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. 

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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. 

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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


Are You a Failure at Martial Arts?

Ken-Nancy-St-Pete-2024-smallI received an email from one of my online members who said he hasn't been practicing much lately because of a busy work schedule. He felt like a failure as a martial artist.

The truth is, you should never feel like a failure at martial arts. Sometimes, life, work, family, and other important activities can get in the way of a regular practice schedule. It happens to all of us occasionally. It's okay.

I don't know why you got into martial arts, but I got into it for three reasons:

Reason 1 -- I wanted to learn how to fight more effectively, like Bruce Lee and Kwai Chang Caine.

Reason 2 -- I kung-fu is cool.

Reason 3 -- To impress women. Of course, this is why some of us guys do anything.

I might be in my 70s now, but I still like to impress Nancy. That's why every now and then, I whip out my broadsword. 

As Joe Biden would say, here's the deal. Don't get suckered by the tough keyboard warriors online who pretend you're not worthy if you aren't ready to enter an MMA ring. That isn't real life self-defense. I'm not ready to do an MMA match, but I'm also not ready to play an NBA game or play for the Chicago Cubs. I'm not a professional athlete. That is not real life for most of us.

Here's something else to think about: we all get busy. We all have responsibilities. And sometimes, we get tired.

Give yourself a break. Be good to yourself. 

Last week, I took a week off. Nancy and I flew to St. Petersburg, Florida on Sunday and flew back the next Sunday. For a week, I didn't practice, I didn't scribble ideas or plans, I didn't teach and I didn't study. I tried not to think of martial arts. It was wonderful to spend a week slacking off with the woman I love. The photo above was taken at John's Pass in St. Pete.

And guess what? I took a week off and nobody died.

To me, martial arts is fun. I love making progress, even taking a baby step forward. After 50 years, I still make progress in my understanding and my movement. That's exciting.

So here's my advice if you feel like a failure for not taking the time to practice as much as you want.

To be honest, you are a failure if you DON'T spend time with your family, your partner, your kids, instead of working out. On your death bed, you will not be saying, "Damn, I wish I could run through Laojia Yilu one more time." No, you'll be thinking, "I wish I had another day with my family."

Now, how do we strike a balance and work our way back to a more regular practice schedule?

If you have just five minutes a day to focus, practice a silk-reeling exercise, or one of the Xingyi fist postures, or the Bagua Basic Palms form; just five minutes a day and you can make progress.

If you have ten minutes, that may be all you have today, but you can make progress.

If you're a member of my website, log onto the site and practice to one of the videos that breaks down a movement in one of the forms. Whichever form you are working on, it doesn't matter. Take 10 minutes and try to gain a new insight into one movement.

If you do this each day, it might spark the excitement again and before long, you'll start finding the time.

Remember, you are not in a competition. Take the pressure off yourself. Very few of us are going to be Bruce Lee, or Chen Xiaowang, or even Jean-Claude Wham Bam Van Damme.

So train when you can, but don't think of yourself as a failure if you don't.

Life is busy. Go with the flow. Thinking of yourself as a failure isn't fun. Don't forget to have fun.

--by Ken Gullette 


A Lack of Motivation to Practice Martial Arts and a Change of Perspective

One of my online members asked a question in an email last night. He asked how I would respond to a student (himself) who found it difficult to motivate himself to practice.

I smiled when I read it, because I can't count the number of people who swore they would be my best student but dropped out quickly when they realized how difficult it is to learn martial arts. 

I replied, "I would tell him that even 10 or 15 minutes a day can help you move forward. But what teachers THINK is that it's a lot easier to think about being a martial artist than it is to actually do the work to develop skill."

He thanked me for my fast reply, but I realized he had bought his first DVDs from me in 2016. So I replied back and asked him how I could help him.

What he told me next caused a real shift in perspective.

He told me he was so far along in kidney failure that he found it difficult to practice. He also let me know that he has diabetic neuropathy in his feet, making him unable to feel the floor.

