I was chatting with a person on FB yesterday who is critical of me for selling DVDs of my instruction. He believes that I promote myself, and he interprets this as me telling people I'm a master. Bottom line -- he doesn't think I'm good enough to sell instruction on DVD, compared with other higher-level instructors.
Then I received this email from Alan in Orlando, Florida:
"Thanks for your wonderful work and your excellent DVD segments. I feel I'm learning more from them than I did from my previous experience taking in-person classes many years ago."
I also reminded my critic on FB of the young man in Beijing who wrote to me telling me how my DVDs helped him bridge the language barrier between him and his Chinese Xingyi teacher, and my instruction was responsible for the progress he had made in his teacher's class. He understood the principles the teacher was trying to get across because of my DVDs.
As I explained to my critic on FB, I could teach at the local YMCA and none of the trolls in Facebook Land would care. I could advertise my classes and no critics would tell me I don't have the right. But I have a different set of skills, with my radio and TV background, that help me teach a different way, by producing DVDs, podcasts, and videos for online instruction. I am simply reaching students a different way. If they can learn from what I do (and they do learn), why should anyone else care where and how I teach?
Once you put yourself online, even when I continue to insist I am not and will never be a master, a chunk of the martial artists out there will be threatened. They will attack. They see you as competition. Despite their claims of being the real deal, and nobody else is the real deal, and other people are promoting themselves, in the end their criticism comes from insecurity.
Seriously, shouldn't you be practicing instead of sitting at a keyboard on the East Coast or in France passing judgment on other teachers? Yeah. I think you should. And then, the next time you look in a mirror, ask yourself how your heart-mind got so terribly off-track; how your "spirit" got so dirty. You see, you are not my target. If you are at a higher level than I am, my material is not aimed at you. I help people all over the world get back into the internal arts, or take them up for the first time. Anytime I do that, it develops an audience for the art, and I often refer people to good teachers in their area so they can learn in person.
What could be a better win-win situation than that? Unfortunately, a lot of FB martial arts warriors don't want a win-win situation. They believe if I win, they lose. And they actually think they have some strange right to judge other martial artists. Well, here's a wake-up call. I'm helping people, not only by selling DVDs and teaching through my online school, but also by promoting other teachers through my podcast and blog.
WTF are YOU doing for anyone other than yourself? By the way, my new Bagua Elk Horn Knives DVD will be ready next week. It's pretty damn good. I'm no Liu Jingru, but you will learn more on this DVD than you will from his DVD. I guarantee it or your money back. :)
I was chatting with a person on FB yesterday who is critical of me for selling DVDs of my instruction. He believes that I promote myself, and he interprets this as me telling people I'm a master. Bottom line -- he doesn't think I'm good enough to sell instruction on DVD, compared with other higher-level instructors.
Join Me on the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast: What is Your Biggest Challenge or Question in Practicing Tai Chi, Hsing-I or Bagua?
If you don't have a question about training, can you describe your biggest challenge as you try to make progress in your training? If so, click on the link and leave a voice message.
If I select your question or comment for the podcast, I will give you a heads-up before it goes online.
You will need to be on your phone or on a computer with a mic.
I hope you join me in helping listeners around the world, because if you have a question or a challenge as you practice martial arts, you are not alone, and other people may benefit from our discussion.
We all have an image in our minds of the guy who gets attacked and we take out the attacker with a few cool techniques.
It is more likely that you will be in a bar where someone gives you some crap, you'll both do the Monkey Dance, and he will tell you he's going to kick your butt. You punch him out and he crumples like an empty suit.
In reality, that could land you in jail.
Here are some guidelines that can help you decide if the law is on your side in a case of self-defense.
Is there an imminent threat of violence?
Do you fear for your physical safety?
If someone shouts at you from across the room that they are going to beat you up, that is not justification for you to strike. If someone insults you or calls you or your girlfriend rude names, that is not justification to hit them. You can go to jail if you strike when you are not in imminent danger of physical harm.
If someone is throwing a punch, there is no longer a question of whether you are in danger.
Is the threat of physical harm over?
