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


No Room for Fear -- What You Should Expect from Your Personal Philosophy

 

Upswing-4-26-15
On the upswing again and rockin' the headband monitor look in my hospital room.

Caution: this post contains a very graphic photo below. If blood upsets you, don't scroll down.

I have spent five of the past six nights in the hospital, including two trips in an ambulance. I've had to postpone a podcast interview and a few gongfu practices.

It started when I was sitting in my home office and began coughing up blood. This went on for over half an hour. It stopped for half an hour and then began even harder. Nancy called 911 and the ambulance came.

By the time the coughing stopped, long after I arrived in the ER, about two pints of blood had come up from my lungs and out my mouth. At one point, it dawned on me that blood loss could cause me to pass out and there was a chance I wouldn't wake up. The ER at Illini Hospital couldn't help me, so after the bleeding stopped they sent me by ambulance 90 minutes away to Iowa City and the University of Iowa's Medical Intensive Care Unit.

They said HALF the people who come in bleeding from the lungs like this usually die.

After two days of observations and tests, I was released from Intensive Care on Thursday when they realized they couldn't help me immediately. Both my pulmonary veins on my left lung are blocked, and the blood is having a hard time draining out of the left lung, they believe. The next step may be to take out the lower lobe of the left lung, try to salvage the upper pulmonary vein, and remove the entire lung if that won't work.

Either way, my quality of life might improve and I can continue my life and my gongfu practice without the horror of coughing up blood, which has happened occasionally for the past six years. A year ago this week, after bleeding for a few days, I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia. 

By the way, I sometimes receive messages from well-intentioned but delusional folks who believe I would not have these issues if I was doing qigong properly. One person -- who I will not call a moron because I am feeling centered -- said that he watched one of my Xingyi videos and could tell me how to adjust my movement so that my health would improve.

Sometimes, you just have to laugh.

My condition is actually the result of medical malpractice, not a lack of chi, my friends. And besides, how many qigong masters can you name who have lived past age 100? As you ponder that one, here is another question. How do you know that I am not still alive because my chi is so powerful? You know it is possible that I have done qigong and my Pi Chuan (related to the lungs) so well, I have survived something that would kill an ordinary man. But if you really do believe that my lack of chi is at fault for this situation, that means you believe superstitious pseudoscience, and if you do, you are invited to NOT leave a comment on this blog.

So I went home from Intensive Care on Thursday, aware that coughing up two pints of blood meant pneumonia was a possibility, and sure enough, by Friday evening I took a shower and couldn't breathe, so Nancy called 911 and an ambulance took me back to the hospital, where I was pumped with antibiotics and oxygen and was coughing up tarballs leftover from the bleeding. I was struggling to maintain oxygen levels above 90% (below 90% can damage organs).

I have done a lot of online communication with friends and family because it has been difficult to speak without coughing. On Saturday, I was talking to a couple of my best friends on the phone. I've known them both since I was a child, and they met and married in their twenties. The woman said, "Kenny, we are all scared for you and we know you must be scared."

Her comment surprised me. She is wonderful, funny, kind, and very religious, a conservative Christian who I first met when we attended the same church (the pastor of which is a creationist). We never discuss religion, and that's fine, but I suddenly realized that I needed to make a point.

"You know," I replied. "I certainly am in no hurry to leave, but to be really honest with you, I am not scared of anything. I feel determination and an intense desire to stay with Nancy and continue enjoying life with my children, grandchildren and friends, but there really is nothing to be scared of."

It was a message that she needed to hear, and perhaps you do, too. If your personal philosophy or your religious belief system has not freed you from the fear of death, it is just my opinion that you are dealing with a bad belief system, or you simply have not yet learned how to apply your belief system.

When I was growing up, I was told that because I was a Christian, I wouldn't be afraid to die. I would live forever and that knowledge would give me "peace and comfort." It was a message drilled into me from the day I was born.

Oh yeah, by the way, ummm, if I didn't believe, I would be tortured forever and ever.