Isn't it interesting how we don't know what people are going through unless they tell us? Here he is, fighting kidney failure and other problems, and he still has a desire to practice martial arts. That is truly inspiring.

I know the feeling. Losing a lung, coughing up blood off and on for years, developing exercise-related asthma -- I know first-hand how much motivation it takes to practice despite the punches we take from life -- to practice even when we're gasping for air -- to practice even when we don't feel like it.

So this guy is my kind of person. And I gave him a message that I would give anyone. That message is:

Take care of yourself.

In the final moments of your life, if you are fortunate enough to realize it is your final moment, you will not be wishing you could practice Laojia Yilu again, or hit the punching bag, or do some sparring.

You will be wishing you had one more moment to spend with your loved ones.

I love many things in my life. I love to write. I love good rock 'n roll. I love martial arts.

But there are things more important than any of that: my wife, my children, my grandchildren.

Practice hard if you can. Find 10 minutes a day if that's what will get you moving and practicing. Then maybe add another five minutes here and there until you are practicing 30 minutes a day. Then add more time if you can. If you have issues that can cause you to lose your mental balance, spend five minutes a day -- or more if you can -- practicing qigong. Calm your mind and body.

But don't beat yourself up about it. Martial arts should be fun. There's a serious intent behind learning to defend yourself, but I believe you should have a good time doing it, and not make it so painful an experience that you avoid it.

Practice hard if you can. Remain centered at all times. Enjoy every moment you can. And be good to yourself.

--by Ken Gullette


The Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Martial Arts Instructor Gerald A. Sharp

I first heard of Gerald A. Sharp when I bought his Xingyi instructional VHS tape, "Five Fists of Power," back in the 1990s. For years, I have wondered what happened to him, and recently decided to track him down. I found him online. He is living and still teaching in Granada Hills, California.

In my latest podcast -- the 72nd episode -- I talk with Gerald about his long history in martial arts. Among the teachers he has trained with are Wu style Taiji Master Ma Yueh Liang, and he studied Chen and Yang style Taiji with Zhou Yuan Long. He studied Chi Kung (Qigong) with Ju Beng Yi (a top disciple of Guo-Ling), and Gerald studied Bagua, Xingyi, and Nei Jia Kung Fu with Zou Shuxian, the top disciple and adopted daughter of Jian Rong Qiao.

Enjoy the interview!

 

 


Do Not Empty Your Mind When Doing Tai Chi

IStock-1269159457
The Monkey Mind

Some people believe you should "empty your mind" when practicing or performing Taijiquan. Some also believe that Qigong and Zen meditation is about "emptying" your mind.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

These practices are mindful, not mindless. You don't empty your mind, you focus your attention.

If I am practicing a form and empty my mind, I'm thinking of nothing, including the movements I'm performing. That is an empty practice and your movement will reflect it.

However, if I calm my mind -- if I replace thoughts of my schedule, my bills, and other daily activities with thoughts of the movement I am performing and the body mechanics and jin that give my movements their internal strength -- that is when my practice benefits the most.

Mindfulness is simply paying attention to what you are doing in the present moment. If you are in a business meeting, that means paying attention to whoever is speaking and focusing on the item at hand. If you are talking with anyone, including your significant other, being mindful means paying attention to what they are saying, not letting your mind roam to other things. When doing Qigong, mindfulness means paying attention to your breath or to mental visualizations of energy. In Zen meditation, it means focusing on the present moment, being aware of everything around you without judgment.

Chen Xiaowang, at the beginning of a form or standing practice would say, "Calm down." Then he said, "Listen behind you." That meant that you should be aware in all directions.

This mindfulness should stay with you all day, being aware of everything around you, and the task in front of you. Someone who practices mindfulness will not be seen walking across a street absorbed in their phone. 

Most of us have a Monkey Mind. It jumps from one thing to another, in frantic motion. To become mindful in any activity, the first priority is to calm the Monkey Mind so you can focus on the task at hand.

My new book, "A Handful of Nothing," contains 88 short Zen stories. Some people mistakenly believe it is about emptying the mind. It is not. Zen is about being aware of this moment and remaining mindful.

