Firing Up the Inner Gyroscope Once Again - Finding My Center in the Hospital

Ken Gullette in hospital
In my gown with my IV stand at the hospital.

I am writing a book on how the philosophies that I learned during the time I have studied martial arts have guided me through some of the storms of life. 

Last week, I found that I was living a new chapter.

After a break of a few years, I suddenly began coughing up blood on Friday, June 4. We're not talking about the type of coughing up blood that you see in the movies -- a fleck or two in a handkerchief.

When I cough up blood, it looks like someone was shotgunned in my sink. I put a picture up on a blog post around 2015. It was gross.

This began in 2009, after three laser ablation procedures on my heart, attempting to stop atrial fibrillation. Instead, the final procedure shut down my  left pulmonary veins, so no oxygenated blood goes from my left lung to the heart.

How my body has survived the past 12 years, I have no idea, but it hasn't been easy, and it has made martial arts quite a challenge -- only one lung, coughing up blood occasionally, and, to add insult to injury, I developed exercise-induced asthma.

So after three days of coughing up blood, last Monday my pulmonologist told me to get a CT scan. I walked into the hospital, got the scan, and they told me I was to be admitted because of pulmonary embolism -- multiple blood clots in the left lung.

I'm not a doctor, but I know that a blood clot in the lung is not a good thing, and multiple blood clots would be a worse thing.

I was worried that a clot could break off, go to my brain, and cause me to lose my ability to think. If that happened, I would probably start wearing a MAGA hat, or I might start believing in the no-touch knockdown, or I might try to heal you with my qi -- crazy $#!+ like that.

Nancy rushed from work and met me at the ER. I was taken to a room on the sixth floor of Genesis East in Davenport, Iowa. An IV was put into my right arm and they started a Heparin drip. Heparin is a blood thinner.

I thought blood thinners dissolved blood clots but they don't. They keep the clots from getting bigger, and the clots are absorbed into the body over a period of weeks or months. 

Hospital-2021-6
Looking out my hospital window after checking in.

When Nancy left to go home that evening, a rainbow formed outside. Now, I don't read anything supernatural into that, but it was pretty cool. I don't consider it a message from God. Bruce Lee, maybe, but not God.

For the next five days, I was in the hospital. From the start, my goal was to make the nurses laugh. I am always their easiest and most low-maintenance patient. 

But I am also a questioning patient. I don't leave my critical thinking skills at the door of the hospital. When a doctor or nurse says I need something, I ask questions.

One think I have learned over the years is this: you must be your own advocate, because doctors will make mistakes.

I don't want to give you the impression that I rolled through this without getting emotionally smacked around. It was a difficult week. I had been on a plateau for years without coughing up blood. I had a pacemaker installed a year ago and I have had other procedures, but I felt reasonably stable because I had not coughed up blood.

It was very difficult to find myself suddenly back in the hospital with a damned IV in my arm without Nancy.

But I held up pretty well, trying to remain centered and determined to get through it. Two days later, however, when I looked out my window and saw her walking across the parking lot to visit, the tears came, and when she entered the room, I hugged her and sobbed for a minute.

I am 68 years old, with one lung, an irregular heartbeat and a pacemaker, asthma, and I don't really think it gets better from here, does it? Seriously. I have survived and continued to pursue the internal martial arts for 12 years. My doctors have been amazed. And now this? 

Ken's arm after blood draws
My left arm after having blood drawn for five days.

It also didn't help that they were coming in every six or 12 hours to draw blood. You want to talk about centering yourself? If you stick me with a needle, I don't like it. One of the worst things about the hospital is that they are constantly sticking me with needles.

That evening, I tried to keep it together when Nancy said goodnight to go home, and after she left I had a talk with myself. I stood up and did Zhan Zhuang with the IV hose dangling from my arm.

Just breathe. Focus on your Dantien. Sink your energy. Establish peng. Become aware of everything around you.

Remain centered, I reminded myself. Just calm down, find your center, find your determination. Let's get through this. You have been through it before, you can do it again.

Some people misunderstand the concept of being centered. They believe if you are centered, nothing bothers you. No matter what happens, you remain emotionally calm.

They are wrong. Being a human being means you will experience a range of emotions, and if you lean toward Eastern philosophies as I do, you will continue to experience a range of emotions. You can be knocked down emotionally. You can be insulted, you can be hurt, you can be angry.

It is okay to be knocked off-balance, but when you suffer a tragedy or crisis, and you look inside yourself for the tools to survive and cope, what do you find?

When you find yourself off-balance, do you look outside of yourself for help (gods, other people, drugs, alcohol) or do you cultivate the ability within yourself to get back up and regain your balance?

That is what the philosophies of the martial arts, which I first encountered while watching the "Kung Fu" TV show as a teenager, have taught me.

Standing in my room, focusing on my breathing, my Dantien, and realizing I am part of all things made me feel balanced again.  

When you lie in a hospital bed without getting up, your strength leaves the body quickly, so I was taking walks a few times a day around the sixth floor, walking the circuit back to my room, and I noticed a lot of the doors had "Fall Risk" and other signs on them notifying nurses of various predicaments the patients were in.

I created my own sign and placed it on my door. "Tai Chi Risk: Patient prone to sudden calmness."

Within a few minutes of putting it on my door, there was a shift change and my night nurse, Adam, opened the door, laughed, gave the sign a thumbs up and walked away. Two or three other employees over the next few days laughed and commented on the sign.

I took a walk around the floor and told nurses I was the floor supervisor. They laughed. I cracked one-liners to lighten the mood. Dressed in my gown and rolling my IV stand, I told them, "I'm busting out of this joint." More laughter.

