I’m a big fan of accepting learning from wherever it comes… but I wasn’t always this way. Throughout the last several years I’ve had the interesting experience of watching my worlds sort of collide when it comes to various important teachings and lessons. This used to really trouble me. I spent years trying to compartmentalize my life (I thought this was necessary for someone with such bad ADD, how else could I keep everything straight!); to separate it into its various components and allow for as little interaction as possible between the communities to which I belonged. Like a toddler’s plastic dinner plate, my life was sectioned off so that the canned peaches won’t touch the peas. In high school, very few of friends knew that martial arts was something I was interested in or involved in. Those that did know (like Karen Stein — woo hoo shout out to my best friend!!), only knew so because they were classmates both in the lecture hall and the dojang. I can remember being mortified when it was announced over the PA system that Virginia Witter and I had won medals at a recent NYS Taekwondo tournament (I never quite figured out how that came about. Master Pearson – do you know anything about this!?) Fortunately no one pays attention during homeroom and it didn’t cause any problems for this neat little system of categorization that I had established for myself.
In college, I continued in this way of thinking. A Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and East Asian Studies double major, I convinced myself that my course work was simply an intellectual, academic way to approach martial arts. These were mental exercises. They could provide me with the historical, political, and social contexts in which ancient martial cultures were situated, they could give a nice literary framework, but they were not the study of martial arts and I thought I had done well to keep those lines separate. Only in graduate school did this begin to change. As I pursued my rabbinic studies in Cincinnati, more and more of the fences I had constructed between my interests began to disintegrate. Suddenly I noticed that my professors of rabbinic literature, bible, Jewish history, and professional development, as well as the pages and pages of text I was immersing myself in often echoed lessons I had once learned long before at Master Pearson’s feet. Other times, something I read in a class or learned while discussing a text with my chevruta (study partner) would suddenly come to mind while I was practicing forms, or doing Do Meditation one morning, or teaching Taekwondo on a Thursday afternoon. Likewise, there were times when I would be working at Ahn Taekwondo and overhear or see an instructor model an interesting technique or application or nuance for his or her students. Initially I’d be blown away, whipping out my cell phone to call Master Pearson and tell him what it is I had just learned. But after a moment’s pause, I’d realize that this wasn’t so revolutionary after all, and I’d remember all the times when he had taught the exact same thing. Perhaps I was just not open to the lesson then, I had let it go in one ear and out the other.
Now, as I’m knee deep in the beginning of my professional career, I’ve come to understand that a more holistic approach to martial arts (in fact, to anything!) is far more beneficial to the overall process, both for myself as well as those I teach and interact with. This sentiment is subtlety reflected in Master Pearson’s second weekly post. His collection of quotes, though beautiful and inspirational, certainly did not all come from the martial arts world. Robert Jordan, John Milton, Thomas Szasz, Robert Browning, Montesquieu, Richard Bach, Booker T. Washington…these guys never stood in a front stance, held a yumi, or put on sparring gear. They were political philosophers, poets and authors, psychiatrists and academics. And yet, it is clear that their words have directly influenced my instructor’s thoughts and attitudes towards his practice and martial arts way of life. When asked about the role martial arts plays in his life, I have often heard Master Pearson reply that he lives and breaths martial arts every day, every hour, every moment of his life. Having known him now for over 20 years I have seen, first hand, the truth behind this statement. But I would, if I may be so bold, venture to propose an alternative interpretation of the method by which he prevents the “curse of the weekend warrior.” Rather than saying that martial arts occupies and controls every thought and every decision, perhaps we may say that martial arts completely pervades life, constantly simmering on the back (or even the front burner). Instead of compartmentalizing his martial arts as one aspect of his life, relegating it to particular days of the week or times of day, perhaps Master Pearson allows his practice to weave itself into every aspect of his life. Because he is willing to accept learning from wherever it comes, he is essentially perpetually practicing, infinitely adding to his martial arts knowledge.
As a matter of example I will tell you that I spent this week visiting beautiful southern California. My work with Cornell Hillel sends me on what we affectionately refer to as “alternative breaks.” While other students are off partying in Cancun or appearing in Girls Gone Wild on some beach somewhere, my organization provides opportunities for students to engage in meaningful work, learning, and community service during breaks from classes. So Cal (I’ve learned the lingo here!) is home to a new organization that we have just begun partnering with, called the Jewish Farm School (JFS), which teaches young people about sustainable agriculture, food equity, natural building and social justice. Alongside my students I weeded a lot of Swiss chard, built a chicken coop, cooked with natural, organic, delicious ingredients and learned a ton about the food industry, the choices we make, how they affect the world around us, and our obligation to care for our bodies and the earth. Interestingly, much of the rhetoric to which I was exposed (more about the food and less so about the environment) were things that Master Pearson himself has been really interested in (through the lens of martial arts of course!) for the last several years. He has taught me this stuff, given me books about it, even shown me himself how to work with healthier, alternative ingredients and yet once again I was not overly enthusiastic about this lesson and subconsciously packed it away, likely on the grounds that it was inconvenient to my lifestyle at the time. But perhaps being out of the typical atmosphere of learning, my mind was more open and ready for such important lessons. I believe in the information and the message that I received this week in California. As martial artists I believe that we have the obligation to make decisions that will improve the world in which we live, to conserve our environment for future generations, and to work for a more just society. I came away from this week with a whole variety of ways in which to achieve these things, which I will hopefully add to my martial arts tool box as easily as pressure points, forms, joint locks, weapons, and throws.
Master Pearson’ s life is a testament to how each of us can make martial arts a more prevalent force in our daily experience. It’s not as intimidating as “I live and breath this stuff” might sound. To the contrary it it seems quite attainable, if we can only change our mindset from one of categorization to one of unification. I hope to stop compartmentalizing and work to achieve this wholeness I so desperately crave. So perhaps this lesson originated on a farm in Southern California, working as a rabbi surrounded by college students…who cares…I accept learning from wherever it may come.