Ever think of someone and then they call? Have you had something happen that led you down a certain path as if it was meant to be? Ever met someone who helped to change your way of thinking or direction in your life? We all have. Many chalk it up to coincidence. Is it?
In this article I hope to spark your inquisitive nature to take a look at your own life and maybe you’ll even question whether coincidences actually happen on purpose.
There are really only two ways that we learn, and remember, something: curiosity and trauma. Curiosity is when you really want to know about something and you get fully involved in it. Trauma can be any number of things.
So much of our daily experiences are forgotten. But we’ve all had those moments in our lives that we remember-vividly-no matter how much time goes by. These things mold and shape our experience, and perspective, of this world.
Here is my story:
I was 9 years of age when my new neighbor moved in. He was the same age and I soon discovered he had been training in a tough inner city karate dojo for a few years prior to this move into the house next door.
As I got to know him, every once in a while he’d show off some of his skills-one of which was “breaking”. He once asked me to hold a broom stick in my hands as he proceeded to chop right through it with one swipe.
I asked if that hurt and he showed me how tough the knife-edge of his hand was from the conditioning they did at the dojo. I was impressed. Other kids who learned of his training sure didn’t mess with him.
Just a few houses down the street lived a tough kid who was about a year older than me. He ran with the wrong crowd and he always seemed to be in some sort of trouble. He’d frequently come storming out of his house yelling and cursing away at his parents. Then he’d usually make light of it if he happened to run into me on the way out. But one time he didn’t.
I was out on the front lawn of my parents house when I saw him walking by in the street. I said, “Hi”, or something to that effect, and he walked over to me on my front lawn and punched me in the face. He followed up with a barrage of repeated punches to my left eye. I was on the ground, somewhat in shock by what was happening, and caught completely by surprise. All I could do to defend myself was grab hold of his shirt and tear it practically off him. In other words, not much of a response. My parents were able to stop it before I was able to get any further with the shirt tearing. Lucky for him! (ha, ha)
Well, the results were that my left eye was virtually swollen shut (think of the original “Rocky” movie) and I had to go to school where my classmates were sure to mock me. It was an humiliating experience, to say the least.
On that day I was in the wrong place at the wrong time… or was I?
I swore revenge. I swore I would never be in that situation again. I would learn karate (the only martial arts term I knew at 9 years old) and I would get him back. I wanted that feeling of control so bad I could taste it. And I begged my parents to take me to a school.
They did, but I never took a lesson. I guess they couldn’t afford it.
On that day I was in the wrong place
at the wrong time… or was I?
Dad takes over
Growing up I had heard stories about my father being a pretty tough kid growing up in Jersey City in the 1940’s and 50’s. Neighborhood kids would get together and have bare-knuckled boxing matches in vacant lots. There were also stories of neighborhood bullies getting “taken to the cleaners” any time they gave my father trouble.
So he decided to teach me some boxing, which led to us also having boxing matches (with gloves!) right in our driveway, with any local kids who wanted to take part. And the tough kid up the street was more than happy to join in on the fun.
I remember feeling pretty scared facing that kid, but I easily beat him, bloody nose and all. I also remember not really feeling any better about what had happened months before.
Eye of the Tiger
After a few more successful fighting experiences over those early years my confidence grew. I learned somewhere about looking people in the eye and not being the first to look away. Basically I learned not to back down to anyone.
With this attitude I was developing some bad enemies that I didn’t even know about. One tough kid sure didn’t like it and he had all the wrong people backing him from other areas of town.
At about the age of thirteen, I arrived one evening behind the schoolyard. Nothing out of the ordinary. Except this time I saw a crowd at the far end surrounding someone on the ground.
When I got close I could see it was my usual group of friends looking at a good friend of mine all shook up, crawling around, coughing, and throwing up. When I asked what happened the group went on to tell me about how a gang of about twenty or so from the other side of town came through and just beat him up. They told how they surrounded him, knocked him down and punched and kicked him until they got bored.
I asked, “Did anyone help him?”