Unlike some of my family and friends, I decided by my early twenties that there is as much peace and love in that message as there is in a wife beater telling his bloody spouse that he loves her but she just needs to be obedient. 

Blood
My sink on Tuesday before the ambulance arrived. This type of thing has slowed down my gongfu for about 6 years, but we keep moving forward.

Thanks to my study of philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism, and as I developed critical thinking skills that were considered evil in my church (question and doubt is caused by Satan), my philosophy of life and death changed and evolved. The truth became very clear -- I spent an eternity before I existed and will spend another eternity after I exist.

I had no complaints when I arrived and I will have no complaints after I leave. It was total peace before and it will be total peace afterwards. Anything else is just a bit silly, don't you think?

It would be nice to spend eternity with Nancy, although it's hard enough spending ONE lifetime with a girl, not to mention eternity, but I've known her long enough to understand that she is probably going to Hell anyway, heh heh. I have to admit I'm not the best influence.

And so I am focusing on getting back to normal, returning to practice I'm hoping by the end of the week (in fact, I might do some silk-reeling exercises in my room when I finish this post), and by yesterday they took me off oxygen. I took such a dramatic turn for the better that the nurse came in last night after not seeing me since seven in the morning and her jaw dropped because I was sitting in the chair breathing room air. She couldn't believe it.

They consider me their easiest patient. I keep things light-hearted.

I think you must live your philosophy. You must live what you believe. My philosophy enables me to laugh, joke with doctors and nurses, love, be determined, and adopt the eye of the tiger. I am not going down easy, and I still plan to attend a tournament this October and perform a Xingyi or Taiji form in competition. My major goal for my website this spring is to reshoot all my Laojia Yilu instruction and also turn it into a DVD.

I have been close to death, and it is pretty clear that when the time comes, I will probably greet it with a smile, and hopefully with an "I love you" to my wife and family. But that time is not going to come very quickly if I have anything to do with it.

I have no room for fear, and it is not something that my philosophy offers. No decent belief system makes you afraid. "Fear of God" is one of the most insidious things we allow religious leaders to put into our minds. We allow them to do it. They want us to be afraid. It's a control thing. They know that if they teach us this fear as children, most of us will hold onto it all of our lives and never question it. As adults, we have the power to reject their message, but it takes a lot of internal strength to choose a new path. Most of us simply accept it. Not me.

There are no threats involved in life or death. Good things happen and bad things happen. Get used to it, because the older you get, you cannot avoid the bad things. They are part of life.

Studying the martial arts -- any style -- should help you find inner peace. So should your religion or philosophy. Fear of dying is not something a true warrior or philosopher should have, or a true Christian or Hindu or anyone.

And so, the intelligent thinker is not afraid to do a philosophical audit from time to time. Is my belief system working for me? Why not? You just might find there is another way of thinking that will work. I did, and I know several who did.

Some Christians are not afraid, so their beliefs are working for them. Often, they are more moderate in their beliefs about concepts such as eternal punishment. I also know some who never questioned what they were taught as children and still live with threats and fear. I was told recently that one of my cousins, who I love dearly, is convinced I will spend eternity being tortured. I can't help feeling sorry for someone with that view. They will never know real peace.

One devout Christian whose daughter got cancer told me she thought she might go crazy. I wondered, where is the comfort in your belief system? Where is the peace that passeth understanding? I have it in my philosophy. Why don't you?

That is no way to live.

Yesterday, a young physician's assistant for my pulmonologist checked in on me. She asked if I had any questions. I said yes, I do have a question.

"When I leave here, will I be able to play the piano?" I asked.

"Yes, you should be able to do that," she replied.

"That's strange," I laughed. "I couldn't play the piano when I got here."

Nancy hit me but she laughed anyway. The physician's assistant had never heard that old joke. It took her a minute, but she laughed, too.

You see? No room for fear, but there is always room for humor. I got a little teary-eyed when Nancy left for the evening, but they were not tears that came out of fear. There is always room for love. 

