My Whole Life I Wanted to be Hip – Part I

hide-and-seek

My hip odyssey began during the summer of 1969. I wasn’t quite five years old, and I was just a few months shy of starting kindergarten. The day began innocently enough; I had finally been given permission to play with the “big kids,” and hide and seek was the name of the game. I thought I understood the game correctly. One person turns around, covering their eyes and counts to 100. During those 100 seconds, all the other kids would find a hiding place and wait to see if they were found. I found the perfect hiding space amongst the trees next to the red wood fence that ran all the way around the Aurora Drive-In Theater, just up the street from my house.

After what seemed like hours (probably only 20 minutes…), I emerged from the tree line only to find myself abandoned. At first I thought that I had hidden myself so well that I had stymied all of the big kids, and they were looking for me somewhere else. Furtively, I crept out of the woods and up to the side of the street. With no one else in sight, I pondered what to do next. Should I go and find them, sneak up and yell surprise? I knew about the secret code “All-y all-y in-come-free!” – the signal that whomever was “it” was at the point of giving up, and it was time to re-start the game. But was there a secret code to call out if no one found you?

I walked across the street to one of the kids’ houses; they had a two-wheeled horse trailer parked in their yard. Like any two-wheeled trailer, it was perched on the tongue of the trailer hitch, the back side of it way up in the air, suspended over two wheels. I used to love watching my dad work on cars; he would jack the car up, grab a bunch of tools, then slide underneath and proceed to get his hands greasy and dirty. I liked the idea of being a mechanic and fixing things, so I dove under the back end of the trailer and began getting my hands as dirty as I could while I was “fixing” the vehicle.

I was completely unaware that while I busied myself under the trailer, I had actually been “found” by someone still playing the game. Only after all this had happened did I find out that the goal was to ditch me from the beginning; finding me under that trailer was just another opportunity to torture me. My oldest brother was the ringleader at the time, being virtually the oldest child in the neighborhood. It was his idea to surprise me while I was hidden under the trailer. They all snuck up to the tongue side of the trailer and rammed into the side of it in tandem, sending the back end crashing down, crushing my right leg under the weight of the vehicle. As soon as it was knocked over, they all clambered up on top of it to really smash me into the ground.

While they jumped up and down on top of the trailer that was crushing my leg, I could hear their laughter at the great practical joke they had played on me, oblivious to the terrified screams emanating from beneath their feet. While the whole incident probably only lasted a few seconds, it felt like hours to me. They jumped and laughed and I wailed and writhed until the ruckus brought out the mother of one of the kids who lived next door to the horse trailer. The kids instinctually fled and she immediately drug me out from beneath the vehicle. She scooped me up in her arms and whisked me in to her living room where she lay me down on the couch and proceeded to ice my already blackening leg. Within a few minutes, my entire leg turned black beneath my cut off jean shorts. The edge of the vehicle had impacted on the upper part of my right femur, but the discoloration reached my toes. I remember the intense fear of not being able to feel my leg coupled with the discomfort of being in a stranger’s home, surrounded by strange smells and a language I didn’t understand. She and her family were immigrants, having recently arrived from Greece, and the strange and foreign nature of those surroundings plunged me further in to panic. It was my first time in the home of a family from another culture.

My memory after this is quite fuzzy; somehow, I was ferried back to my mother’s house less than a block away, but I have no recollection of it. I don’t remember going to a doctor to have my leg examined (my mother has no memory of this either…), nor do I remember being immobilized by the incident. I’m certain that I must have spent some time after this sitting still, icing, limping for a while until it healed enough for me to start putting weight on it again, but I can’t say for sure. Somewhere over the next few months, this entire incident had been filed under “horse trailer” in my mind, and nothing else was said about it. I remember when the last of the discoloration left my body; the lingering bruise was at the point of impact, an indelible stamp up high on my right leg in a straight, horizontal line. Along with my persistent limp, that scar should have served as an inescapable reminder of that fateful day and how it would affect me for the rest of my life.

What happened next is a little difficult to explain. I never really forgot about the accident, but it shifted in my memory from this horribly traumatic violence that had been inflicted upon my body to something benign, even banal. The damage that was done to my leg left a deep swath of scar tissue in my young muscles. My quadriceps had been “pinched in half” and the scar tissue was deposited along a broad, thick  horizontal band in a desperate attempt at keeping the upper and lower halves of my quads together as one piece. The resulting tension in my leg needed to be balanced, so my body recruited surrounding muscles to keep everything in tight. This was all put in place as my body was initially healing, and as a five-year-old, I had no idea that I needed to release that tension. My limp simply became a part of my world and my injury’s importance faded into the background of my memory along with the emotional trauma that had inflicted it.

