Twenty years ago, I was teaching martial arts at a kid’s summer camp, and one of the other instructors, a fine young black belt we’ll call Max, seemed depressed. When I probed a bit, he looked at me with eyes shimmering with tears and asked: “Steve…when will I stop being afraid?”
I was stunned. Frankly, I had no answer for him, mouthed some platitudes I don’t remember. And…about four months later I heard that he had blown his brains out.
I’m not egotistical enough to think that I know what was going on with Max. Or that I could have said or done something that would have “saved” him. He had his own path to walk.
But…but what if I could? What if there had been something I could have done or said that made a difference? The idea haunted me, and drove me deeper into the questions I’d been digging at my entire life. What if Max was like me? What if all I’d had to do was go into my own storehouse of pain to understand what might have been happening with him? What conclusions would I come to, and how might I have helped him?
With your kind permission, I’d like to draw a picture of what MIGHT have been going on with Max, and what I MIGHT have been able to do to help. If Max was like me, if on some core levels we are all the same, it should be possible to come to some useful conclusions. I’m not going to try to put this elegantly, because it is possible that there is someone out there today, right now, reading this who has a similar question, and is contemplating a similar action. I owe it to them to at least try.
We’ll try this in a non-linear fashion, just thoughts. They can be organized into something more streamlined later.
- Depression is fear without anywhere to fight and nowhere to run. If you are in a burning building and can see the door, and a path to it, you will leave the building. But if you are surrounded by smoke and can see no exit, you might as well curl up in a corner and wait for death. Max was consumed by a pain for which there seemed no solution.
- I had entered the martial arts to learn to deal with fear. Let’s assume he had done the same. Images of courage and power, crushing opponents and smashing bricks and tiles. Wow! What a man! I want to be that! If I can be THAT, I won’t be afraid. Won’t be hurt any more. Do I know WHAT Max was afraid of? No. Had he been physically damaged? Sexually? Emotionally? “Just” existential despair? All of these things are possible. As he was a martial artist speaking to another martial artist, I’m going to assume that he thought martial arts was going to help him. And they did not.
- How do the martial arts change us emotionally and spiritually? Can they? Is it a myth? Well…no. But the change goes from external (imitating actions, facial expressions, breathing patterns) to internal (beliefs, philosophies, attitudes) to deep self. We put on the “armor” of motion and action, and hope that it will change the vulnerable little child or terrified little chittering ape inside us.
- The core attitude of the martial arts, the thing that, once mastered, changes you forever is a belief about mortality: “I’m ready to die, and I’m ready to take you with me.” A warrior is not a martyr. A martyr is willing to die for what they believe in, sure. But a warrior will commit to taking a few of his enemies to hell along the way.
- If this is true, it begs a question: what is worth dying for? Isn’t that insane? Isn’t that contrary to our most basic programming? Well…perhaps. But anthropologists tell us that every culture has (usually) men who place themselves in harm’s way to protect their tribe. Almost any woman will become a tiger when protecting her young. The same instinct, personalized or abstracted and expanded. Sacrifice of personal survival for child or tribe or principles that affect child or tribe. We have this wiring, it is almost universal. And we can use it.
- TRIGGER WARNING. I KID YOU NOT. I remember assisting a women’s self-defense workshop with master Dawn Callan. There was a woman who could not make a fist, could not kick or punch the kicking shields, who broke down in tears. She had been abused by someone (Parents? Husband?) to the point that she no longer believed that she was worth defending. She felt small and helpless: “if I fight back, I’ll just be hurt worse.” No one could help her, so they brought her to me. And I cheat. “Do you have a daughter?” I asked. “No,” she cried. “Do you have a sister?” “Yes.” “Do you love her?” “Yes” Bingo. I’ve got you. “Would you do anything for her?” “Yes.” “Good. All right,” I said, holding the shield tightly. “Here it is. If I get past you, I’m going to rape her with a broken coke bottle.” Yeah, I said that. Her eyes flamed. Her entire body language shifted. And she hit me so hard she damn near knocked me through the wall!!! Then jumped on me and beat the hell out of me until three people pulled her off! She was crying so hard she was almost vomiting, but I ignored my bruises, jumped up and said “THERE! THAT place. That reaction. THAT’S what we need.” And for the rest of the workshop every punch, every kick, every kiai was in the service of protecting that beloved sister. And when we did our closing combat exercise she was magnificent. SHE KNEW WHAT SHE WAS FIGHTING FOR: LOVE. Love.
- You see, the martial arts are survival arts. A martial “science” is a discipline that increases efficiency and effectiveness in combative arenas. But an “art” is “Self Expression”–a way to communicate something deep inside you to the outer world, whether that is dance, writing, acting, painting…or combatives. “Real emotional content” as Bruce Lee said. Every punch, every kick, every throw answering the question: “who are you?” and “what is true?” The punch is a weapon to destroy the ego and release the true Self. The “enemy” is a part of you. Striking the opponent is striking into our own illusions.
- So Max, due to circumstances I do not know, was consumed with fear, had gone into the Martial arts hoping to become brave, and now that he had a black belt gazed into the abyss and realized that imitating the external form of courage had not given it to him. That people looked at him with respect he felt he did not deserve. He felt like a fake, a fraud, a coward, that he had failed the test of life. There was no way out. That he was in so much pain that death was preferable.