Every moment is precious. Don't waste it in fear. 

And now, I will stand in my hospital room and do some slow silk-reeling exercises, looking for the perfection that we all seek and often remains just out of our grasp. 


Talking Taoism with Bill Helm -- the Internal Fighting Arts Podcast Interview

Podcast LogoThe principles of Taoism have been important to me since I began exploring a world outside of Christianity beginning around age 20. I was raised in a Christian home, very similar to the Southern Baptist tradition (in fact, we were Baptists for the first seven years of my life). When I attained an age where I could begin to think for myself, I became aware of Eastern philosophy, and as I read the Tao Te Ching, the Tao of Jeet Kune Do, and Zen Buddhism, by Christmas Humphries, this wonderful way of looking at the world resonated with me.

The teachings of Taoism have enabled me to maintain or regain my center during the ups and downs of life. I have learned to observe the world without negative supernatural spin, to appreciate and seek my connection with all things, and it has helped me in countless ways, both personally and professionally.

That's why I was glad to have Bill Helm as my guest this week on the Internal Fighting Arts podcast. Bill is the Director of the Taoist Sanctuary, which he runs with his wife Allison in San Diego. He is an ordained Taoist priest, and he teaches Taijiquan, Qigong, Tuina Chinese Bodywork, and Herbal Medicine.

Bill and Allison are disciples of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang.

Bill studied Traditional Chinese Medicine at the Shanghai College of Medicine and the Beijing Olympic Training Center, and in the United States he studed with Taoist Master Share K. Lew and Dr. Yu Da Fang. Bill is also the Chair of the Massage and Bodywork Program at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.

I enjoyed this down-to-earth conversation with a man who approaches Taoism and the internal arts in an interesting and unexpected way. If you find yourself in the San Diego area, check out the Taoist Sanctuary for classes in meditation, Qigong, and Taiji.

In the meantime, enjoy this podcast.

Listen to or Download from Audello by clicking this link.

Go to the Internal Fighting Arts page on iTunes. 


How to Use Tai Chi for Meditation - Mindfulness in Motion

Mindfulness-WaterTai Chi is a martial art, but in the past hundred or so years, the image of Tai Chi has become linked to the concept of "moving meditation," geared toward adults and seniors who want a relaxed way to exercise and improve their health, balance, flexibility, etc.

Those of us who see Tai Chi as a vigorous, athletic martial art are sometimes at odds with those who preach the art as something that will make you "One with the Universe" or will help you "cultivate chi."

I am a chi skeptic. I do not think chi is a scientific reality. After all these centuries, after scientific discoveries that include atoms and quarks and relativity, no one has ever been able to prove that chi is real.

But recently, interviews I have done for my Internal Fighting Arts podcast, and studying I have done on Mindfulness, made me realize there is a happy medium where focusing on the proper body mechanics when performing a Tai Chi form -- the body mechanics that make it martial -- can be combined with Mindfulness to produce the benefits of meditation.

A few months ago, I had a negative encounter with someone (I no longer remember who it was or what the disagreement was about) and I was troubled and had an unsettled feeling all morning. I drove to practice with some students, my mind scattered by the negative emotions of the disagreement.

When I began practicing, I focused on my movements and my teaching, and was mentally present the entire 90-minute practice. I gave no thought to outside events. I was mindful and immersed in my internal arts.

After practice was over, I was walking to the car and realized how good I felt, how clear my mind was, and it dawned on me how much more unsettled and stressed I felt before I focused my mind and let the other thoughts go.

Dr. Mark Muesse teaches Mindfulness and was a guest on my podcast a few weeks ago (listen to or download the Mindfulness episode here). Mindfulness is a form of meditation where you put your mind completely on what you are doing, and in doing so -- in being mindful -- your mind and body experience the health benefits of meditation. 

