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. 

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. 

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

Iron Wrapped in Cotton -- Does Your Philosophy Give You Internal Strength?

My daughter Shara, a few days before her sudden death in 1980. Life was about to hammer me very hard without a warning.
Do you have internal strength? 

It has been on my mind a lot during the past couple of weeks as I prepared my first Kindle ebook for publication on that very topic -- Internal Strength for Tai Chi, Hsing-I and Bagua. It provides instruction on two basic skills for the internal arts -- establishing the ground path and using peng jin.

That allows you to begin developing relaxed power -- internal strength.

So we are supposed to take what we learn in the martial arts and also apply the principles to our daily lives, aren't we? It's not just for combat, you know.

Let's look at the concept of internal strength.

Do you have a philosophy that gets you through the rough patches in your life? Perhaps it's not philosophy but theology -- religion, faith in a higher power -- Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or one of countless others.

Perhaps you have a philosophy that provides a lens through which you look at the ups and downs of life and make sense of it all.

My personal philosophy leans toward philosophical Taoism and Zen Buddhism. I do not believe that invisible beings are watching us and making decisions that have an impact on us. Believing in an invisible authority figure means that someone is in charge of this chaotic universe. It fills a primal need that started thousands of years ago.

In the end, it does not matter which way you go. Does your personal philosophy provide your mind with the attribute of "iron wrapped in cotton?"

I've known Christians who fall apart when bad things happen. I've known athiests who do the same. Why does this happen? I believe it happens because of a weak philosophical foundation.

The longer we live, the more loss we encounter. You may lose a job, a marriage, your parents, and the unthinkable -- you may lose a child, as I did more than 30 years ago. You may develop an addiction or a major health problem.

No philosophy or theology can shield you from life's trials and hardships. But you need an internal gyroscope that centers you after life knocks you down. A good philosophy can help. 

When my daughter died suddenly at six weeks old, my world fell apart around me. In the funeral home, I picked her up out of the tiny coffin and held her in my arms for two days. I think my friends and family thought I was insane. I was walking wounded for a year or two after this, but even when I sat there in total grief and devastation, there was a little voice in the back of my mind saying, "You will get through it. Life and death are two sides of the same coin. How can you appreciate life if you don't appreciate the totality of death?" It was as if Master Po was speaking to me from the old Kung Fu TV show, and even as I sat there with my daughter lifeless in my arms, I knew that my philosophy was my emotional foundation, and it was working.

I have needed this foundation many times since -- the loss of jobs (TV news is brutal), the loss of marriages, missteps in relationships, and the loss of my left lung in 2009. 

Life is a rotating circle of yin and yang. There are many good times, but even in the best of times, one thing is certain; the circle turns, and bad times will come. You may be at the top of your game at the moment, making good money and in a good relationship, as I was in 2008. I was Director of Media Relations at the University of South Florida, a very stressful position that I loved. Within a week, in April of that year, I lost my job and was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. This led to three operations that resulted in the loss of my left lung (a rare side effect of laser ablation combined with malpractice by a pulmonologist who failed to recognize it).

During this time, I created my membership website on the internal arts. I hit a personal creative streak at a time when I should have been really bummed out.

At the Cleveland Clinic in October, 2009, near death after my lung had shut down and my heart had been accidentally pierced.
I was lying in the Cleveland Clinic in October, 2009 after nearly dying when they tried to stent a pulmonary vein and accidentally pierced my heart. I was on a breathing tube, a chest tube also coming out of a hole in my chest to drain the fluid from around my heart, and attempting to drown every half hour or less as blood filled my lungs. I dropped from a muscular 206 pounds before being sick to 156 as I lay in the hospital bed in Cleveland. I had one good lung left but the diaphragm on that lung was paralyzed. I essentially was living with a quarter of my breathing capacity. 

Doctors didn't think I would make it. But I was lying there, visualizing a tournament six months later that I wanted to compete in. I never was afraid of dying. I did NOT want to go so soon and leave Nancy, my daughters, and my grandchildren, but I was not afraid. I knew that death might be coming, but instead of thinking about that, I focused on the tournament that was six months away.

At that tournament in May, 2010, I won a first place trophy doing the Chen Tai Chi 38 form. My breathing was still horrible -- my diaphragm paralyzed -- but I had to do it for myself. I had already resumed teaching, despite struggling to breathe. Over the last few years, my diaphragm was paralyzed for two of those years, but suddenly, as I pushed it with internal arts practice, it began sparking back to life.

Yesterday (as I write this), I went for a major visit with my pulmonologist after taking a chest xray, blood work and a breathing test within the past couple of weeks. He gave me the news I had suspected as I have seen my ability to practice increase. My numbers have come back up, and the diaphragm is now almost completely back to life. I'll never get my left lung back, but at least my right lung is working well. There is a little bit of capacity that I could still regain in the diaphragm, and I believe it will happen.