Hospital-2021-2One evening on my walk, a frail, elderly woman was in her bed, looking to the hallway. I waved to her and said hello. She waved back and said, "Hi." Sometimes, the elderly are treated like pieces of meat in situations like this, but I know that, like me, they are wondering how the hell they got here. They are thinking, "I was just 18 a moment ago, it seems, and now look at this!" They deserve kindness and respect.

"I hope you get out of here soon," I told her. 

"I hope you do, too," she said.

Doctors were waiting for my Coumadin level to increase before they released me. Coumadin is a risk for me because of my history of coughing up blood since my pulmonary veins closed in 2009. With thinner blood, the risk of bleeding is a real possibility.

I practiced tai chi one day in my room, in my gown with the IV hose dangling off my arm. Do you know how hard it is to do "Lazy About Tying the Coat" without getting tangled in the hose or without pulling the needle out of your arm? I did it very, very carefully.

I kept myself in shape all my life, never took drugs and did martial arts, and all this has happened. We all have to play the hand we are dealt, and if we are lucky enough to grow old, something is going to get us in the end. How we handle it is a test of our character and a test of our belief system.

By Saturday, the doctor decided to release me because the Coumadin level was high enough and it was on the way up. It would be where we wanted it by Sunday, and he told me to go in and get checked on Monday. 

Ken-Nancy-Home-from-Hospital-2021
Home with Nancy after five days!

I got home Saturday afternoon. The entire time I was in that hospital room, I realized how we sometimes take little moments for granted. What I most wanted was to be with Nancy in our basement with the dogs, sipping wine and watching the big screen. Well, I should word that differently. The dogs won't be sipping wine and watching the big screen, Nancy and I will.

I try not to take any moments for granted. But they slip by us anyway. They are here and they are gone. The moments pass and the weeks, months and years pass. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a place where all we want is to get one of those moments back.

I do not believe we encounter anything negative after death. If you subscribe to philosophical Taoism, death is the unknown, so there is no point worrying about it. But what makes sense to me is that we return to the same place we were in before we were born; a state of complete peace. 

If you remember, on the day we were born, none of us had any complaints about where we had been.

So I don't worry about dying. However, I am not in a hurry to get there. I have too much to enjoy -- Nancy, my daughters and grandchildren, my friends, the internal martial arts and my students, Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy movies, and every single moment of this life. As long as you don't stick me with a needle. I don't care for that, but I have found that I can bear it if I focus on my breathing and my Dantien.

How can you truly appreciate the good moments of life without the bad moments? It's all part of the journey. Enjoy the journey.

Remain centered, my friends.

-- by Ken Gullette


In the Concrete Jungle of Chicago, a Flower of Kindness Blooms

Do Good Be Kind Ken Nancy
Nancy and I wearing our "Do Good. Be Kind." shirts.

Rob and Kathryn Swarczewski of the Chicago area deserve a salute. In a city that has a reputation as a dangerous place, they showed two strangers -- Nancy and me -- kindness and generosity. Here is the story.

I rarely find myself in a situation where I have no idea what to do. It is unknown territory. I am always confident I can handle any situation. Like water, I'll find a way around an obstacle.

But when United Airlines left Nancy and me twisting in the wind in Chicago last week, I was at a loss.

We were flying home from Philadelphia, where we spent four days seeing sights and, while Nancy went shopping, I spent four hours each day at a great Taijiquan workshop by Nabil Ranné, who had flown in from Germany.

The first leg of the return flight on Monday evening, May 16 was from Philly to Chicago. Due to severe weather, we sat in the plane on the tarmac for nearly 90 minutes in Philly before taking off. We were supposed to change planes at O'Hare for the trip home to Moline, but severe weather elsewhere disrupted the system and United cancelled our connecting flight.

Around 8:30 p.m. we got off the plane in Chicago and found ourselves stranded. There would be no flight available to Moline for at least 24 hours. Our luggage was on the plane, and to make matters worse, my heart medication was on the carry-on bag that they made me check before boarding the plane. Since we were in the cheap seats (economy) the plane ran out of carry-on room before we boarded. I would need my heart medication the following morning. This presented a problem. It seemed like a slap from United. "You should have paid more for better seats!"

I had seen many news stories about passengers having to camp out in airports because of cancelled flights. It had never happened to us.

It was roughly a three-hour drive to our home from the airport. There had to be a way to get home.

We almost walked out of the airport to see about a cab to take us to any nearby hotel that was available. Two security guards warned me I was about to leave the secure area and I would not be able to get back in, so Nancy and I sat down on the concrete floor against a wall to consider our options. People walked past, staring at us. 

My mind went blank. It was the strangest feeling. My mind is never blank. It had been a very busy five days (including travel) and I had worked hard at the workshop. After a few moments sitting on the floor against the wall, we admitted we had no plan, then trudged back to the United Customer Service desk in a different concourse. The line of people at the counter stretched 50 yards down the hallway. Connecting flights had been cancelled for a lot of people. We found the back of the line and by that time I was mulling some options:

One -- We need a place to stay. How about a hotel? But we have none of our toiletries or medicine. It was all in the luggage. As we stood in line, I checked local hotels on my phone. The cheapest room was $149. There would be taxi or Uber charges, if the hotel had a vacancy. Then there would be food costs. And no medicine. It wasn't the money that bothered me, it was the expense that would still leave us with no flight and no medicine the following day. This would not work.

Two -- I could try to get my medicine off the plane. I found out this would take a minimum of three or four hours, maybe more. That would leave us without a room at 1:30 a.m. at the earliest. 

Three -- We could wait for the medicine to come off the plane and then camp out at the airport. For 24 hours? No way.

Then I thought perhaps we could get an Uber ride to Moline. I checked and a driver was listed for $219, not including tip. That seemed reasonable. We could get home in three hours, sleep in our bed and have medicine. I would tip the driver handsomely.