Someone hits you and hurts their hand. He doubles up in pain and staggers away, clutching his hand. You walk over, punch him in the face, and he falls and strikes his head on the floor, causing serious head trauma.
Be ready to go to prison for a while. The threat of physical danger was over and you took a violent action that injured someone.
A bully pushes you and swings at you. In self-defense, you punch him in the solar plexus and he falls to the ground, the wind knocked out of him. At this point, he is no longer a threat to you. Any further action you take can land you in trouble.
Is your response proportional?
A tough guy in a bar picks up a pool stick and takes a swing at you. Reaching into your pocket, you pull out a knife and stab him.
You could be going away for a while, because it could be successfully argued that your response was deadly force, when you were not on the receiving end of deadly force.
There are a lot of scenarios that you can imagine if you are one of the people who takes advantage of concealed carry laws.
Would a reasonable person be afraid for their safety?
This is a question often asked in a court case. If a "reasonable person" were in your place, would that person have been afraid to the point of violence?
If you weigh a muscular 250 pounds, and a person weighing 140 pounds is threatening you, a jury could consider how serious a threat the smaller person presented to you in reality.
An insult or a challenge would not necessarily cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety.
Do you have the opportunity to retreat instead of using deadly force?
In many states, you have a "duty to retreat" if you can leave without harm and without using deadly force.
Self-defense laws can change from one state to another, so it is a good idea to do a little research for the state where you live or the states you visit.
Another Important Point
Okay, perhaps you hurt somebody badly in a self-defense situation, you are charged with a crime but you are found not guilty.
That is not the end of your troubles. A civil lawsuit is always possible by the person you hurt or their family.
This is yet another reason to think very carefully before rushing into violence.
Remaining Centered Is Great Self-Defense
I was at a James Taylor concert around 1999 or 2000, with great second row tickets. Three guys were behind me, and one of them was drunk and singing off-key at the top of his lungs, drowning out James Taylor. People around us were seething with frustration, but everyone was afraid to speak up, except me.
I finally turned to the guys, who appeared to be around 30 years old, and I said, "Hey guys, I paid good money for these tickets and I would really like to hear James Taylor sing instead of you."
One of the sober ones, a mean-looking guy, gave me the Evil Eye and said, "The three of us can take you on."
I turned to my wife and we both laughed. Actually, they probably couldn't have taken me on. But as I sat there with others in the area thanking me for speaking up, and the three guys making occasional taunts at me, I realized that the situation could potentially escalate to violence.
At that point, I realized that there was no good outcome. I could get my butt kicked by three guys, or I could hurt one or two or all of them, or we could all be arrested in mid-fight by security.
I had a vision of spending the night in jail, of a story landing in the newspaper, of losing my job and possibly being sued if I injured one of the idiots who were sitting behind me.
I decided to center myself and not react to their taunts. They stopped singing loudly and we enjoyed the concert, despite the layer of tension that existed because I didn't know what would happen when it was over. But when the concert ended, they went in one direction and my wife and I went in the other direction.
No one was injured and nobody lost their jobs.
A friend of mine was in a bar one night and a guy came charging at him. My friend punched him in the face -- hard -- and his attacker hit the floor, out like a light.
Stories like that scare me. Punching an adult in the face is serious business. Breaking their limbs is a serious act of violence. The most serious injuries don't happen when the punch is thrown -- it happens when the person falls and hits their head. What began as a simple bar fight could now be manslaughter....or worse. You could become a felon in about five seconds.
If you are seriously in danger of harm, or you see another person who is in danger of harm, self-defense is the reasonable thing to do. But it is a wise person who studies the law and understands when self-defense is justified or when it could turn your life into a living hell.
I encourage you to find your state's laws on self-defense and learn them. If you are a martial arts teacher, your students should know the law, too.
And remember, no one is ever hurt when at least one of the parties keeps his cool and defuses the situation instead of escalating it. That could be the best self-defense advice of all, and the best lesson you can teach your students.
