Spring, 1973, at 16, I discovered a valuable paraphrased quote, “If you know yourself and your opponent, there is no fear in a hundred battles, if you know yourself and not your opponent, you have a 50% chance of survival, if you don’t know yourself or your opponent, you will always lose.” Why was this so important to me? I firmly believed that it was essential that I develop a powerful and intense martial arts self defense mindset in preparation for the fight of my life against a vicious bully that had been attacking me since I was a child; its name was cystic fibrosis (CF), the number one genetic killer disease of Caucasian children in the world, a disease that destroys the lungs and one’s ability to digest food. One can have CF in the pancreas or lungs. Worst case scenario, in both…that’s me. Two weeks earlier, my doctor said that CF would kill me in five years and there was nothing that he or I could do to stop it.
CF’s major issue is that the body overproduces thick, lung deforming mucous that makes breathing difficult, which constantly forced me to violently cough. Coughing was pure agony. Once I started, it could continue for minutes, where I’d barely have time to inhale before the next uncontrollable hacks began. Face bright red, neck veins bulging, blood shot eyes seemingly about to explode, heartbeat furious and body sweating profusely, my lungs strained for air amid suffocating gasps, which created rib-break pain and incessant dry heaves. Pain turned to fear when I’d cough up blood; itmeant extended hospital stays beyond the every three month visits.
Breathing distress elevated my heart rate to where I had an enlarged heart that would beat so loud that the sound kept me awake at night. My finger tips were embarrassingly blue and swollen due to poor oxygen circulation and often times either numb or painful to touch something.
Throughout childhood, thick mucus scarred my lungs creating countless cold/flu infections that would incapacitate my cold-sensitive shivering body for weeks. To loosen this unkind, adhesive gunk clinging to the insides of my lungs and help me breathe, dad would perform a percussive therapy by rapidly striking my feeble thoracic cavity like a bongo drum for up to an hour. I’d bite my tongue to hide the pain while he would gently say, “Craig, get used to being uncomfortable.” It must have been tough on dad to hit me; no parent should have to endure bashing their child like that. CF is a cruel bully, constantly taunting me. How could I defend myself?
When Doc told me I’d be dead in five years, I was taking a crap up to 15 times a day. It was humiliating at school because sometimes I’d go to the toilet twice during one class. Kids back then were unforgiving with their comments. I knew my school locker number; it was etched onto the back of my head from being pushed back against it by a human bully.
The 30 pills a day drug regiment was supposed to slay the beastly disease inside me but instead they came with punishments that always got the best of me. Antibiotics, steroids, horse-pill X, gut-eroding enzymes and sinus-frying decongestants imbalanced my body and rained havoc upon my skin. Slews of unknown test drugs robbed my brain of clarity, making it hard for me to focus and concentrate, which made school more challenging than for most.
How did a dying, not too smart high school teen, in small town America, in 1973, discover the opening paragraph’s saying and arrive at his self defense conclusion? Destiny, man!
Two weeks after my death threat, I saw a Bruce Lee film that inspired me to learn martial arts. A day later, as I entered a wee grocery store in Upstate New York, for unknown reasons, I looked up at the magazine rack and reached toward Teen Beat with a David Cassidy cover and grabbed the magazine hidden behind it; Secrets of Bruce Lee’s JKD Training Techniques with a bonus magazine attached called Kung Fu. I learned about Lee and JKD, the Art of War, and read a far out passage that jolted my numb medicated mind. It described how in ancient China, kids dying from unknown diseases would be left abandoned in front of Shaolin and the monks taught them kung fu and the secret breathing skill Chi Gong; these sick kids would become kung fu heroes.
Today, ultimate self defense classes are trying to increase one’s odds of surviving life-threatening attacks on the street. My self defense goal was always to increase my odds of surviving the continued life-threatening attacks of disease and illnesses against my health with a combination of a martial arts lifestyle where chi gong would be its backbone.
Back in 1973, my plan was to graduate from a renowned American university, become an exchange student in China, find a Shaolin Temple and ask a monk to teach me chi gong. I promised my 16-year-old self that I would die trying to save my life and thus I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Yet I first had to learn and understand martial arts.
While attending Cornell, I stumbled upon a secluded Okinawan Goju Ryu karate dojo that had six students. It was old school, traditional training, where we’d jog outside around Ithaca, on dug up parking lots, summer heated sidewalks and through forests as well as during rainstorms and three feet of snow with 24 degree Fahrenheit temps, dressed only in our gis and in bare feet.
