What Might Have Been

I was badly bullied when I was a kid.  I remember one guy, “Bryce”  I went to Mt. Vernon Jr. High with who simply insulted me and pushed me and mocked me daily, until it was almost more than I could bear.


Then one day I was at the bookstore   and saw a copy of a book called BRUCE TEGNER’S INSTANT SELF DEFENSE, and begged my mother to buy it.  Oh, it was a revelation.  When I was even younger I’d seen the line drawings for “KETSUGO! UNSTOPPABLE SELF DEFENSE!” or even “BLACK DRAGON FIGHTING SOCIETY!” in the backs of comic books, but never gotten up the nerve to purchase one.


Well, Mom got it for me, and I remember practicing chops and kicks on the poor grapefruit tree in our back yard.  I was still too frightened to actually USE any of this, but I was starting to channel my fear into action.   (I would not understand the power of this approach fully for another two decades, unfortunately).


I carried that book with me everywhere, even to school, where I probably hoped that people would see it and be intimidated into leaving me alone. Didn’t work. Bryce took my book and played keep-away with his buddies.  Humiliating.  The teachers didn’t help.  Bullies are great at knowing when there is no authority figure to help.


This kept up for six years, through   high school.  Then, finally, just the week before graduation, he insulted me one final time and something just SNAPPED inside me.   “I’ve had enough,” I finally told him one day.   “Meet me out behind the school. Bring your friends.  Bring a broken bottle.  I don’t care.  Let’s settle this.”


He looked at me, laughed, and said: “Aw, man…I know you know that karate shit” AND WALKED AWAY.


I stood there with my mouth hanging open.  WTF?  You mean all I had to do was call his bluff?  I had suffered through six years of hell because I’d been afraid to fight?   That was the first glimmering I had of something which, again, I didn’t fully learn for another twenty years: EVERYONE FEELS FEAR.  The only question is what we do with that emotion.


He coped by inflicting fear on others, trying to control through intimidation. I coped by becoming an intellectual “brain in a box” and then later through meditation, therapy, and martial arts.


But then, at that moment, he had pushed me out of our social game (him bully, me nerd) into reality: a real fight is two cats in a sack.  No social rules, just using “every fang and claw in the awfullest way you ever saw.”


He’d pushed me until I had forgotten my ego identity as small and weak.  I was just focused on hurting HIM.   I was ready to crawl into the sack with him (so to speak) and he was not.    Shit had gotten a little realer than he wanted.


It was an important rule, and one of the hidden principles of the martial arts:  “it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog” is one way to put it.   “I’m ready to die, and I’m ready to take you with me” is another.

Sporting contests are decided by size and strength. That is why there are weight classes. The real world is determined more by who is more willing to go ALL OUT.  Who hits that point first. No bluff. No bullshit. No social rules.   Enter THAT space, and predators will leave you alone: they know they will be injured.

My own version of this: “no matter who you are, no matter what you know, no matter what you do to me…I’m going to take the left eye out of your head.”  You don’t SAY that, because if you say it aloud you challenge their ego.  You have that in your body language. In your voice, in the calm certainty of every action.    You cannot bluff this.  You have to mean it.  And the only way to actually mean it is to be very, very clear on what you are or are not willing to die for, and fight only for that.



The way I put it is that in every animal is the survival drive, that all-or-nothing response to fight or flight.   Fear arises from anticipation. Actual survival is IN THE MOMENT, and if you are acting, you don’t feel fear the same way at ALL.   That energy is going into fighting or fleeing.   The “I’ll get hurt” isn’t a factor because you are IN THE SHIT already. Its happening.  Anticipation will kill you.  Living in the moment sets you free.




The same thing is true in so many arenas.   Most of the really, really excellent people I know, in any arena, were not people with “innate talent”, they were and are people who love something so much that they obsess about it.   Artists draw all the time.  Singers sing.   Writers write, athletes play their sport and do drills all day.  And on and on.


And those afraid to enter that burning core, to commit, will talk about “talent”.   They never committed because they didn’t have the “talent.”   That’s fear of admitting they want it enough to be willing to give it EVERYTHING THEY’VE GOT.  They never picked the hill they were ready to die on. So…they often die for nothing.


I remember the day I realized that I’d rather FAIL as a writer than SUCCEED at anything else.  Boom. The world got simple. Ride or die, man.  This is me.


It wasn’t really any different from realizing I simply wasn’t going to take shit from Bryce any more, ever again.  Maybe I’d have gotten my ass kicked. Hey, I’ve had my ass kicked before.


Maybe I’d have died.  Hey, I have to die anyway.   What matters is how you live, and if you are totally absorbed by what you are doing, one day at a time, you really aren’t thinking about dying.  The people most afraid of dying aren’t doing much with their lives NOW.   If they were, they’d be too busy. Similar to worrying about “talent.”  If you are really focused on what YOU are doing, you are having such a good time (and you did choose something you love, right?) that you don’t really notice where other people are.


If you aren’t “observing yourself” you don’t notice if someone is ahead of you, or behind you.  It is said that a musician like Prince was hugely kind to other musicians and performers. He adored the icons who were ahead of him, supported those on the path behind him, and jammed with his equals as often as possible. He loved the PATH.


The time I attended the party at his house, and he jammed for us, he asked us to listen to the music and dance, NOT to look at him.  Enjoy the music, and the moment.   If our attention was on him he had to think about his performance, and all he wanted was to flow with the groove.   If we could be there with him, we were all One: lovers of music. Dancers, listeners, musicians, singers. All together on that patio under the stars.


The Path. Focus on it, and you enter a timeless space. If you notice fear…you aren’t there. If you are worried someone is better…you aren’t there.  If you take pride in being better than others–you aren’t there. Not at that moment.


What you want is to be “there.”  In the flow. Doing the thing you love. The people ahead of you have spent more time on that path, in that space.   They DESERVE the greater success, and it would be a cruel world if they didn’t have it.


And the greatest success is spending your life being what you want to be, with the people you love, doing what turns you on.    Being an authentic ‘you.’  That person is not your ego shell.  It is the “real” you and you can glimpse it in the moments you lose “yourself” in the moment.  Sex, by the way, can be GREAT for this, the most common human experience that extinguishes the ego, at least for a fear moments.  You know what I mean…if you can remember your name, it wasn’t good sex.


At the moment I told Bryce to meet me, I couldn’t remember my name.  At the moment I was deepest into any story I’ve ever written, I don’t know who I am.   When I’ve pulled off the best martial arts moments of my career, I wasn’t “there” at all.


How to learn this?  Focus on being present, five times a day, in sixty second increments of breath.  Focus on what you intend to accomplish today, and what you need to do and who you need to be AT THIS MOMENT to make it happen.


Connect those core outcomes to your survival, sexuality, power, love, communication, intellect and spirit.  Balance the child and adult, the male and female of “you” until you lose your language and enter the flow state, a world of emotions and images and feelings.


So wonderful. That part is the best and strongest “you”, and a wealth unknown to those who cling to their identities. Let it go. Eventually, you will, you know. Everyone does.


Don’t wait until your last moments until you learn this.  “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!'”– John Greenleaf Whittier






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