My lifelong journey in the martial arts began 40 years ago this evening with one small step for a 20-year old college student.
My cousin, Bobby, was already studying with Grandmaster Sin The (Grandmaster turned out to be a self-created title) and I was fascinated because of the Kung Fu TV show, which I watched every week for the fight scenes and the philosophy.
Bobby and I roomed together at Eastern Kentucky University. He had a pair of nunchakus, which I had never seen before in person, but had seen them in a recent Bruce Lee movie (Bruce died, and Enter the Dragon was released, that summer). I picked up one end of the nunchaku, and the other end promptly swung up and cracked me right in the forehead. It hurt like hell, and I was so angry, I sat the nunchakus down in disgust.
But I was still fascinated with the martial arts, so on September 20, 1973, I went to Sin The's school -- in a converted garage in the Eastland Shopping Center. The Bruce Lee fad was in full swing, so there were so many people showing up for the introductory class, they spilled out into the driveway. I stood in the driveway with some of the others, going through the class and learning a punch and a stance or two.
Maybe half the students returned for the second class. I think it's a safe bet that of all the students who showed up that night, I am the only one still practicing.
I had no idea that it would become such an integral part of who I am. Now, at age 60, I am working at it full-time, and teaching people all over the world with videos, DVDs, ebooks, this blog -- I am not a master and never will be, but I have some things to teach and do it to the best of my ability, and I continue to learn and try to incorporate deeper understanding and insights into my arts. In the next two months, I plan on studying with two members of the Chen family. If I pick up one or two things that will improve my practice, it will be wonderful.
What has 40 years in the martial arts taught me? For one thing, it has given me a personal philosophy to ride the ups and downs of life. I have suffered pretty bad events -- the death of a daughter, job losses, two divorces, the loss of a lung -- but after being rocked each time, I eventually find my center and walk on. I have learned that life is truly a yin/yang circle. When bad things happen, if you just persist, the circle turns and positive things come around. When great things happen, you can be certain that the circle will turn, and something negative will happen. It is the way of life.
I found something in martial arts that provided me with a system of goal achievement. Learning a form, for example, is a great lesson in achieving any goal in life. You begin with the first move. You practice it, then add the next move. Practice both of them until you are ready to move to the third move, and so on. Before you know it, you are at the end. You have learned the movements. Any human endeavor can be accomplished in this step-by-step approach. You set a goal, you determine how to get there, and you take it one step at a time.
40 years in the martial arts has helped me to realize that learning something on the surface is not the same as truly learning it. Learning a movement, or a series of movements in a form, is the first part of a very long, multi-year, sometimes lifelong process of understanding the movement, developing the body mechanics, finding the art within the martial, and sometimes finding the martial in the art.
40 years in the martial arts has helped me understand how much I have to learn. It's a little funny and a testament to ego to see people who have been in the arts for a few years claim to be experts. It's mind-boggling to see people create their own organization and install themselves as Grandmaster. It's sad to see people with good intentions following these con artists. And it's sad to see people earn a black belt and then either think of themselves as masters or drop out of the arts. A black belt or sash is just the beginning.
40 years has taught me that no human being can perform miracles with their chi. In fact, nothing in martial arts is done outside what we understand to be scientifically verifiable principles. Everything else is fantasy -- it looks cool in the movies but it is not real life. You can't knock someone down with your chi. You can't heal people with your aura.There is nothing supernatural involved. It is all physical skill. Nothing more.
40 years has taught me that when you abuse your body, you pay a price. Martial artists can tolerate breaking blocks of ice with their heads when young. They can break a stack of boards. They can kick through concrete (the right type of concrete). They can withstand painful blows to the stomach, chest, sometimes the neck. But eventually, all of this comes back to haunt the martial artist, in the form of arthritis, knee pain, hip replacements, and hard blows to the head that result in concussions can really change your life for the worst, and cut it short. Even Shaolin monks who break ice blocks with their heads suffer brain damage, talk in stutters, and have huge welts on their skulls. The human body is not made to suffer the abuse that testosterone-driven young guys think it can. You want to do Iron Shirt Chi Kung? Go for it, young man. I'll watch and see how you feel when you are 50 years old.
40 years in the martial arts have moved me beyond wanting to learn self-defense (I accomplished that a few decades ago) to the point where the body mechanics and the purpose of the movements -- unlocking hidden techniques and fighting applications -- are the things that bring me joy.
40 years in the martial arts have taught me about the different worlds of martial arts. There is the storefront world, where every black belt can start a school and teach mediocre or poor arts. There is the world of tournaments, where good and bad martial artists gather. We compete, get trophies, and sometimes we are the best of a mediocre group, sometimes we are good, but it is easy to think of ourselves as better than we are simply because we get a trophy. Tournaments are useful for marketing and for putting yourself in a situation where you have to perform with other people watching. Tournament sparring does test important skills, but it is also useful as a marketing tool. Big trophies in the school window equals good marketing.
Then there is the world of the Chen family, the world of Liu Jingru, the world of Sun Lutang. This is beyond the comprehension of many of us. In fact, when some Westerners travel to study for a week or two in the Chen Village, they come back and drop out. They realize they will never be able to work that hard or attain that skill, and it defeats them mentally. I have not been able to go to the Chen Village but I have studied with members of the Chen family and their students. It is a humbling experience, but just taking one baby step in understanding after one of those learning sessions is exciting to me.
40 years in martial arts has taught me that it really is a lifelong journey. Skill is not a destination.
I have learned many things, but this is a blog post, not a book.
After being near death four years ago next month and losing a lung and a lot of muscle mass, I have struggled with lower physical capacity. I'm on blood thinners, so I have been forced to stop sparring. One mistake by a partner who might get a hard blow through to my head could trigger bleeding in the brain or elsewhere. I can't take that chance anymore. A couple of cardiologists at Mayo told me I had 3 to 5 years before my heart gives out. That was 3 years ago. I asked one of them if I had to give up kung-fu. He said, "The more you exercise, the faster your heart will wear out."
I decided that I could not accept that advice. And even though it's harder to breathe with one lung, and my heart is working a little hard to keep up and keep the blood pumping through the body, I keep learning, I keep taking one step at a time on this journey.
I wish I had another 40 years to become really good. So I walk on, and take this journey as far as I can.