Through my martial arts training experience, I have come to understand the relationship between fear, trauma, and pain. Muscles recoiling against a painful event (like having a trailer dropped on your leg) often are later recruited by the afflicted area to help immobilize the trauma site. This can assist the body in preventing further injury to the affected site. Wincing away from pain is more of an emotional response than a physical one. Most people naturally recoil from pain, pull back and scrunch up their brows, maybe even yell out, and understandably so. When the physical trauma couples with the emotional response, the outcome can be a materialized emotional blockage that becomes physically stored in your body. This is how my body responded to this event, albeit without my knowledge or consent. My right hip lost a significant amount of range of motion; the scar tissue on my leg became buried deep under new muscles, and I eventually forgot how traumatic the whole experience had been.

There was a lot of violence in my childhood; but this was the most extreme thing that happened to me as a child. By the time I was eight or nine years old, I had effectively buried the whole experience in my subconscious mind, a kind of PTSD. While my mind had blocked out the event, my body still carried the scars – and the effects of those scars. It was always hard to move in my body; I ran funny (or so I was told over and over). I wasn’t particularly graceful either, often tripping and hurting myself. I was also lopsided; I always walked a little lean to the outside of the outstep of my right foot. But I never knew why I limped, it was just a difficulty moving that I had. Had I remembered my experience at the bottom of the horse trailer, I may have put it together that my imbalance was due to an extreme event in my life.

The human mind is a curious thing. When our world doesn’t make sense, our minds will fill in the gaps to come up with a relevant story that explains it to us. We need to make sense of our world, and if part of the information is absent, whatever is left is assumed as the whole truth. My mind came up with the only answer that it could at the time. I never realized that I limped, nor did I remember the scar on my leg. I did know that I had a lot of tightness in my hips, and it was painful to stretch. The only possible explanation was that I was lazy and afraid of pain.

I didn’t think there was anything different about me; I assumed that everyone had the same pain when they stretched. I thought there were simply those who had athletic prowess, and then there was the rest of us. I spent a good chunk of my childhood with my nose in a book. I stayed as sedentary as I could, and I was further teased mercilessly for it. Chided as uncoordinated and lacking any gift for physical activity, these taunts helped me explain my inherent klutziness. I always tried my hardest; but since my very best efforts yielded milquetoast results it became increasingly clear to me that my agitators were correct – I was better off in the corner with a book. This root part of my personality became an integral part of the bedrock on which I began to build my sense of self. It would take Marine Corps boot camp to help shake some of this illusion apart.

I was able to walk in to the Marine recruiter’s office on my own two feet; no one ever questioned me about my limp. The physical I was given at my inception did not include MRI’s or X rays of my legs. No one noticed, and I had not thought to tell them about my scar tissue (had I known about it, undoubtedly they would have looked). I was destined to be a musician, having auditioned for and been accepted by the USMC Drum and Bugle Corps. Boot camp made me punch through every physical barrier I had ever known before. I still ran funny, but I could finish 3 miles. Many of the psychological hurdles I had inadvertently placed in my own way had to literally be kicked out of the way for me to make it through the physical rigors of boot camp. On the surface, I just kept doing everything as fast and as hard as I could, but deep down I still heeded my tormentors’ words – I would be better off in the corner with a book.

Part II coming soon!

What Makes a Dojo?

I’ve spent the better part of my life in a dojo; more accurately, I’ve spent a good deal of time in many different dojos. There are numerous attributes that each of these training halls had in common – and some glaring differences. It was only after accumulating thirty years of retrospective data that I truly began to appreciate each one of these places and their impact on my life and my training. I might even say that the dojo itself left just as indelible a mark on my journey through the martial arts as some of my teachers or training partners.

So What is a Dojo?

Literally translated from Japanese, “Do” could be interpreted as many different English words; Art; Way; Method; and Path to name a few. The word “Jo” is a little less complicated; it simply means “Place.” The Dojo is “The Place of the Way.” When looked at in this light, it almost takes on a mystic quality, invoking misty mountains with cypress trees and a narrow winding path leading to a temple with upturned Pagoda roofs and a Shaolin Master sweeping the front step. This kind of imagery has always appealed to my identity as a seeker, and I have an almost archetypal relationship with many aspects of this mythical place.

Shaolin Monastery

There are many different kinds of Dojos in the world; you’ll notice that there is no mention of “martial arts” in the translation, so the “Place of the Way” could be any place where you pursue yourself. This could be a music studio; a writer’s desk; a pottery wheel; a meditation pillow; the inner space of your mind. Any place where you are finding your craft is a dojo, and that place has a direct impact on the way your craft is formed.