A lack of mindfulness causes a lot of distress, whether it is a feeling your spouse gets when you just don't seem to be paying attention, or if you are constantly sending and receiving messages on your cell phone or computer, or if you are in a meeting at work, allowing your mind to wander rather than focusing on what is being said. All of these things and more scatter your energy and produce stress.

By focusing the mind and being here now, in the moment, time goes faster and you gain clarity. Stress levels drop, your anxiety and stress ease, and your body is more calm. Your health improves. Clinical studies have confirmed this.

Dr. Muesse and some Tai Chi instructors I have talked with agree that the best way to use Tai Chi for meditation could simply be a matter of focusing your mind as you do your form. If you practice as I do, working on martial body mechanics as you do your form, that will be just as beneficial as focusing on "cultivating chi" from a meditation perspective as long as I am in the moment, concentrating on my movement, without a dozen other thoughts going through my mind. 

And so it makes logical sense that if you practice Tai Chi to "cultivate chi," and you focus your mind on that and practice mindfully, it will also have health benefits that you may attribute (inaccurately) to chi, when in fact it is the psychological and physical benefit of Mindfulness.

Try it the next time you practice any martial art. Calm your mind and try to "be here now." Don't worry about what you are having for dinner tonight, what bills need to be paid, what deadlines you have at work, or what tension there may be in some of your relationships.

Simply pay attention to what you are doing, without judging, and if you find your mind wandering, don't be critical of yourself, simply steer it back to focus on what you are doing. At the end of your practice, you might feel mentally refreshed and relaxed, and what can be healthier than that?


Being Here Now - Using Mindfulness in Practicing Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Bagua, and Qigong

Mindfulness-WaterThere is a good chance that while you are reading this sentence, you have several other things on your mind.

Perhaps you are reading while at work, sneaking a quick peek between (or during) tasks. Perhaps you are also listening to music while you read, or watching TV.

If you are like me, you feel that your mind is more scattered than ever, constantly bombarded with information, texts, emails, and other media. When you are in a meeting your mind wanders and you are bored stiff. When your wife begins telling you about her day at work, your mind is everywhere but focused on what she is saying.

When something happens to us we instantly judge it. The foot of snow that fell on my home Sunday sucks! The person who put that up on Facebook is a moron! I'm really sick of this nagging lower back pain! And I hope all the players on the Duke basketball team rot in Hell. Okay, that's a little over the top, but I am a Lexington native and a true-blue Kentucky fan. Umm, I guess I am scattering my thoughts now. Back on track!

Mindlessness -- scattered attention and judgmental reaction -- saps us of focus, creativity, and productivity. It damages our relationships at work and at home. There is a reason why we don't accomplish as much as we used to or achieve the same intimacy as we did 30 years ago -- our attention is hijacked every few minutes by the need to check an email, a text, an app, or by the normal interruptions of the average day.

It's no wonder stress is killing us. But there is an answer, and it is the topic of this week's Internal Fighting Arts podcast. I interview Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D. and a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is also the instructor of a brilliant course offered by The Teaching Company. The course is "Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation." Nancy and I bought the course and he was kind enough to grant a request to discuss Mindfulness on my program.

Click this link to listen or download the podcast from Audello.

Click this link to listen to, download, or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

A lot of people practice the internal arts for "meditation." But you don't need to imagine invisible energy or believe in pseudoscience to get the mental and health benefits from these arts. All you have to do is be mindful. Pay attention. Focus. Be here now, in this moment, and give it your full attention. There are real benefits to Mindfulness.

I think you will enjoy this podcast and can use the information not only in your practice, but also in....Go Wildcats!!.....I mean, also in your daily life.


A Christmas Tree on a Baby's Grave and a Beautiful Day

Baby TreeWhat a beautiful, sunny day it is today! It seems as if the sun has been hibernating behind the clouds for the past two or three weeks, but today, a few days after Christmas, it must have decided to get a little more shining done before the year is over.