I scheduled Uber to pick us up. The message from Uber said the driver would meet us at Level A. We scrambled down the hallways looking for Level A, where the driver was going to be. Walking fast down the large hallways, I was breathing like a freight train due to my silly one-lung situation, feeling a lack of oxygen and gasping for air. A few hours ago, I was sweating through the fourth day of a martial arts workshop with cramping quadraceps and dwindling energy. I was ready to stop for the day.

We walked out and saw where the cars were coming around. A couple was standing outside waiting for a car. They were strangers. It was Rob and Kathryn Swarczewski.

"Excuse me, is this Level A?" I asked. "Our flight was cancelled, we're hiring an Uber to take us to Moline. They are supposed to be at Level A."

According to my memory, Rob said yes, it was Level A. I thanked them and turned my attention back to my Uber app.

A moment later, the driver called.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"Moline, Illinois," I said.

"Oh. I don't want to drive that far," he replied. "Sorry."

I couldn't blame him. A six-hour round trip that would take most of the night? Oh well. It would have been a really large tip. 

Suddenly, we were back at square one, looking at each other and wondering what to do.

As we stood there, Rob and Kathryn walked up. Rob observed that we appeared stressed and they needed to get their car situation straightened out, but he would be glad to drive us to Moline if we needed a ride.

I was floored. It was my "Do Good. Be Kind." mantra coming to life. 

"What a kind offer," I said. Surely there was something we could do that wouldn't impose such a burden, even to someone generous enough to make the offer. 

Rob asked for my cell number. He texted me his name so I would also have his number.

"If you can't find a way home," he said, "just call and I'll give you a ride."

We thanked him. As we walked away, Nancy's eyes were red and watery. She said, "That was the kindest thing."

These were people I was happy to meet. Two people who didn't know us from Adam (and Eve), extending compassion, ready to help shoulder our problem. It was awe-inspiring.

Then I thought we should check rental cars. Would they even be open this late to rent a car? Would they rent one for a one-way trip?

We made our way through the terminal to the Rental Car area, stood in line at Avis only to be told they were out of one-way cars.

"Try Hertz," the woman at the counter suggested.

We waited at the Hertz line and saw a couple of people rent cars on the spot. When it was our turn, we were told that yes, they could give us a car to drive one-way to Moline for $400.

Wow! 400 bucks? Luckily, I wear a pacemaker, so if my heart stopped for a couple of seconds it would zap me back to life.

I didn't hesitate. "Sold!"

We made the payment, got our papers, then walked into the parking garage and picked out a car, a Chevy Malibu, fired it up and began the three-hour trip West on I-88 across Illinois to Moline.

On my phone, a text message had appeared from Rob, repeating his offer: if we couldn't find a way home, let him know and he would drive us.

Blown away. That's what I was. I didn't respond at that moment. I was a man on a mission. Nancy and I were hungry, tired, and looking forward to sleeping in our own bed. 

Around halfway, my plan was to stop at the Dekalb Oasis, a popular place for travelers that included a gas station, convenience store, restrooms and a McDonald's. We needed dinner, and I thought a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese sounded good.

We pulled off into the Oasis at around 11:30 p.m. and discovered the McDonald's closed at 11:00.

"Okay, that does it," I told Nancy. "After all we've gone through today, the McDonald's is closed? How can I be centered? I'm going to lose my $#!+." 

She laughed. We got drinks and some Chex Mix in the gas station and continued on our way. We arrived home at 1:30 in the morning. It was luxurious to stand in my own shower and crawl into my own bed. I think I was out when my head hit the pillow.

The next morning, I drove the rental car to the Quad Cities airport, which is less than 10 minutes from our house, dropped off the car to Hertz, went to the United desk and was told our baggage was on a flight that was arriving in 40 minutes. We had not been offered this flight because it was fully booked.

I stayed, ate breakfast, and got our luggage when it arrived, then went to the parking lot, found our car in long-term parking, and drove home.

As our headlights cut through the night on I-88 the night before, Nancy and I kept bringing up Rob and Kathryn, and how stunned we were that we ran across two good people like that at the moment we were at a loss; two people who were ready to help strangers.

I contacted Rob this morning by text before writing this blog post. He let me know that today is their 36th wedding anniversary.

There are a lot of good people like Rob and Kathryn Swarczewski in the world. Yes, even in Chicago. They don't always get as much publicity in the media as the people who do bad things, but they deserve to be recognized and saluted. This is my way of doing that and also saying "Happy Anniversary." In just a couple of minutes, Rob and Kathryn made an impression on us that we won't forget.

As you go about your day, I hope you will do what I am going to do, fueled by their inspiration. I will look for opportunities to be kind to people in ways that will brighten their world, too.

-- by Ken Gullette


Behind-the-Scenes on the Original "Kung Fu" TV Show - the Internal Fighting Arts Interview with Radames Pera

RadamesRadames Pera is the last surviving star from the original "Kung Fu" TV show. His memory is burned into our brains, the young bald student monk who learned martial arts and Eastern philosophy from Master Kan (played by Phillip Ahn) and the blind Master Po (played by Keye Luke).

Master Po referred to young Caine as "Grasshopper," and that term has been used in martial arts classes ever since. Sometimes, when I'm teaching a student and they suddenly understand a technique and perform it well, I find myself saying, "Ahh, Grasshopper."

A few weeks ago I wondered what happened to the young boy who played the part of young Caine, so I searched and found Radames living in France. He is 61 now. I sent him a message, asked him to be on the podcast, and he graciously said yes.