Sometimes, your philosophy works when you are not even thinking about it. Last night, because I've spent so much time recently working on Internal Strength for the new Kindle ebook, I thought a lot about it. When you have Internal Strength, it doesn't mean you are superhuman. You still can be battered around by life and by people. You can be sad, you can be angry, you can be hurt. But if your internal movements can be trained to function like "iron wrapped in cotton," your goal should also be for your mind to function that way as well.

If your philosophy is not doing that for you, perhaps it is time to explore others. Because no matter what you believe, the Way still runs through darkness and shadow as well as through the light -- through bitter cold as well as comforting warmth. Your philosophy should provide the foundation that allows you to walk on.

Focus on the Moon, Not the Teacher -- Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua Advice

There is a Zen proverb -- When a master points at the moon, many people never

Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing during a break at the Chicago workshop. Photo courtesy of Khiang Seow.
see the moon, they only look at the master.

Bruce Lee said it in a slightly different way, when he told the student, "It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon." When the student gazes at his hand, Bruce slaps his head and says, "Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory."

I've been very busy since the Chen Xiaoxing workshop on Xinjia Yilu two weeks ago and haven't written much about it since that time. Instead of writing, I've been practicing the movements we went through in Chicago. It has been on my mind a lot.

The workshop was a great experience, and it was organized in a way that promoted learning. In workshops past, I would scribble as many notes as possible during breaks or at the end of the day, trying to remember the little details. In this workshop, remembering wasn't a problem.

Chen Xiaoxing would demonstrate a sequence of movements several times -- slowly -- and then he would include fajing where appropriate. Then he led the students through the sequence several times. Occasionally he would pause and go through one part slowly to show the correct way. Then we would work on the sequence individually and he would go around, watch people and make corrections where necessary. There were moments when I thought, "Okay, we've practiced this long enough, let's move to the next sequence," but I told myself to stop thinking that way and use the opportunity to really drill it into the mind. In the end, it was one of the better workshops I've attended as far as learning a form.

If you watch Chen Xiaoxing do a movement from Xinjia Yilu, it may look different than the same movement performed by his older brother and the Chen Family Standard-Bearer for the 19th Generation, Chen Xiaowang. I took a private lesson on Xinjia Yilu from Chen Xiaoxing's son, Chen Ziqiang, and he taught the opening sequences a little differently than Chen Xiaoxing does. Chen Bing's version of Xinjia Yilu will look different from Chen Ziqiang's.

I am second from left during one of the times we were practicing a sequence individually at the Chen Xiaoxing workshop.
So when I was in the workshop, watching the Grandmaster as he went through each movement, I thought about the differences in the way different Chen masters do the movements and I remembered the Zen proverb. I reminded myself not to focus on the teacher, but rather, I tried to see through the particular movement and gaze on the moon. In this case, the moon would be the body mechanics and internal principles at work in this particular sequence.

When I first began studying Chen Taiji back in 1998, I remember thinking it strange that the masters often varied from one to the other in the way they performed. Later, I realized that they were each artists. They learned the basic strokes and then added their own personality, strengths and their own artistic flair to the movements. Now, I think it's fun to look at the differences. Sometimes, I uncover new ways of doing things and I can see concepts in action that I didn't see in a different master.

I've been remaining faithful to the way Chen Xiaoxing taught the movements two weeks ago. But I don't necessarily expect that to last forever.

At a workshop that I conducted last year, a couple of my karate black belt friends attended. They would occasionally want specifics. Exactly where is the hand supposed to be on this movement? Exactly what is the stance supposed to be here? They are accustomed to everything being exactly the same, and all black belts expected to perform exactly the same way, and they weren't prepared for a situation where I wasn't moving their hand a millimeter this way or that way to "correct" them. Instead, I tried to talk about the internal body mechanics they were trying to achieve. Whether your foot is pointed at 45 degrees or 40 degrees doesn't really matter if you have the body mechanics and structure that you need.

Obsessing on little details like that is like focusing on the finger and missing the moon. You can hold your hand in one particular spot, but if you don't have the ground or peng, and if you don't have the mechanics you need when you begin to move, it doesn't matter where your hand is.

And so, I tried to see deeper as I watched Chen Xiaoxing perform the movements repeatedly. How is he shifting the weight, how is he using the kua, how is he rotating dan tien, and can I see the relaxed strength unfolding through the body?

That's the moon, and as I practice the movements over and over, I may add my own little artistic flair here and there. When my own students learn it, and they do it in a slightly different way than I do, I won't care as long as they see the moon.