It was such a nice day, despite being 28 degrees, Nancy and I took our little dog Minnie for a walk, and we headed down the street to a large, peaceful cemetery with a network of paved roads that serve as a walking path for the neighborhood.

At one point, Nancy noticed a small Christmas tree, about two or three feet tall, that someone had planted in the ground about 15 feet from the path. It was an unusual sight, so I walked across the grass to have a closer look.

The little Christmas tree had been put up next to the grave of a baby who had died just a few years ago.

I read the name on the stone and walked away, but a flood of emotion made me turn and go back, realizing the pain and the love the parents were trying to express during a season when a child should be alive and filled with joy and wonder. How difficult it must have been to place that tree next to their baby boy who would have been eight years old this Christmas.

It is a pain that is all too familiar. 

Thirty four years ago, I was surviving my first Christmas after losing a daughter. Shara died of crib death at six weeks old -- suddenly, in the night with no warning. The night before she died, as I was talking to her and trying to get her to smile, she grinned a huge, toothless grin that caused me, her mom and her sister to burst out laughing. It was the first and last time I would see her smile.

The devastation was total. We were stunned and heartbroken through the funeral, as our family and friends tried to offer hopeful words of support.

The day after the funeral, after a series of cloudy, wet days, which I considered appropriate when my little girl had died, I was driving down Georgetown Road near Lexington, deep in despair, when the sun poked out from behind the clouds and the sky became a glorious blue.

What a beautiful day, I thought. And in that moment of enlightenment, the day after burying my baby girl, I knew that I could handle anything that life threw at me. Life is an amazing, horrible, wonderful, exciting, devastating, hilarious and painful journey. The only reasonable thing to do is to live it, experience it, and try to ride the ups and downs while enjoying all that you can. I decided to walk on.

This is perhaps the greatest gift I have received from the study of the internal martial arts and the philosophy upon which they are based. Mindfulness, and the ability to remain centered in times of crisis are two benefits that have changed my life in many ways. Like anyone living in the modern world, I sometimes fall short of my ideals, and I step off the path from time to time, but sometimes I feel as if, through thinking about the lessons of philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism and working on skill in these arts have helped build an internal gyroscope that keeps me from staying down very long after the inevitable cloudy days and storms of life do their damage.

And that is the key. We all get knocked down at some point. The question is, how long do we stay down?

A year ago, I visited my cardiologist, and he gave me the results of an echocardiogram. I had been living in heart failure. My "ejection fraction" was around 30 percent. I could drop dead, he said, at any time.

Many of you know, if you have been reading this blog for years, that I nearly died in 2009 after experiencing freak side effects from a procedure for a-fib and I lost the function of my left lung. A couple of doctors, including one at Mayo Clinic, gave me three to five years before my heart gave out. One gave me 10 years.

This was not pleasant news, considering that Nancy and I just met in 2002. I am not in a hurry to leave her just yet, and I would love to see my grandchildren grow up. There is also a lot left to learn in Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua.

When my cardiologist told me last year that my heart had, in fact weakened during the last few years, I was surprised, but it made sense because I had felt a lot of strange thumpings in my chest during the past couple of years, including thumps that turned into dizzy spells.

After he told me this, I went home and for a few days I constantly wondered if this was my last moment. Walking down the hall in our house, looking at photos of Nancy and our family, I would think, "Is this the last thing I'm going to see?"

Then I realized that if I suddenly keeled over, I would be the last to know. So I stopped worrying about it and continued to practice kung-fu and enjoy life. I decided to walk on.

A few months later, my heart climbed out of heart failure, boosted by a higher dose of medicine. How long it will stay at the "low end of normal" is anyone's guess. It could begin to weaken again soon, or I could be trying to get better at kung-fu for years to come. I try not to worry about it. There is too much to enjoy.

Today, as I saw that tiny Christmas tree next to the baby's grave, my heart filled with pain for the parents who are no doubt in the same place I was all those years ago, trying desperately to survive and pull myself out of an unexpected tragedy. It took years to recover, and it is a pain that never quite vanishes completely. I hope they are doing okay.

