How Important is Lineage to me? And you!
It is no secret, as I take every chance I get to remind people, that Urban Kempo was the underdog from the beginning, and also that it came out on top. I always knew it would. But not without a little help from my new teacher.
After sticking out that year in Iwo Jima Park and my students' basements, and then our first year in business, it was evident that a lot was still missing. While we’d opened our doors in arguably the most ideal neighborhood for a dojo in the DC area (good things do come to those who wait!), our infrastructure remained insufficient in order to support a successful operation located in such a commercially competitive area.
One of the biggest criticisms against me personally, as well as my greater operation, was that I lacked lineage—essentially my lack of a credible teacher. Indeed, upon leaving my former company, I was given a proposition: I could either, A) Leave the DC area and join Steve DeMasco’s Shaolin Studios in New York (In that event I would have a teacher, a dojo, an established curriculum and infrastructure, a support system, accountants and lawyers…you name it. Heck, my former teacher even volunteered to continue teaching me in the event that I simply, get outta Dodge!) or, B) Stay in Virginia without a teacher, grow everything from scratch, and learn the hard way.
Look, birds of a feather flock together. So if you’re an Urban-goer, then you already know that there was only one conclusion here. When life offers you a yellow brick road, my advice is to be suspicious! So of course, I chose the latter and I have the battle scars to show for it!
Looking back, it makes sense that I underestimated this key element—lineage—in my operation. The primary reason for the division between my former teacher and myself had to do with just that. We found ourselves being in competition with one another more often than not, and the community was picking up on the tension. On more than one occasion I was approached by students mentioning that our friction permeated the dojo when the two of us were in the room together. While we tried to hash out our differences in private, we were unable to hide the elephant in the room from the students. The point here is that a division had to happen--it was evident that I was being forced into a lineage that didn't fit.
Whether I was right or wrong, I perceived that my former teacher was fearful of the prospect of my outshining him, and even worse, more loved by the student body. In addition, I sensed that I was outgrowing his tutelage, but there was no-one else available within that organization who was capable of taking me under their wing. I distinguished a growing paranoia coupled with a heavy reliance on me to help run his school. This put us both in an awkward position. More often than not, I saw his actions as deriving out of spite, as opposed to a desire to mentor. I felt like my head was constantly smashing into a glass ceiling and after 8 years I wanted that to change.
In contrast, he must have depicted a young and arrogant pupil that preferred to do things his own way instead of taking cues from the teacher. I recall one afternoon him stating, "Mike, I am mind boggled as to how you run such a successful dojo the way that you do." (Heavy emphasis on mind boggled. He was seriously perplexed. And it seemed, at least to me, to bother him.) Over the course of years, as our relationship became almost solely defined by conflict, I plead guilty to having gone out of my way on occasion to get rises out of him. Perhaps that was a young instructor’s method of defending himself with the small amount of power that he could muster, or simply protecting his honor. In either case, our relationship degraded into one that was unhealthy and a split was inevitable.
As my only experience with lineage was defined by conflict and competition, I waited a long time to reach out for a teacher—partially out of fear, and partially out of caution. But over time I’d narrowed my options down to two masters, and one Grandmaster.
Believe I chose carefully.
In the summer of 2013, at the advice of a former black belt instructor of mine who was still teaching for my former company, I gathered up the confidence to write my first letter seeking mentorship. As the Urban had finally taken hold within the local community, that instructor called me up and simply stated, “Sir, its time. You need a teacher.” That was all I needed to hear.
My first choice was a no-brainer.
I had met Grandmaster Taylor in China in 2008 and found him to be one of the most humble men I’d ever met, very true to what a Grandmaster should be. The kind of person that you aspire to be like, and wonder if you can eventually come to emulate some of his most impressive characteristics. This ambition—to emulate your teacher outside of the dojo—should strike one as a challenge similar to asking oneself whether or not one is cut out to become a Master, or even Grandmaster. To me, a teacher that is specifically meant for you, should have this type of effect on you, both inside and outside of the dojo.
If you do not find yourself gravitating towards your teacher in this way, then you have chosen the wrong teacher. A good fit between teacher and pupil is rare, and is a gift to be cherished and nurtured. Returning to my former teacher, I did not identify with his values. I did not naturally desire to be like him. And so I was forced in another direction. Again, I do not place blame neither here nor there. It was simply not a cohesive relationship—we were not meant to move each other forward through life.
I hope that my students, especially my little protégé, come to appreciate my relationship with our Grandmaster, and also what it implies for us going forward. Indeed, our relationship will largely come to resemble the one that is being cultivated between myself and Grandmaster Taylor.
Lets talk a bit more about this good fit.