They didn’t answer. To which I was furious, and so disappointed. These were supposed to be our friends. I really learned something about people that day. And I redefined the term “friend” in my vocabulary.
They also told me that I was the one they were looking for.
Helping a friend home
It was getting dark out. As I was helping my beaten up friend get home we were about one block from his house when they came swarming around the corner. My friend almost dropped right there and wet his pants from fear thinking he was going to get it again. He was shaking like a leaf.
They surrounded us, and as the leader and a few others approached they said to my friend, “You can go. We want him.”
A few months back one of them had approached me at a carnival where I was told this guy wanted to fight me. I didn’t even know him.
I asked him, “Why?”
He said, “I don’t like your face.”
I answered, “I don’t like your face either, but I don’t want to fight about it.” And I walked away.
Here he was again, standing next to the leader and another guy about twice my size. They told me I was going to fight right now. I had a choice, either I fight the one who approached me at the carnival, or I fight the big guy.
Well, I’m no fool. I immediately turned and dumped that kid with one punch. I guess he didn’t expect it. He got back up though and after a short scuffle, we were forced to leave by the owners of the property we were on. So they brought me to a more private setting, where we could continue.
There was a point when a few of them took me down and started punching and kicking me. I had visions of my what happened just a few short hours earlier. I said to myself, “No way!” I was able to quickly get to my feet and I stayed focused on my main opponent.
Shortly after, the big guy took his lighter and lit it by each of our faces to check us out. He said I looked fine and asked if I was okay to continue. I said, “Sure.”
When he lit up the other kid’s face it was another picture out of the original Rocky movie. He asked him if he was okay to continue, and he said, “No.”
He was done, but the gang wasn’t. The leader was so upset that I won that he came after me… and he was a well-known psycho who had put a few others in the hospital, so I didn’t want to take any chances. I just took off for home, and I could run like a deer. Just a few blocks from home I got there safely.
There were some other situations in high school, but that was surely the most dramatic.
First exposure to Kung Fu
I was seventeen when I first met a very influential person in my life. His name was Gerry Lopez and years later he was my best man at my wedding. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Gerry was an interesting person. Quite different than most of my other friends. He was from Columbia and when he came to this country and couldn’t speak the language, he fell behind in school. He was a sixteen year old 9th grader.
Gerry had moved into town from Paterson, where he had been training in Shaolin Long Fist Kung Fu for about three years at the time. I was intrigued, and I asked a lot of questions.
Gerry was evasive about the whole thing. He didn’t tell me much and that just added to the mystique. I wanted him to show me some things; to teach me if he would. But he was very serious about his training and said he was not allowed to teach me anything. That was a rule.
I purchased a book called, Shaolin Long Fist Kung Fu” by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming that contained some of the same forms Gerry learned. I tried to learn from the book. No luck.
Gerry told me that I was welcome to come see him in class, and so I did. He called it “the Academy”.
The Academy was on the edge of a pretty bad area. We entered one of the beat up old buildings and went up to the second floor where there was a small rectangular space with weapons on the wall, a few mirrors, and a bench or two to sit on. In the corner was an old big-back wicker chair that really added to the look of the place ( I always loved that old chair).
I was introduced to the Sifu and then sat down to watch Gerry in his private class. (Back then students had class once per week, whether it was group or private, and then you were on your own to practice what was learned).
I remember being so impressed with the way Gerry could move. He was fluid and graceful. It was so unlike any karate I had seen in the past that was so rigid and choppy looking. These movements blended together and the applications were hidden within.
I was sold. I had a part time job, worked out the tuition (had no money left for anything else) and dove in fully.
The book I mentioned included some of the philosophy and perspective of kung fu training. One was called “Two Brothers” and that was the beginning of the end of who I was and who I was going to become.
Average High School
Most everyone has had the common high school experience and know how cruel teens can be to each other. Everyone has a label: the jocks, the heads, the nerds, the geeks, etc. Well, my experience was no different.