I took a photo of the tree and the grave, returned to the path where Nancy and Minnie were waiting for me, and couldn't help but look up and express a little joy at the beautiful blue sky and the bright, sunny day. And then we walked on.


How Do You Find Inner Peace? A Story of Qigong and the Journey Within and Without

Ken-gullette-wall-street-250
Ken Gullette, feeling centered but vaguely inadequate on Wall Street more than 10 years ago.

My favorite poem comes from a book I bought back in the Seventies, Man of Contrasts, by taekwondo master He Il Cho. Here is the poem:

I can find peace amidst the city's roar

In the dry, frayed face of confusion

the exhausted hour.

My peace is cradled within.

Where does peace come from? I started finding the answer to that question when I began practicing Qigong in 1987, about 14 years after I began studying martial arts and reading about Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Qigong (also spelled Chi Kung) took it to another level. Before long, the ability to center myself in tense situations or moments of crisis began to develop somewhere inside me, and it was noticed, both by me and by others.

Around 1988, when a wall cloud was passing outside the newsroom where I was preparing the 6:00 News (I was the producer), people were racing and shouting in the newsroom, wheeling cameras outside to broadcast it live. I was trying to write some final teases and copy for the 6:00 News. It was total chaos.

Suddenly, I heard someone laugh. I looked over and a sports reporter was laughing at me. "What?" I asked.

"Dr. Chill," he said, pointing at me. "Everyone is going crazy and you're just taking care of business."

At that moment I realized that I had centered myself and had become the calm in the center of the storm. It felt good, and I had done it intentionally after many months of practice, and now it came naturally.

More than a decade later, I found myself in New York City for a conference. I had been wondering if I would be irritated by the crowds on the sidewalks.

As a rubber-necking tourist from the Midwest, I must have walked 20 miles in two days. Making my way through the crowded sidewalks, the poem from Man of Contrasts went through my mind.

I can find peace amidst the city's roar.

I found myself rising emotionally above the crowds of people rushing in both directions on the sidewalk, but even as I relaxed and rose above it, I felt part of it, and watched people with great interest and good will, even when they brushed me as they passed. I heard everything and felt connected to everyone and everything. It was a feeling of peace -- becoming one with strangers and with this amazing, loud, hustling city.

It was one of the most wonderful feelings I had ever experienced.

You do not need to travel to a city like New York to experience this ability to calm yourself and find your center. How many times do you find yourself tense at home and at work? How many times have you found yourself cursing other drivers on the road? How many times have you reacted angrily to a spouse or someone you love?

By practicing Qigong and learning to calm and center yourself, then recapturing that feeling in moments of stress, you can open a door to a better place -- a healthier place, where you control stress and do not let it control you.

This does not mean you never get angry. You do. It does not mean you don't stand up to injustice, bigotry or stupid, destructive people. You can, and you should. It does not mean you will not fight. You will fight to protect yourself, those you love, and those who cannot protect themselves. You may get sad, you may be hurt, but the inner gyroscope will eventually lead you back to center.

But you do not let anger control you. You do not give stress a home. All natural emotions are allowed. When they happen, you seek to find your center. When you find it, the emotions do not linger. But you do not deny them or suppress them. That only gives negativity more power. Expect the unexpected and you will be ready to handle it. It is not easy, and it does take work.

Leaving New York City, a cab driver took me to the airport. I asked where he was from. He talked about Ethiopia. I asked about his country and if he missed his family. He had just visited them for a month. He and I became friends on the way to the airport, and when I got out and handed him his tip, he shook my hand and said, "You are a nice guy."

I wondered how many people he transported every day who showed no interest in connecting with him. He was a wonderful man who loved his family and was working hard. I helped him to smile on a busy, hectic day. As I turned to enter the terminal, it felt as if I had left my mark in New York City, and it felt very good.

