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


Remaining Centered When the Ceiling Collapses

IMG_0135Do you know the story of the Buddha and the 84 problems?

The Buddha was passing through a village and a farmer wanted to ask some questions. The farmer asked if the Buddha could make it rain so his crops would grow. The Buddha said, "No, I cannot help you with that."

The farmer asked if the Buddha could get his son not to move away from the farm to the city, so the farmer would have someone to help him with his crops. The Buddha said, "No, I cannot help you with that."

The farmer told the Buddha that he owed money to some people, and asked the Buddha if he could get the people to stop demanding payment until the farmer could save more money. The Buddha said, "No, I cannot help you with that."

The farmer was getting angry. "What good is Buddhism if it can't help me with these problems?"

The Buddha said, "Everyone has 83 problems. I can't help you with those. I can, however, help you with the 84th problem."

The farmer thought for a moment and asked, "What the hell is the 84th problem?"

The Buddha replied, "Thinking you should not have 83 problems."

Nancy and I narrowly escaped serious injury almost two weeks ago when our living room and dining room ceiling collapsed with no warning.

We had been drinking coffee and reading the paper at the dining room table, as we do every Sunday morning. At around 9:00 a.m. I decided to go to my office to prepare for a video shoot for my website. Nancy hit the shower.

About seven minutes later, the house shook with a loud CRASH! At first, I thought Nancy fell in the shower, but then I noticed the crash lasted a bit too long for that.

I stepped out of my office, looked up the hallway and saw what you see in these pictures. 

The sheet rock and insulation came down. I tried to pick up a large piece of the sheet rock and it was heavier than I expected. That's when I realized how lucky we were. Nancy often goes to the couch to look at her laptop at that time of morning on Sunday. If she had been there, she would have been hurt (or worse).

I went to where she was and tried not to alarm her. I said, "Nancy, we have a problem."

We walked down the hall to survey the damage. We were both stunned, and immediately, my decades of training kicked in and I centered myself. 

We have our homeowners insurance through State Farm. A couple of people with State Farm told us that our policy doesn't cover ceiling collapse, especially if it was caused by "shoddy workmanship." And apparently, houses built in our area during the 1970s sometimes had ceilings that were nailed up, not secured with screws. Over time, those nails can loosen and the sheet rock can fall. 

The day after it happened, Nancy called a number for State Farm. The man on the other end said, "We don't cover ceiling collapses." Then he asked, "Do you want me to close out your claim now?"

Isn't that strange? Fortunately, she said no. 

I worked in the news business for 22 years, so I know a good story when I see one. If more homes in our area have the potential for this type of disaster, I would want to know, so I contacted two TV stations and we were the lead story on KWQC-TV, the NBC affiliate in town, and on WQAD-TV, the ABC affiliate in town. Check out the story on KWQC-TV Check out the story on WQAD-TV.

After these stories were broadcast, I received a call from State Farm assuring me that a final decision had not been made, and I would receive a letter to that effect. I'm not sure what good it does me to get a letter saying a decision has not yet been made. I was in public relations for a while, so I do understand why they needed to respond that way.

But the horror stories started coming in. Friends who had been dropped by their insurance for making claims; friends who had been refused payment by their insurance company. I saw that State Farm made $3.4 billion dollars profit in a recent year. That is "billion" with a B. 

It is now almost two weeks since the collapse. We had the mess cleaned up (mostly) within four days. State Farm sent an insurance adjuster out and he explained that we would likely be covered if we had put heavy stuff in the attic and it fell through. 

I told him we didn't put anything in the attic. Apparently since we did not put anything in the attic, we wouldn't be covered if the ceiling collapsed.

IMG_0137 (2)He asked if we had water damage, because if the roof leaked and water caused the ceiling to collapse, it would be covered.

But we put a new roof on the house three years ago. We did it because we DIDN'T WANT water damage. Apparently if there was water damage and the ceiling collapsed, it would not be covered.

Someone with State Farm told us it isn't covered if it is shoddy workmanship. But our house has stood for 48 years. I'm not sure that would qualify as shoddy workmanship.