He is a very engaging, funny and intelligent man. We talked for two hours, and I enjoyed every moment talking about his career (it is much more than just "Kung Fu") and some of the people he worked with, including David Carradine, Phillip Ahn and Keye Luke, and others such as Jack Lord ("Hawaii 5-0"), Michael Landon ("Little House on the Prairie"), and a man I appeared in a movie with, Lee Majors ("The Six Million Dollar Man"). 

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. Listen online or download the file at the Internal Fighting Arts podcast page.

 


Dial Down the Paranoia about Defending Yourself "On the Street"

Aggression800pxHave you been in a physical fight with anyone since you turned 18 years old?

Here's another question: In your adult life, have you ever been in a "street fight?"

Have you ever been in a situation when another grown-up was trying to damage you physically?

The truth about most adults is that they have never been in a real fight at all. But self-defense instructors and MMA enthusiasts are obsessed with the need to protect yourself "on the street." 

When I hear the term "defending yourself on the street" I think of two gangs colliding for a brawl with sticks, chains and brass knuckles. Like "West Side Story" without all the dancing and singing. Let's face it, if your gang runs around singing and dancing, you might deserve to be beaten up.

I saw an interesting graphic online recently and it showed the main martial art practiced by UFC champions who fought matches in the ring.

The top martial art for ring fighting was wrestling. That's right. A college wrestling champ would have a good chance at winning a UFC fight, especially if he cross-trained in other arts. 

The next most successful UFC art was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, followed by boxing. Further down the list were kickboxing, Muay Thai, and barely showing up were Taekwondo and Karate, but they did show up. Tai Chi did not show up. Neither did any other Chinese martial art.

I was intrigued and a little amused by the conversation that followed, with some guys talking about "street fights" and defending yourself "on the street."

Let's take a step back for a second.

If you are over the age of 18, when have you had a physical fight with someone as an adult?

Most of the adults I know have never been in a fight at all, even as children. 

When have you needed to defend yourself "on the street?"

I was talking with a guy last year who attended a Fourth of July fireworks show. Families and couples gathered on a grassy hill with blankets on the ground, food and soft drinks, all gathered to watch the fireworks with friends and family.

The guy I was talking with (a fundamentalist Baptist evangelical and far-right-winger) had forgotten to take his gun, which he carries concealed on his body. He told me that he was uneasy the entire evening during the fireworks show because he didn't have his gun.

There is so much to unpack from that situation. Forget about the "peace and love" that is supposed to be at the heart of his religion. Let's consider a person who is so tied to his gun that he can't fully enjoy a fireworks show with his family. He is so worried about a gunman showing up at a fireworks show, he is anxious because he isn't packing heat. An evangelical Christian who expects that he just might need to kill someone during a family outing.

Then let's look at the guy who is obsessed with martial arts that will win UFC matches. If you can't win in a cage, your martial art sucks, he says.

I would urge both of these guys to dial down the paranoia.

I will be 70 on my next birthday. I have never had to physically fight an adult. My last fight happened when I was 18, and that was when I hit a bully in the nose twice. It wasn't exactly a fight because, after years of bullying me, he gave up as soon as he received two punches in the nose. That's the way it is with bullies.

I love the self-defense applications of Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua. My greatest enjoyment when I practice these arts is in developing my internal movement and in unlocking all the fighting applications hidden in the movements.

But when I go out in public, whether it is walking down the street, going into a store or enjoying a fireworks show on a grassy hill, I look at everyone through the eyes of acceptance, kindness, and friendship. I smile at people. I am connected to them. I do not see a stranger as a possible attacker. I see them as another human being who deserves respect and a sense of humor.

Nancy laughs when I interact with people in public. She says, "You make friends wherever you go."

I guess it's true.

But that does not mean I'm oblivious. Quite the opposite. I am "aware."

I wrote about an incident several years ago when Nancy and I were in Chicago at a Taiji workshop, and that evening we walked down the Magnificent Mile to explore some stores on North Michigan Avenue and to have dinner, hopefully at the Cheesecake Factory.

As we walked, the crowd got larger. There were a lot of younger people on the sidewalks, and I noticed that as we walked toward the Water Tower Place mall, the conversations and laughter grew a little louder. I enjoyed it. I don't mind crowds because I use my philosophy, I center myself and connect with people.

But on this evening, as we entered the mall, my self-defense alarm went off inside my head. The laughter and conversations got a bit louder, in a way that seemed abnormal. 

"Let's get out of here, honey," I told Nancy. "Something doesn't feel right."

Nancy knows to trust my instincts. "Okay, let's go," she said. We walked away from the mall, back toward our hotel, and stopped at a restaurant that was not on the Magnificent Mile.

As we walked down the sidewalk, I said, "I'm sorry."

Nancy replied, "No, that's okay. If you felt like something was wrong, that's good enough for me."

Back in our room three hours later, we turned on the 10:00 news. The lead story was about how groups of young people began running through the mall and on Michigan Avenue punching people at random. It started right after we decided to leave the area. The mob scene was organized by young people on social media days in advance. They were encouraged to be on the Magnificent Mile that evening and attack people. When the melee began, police responded. It was the lead story on the Chicago newscast.

If my self-defense radar had not gone off, I might have suddenly been defending us against young guys running up to hit me or Nancy, or both.

Instead, I had used the best self-defense technique of all. I was not there.

Watching the newscast I was amazed, and Nancy was, too, and it's always a good idea to impress your woman. I mean, isn't that one reason a lot of us got into martial arts to begin with?

My self-defense alarm is based on awareness, not paranoia. I'm not expecting violence wherever I go. I remain aware of who and what is around me. And I don't put myself in dangerous situations. I avoid places where a "street fight" might happen.

Even after this happened in Chicago, it does not worry me when I am in crowds, stores, or anywhere else. 

I enjoy myself, I enjoy other people, and I remain connected to people and aware of what is happening around me.