Since that trip to New York, my internal gyroscope has seen me through job losses, near-death health disasters, and the typical ups and downs of life. It means a lot more than just handling the roar of a big city. Life has a lot of twists and turns, and the older you get, the harder it gets. I am now 60 and facing a much shorter life expectancy because of a weakening heart and the loss of one lung. But I've rarely been happier and more content with my life. When the end comes, I want to see my children and my wife's face, and I think I'll be smiling.

The quest for peace is universal -- peace on earth, good will toward men. But you do not have to look very far for this, and you do not have to look outside yourself. You do not need to depend on other beings -- spouses, bosses, or invisible beings -- to give it to you. The farther outside yourself you look, the farther away you get. It is right there, cradled within you, ready for you to find it.


One Philosophical Taoist's Perspective - Should We Fear Death?

Ken-Shara-October-1980
Ken Gullette with his daughter, Shara in October, 1980.
Since I lost the function of my left lung a few years ago, and was told that my heart would wear out within three to five years, the reality of "The End" has been close in a way that can only be understood if you have been given a timetable for your own mortality. 

A few weeks ago, when I was told that I was essentially "in heart failure," reality again tapped me on the shoulder.

Also in recent weeks, I have had some interesting debates with a devout Christian friend of mine who believes, I suppose, that I will be cast in the lake of fire since I don't believe Jesus was divine. The way I feel about death is probably a foreign concept to a Christian -- just as their beliefs, the beliefs I grew up with, are now foreign to me.

After 40 years of embracing Eastern philosophies, particularly philosophical Taoism, I can only explain how I feel about death in the following paragraphs.

The moment you were born into this life you cried.

So did I. Everyone does. The doctor pulls us into the world and either massages us or slaps us and we let out a wail, already protesting the violence we’re suddenly experiencing.

Perhaps we have a sense that this isn’t going to be easy. If so, we are right. The easy stuff ended the moment we took our first breath and saw light and people around us.

Before that moment, all was peaceful and calm, unless our mothers ate burritos with hot salsa while we were in the womb. From the moment of conception, as we slowly formed inside our mothers, we could hear muffled sounds outside, but we were at peace.

Have you ever thought about the eternity of time that passed before you were born? Have you ever calmed yourself, closed your eyes, and tried to remember what it was like?

For an eternity, all we knew was perfect peace. No pain, no fear of death, no judgment of what is good and bad. No one judged us for what we believe, what we wore, or how much money we earned. We were at one with the universe because we were the universe – part of the same energy that created it all.

When we were born, we had no complaints about where we had been.

And so it must be with death. We will have no complaints when we get there. It is the only concept that makes sense.

Life and death are two sides of the same coin. Before we are born, there is an eternity in which we do not exist. Then we are born and exist for a brief number of years. Then we do not exist for another eternity.

Before birth, we are aware of nothing. It is perfect peace. When we are born, we are aware of everything around us, full of emotions – happiness, fear, love, hate – and we are full of striving and desire.

After we die, we are aware of nothing. It is as if we had never existed. It is perfect peace.

This is not what we want.

Each of us would like to see loved ones on “the other side.” Now that we have tasted life, we want it to continue. But even in the quiet moments of the most religiously devout, the gnawing realization is there, reminding us that this is it. There are no invisible beings watching us, none to take our hands and lead us to Heaven, none to punish us in a lake of fire, and none to sit on a throne and judge us for being human. These are fantasies created by men who want to control others. It is the philosophy of fear.

Eternal peace is a comforting thought, but only if you can get your ego out of the way, the ego that makes us feel that we are special over all other forms of life, that only humans live forever.

When you become enlightened, you are “born again” in a flash of illumination. All the man-made burdens of judgment and shame, guilt and invisible judges vanish. You are born again because on the day you are born, you have none of these concepts. You do not live under the shadow of a threat unless your parents tell you that you do -- the threat of believing their way or receiving eternal torture.