Our home was owned by one couple before us. When we bought the house, it had to undergo a home inspection. The inspector signed off on everything, including the ceilings. If the construction in Moline, Illinois was a problem for homes built in the 1970s, why didn't the inspector know it? Why didn't he warn us? Why did State Farm insure the home (even though the contract does provide a lot of exclusions for ceiling collapse)? And why didn't anyone inform us that this could potentially be a problem?

I called the man who inspected our home when we bought it. He says he never heard of a ceiling collapsing like this. But the ceiling repair guys say they see it regularly.

Who do you believe?

Sometimes, you follow the money. Who benefits if houses have this construction issue and it passes the inspector, the realtors and the insurance company, which has an exemption in the policy for ceiling collapses unless the collapse is caused by specific things. How many people make money off the sale and insuring of this home?

You are supposed to be safe in your home. Who expects their ceiling to collapse on them?

It's not easy to remain centered when you feel as if you are in a Joseph Heller novel, caught in a Catch-22. 

A family bought the home next to us last year. The husband did a lot of work for weeks to get their home ready for them to move in. I walked next door and showed him the pictures you see on this post. He said he realized the ceilings in his home were built the same way, so before they moved in, he fixed all the ceilings.

Again, it makes me wonder why Nancy and I are the last to know about this?

The investigation is still officially underway by State Farm. Today, a structural engineer came by the house, along with our insurance agent, who explained that they are looking for a reason to cover the collapse. We probably won't know for another 10 days. I am hoping they do the right thing and I will provide an update when we find out.

Meanwhile, our ceiling in the living room and dining room is a plastic sheet. A ceiling expert came over to give us an estimate and he said the ceilings through the house would need to be worked on to support them. He went into my office, where I am writing this. He stood on a step-ladder and pushed up on the ceiling. It gave and creaked a little bit. That is not what I wanted to see.

I am sitting here with the knowledge that the ceiling above me could crash down, too. You know, it isn't paranoia if your house IS actually trying to kill you.

The estimate for fixing the ceilings is $13,500, and if State Farm doesn't pay, that will come out of our pocket.

Chicken Little was right! The sky really IS falling. But if you look at it from the lesson of what Buddha was saying, why not? Some people experience this kind of disaster in their home. This time it happened to me.

Maybe that's my 83rd problem.

So I was able to remain calm and like with any crisis in life, take one step at a time, put my head down and get through it.

I will provide an update on whether State Farm is really like a good neighbor.

This has had an impact on my practice for the past couple of weeks, although I did teach two classes Wednesday. I should be back on my regular schedule by Monday.

It seems a bit ironic that you can die in your living room.

Remain centered, my friends. Don't let your 83 problems get you down.

--by Ken Gullette


Peering into the Void: Death and Taoism -- the Internal Fighting Arts Interview with Taoist Monk Yun Rou

Yun RouTaoist Monk Yun Rou is facing a serious health situation; a brain fungus that is usually fatal. 

So how does your philosophy of life serve you as you stand at the edge of the cliff looking into eternity?

Will it give you peace or will there be anxiety or uncertainty? In your philosophy or religion, does the possibility of judgment exist? Is there the chance you will be eternally punished, even tortured? Will you expect to stand before a god with a long white beard who is looking at a book with all your thoughts and actions written in it? Or will you approach the end knowing that there is nothing to fear?

For the past 13 years, I have been in a tenuous health situation, which I've written about many times. When I found out that Yun Rou, a Taoist monk, was facing a similar situation, I thought that I finally had someone I could talk with about a heavy issue that is difficult to understand until you are facing it yourself.

Monk Yun Rou is the guest on the 63rd edition of the Internal Fighting Arts podcast. Follow the link to the podcast page where you can listen online or download the episode.  


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


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

 


Awakening with Zen Buddhism: the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview with Zen Buddhist Monk Douglas Gentile

Douglas Gentile, Ph.D. and ordained Zen Buddhist monk.
Douglas Gentile, Ph.D. and ordained Zen Buddhist monk.

