The old saying that is often quoted is “the journey of one thousand miles starts with the first step”. Many life changing moments start with that single small step. You may not even realize that step is going to carry you to vistas and sights that will change your outlook on the world. This is true on a mundane level and it is true metaphorically.
My first real steps on my journey in martial arts began when I was in my early twenties. I had dabbled in various fighting arts as a teen but I never took them seriously. I even bought books and manuals on various fighting arts and practiced with my cousin with some very cheap boxing gloves and no other protection. We pounded the living daylights out of each other with no control and no skill. Haymakers and brain damage was how we played. It was fun but it was probably not the best training.
One night at an outdoor party my life changed forever. A bunch of testosterone-fuelled pushing and shoving turned into full scale stupidity. I overreacted out of fear during the ensuing skirmish and accidentally seriously hurt the wrong person, and worse, he was someone who I knew and liked.
The thing was this was not the only stupidity I had put myself in up to that point. Being a young man just becoming an adult is hard — but being a young man who was full of inward anger made my life harder. The quote from John Wayne comes to mind: “Life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid”. However that stupid moment caused me to make one of the best decisions of my life, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.
When I say the wrong reasons, I mean my reasons were so lopsided that if something did not change I was going to be a danger to myself and others. I believed that I should take up martial arts so that if I knew how to fight I could be that same dysfunctional person I always was, except now I would not overreact in fights; because I would know how to fight and therefore be in control of my actions. I look back on this “logic” and wonder how I managed to stay out of jail or worse as a young man. But what happened when I took my first steps on my martial journey completely changed my outlook on life and what it meant to “be a man”.
I started under the tutelage of Master Barry Northey, Cranbrook’s very own Gung Fu master.
Barry was amazing, he was fluid and deadly. He could kick you on weird angles and his timing was impeccable. But the most important thing Barry showed me was that quiet humility and kindness are real strength. I was working on being hard but Barry showed me that strong men are not hard, they laugh and are kind and don’t lose control of their anger. I witnessed parents of children in Barry’s program pushing buttons and being “hockey parents” with him and in my mind I thought “oooohhh they gonna die.” But Barry handled them with class and kindness. I will be honest — my younger self wanted to see Master Northey kick some butt. I did not know that he was changing me by modelling how to diffuse and de-escalate anger and bad behaviour.
Later in my journey I found my martial arts niches; Muay Thai and Eskrima. Years had passed since I started this journey and my personal habits did not change overnight. I still got into stupid situations but the nature of my involvement changed. I was no longer the instigator, I was always the peacemaker; it was usually me who was bargaining, placating and talking down angry people.
Over time public intoxication as a hobby was replaced by a passion. Teachers like Barry, Ajarn Songlith Singthong, Guro Ross Doromal and Guro Norman Stackhouse changed my view of what masculine strength is. I had less to prove because the bruises and bloody noses I received training in the ring showed me who I was. I overcame so much to become a decent fighter, that I didn’t need to lower my standards and dirty what my teachers shared with me by fighting in bars over spilt drinks or fragile egos.
Tough gentle men had shown me the truth about dignity and humility. These men were the most dangerous men I had ever known and they had this peacefulness about them that at first I didn’t understand but now strive to emulate in my life.
Arjarn Song had fought for his life and had escaped a communist dictatorship by swimming across the Mei Kong River from Lao to Thailand. He had lived for years in a tough refugee camp in Thailand. He had fought for his food in the most dangerous ring sport in the world. Yet, this tough man would see a beetle on his mats during one of the gruelling training sessions that he was famous for, and he would stop everyone from moving with a booming yell, and come hurriedly onto his mats to gently pick up the beetle and put it outside.
His respect for all living things touched me deeply; his wisdom was shown, not preached. A man who bore the scars of violence, and taught one of the most dangerous combat sports in the world is to this day a true gentleman.
Guros Ross and Norman never said unkind words to everyone. They encouraged people with honesty and corrected with positivity. They never gave in to machismo or glorifying violence while teaching some of the deadliest combatives from the Philippines. They flowed with blades, sticks and empty hands and joked, laughed and showed me that when you are truly dangerous you have nothing to prove. The art of eskrima can have dark content but should only be shared with those with a light heart. I try to teach in the same joyful way.
When I started this journey I wanted to learn martial arts to become a tough guy, but as I walked on this thousand mile journey I got so much more. Now I am a changed man, with a background not just in martial arts but in Life Skills Coaching, Counselling and human relationships.
I have used my martial arts to create a place where people can come to learn some of the most effective fighting systems in the world; however that is not what my gym is just about. My gym is a place of making changes. People become better persons through hard work, training and the friendships that are made on the mats. The most important thing is that for individuals who come into my gym with the same or similar burdens I carried into Master Northey’s gym three decades ago; my gym is a place to begin healing the scars that underlay the behaviours they might be caught up in and as they heal I continue to as well.
Unlike the journey of one thousand miles, martial arts are a journey that never ends, and the first step is every day you first step on the mats.
Joel Huncar, Chief Instructor at RMMA Family Centre