Some people even watch TV with their phone in their hands. "I can multitask," some people will brag, but they are mistaken. Multitasking is a myth. It causes students to get lower grades. Adults who multitask perform less efficiently.

Have you ever done something, working on a project or writing something, and you get in the zone, focus on what you are doing, and suddenly you realize a lot of time passed and you didn't notice because you were focused? That's being mindful. And that is the focus you should strive for in everything you do, including any martial art.

--by Ken Gullette

 


What You Can Believe You Can Achieve in Martial Arts and Everything Else

Bruce Lee Letter2
Part of the letter Bruce Lee wrote to himself.

In 1969, Bruce Lee wrote a letter to himself, promising to be world-famous by 1970 and by 1980, he would have $10 million. He wrote that he would do this by giving "electrifying" performances.

We all know what happened. He did not live to see his greatest fame, but more than 50 years after he died, we're still talking about him and wearing his t-shirts. Okay, maybe you aren't, but all the cool kids are wearing them. :)

The great comic actor Jim Carrey must have heard this about Bruce Lee, because in 1985, Jim wrote himself a check dated 10 years in the future -- 1995 -- and he wrote the check for $10 million.

Both of these guys could SEE themselves successful. They believed it. And they took steps to achieve it.

I don't have $10 million, but I know the power of setting a goal, writing down the steps to achieve that goal, and then taking those steps, one by one, until the goal is reached.

In 2008, a week after being diagnosed with a heart condition, I was fired from a six-figure job in Tampa, Florida. For a couple of days, I was knocked back a step, wondering what to do, feeling a lot of uncertainty about my heart and the future.

Three days after being fired, I came up with the idea for an online internal gongfu school. I imagined what it would look like and the content I would create for it. I told my wife, Nancy, who was also shocked that we were in Tampa and I was suddenly unemployed, and she didn't say it, but she had no idea how I was going to do it.

This was in April, 2008. Some Taiji people I talked with said it couldn't be done. "You can't teach Taiji online," they said. On July 4th, 2008, I launched my "online school" - www.InternalFightingArts.com -- to the world. I've been working it and building on it ever since, and I have seen a lot of students improve their skills through the videos and the live classes. 

Around 2013, I decided to begin writing e-books. In the next few years, I wrote several, plus a paperback book on Internal Body Mechanics. 

A few months ago, I thought of writing a book that I have wanted to read for 50 years but couldn't find one like it -- a book with a young Zen Buddhist monk receiving guidance on a variety of issues and ethical topics from his old Zen master. I decided if I wrote two or three small Zen stories, sometimes called koans (not the paradoxical statements) each day I could finish the book by my birthday, which is next week.

I'm going to achieve that goal. The book is almost done with 88 short Zen parables.

No matter what you have been hoping to do, whether it's achieve skill in Taiji, Xingyi or Bagua, earn a black belt in another martial art, achieve success in your career, or write a book, this works. You need to visualize your success. What does it look like? What does it feel like? 

Let's say you want a black belt in a martial art. You write it down as your goal. Then, you list the steps to take and write down a deadline for each step. Write it down by hand, not on a computer.

For example, if you want to learn Chen Taiji, you can see the steps to take on the Curriculum section of my website. Step-by-Step, I can help set your goals. But YOU are the one who has to believe it, see your success in your mind, and then take those steps one by one. Set a deadline for each step.

Don't make a general goal. See yourself achieving it and feel what that success would feel like. Then set dates -- hard deadlines. Write down the steps and set a deadline for each step. Then start taking those steps. It's a simple formula, but it's easier for people to not believe they can do something. Setting a goal and achieving it is work. But your goal is out there, ready for you.

You really can do it. If you can believe it, you can achieve it. The only question now is, do you believe it?

--by Ken Gullette


Ken Gullette Shows You How to Be a Chi Master and Ignite Paper by Focusing Your Qi Energy

I was listening to a podcast last week when I heard a well-known Tai Chi teacher say there are chi masters in Asia who we have seen ignite paper with their Qi. Some other fantastic claims were made on the interview. 