Why do I train the internal arts? I train mainly to improve my internal movement and to unlock the self-defense applications in the movements. It is fascinating to me. A great side benefit is fitness and health. I don't practice to enter a ring. That's a completely different game. I was able to fight long before I studied martial arts. The self-defense skill I have gained in the internal arts has helped me refine that ability.

When I do Qigong, I develop a calm, connected feeling and I develop awareness. As Chen Xiaowang says, "Listen behind you." There is a very good reason he says it.

Do not equate getting in the ring for a UFC match with real-life self-defense. It isn't the same. One requires an inhuman level of pain and preparation. The other matches you against people who are not trained for the ring.

One of my teenage students shattered the elbow of a drunk adult who grabbed him and tried to punch him. My student used a joint-lock technique we worked on in class.

Another student of mine, a police officer, used Xingyi to take down a perp who was involved in a standoff with police.

Does that count as "street" violence? It's real-world violence, and real-world violence usually comes in the form of a drunk person, an abusive spouse, or a person with anger managment issues. If you are a cop, real-world violence is not the same as being in a cage match, and as a police officer, with violence a possibility during every work day, it is understandable to carry a gun.

Winning a UFC fight requires a lot of experience in taking and giving punches, kicks, being thrown, grappling and doing choke holds and almost inhuman endurance training. Injuries are common during training.

You are not going to be involved in a "street fight" with a trained, in-shape MMA or UFC fighter, unless you are incredibly unlucky or unless you are dumb enough to pick a fight with the wrong person. That is not real-world violence. You do not need to be able to win a UFC match. 

I will turn 70 on January 24, 2023. If I am going to be in a "street fight," my opponents better hurry the hell up and not wait until I'm not here anymore. 

In the meantime, turn down the paranoia, replace anxiety with awareness, enjoy life, enjoy people and live your philosophy. If your philosophy or religion involves being obsessed with packing heat, or proving your toughness by going into a cage match, I would choose another philosophy or religion.

There is a lot of cool stuff to learn and practice in martial arts, and a lot of effective self-defense, but there is nothing to fear. The fear comes from within us. So does peace.

Practice hard. Expect the unexpected. Remain aware. And remain centered at all times.

--by Ken Gullette


A Vision of the Final Moments of Life and the Two Questions on My Mind

Do Good Be Kind 2I received some tough news from my pulmonologist last week. Dr. Wong showed me the CT scan taken in December, when I spent four nights in the hospital because of a large blood clot in my left lung. The blood thinners I had been taking since June, when the clots developed, had not worked in this one case, and the clot was so big, it was threatening the blood supply to the left lung. Just a trickle of blood was getting in.

After we looked at the scan, he said this is major. If the blood clot is not reduced through the use of the blood thinners during the next six weeks, he will refer me to the Mayo Clinic, where I will be evaluated and it is possible they will put my heart on a bypass machine, go into the lung and clean out the clot. The evaluation will tell Mayo whether my heart is likely to withstand the operation.

"This is major," the doctor said. "But you have been through major things before."

These are the times when the practice of centering is not just theory. This is when it either helps or it doesn't.

Usually, you get knocked off-balance and the centering happens as you rebalance. 

So Nancy and I spent the weekend leading up to my 69th birthday on Monday rocked back on our heels like we had taken a sucker punch, trying to enjoy the time, realizing that every moment together is precious, and realizing that within a few months, I could be facing a situation that might mean I am gone forever.

Nancy didn't want to admit that was a possibility, but I have a need to look objectively at possibilities and be mentally prepared. So I knew what to do.

Calm the mind. Calm the body. Focus on the moment. Feel the breath. Put part of your mind on your Dan T'ien. Focus on what is happening right now and be mindful of what is around you. Be aware.

We had a good weekend. There might have even been more hugs than usual.

On Monday, when Nancy went to work and I was in my home office, I wanted to prepare myself mentally for that moment when I would say goodbye to Nancy and be wheeled down to the operating room, a place from which I might not return.

What would my final thoughts be as they turned on the propofol, in the seconds before lights out?

What would my final thoughts be to Nancy, other than "I love you?"

My mind went down that rabbit hole and I was there in the moment. I looked at Nancy and my eyes started watering.

"Was I kind enough?" I asked. 

"Did I help other people enough?" I asked.

"Yes, Ken, you were kind," she would say. "Yes, you helped other people."

But the tears were running down my cheeks. My eyes were swimming and my head felt as if it were expanding.

I was struck by a realization.

"I could have done better."

It was a desperate feeling. I could have done better. Now there's no time to do better.

I came up out of the rabbit hole, still sitting in my office chair, wiping my eyes. It was surprising, actually, that as I played the moment out in my mind, the last things on my mind would not be about my career, or how much money I made, or what kind of house I lived in. Those are just the things none of us are remembered for. 

How did I treat others? With kindness? With a helpful spirit? Was I selfish? Was it all about me? How would I be remembered? What would be my legacy?

So I sat there on my 69th birthday, shocked that I made it this far, especially considering the past 13 years, and hoping I will be here to celebrate my 70th, and also realizing that I just might have time left to be kind and to help others.

Sometimes, we give ourselves messages more valuable than any talk with a therapist. Since Monday, this has been on my mind. What can I do today to be kind to someone else -- to everyone else?

Self-defense skills are a lot of fun to practice, but I haven't needed them in real life since my last fight at age 18.

The philosophy of these arts, however, is useful every day as I connect with others and remain centered in a hectic, sometimes angry and always unpredictable world.

There is still time to practice gongfu, and I am practicing this week even with a huge frikkin' blood clot in my lung. I mean, why not? I am taking it a little easier, trying not to stress the lungs too much. I taught two classes the day before the CT scan, so the clot and I are peacefully coexisting at the moment.