Taking Self-Defense and Martial Arts to A Higher Level

A higher level of internal arts is achieved when you think beyond self-defense.
I receive messages occasionally from anonymous Internet trolls who see my YouTube videos and make comments such as, "How will that work against an MMA fighter," or most recently, "What good is a sword going to do you in a street fight?" 

Insert deep sigh here.

When I was young, I thought you studied martial arts to learn how to kick major bootay. I wanted to feel safe everywhere.

It was shallow thinking. There is a lot more to martial arts than fighting. But you can't expect young people to think at a higher level. That takes time, experience, and study.

I am not a religious man and I do not believe in invisible beings. I don't believe invisible beings are watching us, guiding us, controlling what happens (saving us from accidents, etc.) or planning to judge us when we die.

But I am a spiritual person. I believe in being kind to people, helping those less fortunate, and treating everyone I meet with friendship, humor, and cooperation. I believe in treating my wife with love and respect and making children laugh. I have worked a lot of my life to be a better person and a centered person. Like every human being, I occasionally fall short, but we continue trying, don't we?

This takes time, experience, study, and reflection. A higher level requires some sort of inward gazing -- in my case, chi kung (qigong) and a great deal of time studying and pondering philosophical questions.

My favorite part of the internal arts continues to be decoding the self-defense applications within a movement. But we also practice being "connected" to our opponent. My opponent moves and I move with him. When he arrives, I am already there. We have drills that are used to help students understand the concept of connecting, and the goal is to carry the physical sense of connecting to a higher level, where you then connect with the people you meet and work with each day, you connect with the environment, and you connect with the universe. It's a higher level of martial arts.

I never expect to be in a fight again. I don't intend to use my arts for fighting. Don't get me wrong -- I would be ready to defend myself or a loved one if needed. If I saw someone being attacked while at the mall or on the street, I would likely intervene. But that's not why I study anymore. I haven't been in a real fight, other than tournaments, since I was 18. Now that I'm turning 60 later this month, it would be pretty silly to think that I'm going to be fighting anyone.

An important part of martial arts training is the spiritual. It has been lost by a lot of martial artists and a lot of schools. There is a tradition that you are helping to carry forward, and there is a deep satisfaction when the mind and body come together to do a perfect technique. Perfection doesn't happen often, but when it does, something wonderful happens in your mind. When I connect with a partner so that I already know when they are going to attack -- it's an amazing feeling. 

The martial arts -- the internal arts -- are a means to achieving physical and mental perfection.

But there is another key point that you must realize to get to that higher level.

The best fighter wins without a fight. You do that by remaining centered -- avoiding going to places where you might be attacked -- talking down someone who is ready to attack you -- or leading their comments into emptiness.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote that the best generals win battles without fighting.

So why do we study a martial art? It's about self-discipline, self-control, and self-confidence. By making yourself stronger and able to defend yourself well, you have less of a need to prove your point. You have less desire to fight. You have little interest in inflicting pain. You find the connection between you and other people -- in fact, with all things in nature. 

Someone who is truly connected carries themselves with dignity, with calmness, with caring and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, as I learned in Sunday School when I was a kid.

That has nothing to do with fighting.

Another point that the trolls bring up -- why do I incorporate straight swords, broadswords and elk horn knives into my practice? On a practical level, you aren't going to pick up a sword on the street if a group of guys attacks you. But once again, the personal growth that I feel from developing skills has nothing to do really with fighting. After all, the phrase "martial art" includes the word "art." I am expressing myself through my art, learning a physical skill and techniques with a traditional weapon, and engaging in an exercise that feeds the mind and the body.

On the other hand, if you can pick up a stick in a self-defense situation, sword techniques will be very handy. But this possibility is also why I train with single and double sticks.

Another point on the practical side -- when we see the damage that can be done to a human being by violence -- the fact that you can kill someone with one good punch should make you want to avoid the possibility of the legal problems (not to mention possibly losing your job) that an adult would likely suffer if a fight broke out.

Fighting is a young man's game. One of the reasons I'm about to turn 60 is because I never went looking for fights and actually tried to avoid them as an adult. I've had my chances, but managed to diffuse the situations that could have resulted in violence. That's harder to do when you're young and not thinking in a centered way.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu wrote, "Powerful men are well advised not to use violence, for violence has a habit of returning."

Words to live by. And so we study, practice, look deeper, and seek to achieve a higher level, which some call The Way.






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What Good are Martial Arts in a Mass Shooting World of Gun Violence?

Ken Gullette -- "The study of martial arts is a journey of self-discovery; a unification of body and spirit."

I hear it a lot. Maybe you do, too if you study martial arts. It's a sarcastic comment, in my experience it usually goes something like this:

"You know kung-fu but I can shoot you before you can kick me."


"I have a Glock that says your martial arts are useless."