Do Martial Arts Prepare Students for Real-World Violence? The Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Rory Miller
Miller is a former corrections officer who worked in "booking," where criminals are brought to be checked into the jail or prison when they are angry, still on drugs, and not always searched as well as the booking officer would want. Officers who work in booking are unarmed, and if they work at a county jail, for example, they end up getting in more fights than the entire police force combined.
As a martial artist, Miller soon realized that there is a big difference between real-world violence and what is taught as self-defense in traditional martial arts classes.
I have wanted to interview Rory Miller since I began my Internal Fighting Arts podcast. He is the guest in the latest episode.
He talks about the difference between "social" violence and predatory violence, and how you can prepare yourself for both.
I celebrated my 64th birthday two weeks ago by attempting a 6-foot-high flying sidekick.
It was my first attempt at a flying sidekick in three years.
My first attempt ended with me on my butt, and I was so tickled that I cut this short video including some outtakes, along with photos of different attempts beginning in 1974, when I was 21 years old.
This crap doesn't get any easier as you get older, lose a lung, lose muscle mass, and go through heart failure. But one of the reasons I got into martial arts was to have fun.
Take a look and celebrate with me. Hooray for getting old!!!
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.
Seven years ago today, I had just commemorated Halloween in a drug-induced stupor, in the ICU at Cleveland Clinic, with a breathing tube down my throat and another tube coming out of a hole in my chest. I had to take strong sedatives, because of my gag reflex. I choked and gagged on the breathing tube, so the only way I could handle it was to be doped up.
My condition made the horror movies showing at Halloween on the Chiller network even more bizarre. There was one movie, playing once a day, that I have not been able to find in the years since this happened in 2009. Nancy says I was hallucinating, but it's remarkable how much I remember of this terrible time, despite the sedation I was under.
I went into the hospital on Oct. 22 for what I thought was a one-hour procedure to try to find out why I had been coughing up blood for about 8 months. But when doctors discovered my left pulmonary veins had closed up, causing my terrible breathing difficulties that year, they tried to stent one of the closed veins, tore it, and pierced my heart with the wire.
The cardiologist came out to see Nancy in the waiting room and said, "There is nothing more I can do for your husband."
That isn't the way it was supposed to go. Cleveland Clinic sent a team of doctors into the operating room and they worked to save my life.
Remaining Centered in the Midst of Crisis
So, as I was drowning in blood that kept building in my lungs for the next several days, Nancy and my daughters, and some friends and sisters, were distraught, thinking that I was about to die. They maintained a cheerful attitude around me, but they would go out into the hallway as I was coughing up jet streams of blood, and they would break down in tears.
Meanwhile, I was in bed trying to wrap my mind around it all, remaining determined to push through it, and keeping my mind on my goal of competing in a martial arts tournament that was coming up in five or six months.
I also put part of my mind on my Dan T'ien and continued to center myself through the procedures, the uncertainty over whether I would live or not, whether I would see my grandchildren grow up, see my daughters develop in their lives and careers, continue to laugh and love with Nancy, and whether I would ever practice kung-fu again.
I did not worry about any of that. I used my internal arts and qigong training and I calmed myself. I needed to be ready for that tournament in late March.
"It is what it is," I reminded myself. Just relax, don't fight it, and heal. If I died, I would be the last to know, so it was not something I worried about. And I never once, not for a moment, considered changing my religious views (I am not a believer in invisible beings and was very comfortable with that, thank you very much).
Misguided Ideas about Chi
When I first got sick earlier in the year, the side effect of a medical procedure, I weighed 206 pounds. When I finally hobbled out of Cleveland Clinic late in the first week of Nov. 2009, I weighed 156 pounds and could hardly walk, I had lost so much muscle and so much strength.
Occasionally, I will get an email from someone who tells me that obviously, I was doing Xingyi or Taiji wrong, or I wouldn't have been sick. Obviously, they say, I didn't cultivate enough chi.
I try not to insult their intelligence, although they deserve it, and remind them that perhaps I am alive because I had cultivated strong chi.
That thought usually doesn't occur to them. I wonder what they will think when they grow older and come down with a serious condition or illness. Will they blame a lack of chi cultivation? I don't think so.
