this nagging feeling that, like with music, there is never a given point where one becomes a martial artist.
But see, that's not because martial arts doesn't change you. The name of our school is 'Martial Arts Refinery' and I used to think that the reason it's called 'Refinery' is because, as a martial artist, you are constantly refining your technique. There is no set destination; there is always something to learn and improve.
It's interesting that now I'm discovering that it's the other way around; martial arts refines you, too. It's an interesting relationship, though, because martial arts only teaches you what you want to know. Yes, it shows you everything about yourself; there are no secrets...but it never forces. Never pushes. You are the one who pushes. And why do you push? Because after a while, you realize that not pushing wouldn't be fair to yourself. That by not pushing, you are holding yourself back. Stunting your growth. It took me about five minutes to learn that on the mat, but it's taken me eighteen years to learn to start applying it to situations in my own life.
Anyway, I rambled. The reason that my semi-obsession with wanting to know when I've officially become a martial artist is funny is because it's an endless uphill climb. I find myself saying, "Okay, I got ___ belt, I must be a martial artist now!" and then something great happens and I learn something really great, that tops that achievement and I say, "Never mind, that doesn't make me a martial artist, this does." It's a great and wonderful up-cycle that, I think, never ends. Because the learning never ends. I will always learn something new and then I'll be forced to say it again: "Okay, now I'm a martial artist..."
It's as if I'll never be a martial artist, but I will always be one, at the same time.
Also, martial arts doesn't ask anything in return. There's nothing for it to gain from my learning, but there is infinite wisdom for me to gain through learning, refining, and being refined by it.
Anyway, I'm really glad that I'm doing it. Even if it scares me sometimes with its honesty and straightforwardness. Even when I have to say, 'next time, I'll be better'. The fact that I can say that at all is a teaching victory in and of itself.