Dukkha: a Pali term that corresponds to such English words as pain, discontent, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration.
Overview of Dukkha—The Suffering
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Dukkha—The Suffering. Sam Reeves is a 34-year-old martial instructor, with a fifteen-year record as a good police officer. For the first time Sam is forced to take a life, struggles to recuperate psychologically, and then within days he is forced to fire his weapon again. The week that follows the second killings, he meets a man who claims to be his father who supposedly died in Vietnam. This man is a phenomenal martial artist, who is here for a daughter’s graduation from a university. With a series of interlocked events of violence: a revenge seeking uncle of the dead child, the destruction of his martial arts school, his feelings for Mai, his new father’s connection to some lethal Vietnamese outlaws, Sam’s life spiral’s into a dreadful direction.
I lunge diagonally away from Alan’s roundhouse kick and manage to shield my upper body with both forearms a hair of a second before his padded shin slams into them hard enough to jar loose my bone marrow. Before he can retract, I give him some low pain with a snap kick to the shin of his support leg and then split his attention with a brain-jarring palm against his forehead. I drive his head back and down until he plops onto his back. He jerks away from my attempted elbow lock, rolls up onto his knees, and launches a barrage of punches at my legs, two of which land hard enough to send biting shock waves into my thigh muscles.
I teach my students that training in the martial arts is a metaphor for life, with ups and downs, wins and losses, and pain and pleasure. Alan’s T-shirt reads: “Get knocked down ten times, get up eleven.” That’s a good one, too. Actually, sparring with one of my most skilled and inventive advanced students is a metaphor for the way my life has been going for the past few weeks. Just when I think I know what’s coming next, he throws something unexpected that jars my brain and forces me to regroup.
About a week ago, I was watching a reporter on the news interview a woman about to turn one hundred and seven years old. When the old gal was asked what it was like to have another birthday, she said, “Life is a gift. Everyday is an opportunity.” That was almost an epiphany to me. It’s definitely more positive than “life sucks,” which is where my head has been for the last sixty days and nights.
I step back to lure Alan into thinking that it’s safe to get up. My quickly formed strategy is to let him plant his weight on one leg, and then seize the opportunity to lunge in and unleash a category five all over his unbalanced body. Okay, there’s the foot plant and—
He springs off his foot, tucking his head into a fast somersault that for an instant I think is going to bowl right through my slow-to-react body. At the last instant, his legs shoot out from the ball and scissor one of mine. So much for that opportunity metaphor. I wonder if that old woman ever sparred a third-degree black belt. He traps my ankle with one foot and hooks behind my knee with his other, sending me to the mat face-first. I slap out, roll up on my side, and shield my chest against another hard roundhouse kick. Those are getting old, fast.
His shin stays on target a hair of a second longer than it should—a gift, perhaps—allowing me to trap his ankle with my hands and snake my leg over his knee. He tries to sit up to punch, but he’s a tad tardy because I’ve already seized the opportunity to put a crank on his ankle and a hyperextension on his knee. He winces and taps out.
How about that? Maybe the old woman’s metaphor is just fine after all.
I’m up first and help Alan to his feet. I lightly punch his shoulder. “You got one nasty roundhouse. Where’d you come up with that somersault? You Tube?”
He places his weight carefully on his foot. “Thanks,” he chuckles. “And double thanks for not breaking my ankle and knee.” He studies me for a moment. “When was the last time we sparred? Five weeks ago?”
I nod, knowing what he’s thinking. Five weeks ago, when apathy ruled my days, only his respect for me as his teacher kept him from handing my butt to me in a basket. Thankfully, the indifference has been dissolving progressively as my old, charming self reemerges. I’m not all the way there yet, but I will be. “About that. Thanks to you and the others, I’m getting better.”
He nods with a faint smile. “Good,” he says, testing his weight on the ankle. “I think.”
“Is it okay?” I ask with concern. Hitting each other hard is one thing but you have to go easy on the parts that keep you moving. That might be another metaphor but I’m too tired for any more philosophy.
“It’ll be fine. Just trying to make you feel bad.”
I snort a laugh before turning to watch the others spar for a moment.