As October turned to November in 2009, one doctor after another would come into my room and tell me that I would not be alive if I had not been in the excellent physical shape I was in when I arrived.
By the time I left to make the long drive back to the Quad Cities (against doctor's advice but I wanted to go home), when I arrived home my ankles were swollen. I could hardly walk to the bathroom. I could not walk down to my basement office to work on my website. It was a very long recovery.
Bad News on the Road to Recovery
In the years since, as I have struggled through a loss of muscular strength and a serious diminishing of my breathing capacity, I still have to remain centered and work hard to wrap my head around the fact that I am not as young and strong as I used to be. As a teacher, I can still try to improve, but I can't go toe-to-toe with younger, heavier students and spar or get thrown like I used to. It is occasionally frustrating. I am wrapping my head around the concept of being more of a coach than a fighter.
For a couple of years, the impact of all this left me in heart failure, with a weakening heart that was at 25% of pumping capacity. My cardiologist told me that I could "drop dead at any moment with no warning."
That sort of news will play with your head, no matter how centered you are.
I went to the Mayo Clinic in 2010 for a second opinion. Two doctors told me that my heart would fail within three to five years.
It is now six years later, and thanks to various factors, including medication, my heart is beating normally most of the time, and my EKGs always look normal. I continue to practice, train with my students, and try to improve my internal arts skills.
Iron Wrapped in Cotton
One of my Facebook friends said I should write about how the internal arts and qigong helped me get through all this.
I think the greatest benefit I have obtained from my practice is better physical conditioning and an ability to ride the ups and downs of life. The mental workout you get from doing these arts and from practicing qigong can help you to remain calm in a crisis. Physically, I believe in cross-training, both cardio and weight-training.
The "internal strength" that I teach includes body mechanics that make your internal arts stronger, giving you the "iron wrapped in cotton" that good internal movement is known to possess. You appear relaxed and smooth, but underneath, there is a powerful martial art that can break an opponent.
But those are the physical benefits. There are mental benefits as well.
You cultivate self-discipline when you work to improve at an art over decades, setting small goals and achieving them one by one.
You cultivate an innate calmness when a crisis happens -- the ability to center yourself and remain focused on the problem at hand. You cultivate an ability to ride the crests and troughs of life without being capsized. This happens when qigong becomes more than just exercises you do. It happens when qigong becomes a way of life.
This is the type of internal strength that is even more valuable than the physical strength that comes from good body mechanics. Your mind, your attitude, your ability to maintain humor during the occasional loss or tragedy -- this is the "iron wrapped in cotton" that I have found to be the greatest benefit after 43 years of martial arts practice.
I have not needed to use my self-defense skills since I began studying martial arts, and I may never need to use them, but every day, every single day, I use the internal strength skills that I have gained from my training.
Those of us who practice Tai Chi (Taiji) as a fighting art pursue concepts that represent a holy grail. They are written about in the classics, and spoken of in quotes by long-dead masters including Chen Wangting, who supposedly said:
"I know everyone, but no one knows me."
When I first became interested in the Kung Fu TV show back in the early Seventies, one of the interesting quotes from the show was:
"A Shaolin monk, when reached for, cannot be felt."
When I was 18 and watching that show, I thought that meant something mystical, as if a Shaolin monk vanished in front of you. But the quote resonated with me.
I have done push hands with some Chinese instructors, including Chen Bing and Chen Xiaoxing, who, when I pushed on them, they disappeared and very quickly I found myself off-balance (or on the floor). When I reached for them, they could not be felt.
In other words, I could not find their center, but they could find mine.
For a long time, I've been working to get better at maintaining my center while I control my opponent's center, setting him up for a counter. There are muscular ways of achieving this, and more subtle ways. And so, when my friend Evan Yeung introduced me to Guided Chaos, and its practice of "contact flow," I immediately saw the connection between this aspect of their art and the goal that eludes so many Tai Chi folks who end up using muscle to overpower their opponents, rather than relaxing, sensing, flowing, and controlling the opponent's center.
