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A Bully is Dead and I Am Not Happy About It

In 1965, bullies would see this face and want to punch it. I was constantly defending myself.

The first violent encounter I had in middle school was with a big bully named Tommy.

It was the fall of 1965, at the start of seventh grade at Beaumont Jr. High in Lexington, Kentucky, my hometown. I was standing in line outside the cafeteria at lunchtime, when a big kid in front of me dropped a quarter on the floor.

I have never met a stranger. I will joke and talk with anyone I meet, and I was the same way when I was a kid. So when I saw the quarter drop, I did what a lot of kids did back then when their friends dropped money. I put my foot on the quarter and yelled, "Grimes!" That meant the quarter was mine. Everyone knew it was a joke except Tommy.

He exploded with rage and shoved me into the wall. Tommy was a lot bigger than I was. He had been held back in junior high, so physically, he was far ahead of me. It was no contest.

"If you ever do that to me again I will beat you to death!" he screamed into my face, holding me against the wall. I believe he slapped and punched me a couple of times.

I was so shocked at the sudden fury that I didn't even feel the punches. I was stunned. Then it was over, and we went on through the lunch line, with Tommy looking back and making threats.

A Cycle of Bullying

And that set up a cycle of bullying for the next two years, when I would see Tommy and hear his threats, taunts, and see the sneer on his face. It seemed as if his greatest desire was to beat me to a pulp. I found ways of avoiding him.

That continued until one day, a couple of years later in 9th grade, Tommy was taking on all contenders in an arm-wrestling contest on the playground. I had begun to add on a little weight and muscle by this point. 

"Come here, Four Eyes," he sneered.

I thought, "What the hell," and went over to take him on, knowing that I did not have a chance. A crowd of guys surrounded us, cheering and shouting and laughing.

I beat him. When it was over, something changed in his face. He never bothered me again.

Being a scrawny, friendly kid who wore glasses, I was on the receiving end of bullying all the time. One particular bully, Rob Brewster, would sneak up behind me and hit me in the hallway. For years, I looked over my shoulder for Rob and his friends, Dan Cotter and a big, dumb kid named Prentice. They were mean boys. Dan grew up to be a doctor on the East Coast. I'll bet he is still mean.

Bullies Pick On People Who Won't Fight Back

Then one day in 1971, I ran into Rob at a pickup softball game. His bully pals were not with him, so I walked up, reminded him of when he used to punch and spit on me, and I punched him in the nose. He backed away, his eyes watering. I punched him again. He ran and hid in his car.

This is what bullies understand. Later, a friend who witnessed this incident saw Tommy and told him that I had beaten up a guy who bullied me. Tommy reportedly looked worried and said, "Tell Kenny I always liked him."

I guess he thought I was coming for him next.

I didn't see Tommy until my 20th high school reunion. He was talking and laughing with some old friends when I walked up to him and shook his hand.

"You were a real prick at Beaumont," I told him, "but you seem to be a pretty good guy now."

He looked down as if he knew he had been a prick. We talked for a minute about what we were doing, then went on to mingle with other people. That was the last time I saw him.

A decade or so later, I heard from another friend that Tommy had a reputation as a bully in the workplace, too, as an adult.

All of these memories flashed through my mind last night when I received a text telling me that Tommy died. He reportedly killed himself in his home after suffering a painful degenerative illness.

My first reaction was sadness, and it surprised me.

Bullies Driven to Bury Their Internal Pain

I don't necessarily believe bullies are born that way. I believe some of them are made. Something puts rage inside of them, or insecurity that makes them need to lash out. It could be that they were abused, or constantly humiliated as children. I guess it is possible that they could simply have mental issues that make them sociopaths, able to hurt others without feeling pain.

Bullies often feel shame and humiliation, so they try to bury those feelings by making others feel shame and humiliation. Check out the psychology of a bully.

I never felt shame or humiliation when I was bullied. I felt anger, and if a bully actually wanted to fight, he found someone who would fight back, and the bully lost every time. I whipped several of them and the script always played out the same way: the bully taunted and threatened; I would try to avoid the fight; the bully would back me into a corner or begin hitting; I hit back and the bully would give up.

I will never understand what made Tommy a bully, but I was not his only target. I was not the only one who encountered his violent temper.

One day around 1966, Tommy and another big guy got into a slugfest in the hallway at Beaumont. By the time a teacher broke it up and dragged them to the principal's office, they both had huge red circles on their faces from the force of the punches, like red crop circles left by angry aliens. I remember thinking that I did not want to mess with either of them.

Still, to think that someone like him might have carried that anger with him, and then reached a point in his own life when he would decide to end it all, is a realization that can only bring sympathy and compassion.

A bully is dead. I am not happy about it. I would have been much happier if he had never felt the need to intimidate, humiliate or attack anyone.

I wish he had lived long beyond his early 60s, dying peacefully in his bed as an old man, leaving behind a legacy of happiness and laughter, instead of memories by people who knew him and who are sharing the news about his passing, always with one word that keeps coming up over and over; the word "bully."