The mass shooting at the Connecticut school two days ago is an example of the world we live in. The killer was rushed by the principal and school psychologist and he killed them both.

What good is it to study kung-fu if we would have ended up dead by trying to get close to this guy in an effort to defend the children and adults in that school?

It's easy to ask the question, and I've reflected on this during the past 48 hours. I lost a daughter in 1980, and my heart aches knowing a little of the pain the parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles are feeling about the death of those children and the adults.

Indeed, what good is a martial art in the 21st Century?

In an episode of the wonderful Kung Fu TV show, Master Kan told young Caine, "Training in the martial arts is for spiritual development, but it is based on self-defense."

The study of martial arts is a journey of self-discovery -- of self-discipline -- of the things you learn about yourself when you set difficult goals, work hard, and achieve them.

The correct study of martial arts also takes you on a philosophical and spiritual journey. Along the way, you discipline the mind and spirit so you know, and reflect, the reality of the world. 

And the wisest and best martial artist wins without engaging in combat.

Each of these are bits of wisdom I began absorbing when I watched the Kung Fu show when I was 18 or 19. It was wisdom I had never heard before -- it was certainly not discussed in my fundamentalist church. And so I began studying Taoism and Zen, and I found a path that has offered me a lot of peace through some very trying times.

Like everyone, I fall short of my spiritual goals. I sometimes allow angry people, particularly those preaching hatred and intolerance in politics, to push me off-center. It's something I'm working on. But there are many times in daily life when I use this training to remain centered and understand the world for what it is.

It doesn't matter what martial art you study -- kung-fu, karate, MMA -- you would be as vulnerable in the school shooting situation as the principal was. Being tough isn't the answer. In other situations when facing an unarmed opponent, or someone with a knife or stick, your skills would come in quite handy.

The study of martial arts teaches you to defend yourself, but more importantly, if you are open to the idea and have a good teacher, you learn to meld your mind and body into one, so that neither are used against others.

Adam Lanza was a troubled young man with mental disorders. He was unable to feel empathy toward others and apparently, people around him had to watch out because if he burned himself or if he fell and injured himself, he could not feel pain. There is not very much that any of us could have done for this young man. That should be a conversation within the medical, psychiatric and law enforcement community. I believe some people with violent tendencies can be helped through the study of martial arts when philosophy is included. But I doubt that the best martial arts philosopher could help someone who is deeply disturbed.

Today, even though he could not feel pain, Adam's actions have created pain that has rippled across the world. And I expect in the next few days I'll hear more comments such as, "Your martial arts would have been useless against him so what good are they?"

Perhaps they would have been useless, but that alone is not why I am still studying kung-fu after 39 years.

The people who ask this question are those who have not yet taken -- or completed -- their own journey of self-discovery. If they are religious, they have not yet completed their journey to true God Realization, which is a lot more than believing in an invisible being. And if someone who asks this question is involved in the martial arts, they either haven't taken the same path I have, haven't had a teacher to point the Way, or they aren't interested in traveling that path.

I still have a way to go, too. But as Master Kan said in the very first episode of Kung Fu, "To know nature is to put oneself in harmony with the Universe. Heaven and Earth are one. So must we seek a discipline of mind and body with ourselves."

So we continue to practice, to study, and seek to understand. More importantly, we learn to deal with conflict in ways other than violence.


A Martial Arts Master or a Teacher -- You Don't Have to Be One to Be the Other


Working with Colin on an elbow break.

Recently, I received an email from a woman who has studied tai chi for a while and bought a couple of my DVDs. She is Asian but lives in the United States. 

She said my Internal Strength and Silk-Reeling videos taught her information that her "master" never taught. In the email, she said "Thank you, Master."

I corrected her and told her I'm not a master and don't have enough time in this lifetime to become one.

Her response was interesting. She said she had studied DVDs by several Chen masters (she named them but I won't do that here) -- and she said that I was the only one teaching body mechanics in any detail. She found it curious that the masters she had seen on video and in person never told her any of the information I share. She said that many of the teachers she knew in martial arts demand to be called Master, and I don't, yet I teach quality material to everyone.

Her email was very kind, and we had some very nice exchanges. It also made me think, which is dangerous but something I do occasionally. 

Teaching a workshop on Chen Taiji in East Lansing, Michigan.

I'm a student of Chen Tai Chi, Hsing-I, and to a lesser extent, Bagua. I've had a couple of good Chen teachers who asked questions of the Chinese and tried to look under the hood, seeking information in a slightly more direct way than a Chinese student would do. And although the masters try to hold back information, we know a lot more about the internal arts now than any Americans did in the 1970s, 1980s, even the early and mid 1990s. It was about that time that top Chinese masters began coming to the U.S. to develop disciples, teach workshops, and make a LOT of American dollars. At the same time, they faced Americans who ask questions of authority figures instead of merely doing as they're told. 