For now, there is still time to get better at Yilu and Erlu, still time to teach and study. And still time to be kind and helpful.

I have more to do in whatever time I have left. It aint over 'til it's over.

--by Ken Gullette

 


Talking about Chen Taijiquan and the Internal Arts on Ryan Patrick St. George's Talking Fists Podcast

Talking FistsRyan Patrick St. George asked me last week to be a guest on his "Talking Fists" podcast, so we did an interview on Chen Taiji and other internal arts topics.

He wanted to know the differences between the Chen Village Taiji and the Chen Taiji I have been studying for the past year-and-a-half with Nabil Ranne, who is a disciple of Chen Yu. He also asks my perspective on Yang style Taiji and other related issues.

Here is a link to the podcast:

https://www.buzzsprout.com/501379/9804832-talking-fists-episode-12-ken-gullette-training-in-both-lines-of-chen-taiji?t=0

It's also available on your favorite podcast distributor.


My Internal Fighting Arts Blog is 15 Years Old Today

Ken-Nancy-KF
With Nancy in 2006.

Fifteen years ago today, on Oct. 15, 2006, I wrote my first blog post -- "Welcome to My Blog."

Back in those days, blogs were thought about as online diaries, but I thought it would be a great way to discuss the internal arts, both technique and philosophy.

It was a very good decision to start this blog.

At that point -- in 2006 -- I had been studying martial arts for 33 years. I had been involved in the internal arts for 19 years. I have now been involved in martial arts for 48 years, with 34 of those spent studying Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua and practicing Qigong.

Early posts showed video of Chen Xiaowang and other Chen masters. I talked about the fraudulent claims being made about Qi, including the "no-touch knockdown."  I talked about MMA vs. Taiji. There was an early post explaining that the "energies" of Taiji (peng, lu, ji, an, etc.) were actually "methods of dealing with force," not actual energy coursing through your body.

I'm sure if I looked back at some posts over the years, I would want to revise them or even delete them. Your views and insights should evolve and deepen over the years, and mine certainly have. 

I have also tried to discuss what you go through as you get older and continue to study and try to improve in your skill. Three years after I launched the blog, I had a near-death experience at Cleveland Clinic. I lost the use of my left lung, and developed a heart problem that has made these arts a challenge. But I kept on pushing. 

Persistence is valuable in blogging and also in life. That's one of the messages I have tried to push.

Life-long learning is another important message in this blog. In the past year, I have learned from some outstanding teachers -- Chen Huixian, Tina Zhang, Byron Jacobs and Nabil Ranne. After studying the Chen Village version of Chen style Taiji for 22 years, I decided to see what all the fuss is about regarding the Chen Yu version. Nabil is a disciple of Chen Yu.

A few people thought when I launched my blog, and released DVDs, that I was saying that I am a master. Nope. Far from it. Then, when I started my "online school," I got a few comments that basically said, "Who do you think YOU are?" 

But online training became pretty popular last year, with most teachers being forced to go online due to Covid. I was already online, but when I learned about Zoom, and how easy it had made it to do live classes, I started doing them, and those classes have connected me with students all over the world. It feels so good to develop friends. My online classes are like my in-person classes. I have fun. I am serious about the arts, but I like to laugh. I like for my students to have fun, too.

I made videos, I made VHS tapes and then DVDs, not because I think I'm better than other martial artists, but I have a life spent in radio and TV news, media relations, communications and writing. Instead of teaching at the YMCA, or in a strip mall, I was able to teach using my skills in these areas. Writing a blog was easy for me and fun. Doing videos? Nancy shoots them and I edit them. Piece of cake. Launching a podcast? Hell, I used to do radio news and interviewed everyone from the local county clerk to Ronald Reagan (before he was president).

I decided to teach my way, put the material out there, and if people found it helpful they would buy it. If not, they wouldn't.

In 2014, I launched a podcast with the goal of promoting primarily non-Asian, English-speaking internal arts teachers with ties to top masters. I wanted to give publicity to some good teachers who often get overlooked on magazine covers, but they are dedicated martial artists and do a lot for the internal arts. It was a very rare event when Tai Chi magazine put a non-Asian on the cover, so I thought I would launch a podcast to help support these overlooked teachers and also promote the idea that I am a provider of information and a teacher myself. It is a win-win situation.

As it turns out, one guest I was always hoping to have on the podcast was Chen Huixian, a very talented member of the Chen family who lives and teaches in the U.S. (Overland Park, Kansas - in the Kansas City area). Her English is very good, so that is among my favorite interviews. Check it out with this link.

I was very happy that in the wake of my podcast, some of the people who had been guests ended up starting their own podcasts because they saw the value in that project. I love it, and I listen to some of them, especially to Byron Jacobs' "The Drunken Boxing Podcast." It's excellent -- actually better than mine, I believe. Check out The Drunken Boxing Podcast" by clicking this link.

You can find my Internal Fighting Arts podcast wherever you get podcasts -- Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Podbean, Google Play and other distributors. You can also go to the podcast's page through this link.

When you are 53 years old, as I was when I started the blog, 15 years creates huge changes in your body, especially when you go from a very strong tournament competitor to a guy with one lung and a minor heart ailment. I don't have near the muscle mass as I did 15 years ago. My cardio is crap due to the lung thing and heart irregularity. But I can keep studying, keep understanding more deeply, and I can continue to work on the forms. I just have to stop and gasp for air more often than I used to. It isn't easy for one lung to keep up with the demands.

Bob-KenI would not have been able to do as much if not for the help and support of my amazing wife, Nancy. She is my videographer, she supports all my martial endeavors, and she is always willing to jump up and help me work on applications. The universe was in perfect harmony the day she came into my life just four years before this blog was launched.