Martial arts and philosophy have had a close relationship throughout history, and Eastern philosophies have had a big impact on my life. In the 59th edition of the Internal Fighting Arts podcast, I talk with ordained Zen Buddhist monk Douglas Gentile, Ph.D., who is also a professor at Iowa State University with a Ph.D. in child psychology. He first became intrigued by Buddhism when he watched the "Kung-Fu" TV show at age 10.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Doug talks with me about how to live a more fulfilled life of awakening and balance in a modern world when so many of us seek mental distraction the moment we are left alone with our thoughts. How do we develop awareness, empathy and connection, and the ability to overcome problems and tragedies in our lives, and why is that so beneficial to us? How do we learn to "walk easily over rough ground?"
 
Listen via this link or download the podcast. It will also be available via Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other podcast distributors.
 
 
 I first heard of Dr. Gentile when I received a catalog showing his "Buddhism 101" course on the Learn25 website. I bought the course and found it very rewarding. Here is a link:
 
 

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

 


Form is Emptiness: The Depth of Tai Chi is Easy to Ridicule for Those Who Do Not Understand

Form is EmptinessMy daughter, Harmony had a yin/yang sticker on her notebook in 7th grade. She loved it. From the day she was brought home from the hospital and put into a crib in August, 1977, Bruce Lee posters had been on her bedroom wall and she was very familiar with martial arts.

But some of the girls in her 7th grade class accused her of worshipping Satan because of the yin/yang sticker.

They didn't understand and had been influenced by their parents, most of whom were Christians living in the Midwest.

Yesterday, I came across the "Heart Sutra," an important "rule" or aphorism in Mahāyāna Buddhism. 

One of the key phrases that immediately made me think of Taoism, Zen Buddhism and Bruce Lee was this:

Form is nothing more than emptiness,

emptiness is nothing more than form.

You can say it a bit more directly: "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form."

It is a widely quoted concept that is visualized in different ways. 

Bruce Lee liked to say that we should "be water." He said, "If you put water into a cup it becomes the cup."

Others, and I believe Bruce also talked about how a cup is only a cup because of the emptiness inside the form.

It is the emptiness that makes the cup useful. Without the emptiness, a cup would merely be a block of ceramic.

The same is true of a glass, a bowl, and you can take this concept on and on.

But to me, it symbolized the practice of Tai Chi (Taiji), and even though that type of quote can be ridiculed by other martial artists who don't understand Taiji, it is actually a good description of the martial side of the art.

When I step out onto a training floor, or out in the yard or in a park, and I begin practicing a form, it is an interpretation of the concepts that provides the frame of the movements, the structure of the body, the spiraling of the limbs and the relaxed internal strength flowing like a wave.

It is all intentional, it has form. But what I am doing as I work to achieve the body mechanics that I am after is not so easy to understand.

I am practicing form to achieve emptiness.

I can hear the MMA guys laughing, but just like the 7th grade girls hurling Satanic accusations at my daughter, they don't understand.

The practice of Taiji involves mastering a structure that allows you to lead an opponent into emptiness.

Using the ground path, developing the buoyancy of peng jin, making micro-adjustments with the kua like a buoy in the ocean, using whole-body movement and Dantien rotation and spiraling to add power to the movement -- these are some of the skills that the form develops (if you have an instructor who will teach you these things). 

Any martial artist can punch and kick. Taiji includes punches and kicks, too, although the real skill in Taiji happens when someone touches you to apply force.

At that moment, all the form practice and the push hands practice and the freestyle work and takedowns with partners -- the practical application of ward-off, rollback, press, push, pluck, shoulder, elbow and other energies and methods -- should pay off in one specific way.

When an opponent puts his hands on you to use force or to put you down, he finds emptiness. You disappear beneath his force and, because the target is no longer there, he goes off-balance and your "form" (structure) and body mechanics take it from there to put him down instead.

I practice and teach Chen style Taiji, Xingyiquan and Bagua Zhang. I don't look at Taiji as a self-defense system that I would use if someone were standing three feet away and preparing to punch me. Taiji would not come into the question at this point. Xingyi would.

Once the punch is on its way toward my face and enters my power zone, Bagua would be a logical choice.

When they grab me, that's when Taiji shines, in my opinion, leading an opponent into emptiness and then lowering the boom. I maintain my mental and physical balance while my attacker loses his. I maintain my structural integrity even as I cause him, with his help, to lose his structure.

Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.

It's a shame so few Taiji students don't stay with it long enough, or have the right instruction, to realize this important concept. It has nothing to do with "cultivating chi." These are mental and physical skills that require as much practice as any fighting art requires for excellence. It's what I try to focus on in my study and my teaching. It doesn't come easily, but it does come when you eventually realize that the goal of all this form work is actually emptiness.

--by Ken Gullette

Try two weeks free in Ken's online internal arts school - live online classes, live personal coaching, and 1,000 video lessons in Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua and more. Go to www.internalfightingarts.com 


I Want to Throw Roundhouse Kicks on Muhammad Ali's Birthday

I want to throw roundhouse kicks.

I have been very angry during the past week-and-a-half. I am working very hard to center myself. Let me tell you why.
 
Ali vs ForemanMuhammad Ali would have celebrated his 79th birthday today if he had lived, but unfortunately, he died of complications of Parkinson's Disease in 2016.
 
The night he defeated George Foreman (picture at left) to regain the heavyweight title was the night I realized I needed to stop being a racist. It was October 30, 1974. Muhammad Ali was fighting George Foreman in a fight that was held in Zaire and called the "Rumble in the Jungle."
 
Foreman was so strong it was scary. He was knocking other heavyweights out cold. Most people expected Ali to be killed that night.
 
I grew up in the American South in the 1950s and Sixties. I saw "White Only" signs on drinking fountains and bathrooms. I remember when blacks were not allowed to sit with us in the movie theaters. They had to sit in the balcony.
 
I remember when black kids could not swim with us in the public swimming pools.
 
When I was 15, I thought the coolest thing in the world would be to join the Ku Klux Klan. That's how the culture of the South affected me as a young white boy.
 
But in 1973, while I was in college at Eastern Kentucky University, I enrolled in my first martial arts class. I began reading about Bruce Lee, his philosophy, and I started reading books with the Taoist and Zen philosophy that I heard while watching the "Kung-Fu" TV show.
 
But I still had the South in me, and Muhammad Ali was a frequent target of our hatred. We hated him. We called him a "loud-mouthed" N-word. And he switched religions. He changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. What a trouble-maker!
 
The night he fought George Foreman, college might have already started changing me a bit, but when the fight began, and I was listening to it being broadcast on radio, I was pacing in my dorm room, hoping Ali would get beaten. I was cheering for Foreman to hurt him.
 
The fight only lasted eight rounds. In the early rounds, Ali was on the ropes, being pounded by Foreman. Can you imagine the punishment? George Foreman could punch a large heavybag into submission. Imagine what he would do to someone's arms and ribs and kidneys!!
 
Round after round, Ali took tremendous punishment, and round by round, he survived.
 
Something clicked inside of me. It took a few rounds, but somewhere around the seventh, my perspective began shifting. Instead of a loud-mouthed braggart, I began to see Ali's courage, and the realization struck me like a right cross to the jaw. This man was letting the strongest boxer in the world pound on him. He had a plan, and he had placed himself in the line of fire.
 
I began cheering for Ali. When he suddenly knocked Foreman out in the eighth round, I jumped around my room, then ran up and down the halls shouting the news.
 
That was the bravest thing I had ever heard or seen.
 
I no longer saw Ali as a black man. I saw him as a brave man, and I began looking at other black people in a new light. I realized they suffered pain just as I did. They had the same needs I did. And they deserved the same respect I did.
 
I realized that so much of what I was taught in my culture was bullshit. For almost a year, I had been reading about the Taoist and Zen philosophies that presented such a different view of the world than the hatred of racism. How could I become "one" with the universe and the world around me if I considered myself better than another person?
 
It made no sense to be racist.
 
The answer was simple. If I continued to be prejudiced against people who were different, the philosophy that I was adopting would be a joke.
But like everything in life, including Qigong, and the ability to center myself, it took hard work and an ability to look inward, reflect and analyze why I thought certain ways and why I took certain positions on issues.
 
The philosophy woke me up to empathy.
 