I'm still working on getting better and I have a long way to go. But I know a little bit about which direction I need to go because I've had some good instruction, and I share that with people who haven't learned what I have learned.

My movements will never be as good as some of the Chinese masters, but the golf pro down at the local country club will never play as well as Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, either. Does that mean the local golf pro has nothing to teach me about my driving, chipping and putting? Of course not. He could make my golf game a lot better.

Not many college or high school basketball coaches could play in the NBA -- even when they were young.

It's an interesting question. Are you a Master or a teacher? Just because you are one doesn't mean you are the other.

Don't ever call me master. I might demand that my wife Nancy call me master, but she would only laugh. Then she might kick my butt.

I'm a student and a teacher. I don't expect that to ever change. And I really don't need it to change. What do you need? 

Returning to Center -- the Goal of Fighting with Taiji, Hsing-i, Bagua

Ken-Gullette-Elbow-Break We were videotaping a lesson for the instructional website a few days ago -- basic principles of stepping in Hsing-I Chuan.

You begin in San Ti, and whatever you do next, your ultimate goal is to establish balance and return to San Ti.

You can attack, defend, take your opponent's ground (one of the primary objectives in Hsing-I), but as soon as possible, your mission is to return to San Ti.

The same is true in Tai Chi. An opponent attacks -- force comes in. You relax, adapt, neutralize the force, counter, all the while seeking to return to wuji - absolute balance, centered both physically and mentally.

Bagua is the same. As you change and adapt to multiple attackers, you try to maintain your center, capture and control the center of your attackers, but with each movement, your ultimate goal is to return to the centered dragon stance.

Wuji is a state of absolute balance -- of nothingness. From a martial perspective, it's a state of supreme awareness within relaxation. Once you begin moving, as you must do when an opponent attacks, everything separates into a state of imbalance, but like the yin and yang, circling and swirling and spinning and softness and power, the end goal is to return to wuji.

Think about this the next time you practice self-defense.



Taoism and the Martial Arts -- Why Taoism is Not Passive

Taoism is not passive.

To follow the Way does not mean you allow yourself to be abused, and it certainly doesn't mean that you stand by and allow others to be abused.

There is a story that I love:

Two elderly Chinese gentlemen are sitting on a park bench, enjoying the day. One follows Taoism, the other Confucianism. A soldier comes into the park and, being filled up with his own power and self-importance, he begins scolding the old men and shouting for them to leave.

To drive home his rage, the soldier strikes the old Confucian, who apologizes, gets up, and quickly walks away. Those who follow Confucianism are guided by duty, and see themselves as subservient to the government and authority figures.

Seeing the Taoist still sitting on the bench, the soldier raises his hand to strike.

The Taoist gentleman deflects the blow and with one quick movement, breaks the soldier's arm. The soldier scampers away in pain, while the old man remains seated on the bench, enjoying the day.

To follow the Way means that you try to "go with the flow." You seek balance, and you seek to ride the ups and downs of life in a centered way.

Those who step out of harmony with the Tao see themselves as separate. They see themselves as special.

In this story, the soldier stepped out of harmony. It's important to know that when something is out of harmony, nature works to bring it back into harmony. Sometimes, we have to act to bring someone or something back into harmony with nature.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a store -- the Camera Corner in Davenport, Iowa. A manager type was treating one of the employees very rudely. Then he walked to the second floor with the employee, his voice rising louder and louder. Even when they went out of range, I could hear every word as he shouted angrily at this poor guy, who couldn't have been earning much more than minimum wage and appeared to be near 50 years old.

I asked two employees behind the counter, "Is he yelling at that employee in front of the customers?" They said yes, and one employee said, "Someone needs to rein him in."

I paid for my items as the employee came downstairs, smiling sheepishly. I walked up the steps and told the manager that he shouldn't shout at employees in front of customers.

"But he has made this mistake several times," he said. "He's done it twice this month."

"You didn't hear me," I explained. "If someone needs to be corrected, do it behind closed doors, not in front of the customers."

"But I'm concerned about quality for customers like you," he said.

I raised my voice loud enough for the employees downstairs to hear. "You don't get it," I said. "No justification! I've never worked with a jerk who thought he was a jerk. That was jerky behavior. Stop it! No argument!"

He put his head down, closed his mouth, and I walked out and returned to work.

Now, I could have just walked away and been passive. I didn't have to become involved. But I knew the employee was powerless, and as the person behind the cash register said, someone needed to rein the manager in. I was in the right place at the right time.

I could also keep my mouth shut, like most people in tai chi do when an instructor claims to be able to do miracles with his chi, healing people with their aura or knocking them down without touching them.

