The hills and valleys on the path of life are necessary for you to know how much further you have to go to grow.”—Willie “The Bam” Johnson

There is a formula in Western civilization that many people follow, hoping for inner peace and happiness—a good education, plus a good job, plus lots of money and material possessions, plus family and friends equal inner peace and happiness. We've all heard this idea before. Yet, when you talk to those who have all this, are they happy? I mean really happy? Probably not. They will say something like, “I have it all, but something's missing. I just don't feel content. I want something else, but I don't know what.” They are restless, frequently jumping from one job, hobby, activity, or relationship to another. This is a person who is driven by their unrest in response to external pressures.

On the other hand, have you ever taken the time to seek someone who is happy and content with life? Often the happiest people don't have financial wealth or many material possessions. What is their secret? They have discovered that happiness is an inside job, meaning that you must develop your inner self so you can be happy no matter what life hands you. They are driven from the inside to pursue goals and challenges they have set for themselves. Instead of thinking about what they want to do, they feel what they must do. They have learned to listen to the music of their souls and sing their own songs.

Before I got locked up, I felt totally empty. I had spent my life chasing everything I thought would make me happy—new clothes, a new girlfriend, alcohol, drugs. If it meant I had to steal or hurt someone to get what I wanted, I did whatever it took. In jail, I had no idea how to be happy and feel at peace, but for the first time in my life, I had plenty of free time to contemplate. I desperately wanted to feel better about myself than I did at that moment.

Journey of Do

While in jail, I began to reflect on my life up to that point and the lessons I had learned. After some time, with help from others around me, I realized that I had to look inside myself to be happy instead of expecting other people, places, and things to bring me happiness. The Japanese call this journey Do; the Chinese call it Dao. In the proper context, it is a journey that is universal, never ending, and constantly evolving. It recognizes only one enemy, one problem, and that is self. There is a constant battle to improve one's self, a drive to achieve balance, then a conscious effort to maintain that balance.

You can only achieve this through simple improvements, constructive changes, and continual progress. When I look at the events of my past, I am now able to recognize which behaviors were destructive and which were beneficial. It is through this type of analysis that I'll avoid reliving my mistakes.

Of course, as a child, I simply lived for the moment. It was an exciting time—a time when I first realized my love of martial arts and reveled in the confidence it gave me. My imagination and thirst for knowledge soared. There were times, however, when I let peer pressure take control.

Today, I realize that each of us holds the answer to any of life's questions—it's inside us. We just have to be open to hearing the message and willing to use it. What follows is an account of some events in my life that eventually lead me on my continual and peaceful journey of Do—one that I will pursue until death. My hope is that by sharing with you what I've learned during this journey, you will be able to take these lessons and apply them to your life and your pursuit of Do.

Follow Your Dreams

It was Bruce Lee's movie “The Chinese Connection” that motivated me to pursue the goal of becoming a martial artist and an action screen hero. I went to see “The Chinese Connection” when I was six years old, and I sat through the movie spellbound. It was love at first sight—love for Bruce Lee, love of the martial arts, and love of movies. I could hardly wait to get home and tell Mom what I had seen.

I'm not sure how many people know from the age of six what they want to do in life, but I did—I wanted to be just like Bruce Lee! I had a burning desire to follow in his footsteps, but my dad thought it was a waste of time. “Be a killer like me,” he said, “and forget about being like that Chinese punk.” I can't put into words how hurt I felt when he said this. For a minute, I felt like the life was being sucked right out of me, but Mom took me in her arms, comforted me, and told me I could do anything I wanted. She always believed in me, no matter what.

My life in Baltimore's inner city didn't come with the advantages that many kids in the suburbs had. There wasn't extra money for anything. Even if there had been a martial arts school in my neighborhood, I couldn't have gone, but I didn't know anything about martial arts schools. At six years old, you just think you can do whatever you want. So I imitated the moves of the people I saw in movies, books, and magazines, and let my body flow naturally.

Six-year-olds have a wonderful gift of make-believe, and I'm sure I thought I really was Bruce Lee. There was no one to tell me I was doing a technique wrong, and I just adapted what I saw into what my body could do. This natural expression is what our martial arts ancestors displayed before there were structured systems. All true martial arts teachers hope their students won't lose their childlike expression as they travel through today's structured curriculums. It's this expression that gives you flavor.

If there is a dream or a goal you long to accomplish, you should pursue it with all your heart. Go after your dreams with the energy and enthusiasm you knew as a child, and let your curiosity help you push beyond immediate boundaries. In fact, if you are serious about wanting your goals to manifest, write them down, date them, and put them someplace you have to read them every day. For as long as I can remember, every year between Christmas and New Year's Day, I made a list of what I wanted to accomplish in the next year. I even put a date by each goal for when I wanted to achieve it. Then I taped the list to the bathroom mirror so I had to read it every morning and night. More often than not, when the time came, I had reached the goal.

One year I didn't make a list, and my life started going downhill in a hurry. I heard a voice telling me to make a list, but I wouldn't listen. The voice also said that if I didn't, I would lose everything. That was in 1989, the year I was incarcerated, so it came true. Today, I wouldn't dream of entering a new year without my goals written down. I review the present strong points and weak points to find a way to continue my strengths and improve my weaknesses. This never-ending quest for self-improvement is what pursuing Do is about.

The above is an excerpt from The Complete Martial Artist by Willie “The Bam” Johnson, Publication Date September 2019, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1594-39-653-3.