Five years after the Rumble in the Jungle I met Muhammad Ali. It was 1978 and he had just defeated Leon Spinks to win back the heavyweight title. Ali was giving a speech at a rally in Louisville and I covered it as a reporter for WLAP radio in Lexington, Kentucky, where I was working. I got a front-row seat to the speech.
 
After the speech, Ali was going to hold a news conference at a hotel. I had a long walk to get to the hotel, so I was walking fast across a huge parking lot at the fairgrounds, where the rally was held, to the hotel where the news conference would be held.
 
Just as I arrived in front of the hotel, a limo pulled up with Ali in it. He got out and was followed by three or four bodyguards who were larger than he was.
 
I had a hardbound copy of his autobiography, "The Greatest," that I brought with me in case I was able to get his autograph.
 
For a few seconds after he got out of the car, there was a little space in front of him. I walked up and handed him the book.
 
"Would you sign this for me, Champ?" I asked, handing him the book and a pen.
 
Ali-AutographHe took the book and the pen, scribbling his autograph as he walked, then held it out. By that time, he was being surrounded by people, and a bodyguard grabbed the book and pen and stuck them out behind his back as he walked with Ali. I pushed through the gathering crowd and managed to get the book out of his hand.
 
Then I went to the news conference, where Ali stood just a few feet away and I was standing with all the sports reporters, network sportscasters and other local media, watching and listening and enjoying my brush with greatness.
 
As years passed, I learned a lot more about Ali. In 1960, when I was only 7 years old, Ali won a gold medal at the Olympics and returned home to Louisville. He went to a restaurant that refused to serve him because he was black.
 
He was an Olympic gold medalist and still couldn't get respect from some white people.
 
Imagine how you would feel?
 
And yet, he was not an angry man. He tried to preach respect and human rights.
 
One day, he was visiting his mother in Louisville, and he was in a large motor home behind her house. A young white sports reporter knocked on her door to interview her. He didn't realize Ali was there.
 
"Oh, he's in the trailer," she said. "Just knock on the door."
 
This young white reporter knocked on the motor home door. Ali answered, let him in and they talked for hours. They became good friends.
 
That's the kind of man Ali was. How could anyone hate him?
 
Now why would I be angry today? I guess it's because of the riot held a week-and-a-half ago by the white supremacists in Washington, D.C. A lot of the people who stormed the capitol building were white nationalists.
 
I guess I have been angry because unarmed black men continue to be gunned down in the street by police in the United States. It was happening when Ali was young and it's happening now.
 
Perhaps, on Ali's birthday, it struck me that being a white nationalist, or tolerating them in any way, would be a violation of my goal of being a centered person. And perhaps this is my way of letting you know, since I am a teacher, that part of your training in the internal arts involves connecting -- not just with an opponent who you might never face, but also with the world, with the environment, with other animals, and with other human beings.
 
Being centered and connected does NOT mean being passive. Sometimes, it means standing up for what is right.
 
As you work on your martial arts, and as you try to become more centered and balanced, please understand that a good martial artist defends people who are weaker and are being attacked.
 
Self-defense is much more than throwing punches and kicks. Being a martial artist means you are working to master yourself, too.
 
The world is made a safer place when we all do our part and connect with others, perceiving them as being one with us, and when we realize that silence is the fuel that gives more power to evil.

Review of "Be Water" -- the Bruce Lee Documentary on ESPN

Bruce Lee Be WaterThe Bruce Lee documentary that aired this week on ESPN, titled "Be Water," is a must-see for any Bruce Lee fan. The film aired on June 7 but is being repeated on ESPN and you can stream it on the ESPN Plus app.

It contains photos and old film footage that I have never seen before, and I have collected and devoured Bruce Lee material since 1973.

"Be Water" is a very timely film, especially in light of the George Floyd murder and the protests against racism during the past three weeks.

Bruce Lee was the victim of racism, and he fought hard to overcome the prejudice that white Americans -- and Hollywood -- had against Asians. He refused to play a stereotype, especially the old-style "chop chop" pig-tailed Oriental image that was the butt of humor in American culture.

It is an eye-opening film. I grew up in the racist South in the Fifties and Sixties, but when I was 13 I watched "The Green Hornet" every week, and I thought nothing of the fact that Bruce Lee, as Kato, was Chinese. In fact, it was mysterious and cool to see his kung-fu in the TV show.