But these folks have stepped out of harmony with nature, just the same as someone who pulls a gun and steps into a bank. They perceive themselves as special, and they want everyone to treat them that way.

Taoism is not passive. That's why monks created kung-fu.

Iron Wrapped in Cotton - the Tai Chi of Mental and Physical Well-Being

Radishad One of the most interesting magazine articles I've ever read is in the June, 2009 issue of the Atlantic. The article explores a 72-year study, following young Harvard students from the 1930s until now, an amazing study of the changes that people go through in their lives, trying to ask the question -- what makes us happy, and what factors create a happy and well-adjusted life.

Some young men who were apparently well-adjusted and happy ended up killing themselves as adults. Others, who were immature or pessimistic as young men, changed over time and became better adjusted.

If you reach age 50, there are factors that seem to play a part in whether you will be happy or even alive at age 80. A man with at least 5 of the following traits was more likely to be "happy/well" at age 80 -- education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, exercise, healthy weight, and the ability to make mature adaptations to life's events.

Men who had 3 or fewer of these traits were much more likely to be "sad/sick" at age 80 -- or dead.

The relationships you have with people seem to be a major factor in longevity and happiness. Those with poor relationships are in trouble.

Of those who were diagnosed as "depressed" by age 50, 70% of them were dead or chronically ill by age 63.

What does this have to do with Tai Chi? Plenty, in my opinion, especially if Chi Kung (qigong) is included as part of your personal practice and lifestyle.

Tai Chi has been described as "iron wrapped in cotton." The movements appear very relaxed, and yet because of the establishment and manipulation of the ground path and peng jin in the body structure, there is great strength beneath the appearance of relaxation and flexibility.

Through the practice of Tai Chi and Chi Kung--exercises that help you calm the mind and body and "center" yourself--you learn to maintain mental and physical balance. In my view, and in my experience, this balance and understanding of the nature of things can give you an emotional iron wrapped in the cotton of a happy or relaxed demeanor.

I'm 56 years old. In my life, I have struggled to make a living; I have lost a daughter; I have been bankrupt; I have lost jobs (as recently as last year); I have made bad decisions on who to marry, resulting in terrible heartbreak--and yet I feel as optimistic and happy today as I was when I was 20 years old and felt that anything was possible.

Through all of these events, I have learned and attained skill in the internal arts (my passion); I have achieved a wonderful marriage with a loving wife (Nancy); I have raised two daughters who are smart and funny and loving; I have grandchildren that I adore; I have made a positive impact in the lives of young broadcasters who I hired and coached to be successful; I've made a positive impact in the lives of kung-fu students; I've overcome financial hardship and forged a media relations career that earned a decent salary; and currently, after losing my last job due to the economy, I have launched my online internal arts school and have never been happier in any previous job in my life. I absolutely love waking up each morning to work on this.

I believe you can achieve emotional iron wrapped in cotton through the practice of Tai Chi and Chi Kung. Through the Eastern philosophies that I've studied since the early Seventies, you realize that there is no one to blame when things go wrong. Bad events and good events are part of the yin/yang of life. You must accept hard times if you accept good times. When things are very good, you can bet that something will go wrong at some point, or a tragedy might happen. Likewise, when things are very bad, you can get through it by understanding the yin/yang of nature--that sooner or later, the wheel turns and the positive returns if you just hang in there and don't give up.

When I first began practicing Chi Kung, I calmed the mind and body, put part of my mind on my dan t'ien, and mentally detached. One of my favorite things is to stand outside and do Chi Kung, feeling the wind, listening to the birds, as I detach from the day-to-day and try to feel myself a part of nature--of all the sounds and energy around me. I am part of the same energy that made the stars, the planets. the black holes, the wind and snow, and the warm sunlight.

There is a peace and comfort in this feeling, and there have been moments of enlightenment during these Chi Kung experiences that give me a deeper insight into the nature of things. Most of us are self-centered. When bad things happen, we ask, "Why me?" We take it all very personally, and for some people, that produces emotional reactions that are unhealthy. Sometimes we blame invisible beings -- blaming God for bad things that happen to us.

We all have the ability to guide our lives. The decisions we make have consequences. We can choose the right path or the more destructive path. We can choose to love people and do good deeds, or we can be selfish. We can choose to create laughter in others or we can turn an angry or intense face to the world. We can look at things as having an impact on only us, or we can try to create win-win situations and see that we are connected to everyone and everything.

But despite all of our best intentions and decisions, bad things will happen. Someone we love will develop a fatal illness. Someone we love will die. We will lose a job through no fault of our own. We may find ourselves in financial difficulty. We may put our trust in a partner or spouse who betrays us. There are things that happen outside of our control, and it requires emotional iron to ride out the storm.