I learned Sanchin, a breathing kata originating from Southern China. I thought maybe chi gong related? Using intense breathing, when we exhaled with an open mouth, at the final focused air exhale we’d tense our entire body and endure powerful punches/kicks all over our body (except groin and face). It was percussive breathing that increased oxygen in the blood by lowering CO2 thus creating better oxygen and energy flow that strengthened the body, mind and spirit. Yet I still got violently ill, especially after cold rainy, snowing and freezing temperature jogs, where I’d get sick for weeks and increased my medication, yet never missed a class at Cornell.
Due to politics, in 1979, over one year dead, I moved to Taiwan in search of a chi gong teacher. Before year’s end I was unable to inhale through my nose. Health declining, by January 1980, my bully was probably pissed off that I wasn’t dead and still fighting to survive. A few months later, I was a actor/stuntman on a kung fu TV soap opera where I met my chi gong mentor.
Every day, he had me jog up a hilly road to a Buddhist temple, where at the entrance I bow three times to a statue holding a sword (temple’s warrior protector) then run up the mountain side behind the temple during vicious monsoon rains. I’d wait at the top, in the open, without shelter, for at least five hours a day. As the rain got heavier and colder, and the terrain more dangerous, by day 25, my ugly cough was peaking, I could barely breathe and my soul was screaming, “Stop this madness.” Death at hand; there was something I had to do.
With emotional acrobatics, due to the racist pressures my fiancée Silvia and I faced and my end inevitably near, I had never felt more defeated than at that moment. My crippled condition was jeopardizing her future because she was a Chinese woman who chose to be with a white American. I’m killing myself for something that’s not going to happen and ruining her life. If I should die, Silvia would be alone and a marked woman by her family, church, friends and colleges. My last eight months had been the happiest days of my life. What kind of man slowly kills the only woman he’s ever loved?
The next day, while visiting my dorm, she could tell something was up. She had been watching me slowly fade away for four months and yet stood by me with undying love. She threw herself into my arms and uncontrollably wept. Chin quivering, my face glazed with grief. I told her that I loved her more than my life and that if I died tomorrow, I would die a happy man. She was willing to face the consequences of marrying me, yet how can I be there for her if I’m dead?
With great sadness and realization, we both knew this would be the last time we would see each other. With trembling tears I said, “I love you and this is why we…” When I gazed upon her eyes, I couldn’t finish the sentence. Locked in tears we hugged like we’ve never hugged before.
Holding hands for the last time, I felt the sadness in her touch, we slowly let go, she left, I closed the door. Agony too much, I collapsed to the ground, my body and heart boiled raw with pain. Tears blinded my eyes as I heard her staggering down the hallway the sound of her crying fading…my little Silvia was fading away…then quiet…silence…she was gone. My lungs were out of air, there was a vacuum in my heart; my world had ended. What had I done?
Back atop the monsoon mountain, after I faced an earthquake and mudslide, I began coughing up blood and on day 30, I watched myself die while sitting in front of a statue of Buddha. After I uttered my final words, “Goodbye Silvia,” I heard my heart stop beating. Suddenly and I don’t know how, my mentor put his hand on my shoulder and without grabbing me, snatched me away from death, pulled me up to my feet, and accepted as me his first, last and only chi gong student.
Silvia was at his home waiting for me to return down from the mountain for the last time. Hugs, consoling tears of joys, we swore that we would always be together to the end, no matter what.
Five months after learning chi gong, every CF symptom described throughout this article WERE GONE!! Additionally, I had broken a 21- year drug habit. Talk about clarity of the mind, all the drug side effects that had haunted me throughout my life had dissipated, and this was all due to learning a simple breathing skill. Silvia and I married the following year.
If chi gong’s self defense power helped me to defeat an incurable, deadly, terminal illness, imagine what it could do for any martial artist (or anyone in general) who doesn’t have CF?
My self defense story had just begun. What happens in Part 2 and Part 3? To describe the events by using Bachmann Turner Overdrive’s 1974 song title, You Aint Seen Nothing Yet, would be considered an understatement. Breathe on!
Chi gong, Qigong, Traditional martial arts, Self defense
Black Belt Magazine
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