It would still be six or seven years before a buddy and I sneaked into a drive-in theater to see "The Chinese Connection" in the summer of 1973. A couple of weeks later, I saw a very short article in the newspaper that reported Bruce Lee had died.

I was surprised by the news. That strong young guy in "Chinese Connection" was dead. My buddy and I thought the movie was horrible, but I kept saying, "That Bruce Lee guy is really good."

A month later, I went to see "Enter the Dragon" and everything changed. I enrolled that September in my first martial arts class, and it has been part of my life ever since.

There are photos and film footage of Bruce in "Be Water" that show him throughout his life, and I particularly enjoyed the film of him dancing as a young man.

The documentary traces his life and his sudden death. There are no talking heads, but Bruce's family and friends speak over the photos and videos.

The title, "Be Water," came from part of Bruce Lee's Taoist philosophy. He is shown in the now-famous interview that he did in Hong Kong in 1971, when he says, "Water is shapeless, formless. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put water into a kettle, it becomes the kettle. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."

And this is my complaint about the movie. This is where it falls short.

Bruce Lee's fighting philosophy was to adapt to, and flow around obstacles thrown at you by an opponent.

I practice this in my Tai Chi push hands and in self-defense. When an opponent touches me, when he gets close and grabs me, I have practiced to the point where I relax, like water, and I don't let him get a firm grasp.

It is like grabbing a handful of water, as Bruce Lee describes it in the film. But what we are working on is to relax, while maintaining internal strength and correct body mechanics, and we don't let our opponent find our center.

We find our opponent's center, however. We flow around his strength like water and we find his weakness. Like water, we find a way to go where we want to go.

If a stream of water encounters a rock, it flows around the rock. If an opponent punches at me or grabs me, I neutralize his force, go with it, and flow around it until I hit him or take him to the ground. At least, that is my goal.

That is the self-defense philosophy of "Be Water."

That same self-defense philosophy can be applied to your life. 

It is illustrated by Bruce Lee's reaction to the racism he faced in Hollywood. He wanted to be the star of the "Kung-Fu" TV show, but studio executives did not think Americans would accept an Asian star. They also thought Bruce's personality was more geared to fighting, not to the peaceful nature of Kwai Chang Caine. So, in a racist move, Warner Brothers hired David Carradine, and they made him half American and half Chinese.

It was the ultimate obstacle in Bruce's life, and what did he do?

He flowed around it, like water. He went to Hong Kong and he made the movies he wanted to make, culminating in "The Way of the Dragon." By this time, Hollywood paid attention, and cast him in "Enter the Dragon."

By adapting and going with the flow, Bruce became the biggest action star in the world. Unfortunately, he was dead before he was able to realize his full success.

Bruce Lee a Life"Be Water" should have hammered home the lesson that the "Be Water" philosophy promotes -- not only for self-defense but also for life.

What obstacles are you running into in your life? How can you flow around them, adapt and change, to achieve your goals and dreams?

I have used this philosophy in my personal life many times, not only in self-defense, but in adapting to and flowing around the loss of jobs, the loss of a daughter, the loss of marriages, the loss of a lung, a heart problem, and now a pacemaker. I will keep flowing, and changing, and growing, and I will continue to improve and understand more deeply because it is part of who I am.

Bruce Lee would understand this very well. THAT is the lesson of his fighting art and philosophy. It is a philosophy that you can use every day.

"Find what is worthwhile about yourself and express it," his wife Linda says in the movie, as if that is the message to be taken from his life.

Yes, that is one lesson, but it is not the lesson implied by the title.

"Be Water" is an excellent documentary about Bruce Lee -- a must-see for fans. But it should have been much more inspirational. It should have done a better job of teaching viewers this key lesson; to be water and to adapt and flow around obstacles that impede your progress. Do not let anything stop you, my friend.

My daughter Belinda made a great observation about this film. She said it was as if the producers "concentrated on the finger, and missed all that heavenly glory." 

By all means, see this film. But for a much better experience in learning about Bruce Lee, I recommend Matthew Polly's amazing book, "Bruce Lee: A Life."

-- by Ken Gullette