Here is the truth: noboby can ignite paper with their Qi. 

Some charlatans pretend they can ignite paper with their Qi. But it's a trick.

When an adult goes to a magic show, and a magician saws a women in half, and you see the woman's body being separated, and then in a moment the body is reconnected and the woman is walking off the stage, no rational adult walks away telling everyone, "Did you know you can be sawed in half and then you can be reconnected? I saw it happen!" 

If you tell them, "Hey, man, that's just a trick," the believer will say, "You just don't understand. You have to open your mind!"

Nobody with an ounce of intelligence says that after seeing a magic show. What they actually say is, "I'd like to know that trick."

However, demonstrate a magic trick and call it "Qi powers" (or Chi Powers) and you will have millions of people believing it. 

When I heard this Tai Chi teacher talk about igniting paper with Qi as if it were true, I decided to show you how it is done. Here is my video. Enjoy and please share this with those unfortunate souls who have lost their critical thinking skills. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Let me show you how to focus your chi energy, and then I will teach you step-by-step how you, TOO can be a chi master.


Setting Ego and Tribalism Aside to Work, Play and Learn with Martial Artists of Other Styles

Ken Gullette and Chris Lorenzen ground-fighting.
I'm on the ground with Chris, getting an education.

I love it when martial artists of different styles come to my practices. I like to compare notes, concepts and body mechanics with other martial artists. It's also fun to see how Taiji, for example, handles someone from other arts.

Yesterday, my friend and former student Chris Lorenzen came to practice with me, Justin and Colin. Chris is a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and has been training the art with intensity for the past three years, including some success at BJJ tournaments. He was 16 when he was my student (around 2001 and 2022). He was a natural, and won first-place trophies in almost every competition he entered at regional tournaments. And he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet.

Before he arrived, we were working on escapes from joint locks. In a self-defense situation, you don't go in with a plan to use chin-na against an opponent, but you should be ready to apply a joint lock when the opportunity arises. 

Equally important is to become "sensitive" enough to realize when an opponent is putting you into a joint lock.

Justin Snow and Chris Lorenzen
Justin and Chris working it out on the floor.

Our philosophy is to "spiral out of that s#!t." It's one of our primary goals of self-defense. When someone is trying to lock you, spiral out of it.

We showed Chris some of this, but when a guest comes to our practices, we also want to "feel" his art.

My favorite thing against a ground-fighter is to see how Taiji concepts can keep him from taking me down. Can I apply the ground, peng and use sensitivity well enough to feel where he's applying pressure? Can I empty at the right time to put him off-balance, and can I feel where his center is moving so I can keep him from taking me down? That's a lot of fun when you try it against someone who is skilled, but who doesn't know what to expect like your own students do. And it's also fun because I don't know what to expect from him like his regular training partners do.

But we also want to experience what it's like to be on the ground with a Jiu Jitsu fighter. Chris showed us one-by-one what happens, and if you aren't a ground-fighter, it's interesting to see how he can use the feet, the legs, and roll into positions that makes his opponent vulnerable to a painful lock or a choke.

I love it. Even at 70, with one lung and a-fib, I enjoyed getting on the ground with Chris even though I don't have the lung capacity to work in that situation for more than two or three minutes. It's still a great education.

You can have a lot of fun and learn interesting things about yourself and your art if you try not to pee on trees when someone from a different

Colin Frye and Chris Lorenzen
Chris says to Colin, "This is how I do an ankle lock."

martial art is around. Put the tribalism aside and empty your cup. Some of your assumptions about the effectiveness of your own art can be wrong, or, with a minor adjustment, can be right.

It was the second time Chris has visited our practices. I invite martial artists of all styles to come by. Nothing is ever lost except self-delusion. I think a lot is gained by comparing notes and concepts with good martial artists who can also rise above one-upmanship. We all learn and improve our skills as a result.

--by Ken Gullette 

 

 


Hard Work and Eating Bitter: The Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Greatest Hits Volume One

The 70th edition of the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast is a collection of some of my favorite interview clips from the first two years of the podcast, covering from 2014 to 2016.