What a shame. 

The "Glimpse" That Keeps Us Coming Back to Tai Chi, Qigong, Bagua and Xingyi

Ravine 2
The "Ravine" at Eastern KY University in Richmond, my alma mater.

A Taiji instructor and a former guest on the Internal Fighting Arts podcast, Kimberly Ivy of Seattle, wrote a post on Facebook a few days ago that brought back some vivid memories for me, and reminded me of one reason I have kept coming back to these arts decade after decade, putting myself through the hard work and practice to get better at these skills.

She wrote that some of her long-time students, some of them off-and-on students, told her that it was the occasional "glimpse" they received when practicing that kept them coming back.

Ahh, yes. The "Glimpse."

I first experienced the "Glimpse" around 1980. I had been involved in martial arts for seven years at that point, and I had been studying Zen Buddhism and Taoist philosophy. One of my favorite books was "Zen Buddhism," by Christmas Humphreys. I loved reading the koans -- little anecdotes or riddles that are supposed to make you realize the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to trigger enlightenment: the "Glimpse."

Here is a koan:

A monk asked Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?”
Kegon replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”

Here is another good one:

One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?”
Manjusri replied, “I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?”

Most people are familiar with the famous koan: What is the sound of one hand clapping? It is usually said as a joke in the United States. No one actually reflects on the meaning behind the riddle.

So I was sitting one day around 1980 in the Ravine at my alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University. I spent a lot of time there when I was a student (graduated in 1975 with a double major in journalism and broadcasting). It was a terraced field, leading down to an ampitheater, nestled almost in the center of campus.

1980 was a rough year. I was working in TV news but earning so little money, my wife and I were teetering on bankruptcy. My wife was pregnant and having serious mental health issues related to the pregnancy. The baby, a little girl named Shara, would die at six weeks of age from crib death later in the year.

RavineI was visiting EKU and decided to sit in the Ravine and meditate, touching the ground like Antaeus, who maintained his strength as long as he was in contact the ground. Perhaps it would renew my strength for the daily battle.

It was a sunny day. I sat on one of the terraced steps of grass and tried to calm my mind and body, detaching and letting all thoughts and concerns go.

A few moments later, just as I reached my calmest moment, a robin landed in front of me in the grass, just a few feet away. It turned and looked at me. Our eyes met.

For a few short seconds, I felt my connection to the bird and to all things in the universe. A sense of calm, order and acceptance washed through me. It was the most complete feeling of peace I had ever experienced.

Then, just as quickly, the moment I thought, "This is satori," it was gone. Vanished. And I was back in my own head.

When you reach for it, you cannot grasp it. Once you get back into your own head, it is gone.

This moment, this "Glimpse" stayed with me. It consumed my mind all the way back to Lexington that day. And I immediately tried to look for it again. But it does not come very easily when you are caught up in daily activities and concerns.

Satori is when you suddenly are aware of your connection to all things; your place in the universe; your "One True Nature." Sometimes, we simply refer to it as a "connection." 

Some people attempt to achieve this through religion, but too often in our society, that means a benevolent (or malevolent) dictator above you, ready to reward or punish your every thought. It too often involves judging others and meddling in their lives, particularly on "social issues." 

The "Glimpse" I'm talking about does not depend on invisible beings or gods. In my opinion, having experienced both worlds, I eventually rejected the religious view for a different path. If you are reading this and think, "Oh, I get the same feeling from (Insert Name of Deity Here)," then I would simply note that you probably have not traveled this path.

In 1987, I began studying the internal arts and qigong. Since then, I have had several moments of the "Glimpse." It can happen in the middle of a form, when I feel my body flowing through the movement. It can happen when doing Standing Stake or another qigong exercise. It can happen when I am sitting on the couch with Nancy.

The "Glimpse" keeps me coming back. 

On the day that I took my black sash test in the style of kung-fu I was studying in 1997, part of the test involved sparring another black sash with a wooden broadsword. We got into our fighting stances and prepared for the start of the match. I tried to center myself and connect. A calmness came over me, and I felt as if I was part of my opponent.

Mr. Garrett moved to thrust his broadsword and before he could move more than a couple of inches, my broadsword was at his chest.

Ahh, the "Glimpse." Just at the time you need it the most.

Do you ever get the "Glimpse?" It comes when you are in the moment, your ego is gone, your awareness broadens and your mind opens to your One True Nature as it relates to all things, without judging, without liking or disliking.

The journey to achieve this takes you to a place where you react differently to relationships, to aggression, to tragedy, and even to tough deadlines at work. You can take the first step with qigong exercises, Standing Stake and internal art forms. And a great book to read is "Zen Buddhism" by Christmas Humphreys.

It is a journey worth taking.  

Here is a website with some great koans to stimulate your mind. And there is a second type of "Glimpse" you get when practicing the internal arts. That will be the topic of my next blog post.