A lot of uncertainty and unhealthy feelings can happen when we look at ourselves as the center of the universe. A different feeling happens when you contemplate your part in the universe and how connected you are to everything and everyone. You are part of it, not the center of it.

There is another recent post on this blog that describes how to begin your Chi Kung training. Relaxing the mind and body, putting part of your mind on your dan t'ien, and detaching your mind from your daily problems and activities--that's the first step. From there, you train yourself to recapture this feeling when you face a crisis, a problem, or a tragedy. This understanding and ability helps you build the emotional iron that you need to cope with the unexpected events that life throws at you.

Last year, a week before I lost my job, I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation -- a heart problem created by too much electrical activity in the heart. Instead of beating normally, my heart often raced and fluttered, setting up a dangerous condition that could lead to stroke.

On top of the job loss, this came as a shock. I had always been the picture of good health. So I decided not to worry about it. My goal was to return to normal. I underwent three heart surgeries last year and had my heart problem fixed. During the last surgery, I aspirated something from my stomach into my lungs and developed a horrible pneumonia that I'm still trying to overcome.

During all this, I launched my online school, created more than 300 video lessons, e-books, and other material, I've produced 7 new instructional DVDs, and I've continued to practice and improve my skills.

The job loss and the heart problems were temporary things that I would outlast, I decided. Hanging in there, waiting for the yang part of the circle to cycle back around, and continuing to be positive about the future--it has become a natural reaction to events.

Life can throw anything it wants at me. It can't damage the iron beneath this cotton. We are born and we die, and in between those two events, there is a journey that includes tremendous highs and horrible lows. Accepting that fact is step one in living a well-adjusted and healthy life. I learned this through the study of philosophy and the practice of Chi Kung and Tai Chi.


The Best Part of the Internal Arts -- Finding Balance and Harmony

Most religions and philosophies teach harmony. It's an important part of the internal arts. Some of the finest masters of Tai Chi, Bagua, and Hsing-I such as Chen Fake, Sun Lu Tang, Liu Bin and others were known not only for their martial skill, but also for their fine character. It's a trait of people who reach the highest level of the internal arts.

When you look at the people around you day-to-day, you can see that most people desperately want it--need it--and try to find it--but life's challenges, along with the attitudes of other people get in the way.

Look at what's happening in Washington these days. There is a complete lack of cooperation and goodwill between the two parties as the American people, other nations, and the environment are facing the most major challenges in our lifetimes. It seems that our politicians, particularly the party that recently lost the election, have abandoned any pretense of solving these problems in an atmosphere of compromise. In any endeavor that involves people, whether it's at home, at work, or even having fun on a team, compromise is crucial for success.

At work, egos and insecurities cause people to behave in poisonous ways--holding grudges, not speaking, not accepting ideas or change. Upper management will forget that the experts working under them actually have valuable things to offer. The result is an unhappy work environment, with people living for the weekend and dreading Monday. Productivity suffers.

A life of harmony and balance is misunderstood by many, who believe you must be passive and soft. This isn't true. To be balanced and in harmony, you take control of the emotions and reactions that you present to yourself and the people around you.

The steps of finding balance and harmony in your life include:

*** Seeking harmony inside yourself. It's impossible to develop harmony around you if you are tormented or troubled inside. Talk about problems you have with a counselor or a trusted advisor. Try to forgive yourself for past mistakes and understand that you must be your own best friend. Relax, do chi kung exercises or tai chi to find balance inside. You've been through a lot in your life. Look yourself in the mirror and smile. Then, you can take that smile out to the world. You can change the entire direction of your life today if you want. It takes effort. 

*** Seeking harmony with others. You know what to do, but it takes hard work to do it. Make a point to be a positive force in the lives of everyone you meet today. Put a smile on the face of a cashier at the store. Let your boss or your employees know that their success is your goal. Let the people in other departments that you work with know that your goal is to help them succeed. But you have to mean it and act on it. Words without the actions to back them up are meaningless. On the highway, don't get angry if other drivers act crazy. Understand that they have lost balance, and if anything, feel sorry for them. At home, make your spouse or family feel wanted, loved, and safe.

*** Seeking harmony with nature. We can't achieve this goal if we continue to pollute our air, our landfills, our water, and if we continue to consume at the rate we have in the past. Take action to install energy-efficient light bulbs in your home, recycle, and do what you can to use less fossil fuel and energy. Donate to a group that works to solve environmental problems. And don't believe the energy industry-funded organizations that are trying to tell you there's no problem.

To live in harmony, you aren't a sap who is weak and passive. You must be assertive in dealing with people. Action is required. Be proactive. Shine your light. Don't accept negativity. When faced with it, try to understand why the other person is acting this way, and let them know, very calmly but assertively, that their success and happiness is your goal.