The blog posts have slowed down in the past ten years, as Facebook has sucked a lot of the online activity away. But I plan to push forward and breathe new life into the blog in new, creative ways. Let's face it -- Facebook sucks. The blog has been much more helpful.

There have been 801 posts on this blog in 15 years. It averages 60 page views each day. There have been a total of 329,000 page views in 15 years, but it is a niche audience. If you do a Google search on certain topics, one of my blog posts will pop up on the first page of results. That is as important as the posts themselves. One thing a blog does for anyone is to widen their electronic footprint and show up in search results. That's why I also encouraged the businesses I worked for to start blogs. 

What kinds of posts would you like to see? Let me know in the comments or in private messages.

After I was in a ventilator for more than a week at Cleveland Clinic, when they tried to stent a pulmonary vein and ended up tearing the vein and piercing my heart with the wire, I did not expect to live this long. I didn't expect to see my 65th birthday, and now I'm 68. It turns out I don't have an expiration date stamped on my forehead, although it might have said "BEST by October, 2009."

Either way, I'm not the physical specimen that I was in 2006, but we can still improve our internal arts knowledge and skills. I hope you stay with me as we make our way through this wonderful journey.

Thank you for reading my blog. Let's do another 15 years.

-- by Ken Gullette

 


I Fell Short in Living My Philosophy and Ted Lasso Told Me How to Do Better

Do Good Be Kind 2We all fall short of our goals at times. It's part of what makes us humans.

We try, but we often fail. The key is to pick yourself up and try again, a bit smarter this time.

Last week, I fell short of living my philosophy of treating people with kindness and remaining centered at all times.

Nancy was driving, I was in the passenger seat and we stopped at a red light. There was a car stopped next to us in the left lane.

As the light was turning green, I heard the sound of boots scuffing on pavement. 

I looked to the left and a young man with long hair, a cowboy hat, and an open plaid shirt and jeans was walking in front of the car next to us. He was about to walk in front of us.

The light turned green and Nancy, oblivious to the pedestrian, started to gun the engine to drive forward.

"Stop!" I shouted and grabbed her shoulder. She slammed on the brakes just as the young man walked in front of our car.

"Jesus!" Nancy shouted.

Naturally, the adrenalin was flowing and we were both shocked at how close the young man had come from getting run over.

He kept walking and Nancy shouted, "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

The young man looked at us and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "Who cares?"

I said to him, "No big loss, I guess, huh?" 

As soon as I said it, I regretted it. Nancy drove away, and I couldn't take it back.

It haunted me for a couple of days. Due to the shock of almost hurting someone, I lost my center. 

What I should have said to him is, "Be careful!"

That would have been the kind and centered thing to do.

Ted LassoThe next evening, we watched the latest episode of "Ted Lasso," the wonderful and funny series on Apple TV that has kindness as the basic message at the core of the show.

There was an important message in this particular episode. I took it this way:

Every person you encounter has very possibly gone through horrible things in their lives. Be kind to them.

I can't think of a better way to reflect my philosophy of life than that. I grew up as a Christian. At least, that's what my mother told me I was. But as I grew old enough to think for myself, as I got into martial arts and began reading books on philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism, I saw better, kinder ways of looking at the world. Enough of the eternal punishment bullshit. Enough already. Enough of vengeance. Enough.

We are now in a social media age where people post and share memes that assume the worst about everyone and try to stoke our anger at "the other guy who isn't like us."

I believe a lot of us don't think very deeply when we see a meme that criticizes a group of people and think, "Oh, that's good," and then share it. We forget that in reality, most people have good intentions, and I know that many people we encounter every day have been wounded by events in their lives that have left them damaged. Some of them are facing tragedies that we can't see, or trying to recover from ordeals that we can't see just by looking at them.

This young man who apparently didn't care if he was hit by a car, for example. What happened to him that would make him feel that way? Was he abused? Did something happen to make him consider himself worthless? Is he suffering from addiction or mental illness? When he was growing up, did he go to bed at night wondering if the next footsteps in the hall would bring someone who was going to beat him?

I don't know.

But I do know that I can be a better person than I was when he shrugged his shoulders. I should have lived my philosophy of treating all people with kindness, with humor, with respect and empathy. That is the way of the Tao. That is what a centered person would do.

I have remained calm and centered in a lot of tense, near-violent situations, but coming so close to such a senseless accident was shocking. It taught me a lesson of how a sudden rush of adrenalin and the horror of almost hurting someone can cause you to lose your balance, but that's not really a good excuse.

We fall short of our goals. We all do. The key is the lesson we learn from it, and whether we can recognize it when we fail.

We can make the world a more positive place, but it doesn't start with the other guy. It starts with us. With me. With you.

I'm going to do better next time. 

--by Ken Gullette

 


48 Years in Martial Arts - The Journey is Now the Goal

Road to Happiness 2

Forty-eight years ago this week -- on September 20, 1973 -- I walked into my first martial arts class at Grandmaster Sin The's "Shaolin-Do Karate" school in Lexington, Kentucky, my hometown.

Ken75I was a 20-year old student at Eastern Kentucky University. Asian martial arts were foreign to my generation. They were mysterious, and everyone said they were very deadly. The room was packed with new students inspired by Bruce Lee to check out the class.

At the time, I thought it would be really cool if I could become a "Master" of kung-fu, like Bruce Lee or the character Kwai Chang Caine in the Kung-Fu TV show.

But how long would it take me to reach my destination? How long would it take to become a "Master?"

Now, 48 years later, I have a different goal. I am 68 years old, not as physically strong as I was when I was younger, and when I think about my goal of being a master, I smile.

I was too young 48 years ago to realize that the journey I began that night was the goal. 