They call themselves “Sam’s Bloody Dozen,” ten males and two females, all wearing black pants, sopped T-shirts, and salt-stained black belts. The “newest” has been with me for ten years, the oldest for eighteen. Each one knows that to be at this level in my school, they have to push their muscles and minds past fatigue, past exhaustion, far beyond that place where other supposedly advanced martial artist whine, “This is bullshit, I quit.”
I slap my hands together. “Okay, people. Fall in.” The couples stop immediately, bow to one another, and form into two rows.
Role of Martial Arts Instructor
They see me as a stern father, one with a twinkle in his eyes. Unlike my newer students in the white and colored belt classes who stutter and blush when I look at them, these veterans know, like kids in a loving family know, that their “father’s” sternness is at once bluff and genuine. I reprimand them and I give them positive strokes; I encourage them to do more when their enthusiasm wanes and I rein them in when its overabundance risks their health; I push them to find their individuality in the fighting arts and I give them subtle hints when they lose their way.
They know that I care about them in and out of the school. I’ve been there for them when they’ve lost loved ones, lost their jobs, bled through divorces, and suffered a host of other miseries. Tillie, my twenty-nine-year-old second-degree, used her skills a couple of years ago on a jerk who apparently failed to notice her muscular neck and calloused knuckles before he tried to date rape her. She did such a job on him, that while he might have fantasies of doing it to someone else, his equipment was no longer up for the task. Or as she put it, “The little guy is permanently down for the count.” His Oregon State Prison cellmate was either happy or sad to find that out. I connected her with a counselor who works with the PD and within two months she was her old self again.
My senior black belt, my oldest at forty-two and a sheriff deputy, went into a Seven-Eleven one night when he was off duty to buy a quart of milk. When Fred came out, he found his pregnant wife fighting desperately with a teenage street creep trying to carjack their Subaru with her still in it and his six-year-old daughter screaming in the back. Fred yanked the thief out and commenced to go rat-a-tat-tat all over his body, breaking the man’s jaw and thighbone, and inflicting a dozen knots and abrasions. Turned out that the carjacker’s old man had bucks and the mayor’s ear. Within a week, Fred was standing before the district attorney who claimed his actions were too rough on the street thug who, after all, didn’t really steal his car or his family. Fred hired a good attorney and managed to come out of the mess without a record and without losing his job, although he was ten thousand dollars poorer.
I talked with him a couple days after the incident to get his take on what happened. I was a little concerned because Fred has a temper, and although it has mellowed over the years he’s been training with me, I wanted to be sure that all the damage he inflicted on the guy was needed. I’m all about dishing out necessary force, but I’m not in the business of teaching people to be assailants. I was satisfied after talking with him that he had acted responsibly. In fact, I praised him for his restraint considering that his wife had been injured, a detail the police-hating Oregonian newspaper had omitted.
These guys have been there to help me, too. They were there for me when I got divorced in my early twenties, when my mother died in a traffic accident, when Tiff and I ended it a couple of months ago and, just recently when I was placed on administrative leave, they’ve filled in for me when I felt like lawn fudge and couldn’t bring myself to leave my house. They know that in the weeks since I fired a nine-millimeter round into that tweaker’s acne-splattered face that some days I’m up and some days I’m down.
Fighting Positions in the Dojo
“Fighting positions!” I center myself in front of them, stagger my feet, and raise my fists. “Okay people, let’s get fast. We’re going to punch out as hard and fast as we can, but only half way. Half reps only. Got it?”
“Yes, sir!” they chorus.
“Don’t think fast. Think explode and fast will happen.”
“It was a tough class tonight but pay no attention to how your body feels; it’s all about right now, this moment, and creating energy within your mind. It’s within you and it’s dynamite, and it’s about to explode all over that big, fat, ugly imaginary assailant in front of you. Feel your energy starting to boil over, Fred? Dave, you feel it? Cathy, you see that ugly predatory beast in front of you? Good.”
“The fuse is lit folks! It’s burning down, shorter and shorter and shorter… Readyyyy…Explode one!”
Whump! Twelve punches slam forward in unison toward mine.
“On-guard. Half punch…readyyyy…two!”
I pace along the front of them again. “You’re not exploding. You’re punching hard, but you must explode. This drill is about fooling your brain.”