My friends were the jocks and boy did we think who we were. And of course we had our post-game celebration / parties where there was plenty of drinking going on. I even had my own stash of whiskey hidden in my car that had me ready for any party.
It was my senior year when I joined my first kung fu class. The year when everyone is getting the craziest, I was shifting gears.
I don’t know how or why it happened, but the philosophy of the training was having a profound effect on the way I was thinking. The practice itself changed me.
There was a time when I was walking into school with a friend I had since the 1st grade and at the entrance there were a number of other kids hanging out before going inside. He said under his breath, but where they could surely hear him, “Dirt Bags”, and it was the first time in my mind it clicked. I thought, “Who are you?” and I was saying to myself. “What makes you think you’re better than they are?”
That was it. I realized we all need to treat each other with respect. And shortly after I would see all the friends I grew up with less and less. There was a real consciousness shift and I no longer could see eye to eye with them. I could no longer listen to their stories or watch them mock others who were not like them.
I also stopped drinking. I stopped going to the parties. There was no one telling me to. My parents didn’t even know about it. But I just stopped. I don’t know how it happens but I know from personal experience, the martial arts is a lot more than just punching and kicking.
I know that I did not consciously remember the beating I told about earlier. Oddly, a woman I was treating with massage about 7 or 8 years ago told me she had a message for me (turns out she was a known psychic who had done lots of successful work for the police). She told me that a very significant event happened to me at the age of 9 or 10. She asked if I knew what it was and I said that I didn’t. Later I remembered.
I never lost that need to have control over my self and my life. To be able to handle a situation – defend myself – if ever necessary. Now I knew where it came from.
Highest level of fighting is not to fight
An important message came from learning to fight. I realized the more I learned how to fight the less I wanted to. I came to realize how easy it is to seriously hurt someone and with that knowledge comes responsibility. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt anybody and so learning how to avoid a fight became my mindset.
This was a big change for someone who grew up learning to use his fists to settle things.
A few words about goals
Within about three years I knew that I wanted my own school and I wanted to teach what I was learning to others. It had done so much for me that I believed others would have a similar experience. I said I would have my own school within ten years.
Knowing that the martial arts was what I wanted to do I began to take odd jobs to just get by. I chose a college that was close enough so that it didn’t take away from my training.
My cousin had worked for UPS for a number of years and used to talk about how hard it was but that the hours and the benefits were so good. No problem, I’ll work hard for 4 or 5 hours and make what others make full time. Plenty of time left for school and practice.
An injury made the UPS job a problem and after two years at UPS, it was time to move on. Note: I had placed a picture of a motorcycle I liked on my wall and soon owned it because of the UPS job.
Almost simultaneously upon leaving UPS I became an assistant instructor at the Academy and was asked if I could take over teaching some classes. I took on about half the classes on my own.
Over the summer I was offered a job at the “Y”. There I met the husband of another instructor who gave me a job selling advertising. Note: I had the picture of a 1988 Jeep Sahara on my wall at home. The new job allowed me to earn enough part time to get an apartment right out of college, and buy the new Jeep. (I still had the motorcycle too).
Though I mention a few things, my first priority was always my practice. It seemed amazing that I always met the right person and came up with just the right job at just the right time in order to maintain my main priority.
The phone call
In 1993, I received a call from a person looking for someone to teach a group of CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) patients. They found the place – a dance school, just across the street from our current location. There I was able to negotiate a deal that allowed the rent to be paid based on how we grew the school. I had no money so this was the only way it would be doable. Within a few short months we had over 40 students and I could drop my other jobs. I was in my tenth year training in kung fu.
I could go on and on with many similar experiences but this story shows what I have experienced as reality in my life. When I hung those pictures (the motorcycle, the Jeep) it was just because I liked them. I really didn’t think I would buy them. When I said I would have a school in ten years it really was an arbitrary number. But my every action was toward that goal. I gave it energy and it came to be.
So what has influenced you? What have you brought forth in your life? Is it what you really want?
In my opinion, there are no coincidences.
Originally published December, 2004