- So…what SHOULD he have done? What might I have said to him at that moment? This is delicate, but I have to complete my thought. His problem was that he did not love himself. If he had, he’d have been able to practice his art to create a safe place within his own heart where his values and dreams and loving emotions could be safe. Every time he sweat, or bled, or exerted discipline he’d have been doing it for the same reason a feverish parent drags herself out of bed in the morning to get her kids off to school. YOU DO WHAT YOU DO BECAUSE IT IS WHAT THERE IS TO BE DONE. It isn’t complicated. It is fiendishly simple: you love your kids, so you do WHATEVER IT TAKES to keep them safe. And their thriving, their hugs and loving kisses, are all the reward you seek.
- If you seek, and and find, that level of clarity you know that you close your mind against failure. You MUST succeed. And when your mind asks the question “how do I win?” often enough, if there is any hope at all, you will find the answer. You develop faith, because love and faith are deeply intertwined.
- And just as the hug of a child can fill you with love, when you connect with that child place within you, you have found the connection to the universal source of love, however you define it. You no longer need external validation. And you will no longer seek or need dysfunctional relationships, or to accept less than respect from the world. You fill your own cup, and then expand from there.
- This is not the only path up the mountain, but it works.
So…let’s put this together into a program, assuming that “Max” was willing to become my student.
- Find something worth fighting for. Some value, belief, position, or part of your own emotional/spiritual makeup. Dedicate every action to this sacred trust. Give everything you have.
- Meditate. Find your fear. Do NOT be ashamed of it: it is merely your nervous system trying to protect you. Spend ten minutes specifically generating that fear until you are crying out of your nose. Then…do ten rounds on the heavy bag. Every punch and kick specifically striking into that fear. Let it out.
- Love and fear compete for the same place in your heart. But both are simply forms of a formless emotional energy that births both. Seek the root.
- Forgive yourself for not being perfect. At every moment, you have done the best you could with the resources you have.
- Memorize the following: “Everyone feels alone and afraid. The defining question is: what will you DO with your loneliness and fear?” Yes, even that badass karate champion you admire. They’ve simply learned to ride it like a wild horse.
- Fear isn’t the problem. The problem is being ashamed of your fear, or believing that being afraid makes you a coward or a weakling. No, it makes you human. I remember swimming in the Bahamas and asking our boat guide how do you know if there are sharks. He grinned at me and said: “stick your finger in the water.” I did. “Taste it.” I did. “Salty?” I nodded. “Then there are sharks.” Check to see if the person you are admiring or dealing with is breathing. Are they? They feel fear.
- If you have been taught that you are unlovable, you will believe your fear makes you “bad” somehow. You will not believe you are worth fighting for. Because a parent who loves their child will fight even if afraid, if that child is at risk. THAT is how hard you must be willing to fight for yourself.
- Go deeply into love. Listen to your own heartbeat for 15-20 minutes a day. Specifically seek out people who express joy, and imitate their external behaviors and presented attitudes.
- And when you do this, you will hear the voices in your head screaming venom at you. How dare you love yourself, you worthless shit! You cannot love you! You have to crawl and please ME and pray that I might finally smile at you and say you are worthwhile…or whatever other bile spills out of your mind. Here is a critical clue: You are not the voices in your head. You are the one LISTENING to the voices. A better question is: who the hell’s voices are they?
Look, I could go on forever, because there are so many techniques. The point is the REALITY of our existence is love and connection. All else is illusion, so anything that brings us closer to truth brings us closer to love. While we are on that path we must control our emotions TO THE DEGREE POSSIBLE, being very careful not to let our egos stop us by shaming us for our failures to “stay on the path.” This is where techniques like the Five Minute Miracle and Ancient Child and Heartbeat Meditation and Daily Ritual (available at Lifewriting Premium for free) come into play.
We control our emotions by controlling our physical body, our focus, and our internal dialogue. By checking in multiple times a day and consciously shifting to the positive, we begin to re-parent ourselves, moving toward love, and power.
I would have said all these things to Max, and watched his face to see what resonated, and focused in. I would have flowed with him, and seen how his breathing shifted when I frightened him by touching his throat or other vulnerable areas. Taught him to re-pattern his breathing and posture. Then moved with him again, more intensely. Continued to re-pattern his fear reaction. Guided his meditations. Given him affirmations.
And lots of hugs. God, we all try so hard. Work so hard. Struggle against the tides of our childhood. Max got drowned. Could I have thrown him a life preserver? I don’t know. But I swear that never again in this lifetime will I hear someone ask “will I ever stop being afraid?” and have no answer for them.
Thank God I found the men and women who helped me out of the fear box: Steve Muhammad, and Scott Sonnon, and Harley Reagan, and Terry Letteau, and Dawn Callan, and Cliff Stewart, and John La Tourette, and Mushtaq Ali Al Ansari, and…and…
I owe so much, to so many. And they gave to me with the understanding that I would synthesize, and simplify, and pass it on. That is a mission worth dying for. Because if we are not afraid of our fear, we get to feel love. And that love is the power that makes fighting for our values and hearts worthwhile. And it is in engagement with our lives that we discover who and what we are. And what is true.
And the truth, ultimately, is love.
I’m sorry, Max. I came to wisdom too late to help you. But you helped me awaken. And I swear I won’t let down your countless brothers and sisters asking the same questions.