Finding your craft requires a great amount of letting go; releasing preconceived notions and old matrices in favor of a new paradigm previously unknown. This can be frightening work, to say the least. At best it involves deep encounters with your sense of self; essentially finding ways to re-write your story in the unfolding fable of your life. Finding yourself in unpalatable surroundings can have a profound effect on your ability to hone your craft – which for many pursuits is commonly done through the crafting of tools with which to pursue the art. Think of the painter; she doesn’t simply start painting masterpieces; she spends years refining tools to paint with. There are brushes, pots of paint, empty canvas awaiting a new idea to come to life; each part of the experience beckons something previously unknown to spring out of the painter’s mind and on to the canvas. Indeed, art is the concept of coaxing something new out of nothing; making tangible and visceral that which was previously ethereal and nebulous. It is the act of creation.

Add to this the all-important muse along with the artist’s study and the stage is set for the masterpiece of a lifetime.

Painters Studio

This same concept can applied to martial artists; but the end product is not something necessarily tangible to the casual observer. The thing that is teased into existence is not a painting or a sculpture; it is not a piece of music, but is in fact a new sense of self. With all art forms a new sense of self is realized upon the creation of any piece of art; something that transforms the artist from that point forward. Once the picture is done, it becomes part of the canon of the individual artist; a marker along the way to finding what comes next; which in turn becomes another marker.

Martial artists also encounter this sense of newness; but with the martial artist, the act of creating art is one and the same to the journey; in essence, the martial artist becomes the art. The tools needed for the culmination of this journey are not unlike the tools necessary in other art forms. But since the martial artist’s movement is the art, the quality and availability of their tools affect the martial artist in a profound way.

Snowy Dojo

The dojo is a blank canvas; every day you come to train, you step out onto a blank canvas. This is not to say that you erase the previous picture that was there; rather, that picture becomes a permanent marker along the journey. Instead, there is a new layer added every time you enter the dojo. Creating an environment that facilitates this journey in a real way can have a profound effect on the possibilities that are pursued within the context of your training; this is why the dojo should look like a blank canvas. The floor, ceilings, and walls are all blank, creating space for  the mind to open to new possibilities of the picture to be painted today.

The pursuit of the martial way is a group activity. You cannot learn martial arts alone – you must have others to push off of. That said, it is an incredibly personal experience, one that involves your search for the authentic self. This is why there are mirrors everywhere in the dojo; self-reflection will be clearly seen in the mirrors while self-reflection is experienced pushing off of others. Mirrors are not only a valuable training tool, they are revelatory in their function as an unveiler of integrity; you may think that you’re standing up straight, but the mirror will tell you the truth.

As humans, we unconsciously cultivate our tendencies toward self-delusion; sometimes it seems to be necessary to withstand the rigors of this world. Our collective inclination to color our experience with half-truths is likely propelled by the need to balance our perspective with what we already know to be true. This is akin to balancing Newtonian and Quantum Physics; there is no way for these two concepts to exist side-by side; yet they both tell a part of the truth. From the perspective of each theory, each professes to tell the whole truth; and yet there are times when each theory completely fails to explain the natural world. The search for integrity is on par with ferreting out your fears and preconceived notions; they are what block you from seeing the truth. Mirrors allow you to compare your inner experience with what you can empirically observe.

This brings me to the last component of a dojo – the training surface itself. Again, having a vehicle for unadulterated feedback brings perspective. Nature provides one of the best surfaces to train on; it is alive, and responsive. You get feedback from the ground all the time. But without the appropriate framework, there is no way to decipher the information that you receive. Nature is expansive, unbridled; connecting to the ground is literally just that – connecting to the ground. When I built the floor in the San Francisco dojo, I was looking for something to emulate just that – something that provides an echo; something resilient and alive; something that moves when you move; breathes when you breathe. The compression active floor not only provides the safety that we all crave, but also provides important feedback to the practitioner.

Bruce

A floor that invites active participation is one that beckons you to train. I knew I had a piece of the puzzle right when we were visited by two 3-year-old girls. They walked in the dojo; stopped, mouth agape. They looked at each other, and without nary a word, proceeded to kick off their shoes and run on to the floor and proceed to fling themselves into what they perceived as an obvious play-space. Their raw and genuine response rolling on the padded floor, jumping to see the floor spring back invoked a deep sense of play in both of them, and they ran themselves in circles until they fell over in exhaustion, laughing and giggling.

This is the training partner I want to spend time with. A partner that can help me see myself; one that has nothing but a genuine response to me and all that I do; one that encourages me to look for the truth; one that allows a new picture to be painted every day. This training partner is the dojo.

Come and discover your true passion.