When we free ourselves from these mental and societal chains, we may now enjoy our lives, savoring each moment and each relationship. And when it is time for our lives to end, we have nothing to fear. We have lived good, moral lives full of love. We have done the best we could. We have failed at times, we have been petty and angry and jealous at times, but we have also soared at times. That’s life. The only tragedy is if life ends too quickly. I had a daughter, Shara, who died 33 years ago tomorrow, on October 23, 1980. She was six weeks old. She did not have a chance to experience the joy and pain of life. That is a tragedy.

The night before she died, she grinned so big that her mom and sister and I burst out laughing. A big, toothless grin as I talked to her in baby talk. So perhaps she did experience some joy in her short life.

There is a wonderful quote from Master Po in the Kung Fu TV series. He says, "Learn first how to live. Learn second how not to kill. Learn third how to live with death. Learn fourth....how to die."

I am now in the "living with death" phase of this cycle, but after enduring my daughter's death, it is, in some strange way, familiar territory.

If we are lucky, we reach the end of our lives accepting the reality of death. Perhaps it is best if we live long enough to be ready to die. But regardless, there is nothing to fear and perfect peace to gain. We came into this world crying, and we should all leave this world smiling.

There is nothing to cry about.


New Kindle Ebook Available -- Signposts on a Martial Arts Journey: Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Bagua, and the Art of Life

Signpost-Ebook-Cover-1000I celebrate my 40th anniversary this year as a martial artist. Since 2006, I have been writing posts on this blog outlining that journey. The main goals have been to provide useful information and also to make readers think.

Now, 50 selected blog posts -- short essays -- have been collected in a new Kindle ebook titled "Signposts on a Martial Arts Journey: Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Bagua, and The Art of Life."

The short essays cover martial techniques, experiences with instructors and students, and the philosophy I have used to sail through the ups and downs of life without being capsized.

It is only $3.99 -- less than the cost of a martial arts magazine -- and I selected articles that would provide more information and inspiration than what you typically get in a magazine.

Each article is short enough to read just about anytime. I carry my iPad with me and sometimes read when I'm waiting somewhere (for Nancy to come out of a store, for example).

Check it out by following this link to amazon.com. 

 

 


Connecting with Your Opponent - Philosophy and Self-Defense In Action

One of the most important concepts in the internal arts is "connecting."

From a philosophical perspective, you should be connected to everything in the Universe. Since you are part of the same energy that created everything, you are connected to it all. Seeing yourself as separate is the first step toward being out of harmony.

From a self-defense perspective, you should connect with your opponent. If someone attacks you, he has stepped out of harmony with the Universe. He will either hurt or kill you, or he will be put back into harmony with nature, which can happen if you are skilled at self-defense.

There is an old saying in Tai Chi -- "My opponent moves and I move faster."

This requires you to connect with your opponent and know his intent almost as fast as he does. To illustrate, I've pulled out a couple of photos taken around 2006.

Ken-Gullette-Speed-Drill-1-webOne of the drills we use is fun and effective. In the top photo, I stand with my palms together and hands extended. My partner stands with his hands at his sides. He is not allowed to "fake" me out. His goal is to slap my hands as quickly as possible with one hand or another -- or both if he's really good.

I must connect and get into a relaxed state of readiness. Too tense, and I will not be able to move fast enough. I detach my mind and become my opponent.

Ken-Gullette-Speed-Drill-2-webWhen I read the intent to slap, or see the slightest movement (bottom photo) I respond by moving my hands out of the way. Let your partner try several times, then switch positions.

It's a good drill that pays off in many ways down the road, in push hands, in grappling, and in "mainstream" martial arts sparring. It also pays off as you learn not to telegraph your movements (if you are the person doing the slapping). This is best done by relaxing and not making any movement before your hand tries to slap your partner's hands. Beginners will often pull back slightly before slapping, or they will move their shoulder. The more experienced you are, the less telegraphing you will do.

Connecting with an opponent and reading his energy and intent is a crucial skill. Connecting with the world around you is a skill with benefits far beyond martial arts.