The myth of Eastern philosophy is that you "do nothing and accomplish everything." When faced with violence, even Taoists monks defended themselves. Turning the other cheek works sometimes, but action is required most of the time. Finding balance and harmony within yourself, and living it with others, takes a lot of work before it becomes your natural way of doing things.

It can start with chi kung exercises, learning to put part of your mind on your dan t'ien, relax the body and mind, and then recapture this feeling in moments of tension or crisis. It can start with a smile, and a helpful demeanor. It can start with the generous words, "What can I do for you today? How can I help?"

And then you need to help. This means when discussing politics, you seek compromise and understand that your opinion is not the only valid one. When thinking of religion, you must stop judging other people or looking at other beliefs as wrong and immoral. Seek to understand that basic morality is behind every religion or philosophy. People who cling to fundamentalist religions often have a psychological need for rules, and for the feeling that something or some being is in control of what seems to be a scary world and an uncertain afterlife. They need to belong, and their church, even if its rules seem more like a cult, fills a psychological need in their lives. They lose balance and harmony when they see everyone else as misguided and wrong, but this loss of balance is due to something that has happened in their lives that even they don't understand.

When dealing with an angry or hurtful person, understand that something in their life has caused him or her to lash out. Don't take abuse, but make sure the person understands that you are not going to be one more person who is going to let them down or hurt them.

You have a different purpose in your own life--with yourself, with others, and with the world.

Achieving Enlightenment Practicing Hsing-I, Tai Chi or Bagua

Takedown Closeup A new friend who bought a DVD over the weekend asked a very interesting question in an email.

Can you achieve enlightenment by practicing Hsing-I?

I love the question. On one hand, I believe that if you expect to achieve enlightenment by practicing any art, you're placing too high of an expectation on that art.

On the other hand, I believe enlightenment can come at any time -- usually not when you're looking for it.

I've achieve what I thought was enlightenment by doing chi kung, particularly standing stake or the little cycle breathing exercises, sitting in a chair. A couple of times, when I did standing stake outdoors, I started by working on my posture and then I put part of my mind on my dan t'ien, while another part focused on breathing. I imagined energy coming in with the breath and collecting in the dan t'ien. From there, I imagined the energy circulating through the body.

After several minutes of this, I let my mind go and I let the sounds of the wind and the birds surround me. I tried not to think, just feel, and become part of it all. Suddenly, I experienced a flash of insight that I can only call enlightenment, and I truly felt a deep truth--that I was part of everything around me, and everything in the universe.

This has happened to me more than once, and I cherish those moments. But once it happens, the mind becomes involved, and when you begin thinking about it, the feeling begins to slip away.

I believe it's really true that when you look for enlightenment, it becomes more elusive. It strikes when you aren't expecting it. Enlightenment also happens when you're doing things other than meditating. I've experienced unexpected flashes of insight at certain times in my life that completely shifted a paradigm and caused me to think differently.

Can you achieve enlightenment practicing Hsing-I, Tai Chi or Bagua?

Remember, these arts were not designed to serve as meditation. That's right, all you tai chi folks out there who believe that tai chi is "moving meditation." These arts are fighting arts, designed as martial arts. If you're looking for enlightenment, you may find it while practicing these arts, but the more you seek it, the less you're focusing on the intent of the movements, which involve body mechanics for generating power in self-defense situations.

Can you slow down the movements, let your mind go, and try to use it as meditation? Sure you  can. You can also do that with bowling or jogging or cycling or anything that requires movement.

There was a time that I practiced tai chi to become one with the Universe. I was good at the style of Tai Chi that I did and even won a national title at the AAU Championships in 1990. Seven or eight years later, I was introduced to Chen style, and I was stunned at the power, and the ability to break an opponent quickly and put them on the ground.

In one hour, I knew I had to start over because in thinking too much about the metaphysical, I had completely missed the reason tai chi exists -- as a self-defense art. My body mechanics were horrible -- in fact they didn't exist at that point. I had to start from scratch.

This doesn't mean that at some point, I'll be doing Laojia Yilu and won't have a flash of enlightenment. That could happen. But for now, when I practice, I focus on the long list of body mechanics that I'm trying to get right. The same is true when practicing any Hsing-I or Bagua form. Enlightenment is the last thing on my mind.

My recommendation for anyone is to search for enlightenment in meditation and in the little moments of life when enlightenment sneaks up on you and taps you on the shoulder. Just don't look too hard. And when you're practicing Hsing-I, Tai Chi or Bagua, search for the enlightenment that comes when you do the body mechanics properly in a movement and get that special feeling in your body--and the flash of a light bulb in your mind--that it feels just right.