On September 17, 2016, I spent a day in Cincinnati working on contact flow with three talented Guided Chaos instructors: Lt. Col. Al Ridenhour, Kevin Harrell, and Joe Martarano. It was my second time working with Al and Kevin, and the first time I have met Joe. I hope it isn't the last. These guys are great martial artists.
Another important phrase that we often repeat in martial arts is from Bruce Lee, who borrowed from Taoist philosophy when he urged people to "be water." Pour it into a cup and it becomes the cup, Bruce said. Water can flow, and it can crash.
"Be water, my friend."
Contact flow, developed by the founder of Guided Chaos, John Perkins, teaches you to relax and flow around obstacles, redirecting incoming force, moving and maintaining your root, maintaining your center, and, as you flow and find your way, you knock the crap out of your opponent.
This is what Tai Chi is supposed to be. Tai Chi is about fighting, but it aims for more subtle principles and body mechanics than some arts do.
Chen Tai Chi push hands can be brutal. I know people who have gone to Chen Village and come back nursing broken bones. There are strikes, throws, joint locks and more. A good pluck can cause whiplash. If you aren't careful, or if you get a little aggressive, someone will need to heal up for a while. But in the beginning, you should develop sensitivity and be able to move from form to fighting. To do that well, you should develop subtle skills. At least that's what everyone talks about, but few seem to do it.
Practicing contact flow triggered insights and connected some of the dots of Tai Chi in an effective way. A year ago, after my first Guided Chaos workshop, it changed the way I thought about push hands, and this year, it has changed the way I practice push hands.
You should be able to learn some of these subtle skills, but it's not easy to find good push hands instructors, or experienced push hands partners. Another problem we face is that Americans simply do not grow up learning the concept of relaxing and flowing while maintaining the ground, peng, and using the spiraling movements of silk-reeling. Instead, we tense up and want to smash like the Hulk. It's funny to me now when I push hands with someone from outside the internal arts -- how tense they are. But that is how we all feel until we learn, and practice, practice, practice.
One time, around 1999, a Chinese gongfu "master" came to the Quad Cities to hold a workshop at my friend John Morrow's school. I attended, and at one point during the workshop, the interpreter walked over to me and said, "Master Wong says you have gongfu. He would like to visit your school and practice with you."
I was very flattered. When he visited my school a few days later, he had me put my hand on his chest, and he put his on mine. He wanted me to push him off-balance. That was the first time I ever pushed on someone whose center could not be found, and he wasn't nearly as skilled as the Chen family. It was eye-opening. But he had no idea how to explain it to me. So the concept remained like the Shaolin monk. I reached for it, but could not find it.
Guided Chaos has at least part of the answer, but as a combat art, it is about a lot more than contact flow. It is a no-nonsense fighting art and they will flat out kick your butt. I highly recommend any of their workshops.
I could only spend one day at this year's Cincinnati workshop because I had to return to teach my journalism class. Even one day was enough to inform me on some of the next steps in my own development. I am continuing to work on the relaxed strength, moving, centering, and spiraling that makes up good internal arts, but also allows you to flow like water, remain "out of reach" by your opponent, and then, as Bruce Lee also said, "I don't hit. IT hits by itself."
I can fight, but just fighting is no longer the goal for me, especially at my age. There is something else, skills that have been elusive.
I was working with Joe Martarano at one point during the workshop, and I realized that I was repeating some habits that have been part of my fighting but were not as efficient as I was trying to achieve.
"I need to empty my cup," I said, scolding myself. But Joe disagreed.
"Empty your cup?" he asked. "You already emptied your cup or you wouldn't be here today."
You never know when you will taste someone else's art and learn something that contributes to your own art.
I am always surprised when the anniversary of my first martial arts lesson rolls around. Forty-three years tonight, during the height of the Bruce Lee craze, one month after "Enter the Dragon" opened in theaters, I attended my first lesson, at Sin The's school in Lexington, Kentucky. His school was in a converted garage in the Eastland Shopping Center, and there were so many students responding to the introductory class, we spilled out into the driveway. I was in the driveway.
