When I was in seventh grade, while waiting for the city bus that I rode home after school, my friend Mike and I were confronted by the local bullies. I remember being trounced pretty badly, but could see that Mike was throwing his would-be assailants around. Then, when Mike came to my rescue, the boys ran away. I was amazed. He told me he had been taking judo at the YMCA. When I got home, I was asked the inevitable questions regarding how my school uniform got dirty and how I got the bruises on my face. I embarrassingly confessed my pugilistic failure to my mom and dad and then begged them to let me take judo so I could learn to defend myself. After some amount of time begging and cajoling they relented and signed me up for judo class at the YMCA in downtown St. Petersburg. I was so excited on that evening of my first class. I lined-up wearing my borrowed judo gi to bow to the teachers and to my great surprise, I saw that the sensei was Mr. Sone from the gift and novelty shop. Once the class began I quickly saw how through his judo mastery, he played tricks on his much larger assistants, effortlessly throwing them to the floor time after time. His judo reminded me of the magic tricks he demonstrated in his store. He was always kind when correcting my mistakes and I took comfort in the familiarity of his beginning and ending class with a prayer for our safety. Sensei Sone emphasized that outside of class, we must always use judo only for self-defense. I only studied judo with Mr. Sone for about a year, but I will always remember this gentle yet powerful man who so profoundly influenced the rest of my life. He opened the door to what would be a life-long pursuit of the soft or internal Asian martial arts and of the Taoist philosophy upon which they were built.
In the early 1970s, I found myself drawn to the television show, Kung Fu, with David Carradine. While the martial arts scenes were fun to watch, I mostly enjoyed the Taoist philosophy taught to the young Kwai Chang Cane by Master Kan and the blind Master Po. In one episode Master Kan tells the young Kwai Chang, “Seek not to contend. The supple willow does not contend against the storm, yet it survives.”
This philosophy mirrored the lessons learned on the mat with Mr. Sone and of the Tao Te Ching which I first read during that same time. The Tao Te Ching says:
to be at your best
pattern yourself after water
nothing in all the world is softer or more powerful
nothing in all the world can substitute for it
nothing in all the world can stop it
in their hearts
everyone easily knows that
the soft and the weak
will always overcome the hard and strong
but they find it difficult to live this way
the secret is to
move the bodymind like water."
~ John Bright-Fey translation, 2006, Chapter 78
"The Tao never acts with force,
yet there is nothing that it can not do.” ~ Chapter 37
Over the years, I have learned that not only in self-defense, but in my healing work with qigong or psychotherapy, or along the path of theosis or individuation, things cannot be forced. It is usually best to get out of the way so the qi or the Holy Spirit can accomplish through us what needs to be done. Master Jesus taught this when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” St. Paul understood this when he wrote to the followers of Jesus in Corinth that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” .... Therefore I am content with weaknesses for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. ~ 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NRSV
Fifty years have passed since those first classes with Mr. Sone and over that time I studied Hakkoryu jujutsu, aikido and ten years of kung fu with Master Gin Foon Mark. For the past fourteen years, I have studied tai chi with Dr. Paul Lam.
I am pensive as I reminisce on this part of my life and how, as a child, a magical encounter with a elderly Japanese man led to a lifelong interest and exploration of a philosophy and practice that has so pervasively influenced my life. I am grateful that I can now join St. Paul in saying: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness.....For when I am weak, then I am strong.” And you may even see a magic trick at one of my retreats or workshops.