As I mentioned in an earlier post, as an adolescent and young adult, I became obsessed with martial arts. Both Hollywood and Hong Kong ass kickers had captured my imagination and I was able to mitigate a general sense of powerlessness with fantasies of fists of fury.
At thirteen I met another kid at Y summer camp who took karate. His school came and did a demo for the camp. At the time they seemed like total badasses and I wanted to be a badass, so badly.
I told my mom I wanted to take karate. As this was the eighties and Henry Winkler was making videos warning us all of the dangers of strangers, the idea carried some merit. She signed me up for a kid’s self defense class at the University, it was a far cry from what I really wanted, but it was better than nothing.
For years that was the extent of my martial arts training. As a result my fantasies continued unabated and my ideas grew, but it was never anything more than an intellectual pursuit. I’d sit with friends, with no actual experience, and debate the validity of various styles, throwing out sage comments, quipped from movies or reading, doing our best to look like we knew more than we did.
In late college I finally enrolled in an actual class. I took tai chi. I chose this class for two different reasons: one, I had read that tai chi was the ultimate martial art, hard to learn but once learned–unbeatable, and two, no contact, thus my fantasies of martial prowess could continue without any risk of the interference of reality.
I enjoyed the class, learned Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s short form and added much fuel to my delusions. And that was that. Once I learned the form I didn’t really do anything with it again for a few years.
After my oldest daughter was born I was in pretty lousy shape. I had stopped mountain biking and had a belly full of nine months of sympathy eating. I was overweight and de-conditioned. My core was weak and after injuring my back it was prone to occasional flare ups. I knew I had to do something.
Thinking in terms of my weak back, I started re-learning my tai chi form. I got a video from Abraham Liu and over the next few weeks re-invested in tai chi. This started a daily practice that lasted over ten years.
This practice led to many new opportunities and new teachers. I learned the Yang 24 short form, a Chen style competition form, a basic ba gua form, tai chi sword and even a xing yi form from Xia Ming, I earned a green belt in Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito from Sensei Steve Allen and Soke Dave Shelton and earned a green sash from Sifu Peter Ray in 8 Step Praying Mantis. I drove an hour to Cullman on Saturday morning to meet a guy from Huntsville where we’d find an empty parking lot and train tiger style and staff forms.
All the while my fantasies grew and grew. One day a fellow student of Ming’s, while debating the merits of tai chi versus MMA, arranged for our classes to meet for a friendly sparring session. Just writing that last sentence still makes me laugh.
As is natural for anyone who’d spent as much time “training” as I had the question of, “Just what am I capable of?” had reached it’s apex. I’m sure a blow by blow replay of the experience would be insightful, but I really don’t remember that much detail. Suffice to say, I left with no further sense of delusion.
I learned that I could take a punch, quite a few of them actually, and that the knowledge of all my various forms and techniques was actually quite hard to apply whilst getting hit. I learned that all my years of “fighting the air” with form work had not equipped me for actually fighting.
This happened still quite early in my career and I went on to study progressively harder and more vigorous styles than tai chi. I went from karate to kung fu and to learning some boxing and Muay Thai to eventually training in jiu-jitsu and MMA. It was a progressive journey and, while I never learned to like getting hit, I did like the greater sense of security I began to feel from “really learning how to fight.” Even though I’d never actually had the occasion to fight since grade school it still seemed like something I needed to know how to do and well.
Then I got hurt. A knee injury in jiu-jitsu practice sidelined me for several weeks and suddenly fighting just didn’t seem so important any more.
I hate being injured. I can’t stand not being able to move or do the things I want. I hate being sidelined and not being able to train or work. It’s simple ego psychology really. If the thing you do to make you feel better about yourself can actually enhance that sense of inadequacy and make you feel worse, it suddenly loses it’s charm.
In it’s place I became focused on improving myself, both physically and psycho-emotionally. I focused on correcting physical and mental imbalances, through Olympic lifting, gymnastics, Indian clubs, and meditation. I’ve thrown myself whole heartedly into Elliott Hulse’s Strengthology. It is a result of this foray into total self improvement that I found Chip Conrad and the idea for his workshop in July was born.
And now, I’m back to fighting the air. As I became more and more yang in my approach to the martial arts, I moved away from tai chi and my other forms, ultimately abandoning them entirely. They weren’t “real” and weren’t helping me learn how to fight, which I mistook for the ultimate goal in martial arts training.
Now that I no longer care about defeating others or, more accurately, not being defeated myself, I’ve truly learned, what I had always paid lip service to, that it’s about self mastery–balance, poise, precision, control over yourself in space and the ability to react fluidly to whatever comes your way, both in your body and in your mind.
“The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.”