Twelve voices: “Yes, sir!”
I move back to center and assume my stance. “To fool it, you must explode.”
“Feel it, feel it, feel it. Explode! Three!”
After training with both back-to-back ninety-minute classes and sparring hard with Alan, my energy is still good, still focused. My black belts watch me closely, rep after rep, as if I were a conductor of a symphony orchestra, an orchestra of controlled violence.
“Switch sides. Readyyyyy. One!”
An orchestra of controlled violence. Hey, that’s pretty good. Reminds me of something an old hung gar teacher once told me. “Fighting is chaos,” he said. “And as a trained martial artist, your job is to bring order to the chaos.” I’ve always remembered that. Now as a teacher, I’m trying to orchestrate my black belts into a masterpiece.
“David, stay focused,” I say to myself as much as to David. “Three! Don’t think about work or that cutie you saw at the mall today. Four! Your whole world right now is a half punch. Five! Not your fatigue, not your aching shoulder. Six! Not the sweat in your eyes.
Seven! Just the punch. Eight! The punch. Nine!”
My training, especially the extra training I’ve been doing for a few weeks, is helping to bring order to the chaos that’s been my life these last couple of months. It’s been more helpful than the sessions with the police shrink. Neither is working as fast as I’d like, but I’m better now than I was.
Okay, practice what you preach, Sam: focus.
I’m pacing in front of them. A student once said that I pace like a panther at the zoo. Maybe I walk like one, but I don’t feel captive here. I have at home recently and I was starting to on the job. But here in my school? Here I feel free. Here is where I can be me.
I again center myself on them. “Nothing else exists right now. Not the half reps you’re still panting from or all the other drills we did tonight. Your drive home doesn’t exist, nor does that welcoming shower. There’s only the punch that you’re doing right now. Got it?”
Two minutes later, we collectively ram out the last punch with a sharp exhalation and then come to attention. They’re exhausted but they know that if they were to sag their posture or blow out a gush of fatigue, I’d give them more. Since they were white belts, I’ve drilled in them the old saying, “Hide your broken arms in your sleeves.” Never show that you’re hurt or tired.
“Very good, everyone. Thank you for teaching me.”
“Thank you for teaching us!”
As the group moves toward the dressing room, chatting affably and teasing one another like the old friends that they are, I head quickly toward the small room next to my office. I’m feeling better, a lot better than last month, and a heck of a lot better than in those awful days right after the shooting went down.
I step into the room, close the door behind me, and stand motionless for a moment to collect myself and enjoy the feeling of being in my private space. A hundred-pound heavy bag hangs from a low beam in the center of the room and a large mirror covers most of the opposite wall from the door. That’s it. I might not have a simple life outside my school right now, but I still have it in here, and I savor it.
Within a minute or two of coming in and locking the door behind me, I get a small bump in my pulse rate and begin sweating. The only time I’ve experienced that outside of class was two weeks ago when I drove through that intersection for the first time since the shooting. The power of the mind never ceases to amaze me.
The Bowels of Hell
Being in here is all about my head. When I attack the bag, I do so with all the frustration, rage, fear, and pain that I can bring up from the depths of my being—“the bowels of hell”—as my friend Mark calls it. Five minutes into the sessions, I feel an explosion of emotions coming from somewhere deep, fueling my punches and kicks with high-octane energy. When I can’t punch or kick any longer, I clinch the bag and slam it with my forehead, elbows and knees, and I keep going until I collapse to the floor or power vomit into the toilet.
After the first couple of these insane sessions, I realized they weren’t for my body; they were just too harsh to be of any physical benefit. Head-wise, they were helping me to…wha ? Cope? Yeah, that’s it, and to not dream the dream so much. To not see the man’s exploding face every damn night.
Actually, I’ve lost some in the past weeks, so I’m probably more like one ninety. Yup, not bad at all for a dude pushing thirty-five years old.
The face, well, that’s a different story: skin tight, dark circles under the eyes, a couple days growth, and a head in need of a haircut. On the positive side, it’s an improvement.
What does the other guy look like? Not so good. He’s covered with six feet of dirt.
I step over to the big bag, give it a little push and commence to go totally ape shit all over it.