In 2009, Grandmaster visited Northern Virginia to help facilitate a tournament and test. We must have had some chemistry as he awarded me with three first place trophies that day. More importantly, however, I was accoladed with a double promotion, surpassing my 1st Brown and receiving my Black belt from then referred to as "Shihan" Taylor. (There is a good story behind this. If you've never heard it before, ask me in the dojo.) Little did I know that four years later, without having spoken a word to each other, that I’d be writing California from Arlington, eagerly seeking a mentor. Also little did I know, that I was about to receive a mentor in life. And most surprisingly, a friend.
In all honesty, I expected, assuming that my letter even reached Grandmaster, that he’d most likely pass it off to one of his many hundred or so instructors—if I were lucky that is. People of his status don’t really spend much time training 2nd degree Black Belts, as I was at the time. To my surprise, he rang me personally, flew out to see the Urban Kempo operation, and has been a mentor, a martial arts trainer, and a friend to me ever since. I’ll share some honesty here and include that I was also terrified that another unhealthy relationship was about to emerge, perhaps on a larger scale even. But I needed a teacher badly and was prepared to take that risk. Luckily, that risk bore some good fruit!
Some of the tangible things that Grandmaster has shared with us: He has shown me how to develop a healthy instructor academy, which has brought stability to our community. He has offered multiple seminars to both the instructors and students (Of the three Grandmasters that I've had in my lineage at some point in time, Grandmaster Taylor has spent, by far, the most time within the community than any other. He cares about our future.) He introduced the bo staff and broadsword, which as given depth to our cultural roots. He has continued to train me in the arts, essentially offering me exclusive access into one of the most distinguished minds in the martial arts world. He personally promotes our Brown and Black Belts, which adds prestige to our diplomas. He has welcomed us into his headquarters, dojos and tournaments. And he has invited us to join his Z-Ultimate family on a trip to China this summer to train at both the Shaolin and Wudang Temples, with monks! It is safe to say that we are blessed to have this man looking over our family, which I assure, he does more often than you know!
More than anything else, Grandmaster Taylor earned my trust and friendship, and I his. After all that has transpired, these are not given easily. Simply by being himself and living by his word, he has lowered my defenses so much that I've entrusted him with some of my most personal secrets. I figure that if he's going to take the time out of life to help me along my path, then he deserves to know who I am. He has shown a belief in me that I hadn’t previously known. During some of my roughest patches, like a family member, he continued to stand close. When I'm not living up to my potential, he is quick to call me out. Many times I have had to sit back and contemplate whether this man is for real. But he is. Time has proven that. And I sleep better for it.
Teachers that have your best interest at heart, that want to see you succeed, and that care about your life do exist. But you have to go out and find them! This is the message that I wish to convey here.
In return, it is imperative that students dedicate themselves in reflective measure. Otherwise, those students are not worthy of their teachers. They simply don’t want what the teachers have to offer and the relationships become of little use.
Loyalty, dedication and friendship are the key elements that need to be reciprocated respectively if a healthy relationship is going to flourish. If they are not, the relationship will become blemished and these elements will be replaced by suspicion, fear and competition. What follows can be heart-wrenchingly destructive. This is what I have learned during my tenure in the martial arts. This is what I want to share with you.
I recently attended a wedding in Laguna Beach. The family that I was in attendance with is very successful in the IT/media industry. I had the opportunity to talk with a lot of dedicated, forward thinking and successful men that were also my elders. In conversations with them, they all seemed to emphasize one thing:
If you find yourself in a bad situation, change it. Keep your feet moving until you find the right fit, and then put your everything into it.
Here you go: 1) identify an unhealthy relationship. 2) Have the courage to exit! 3) Actively search for a new one! 4) Put your EFFORT into that relationship!
I have to believe that they are right. But I fear that a lot of us find ourselves in relationships that are not healthy. That keep us awake at night. That haunt us throughout the day. That magnetize our thinking on the negative. That essentially trap us in places that we would rather not be. And this will suck the life of many capable and otherwise happy and loving people.
The challenge is that in order find “our fit” we have to face the unknown. We are forced to venture out into the unstable, uncomfortable and at times the horrifying. To take risks with our lives is an ambition that most of us cower from. It is scary! As one who was caught in a similar cycle for the better part of 8 years, I know the thought process as well as the feelings. But as one who chose to search elsewhere for happiness, I can account for two things:
First, The search can be difficult, painful, lonely and disheartening. Expect those things as part of the process--as means to a greater end. Second, that that period of your life pales in comparison TO THE REST OF YOUR LIFE! That the light at the end of the tunnel will last much longer and reward you much greater.
It is worth it! And you can do it!
Here is to Urban Kempo’s lineage and what it has meant for me personally and the greater Urban Kempo family. Here is to Grandmaster Taylor, his wisdom, honesty and his willingness to share and inspire. And here is to lights shining at the end of all tunnels.
Lastly, here is to becoming a seeking and not fearing people!!