I love talking with martial artists who have gone to great pains, both physical and financial, to seek out great internal martial arts masters, and then work very hard to attain skill.

This editon of the podcast is called "Greatest Hits Vol. 1" and it includes great comments with important martial arts teachers such as Michael Chritton (my first guest and husband of Chen Huixian), Kimberly Ivy, Stephan Berwick, Byron Jacobs, Kent Howard, Tim Tackett and Marin Spivack.

This podcast also features a giveaway. If you listen to it and follow the directions, you can enter to win one of 10 digital codes for your digital copy of the new 4K/Ultra HD version of "Enter the Dragon," but you have to listen and enter before August 27, 2023. 

Here is the podcast. Listen online or download the file.

 


Toxic Masculinity and Martial Arts: What Does It Mean to be a Real Man?

Toxic Masculinity
The cover of a recent catalog for Century Martial Arts

"Hey Four Eyes!"

I didn't even have to turn around to know a bully was targeting me.

I turned.

He was obviously older, taller and heavier. Two smaller young tough guys were behind him.

"Yeah, you, pussy."

His two toadies glared at me with looks that said, "You're about to get your butt kicked."

My two younger and smaller cousins, Bobby and Mike (ages 11 and 10) were with me in front of the drugstore in downtown Wilmore, Kentucky. We had just enjoyed a vanilla Coke at the drugstore's fountain and looked at some of the comic books on the spinning wire racks.

The bully saw us when we walked out onto the sidewalk that ran up Main Street. Now he was taunting and following a little too close. "I'm gonna kick your ass."

We walked behind the drugstore and the bully and his buddies followed, his insults growing louder. We found ourselves on a gravel parking lot behind the building.

"Kenny, that's the sheriff's son," my cousin Mike whispered. "He's the town bully. He's 17 YEARS OLD!"

As usual, being a bit scrawny and friendly, always looking to smile and make jokes, I had been targeted again. If I stood in a crowd of 20 guys and a bully walked up, his eyes would focus on me like the radar on a guided missile. Every time. You could take it to the bank.

On the small gravel parking area I turned to face him, realizing there was a chance I was going to encounter some serious violence. Four years is a big age difference when you're 13. But I did have one thing going for me.

I didn't want to fight. I tried to avoid the fight. But once the fight began, I loved it. A fight was the ultimate one-on-one challenge. When the first punch was thrown, I always calmed down. I had some kind of inner confidence in myself. Where it came from, I'm not sure. I recognized the possibility of losing, but I couldn't visualize defeat. And I didn't really believe it would happen. I did not have a mental image of myself that included the option of being beaten up. I knew I would somehow find a way to win.

But I still didn't want to fight. I wasn't stupid. There was always a chance I could be hurt by a bully.

It was a tough position to be in.

I took off my glasses and handed them to Bobby. My mom would be pissed if I broke my glasses.

Jimmy was bouncing as he approached quickly and pushed me. He danced away, laughing and calling me names worse than "pussy." He bounced back up and slapped me across the face, then danced away laughing. He came up again and pushed me down. I caught myself as I crashed to the ground. The gravel scraped my palms. I got back up and picked a piece of gravel off my palm where it had been embedded. My hand was bleeding.

This went on for what seemed to be 45 minutes. The new scratches on my face were stinging. But I really didn't want to fight a 17-year-old.

He danced up again maybe the twelfth time and punched me on the side of the head as I ducked. I had to face facts. If I did nothing, I really was going to take a beating.

We have a story we tell ourselves in situations like this. "If I defend myself, if I take action, it will really make him angry. I'll really be in trouble. So maybe if I do nothing, he won't hurt me."

That is a myth, of course. 

The big guy was bouncing and laughing, feeling like he was going to have an easy victory.

Alright, here goes, I thought to myself. I have to do something.

Jimmy came dancing up again, laughing like a maniac, and when he got in range, I unleashed my right fist and it caught him right in the nose.