There is a Vietnamese proverb that goes something like this: "There is no road to happiness; happiness is the road."

During the past two years alone, I have studied Baguazhang with Tina Zhang (disciple of Liu Jingru), I have studied Chen Taijiquan with Chen Huixian, and right now I am studying Chen Taijiquan with Nabil Ranne and studying Xingyiquan and Baguazhang with Byron Jacobs.

I keep finding teachers who know more about these arts than I do. It's exciting to discover these people, because I continue to learn. I continue to improve my skills.

And that, I have found, is the road to happiness. 

What happens when you achieve the title of Master? Anyone can slap that title on themselves. Anyone can find an organization that will easily promote you to a belt-level that is considered "Master." And if you don't have silly things like ethics standing in your way, you could always start your own style and promote yourself to Grandmaster. I've known teachers who did that.

Ken Practicing 9-26-2018I see people on Facebook who actually put the title "Master" in front of their name. On Facebook! What kind of ego issues does it take to do that sort of thing and have that kind of need for recognition?

It is not someone I would want to study with. That is one thing I've learned in nearly five decades.

When I walked into my first class 48 years ago, I thought anyone with a black belt was a Master, a deadly fighting machine.

Now, I look at a black belt as only the beginning. Earning a black belt does not mean anything about your skill at self-defense. It does not mean anything about your knowledge of martial arts. I know a girl who got a black belt in Taekwondo at age eleven. She didn't know how to throw a good punch. You have a sixth degree black belt? An eighth degree black belt? Congratulations. Now get over yourself and keep learning.

From 1973 to 2021, the most glorious moments have come when I have gained another small insight into a movement, an application, or the body mechanics that make a movement powerful in self-defense. I continue to study, searching for those insights, and I get them each time I study with my teachers.

Sheer happiness comes from gaining one of those insights, practicing it and trying to work it into my movements. It is not easy, but it is my idea of happiness. It is satisfying to take one little baby-step at a time.

With age comes, hopefully, wisdom. I am not a Master and I will never be one. What once appeared to be the road to happiness turned out to be the wrong path. The Road to Happiness is the road itself -- the journey of learning, growing, and improving my martial arts skills. 

--by Ken Gullette

Travel the Road with me and study with me through my online school -- with nearly 1,000 video lessons plus live Zoom classes where you get personal coaching. Check it out at www.InternalFightingArts.com.


Get Out of the Bubble and Pressure-Test Your Tai Chi, Xingyi and Bagua

Byron Jacobs, an outstanding martial artist and teacher of Xingyiquan and Baguazhang, does the Drunken Boxing Podcast. He recently interviewed Mario Napoli, another great martial artist who went to the Chen Village and won a push hands tournament there. Here is the link to the YouTube version of Byron's interview with Mario. The Drunken Boxer Podcast is also available through Spotify and other podcast distributors.

One of the interesting topics they discussed was the problem of Taiji people not wanting to test their push hands against other martial artists.

Chris Lorenzen and Ken Gullette
Ken Gullette (left) and Chris Lorenzen

One of my former students, Chris Lorenzen, has gotten into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu during the past year or two. So I invited him to stop by one of our practices a couple of weeks ago to pressure-test our arts and to exchange information. I have a lot of respect for other martial arts and I like to see them up close.

It was a lot of fun. Besides banging around a little, we asked about BJJ and he gave us a few demonstrations of techniques on the floor. 

I believe that if your arts are not effective, you are living in a bubble of fantasy. So I like for other martial artists to stop by our practices. 

Most of us are instinctively too tense when another person comes in to take us down. We expect to use muscular tension to defend and counter. But often, that tension is what your opponent uses to control you because they can connect more easily to your center.

We practice relaxing when an opponent uses force, and combining that relaxation with other body mechanics including the ground path, peng jin, using the kua and more to "empty" and then redirect the force our opponent is using.

A couple of months ago, I spent five days in the hospital with blood clots in my left lung, and I'm on blood thinners right now. It's frustrating to be more fragile than I used to be and not able to go as hard as I used to, so I think Chris took it a little easy on me. It was still a valuable experience to feel his technique and learn what I could. Justin and Colin were able to go a little harder with him.

My favorite thing is to square off with other martial artists and ask them to take me down. It isn't about punching and kicking for me anymore. My goal is to get close to them and maintain my center while I take control of theirs. Anyone can punch and kick, but can you make him go off-balance and take advantage of him at the right moment? If someone grabs you to take you down, and uses force on you, can you handle it with relaxed internal strength?

Chris Lorenzen and Justin Snow
Chris Lorenzen and Justin Snow on the ground.

I love to work on it. If they try to take me down and have a hard time because I can keep them from finding my center, that's a good thing. And if I can take them down instead, that's even better. I try to be strict with myself, avoiding the use of localized muscular tension and trying instead to use good Taijiquan principals and methods. I did a DVD on some of these methods of close-up self-defense and you can find the DVD through this link. 

One of the interesting things Mario and Byron talk about in the podcast is how some Taijiquan teachers are calling themselves "master" and yet they have never pressure-tested their skills in competition. If you don't pressure-test your martial ability, Mario Napoli says you are just "moving air" when you do a form. 

"Forms lie to you," he says, and he is right. You can do movements all day and think you can apply it in self-defense, but it's a completely different ballgame when someone is putting the pressure on you.

So get out of your bubble. Invite different people to your workouts. It should be friendly, of course. You don't have to go full-contact because getting hurt is not a good option for adults who have other responsibilities and careers, but there should be a risk of being "shown up" and taken down. Your ego might be deflated a bit, but it's a small price to pay for the truth. We can always get better, but not if we become legends in our own minds.

Let's face it, if you aren't pressure-testing your arts, you are probably not as good as you think you are.