I have forgotten exactly what we learned that night, but what Sin The ("Grandmaster" The) taught, "Shaolin-Do Karate," seemed mysterious and deadly. As years passed, long after I left his school, the name "Shaolin-Do Karate" made me laugh. But it was a start, and as I learned the punches, kicks, blocks, one-steps, forms and self-defense techniques, I took to it like the proverbial fish to water.
When I see students now who "didn't have time to practice" lately, I remember how I spent an hour a day in my dorm, doing kicks, punches, and stepping techniques up and down the hall for an hour a day -- over and over. I did that while in college and working three part-time jobs to survive.
When promotion time came, I noticed that some of the students around me looked terrible -- no passion, no energy, no snap in their techniques -- but they received their promotion just as I did. I didn't really care if they got promotions with less effort. I wanted to be his best student at each level that I reached.
At 20 years of age, I had no idea how important martial arts would be in my life. Several years ago, when I lost the function of my left lung, I wondered how long I would be able to continue in the arts. My wife said, "I can't imagine you not doing kung-fu. It is part of you."
She was right.
Despite the physical struggles of the past several years, I have persisted, and recently, for the first time in a few years, I've padded up and have begun working on fighting techniques with a harder edge, and sparring with my students. For several years, I was either in heart failure or I was coughing up blood, or in serious pulmonary distress. I'll never be what I was prior to 2009, but I can still learn, and I can still get better.
Besides, there are fighting techniques I simply need to work on. That's what fascinates me with these arts.
This past weekend, I attended a Guided Chaos workshop in Cincinnati. More about that tomorrow in another blog post. I was working with Joe, one of the talented, tough-as-nails teachers, and as he was working with me on a principle, at one point I said, "Yes, I see. I need to empty my cup and forget what I normally do."
He replied, "You have already emptied your cup, or you wouldn't be here."
And I think that is part of the key to the past 43 years of this love affair with martial arts. I realize as much today as I did on September 20, 1973 that I have so much to learn. The big difference is that now, I realize that I don't have enough time now to learn what I want to learn, or to become as good as I want to become.
But it's still a lot of fun trying.
I won't be here in another 43 years. I don't think. But then, in 2009, the odds were that I wouldn't be here now. So I'm not making any predictions. Now let's practice.
They all sat around the table as spaghetti with meatballs was served.
The master took his fork and tried to spear a juicy meatball that was on his plate. He missed.
The master kept trying to spear the meatball and it kept slipping away from the fork, so he chased it around the plate, stabbing and missing.
After a moment, he looked up at his young students seated around the table. Each student was chasing a meatball around the plate just like the master was doing.
That is how the master does it, so that is how it must be done. The master is showing us the way!
I am paraphrasing this story. In Chen Xiaowang's version, the master may have been using chopsticks - it has been a while, but the gist of the story is the same, and he laughs when he tells it, but as you look around at the students who are listening, you see them smile and shake their heads because they see the truth in the story.
Yes, we are all guilty. We see a master do a movement one way and we think, "That is the way it is done. There is no variation!"
Later, we see the master doing a movement differently, and we wonder why he changed it. And if the master makes a mistake, students who follow blindly continue to make the mistake.
Then we get confused when we see a different master doing the same movement differently. But THAT is not the way it is done! Some masters of Xingyi don't bend, or "seat" the wrist when the lead hand is forward in San Ti. Some hold it another way. Some bagua masters used the ox tongue palm, others used the willow leaf. Once a master does it one way THAT IS THE WAY YOU MUST DO IT, or at least that is what students often think.
Some of my students will ask questions about small, subtle placements of hands, or one particular way of doing one tiny part of a movement. Sometimes, I tell them to follow the way that I learned it, but I sometimes tell them that it doesn't matter. You can do it this way, or you can do it that way. As long as you are maintaining the proper structure and mechanics, some of the little things don't matter. Also, as long as it still works in application, that is a good guide to follow.
Gongfu masters are human beings. Honor them, learn from them, get corrected by them, and follow them as well as you can. But don't check your brains at the door. Think, study, and apply your knowledge and carry the art forward. But don't be frozen in time like a snapshot just because "that's the way the master did it." And don't forget -- other masters might have a better way. Don't become too attached to one way of doing something.
Don't be a meatball.