CRACK!

He staggered back, stunned. His eyes were watering and he looked terrified. His hands went to his face.

"YOU HIT ME!" he shouted in pain. "YOU HIT ME!"

He began scrambling to back away, but I was walking toward him, feeling pretty determined.

"No! No!" he shouted, tears running down his face. "Don't hit me again! Don't hit me again! You win! I'm leaving!"

I was surprised, standing there with Bobby and Mike behind me, watching Jimmy, now the Former Town Bully, run away with his two toadies following after him, glancing behind them to make sure I wasn't coming for revenge.

My cousins were jumping up and down like they had bet money on me to win.

The mean streets of Wilmore, Kentucky, population 2,300, were safe again.

Why do I tie this story into a post about toxic masculinity?

Because the voices of guys like Jimmy make a lot of noise on social media, particularly on martial arts sites and pages. They are keyboard bullies and they criticize videos, accuse other martial artists of being weak, belittle you with "laugh" emojis, and they use the same common language like, "Try that against an MMA fighter," or "Take that into a cage and you'll be killed."

Jimmy's voice is also prominent now in politics, with guys who have a misguided idea of masculinity. They make fun of men who have replaced camo with compassion, braggadocio with humility, and racism with respect. If you are concerned about the hardships others face, you are accused of being less than a "real" man.

The bullies who call themselves "real" men want to say what they want, about anyone they want, when they want, and if you don't like it you are nothing but a woke pussy. 

What does it take to be a real man? Does the young, normal kid on the cover of the Century Martial Arts catalog a couple of years ago (pictured above) really want to become the hulking, bearded, slightly menacing guy with the black belt in the mirror?

Toxic Masculinity2I saw an ad for a men's workout program on Facebook last week and the guy selling the program posed with a gun, dressed in camo, with bulging muscles that looked to be straight out of a steroid injection, and a German Shepherd by his side.

Is that what it means to be a man? Is that what it means to be fit?

Does strength come from the size of your muscles or the quality of your character? What is the meaning of "Internal Strength" in this context?

In the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 67 has been interpreted as suggesting that true stength and leadership come from kindness, humility, and generosity.

When you are good to people, empathetic with people whose color or religious beliefs are different from yours, and when you are aware of how words can hurt, it takes strength to decide to move through this world and leave something positive in your wake. Each day, everywhere I go, I look for ways to be kind to people.

Can you be a "real" man as you do good and be kind?

Josh Hawley is a U.S. Senator who has a new book out called "Manhood." You might remember Josh. He is the one who raised his fist to salute the mob on January 6 that tried to violently overturn our democracy. Josh raised his fist to salute the mob and not long afterwards was seen running for his life to get away from the mob. It was captured on video.

But there are a lot of people Josh doesn't like. Gay people, trans people, non-Christians, immigrants trying to find a better life, poor people -- the list of people Josh Hawley doesn't like is a long one. If you have empathy for some of the people Josh doesn't like, he thinks you're a woke pussy. 

He saluted the violent mob and then ran for his life.

I don't think Josh has very much he can teach me about manhood.

That's why I have my own definition of manhood. And it's the definition I try to live by. 

It is "quiet confidence."

As I grew up, I tried to develop the qualities in myself to greet everyone with a sense of humor, with politeness, kindness, and fairness. I worked on making myself more empathetic to the problems and needs of people who are different than I. If I made a mistake, I owned up to it. When I was a "boss," I tried to treat people fairly and help them succeed in their careers. I'm still working on myself. We are all works in progress.

A general manager who hired me to run the newsroom in his TV station told me, "One thing I like about you is that you are as nice as you can be, and you are as tough as you have to be."

I've tried to behave that way as a martial arts teacher, too.

In my day-to-day life, I try to be aware of what is going on around me, and I know that if someone is in physical danger, or being emotionally mistreated in my presence, I will take action. 

When someone is with me they are safe. I don't announce it. I don't have to announce it. They might not even be aware of it. But they are safe when they are with me. 

I don't have the need to look tougher than you or act tougher than you. You might be tougher than I am. That isn't even a concern. You're training for a full-contact cage match? Good luck. It doesn't change who I am. And your self-esteem shouldn't be affected by what I'm working on in the arts.

I cry at movies. Hell, I'm so sentimental, I cry when they show the "Turn Off Your Cell Phone" announcement at movies.

I raised my daughters to have a sense of humor, to understand they are loved, and they turned into women who feel compassion for others.

I treat my wife with love and try to help her live a fulfilled life, like she does me.

I seek to feel the pain felt by people who have suffered from racism. I hurt when I know people are up against the wall and can't afford to meet basic living expenses.

In the classic story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is cruel, stingy, and critical of people who are poor. But through a series of ghostly visitors who make him look at the past, the present and the future, Scrooge "awakens" to the true meaning of life. At the end of the movie he is "woke" and he helps ease the suffering of others. He becomes a good man by the end of the story.

There is a reason Scrooge's story is so popular. The message resonates with people. We want to be better people, more kind and generous. The bad guys are the ones who are cruel and stingy. The bad guys are the ones who are not woke.

"The Buddha" is a name that means "one who has awakened." The Buddha was born into a rich family and he was shocked and horrified when he became aware of the suffering of others. He became woke and devoted the rest of his life to teaching people how to achieve enlightenment and ease their own suffering.

Our society is in a defining moment, when some "leaders" are trying to tell us that if we become awakened to the pain and needs of others, and we do something about it, we are "woke" and that means we are their enemies. Ron DeSantis is waging a "War on Woke." To him, to Josh Hawley and many other guys like them, I am not a real man.

Tonight, coming home from dinner with a brutal heat index of 110 degrees, a mentally ill woman was sitting outside on a sidewalk on one of the busiest streets in town, talking to herself. I spotted her as we drove by. I stopped and bought a cold bottle of Gatorade at a nearby store and took it to her. She was sitting in the grass next to the sidewalk, babbling incoherently about finding her lighter. She took the Gatorade and poured it on her head. I called 9-1-1 and police were sending a patrolman to see that she is alright.

It would have haunted me to pass on by to leave her sitting in the heat. How many cars passed her by? How many people saw her and were thinking critical thoughts about a poor homeless woman talking to herself?

Am I less of a man? 

Live your philosophy. If you are a Christian, love your neighbor. If you are a Buddhist, ease people's suffering. I lean toward Eastern philosophy, so I want to remain centered and do good and be kind. There is no other meaning of life greater than this, in my opinion.

Chapter eight of the Tao Te Ching says, "The highest form of goodness is like water. Water knows how to benefit all things without striving with them."

As a great man once said, "Be water, my friends."

I would much rather have a drink and joke around with guys like Jimmy, the town bully, rather than fight.

But if Jimmy decides he's a real man and tells me I'm not because I don't behave like he does, or because I don't do his martial art, or because I look weaker, or he says I'm a "pussy" for caring about others, or because I try not to say things that hurt other people, he's not being a real man. He's not being a "true martial artist." He's a bully, plain and simple.

And you know what happens to bullies. Here's a secret: They aren't really very strong inside. Right, Jimmy?

--by Ken Gullette


Taiji, Wing Chun, Qigong and Yiquan -- the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Tony Wong

Tony WongTony Wong is a long-time instructor in San Francisco, but I had never met him until we spoke a week ago for my Internal Fighting Arts podcast.

His birth name is Wong Wai Yi, but he goes by Tony. He grew up in Hong Kong before moving to the United States. Tony has trained with some outstanding teachers. He studied Wing Chun with Kenneth Chung, Wuji Qigong with Cai Song Fang, and he studied Chen Taijiquan with Zhang Xue Xin, Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing and Chen Qingzhou. He also studied Yiquan with Chen Zhengzhong.

In this interview, Tony has interesting stories to tell about his teachers and other experiences, including what it was like to train for push hands competition in the Chen Village. 

Listen to the podcast online or download the episode by following this link.

You can also listen or download the podcast here: