Firewalking Ireland

Bruce Lee and I were having dim sum, a traditional Chinese breakfast of meat-filled pastries, in a downtown Los Angeles restaurant after a lesson.  I seized on this opportunity to tell him that I was discouraged.  At forty-five, I felt I was too old and my body too stiff to achieve any real ability in Jeet Kune Do.

“You will never learn anything new unless you are ready to accept yourself with your limitations,” Bruce answered.  “You must accept the fact that you are capable in some directions and limited in others, and you must develop your capabilities.”

“But ten years ago I could easily kick over my head,” I said.  “Now I need an hour to limber up before I can do it.”

Bruce set his chopsticks down alongside his plate, clasped his hands lightly on his lap, and smiled at me.  “That was ten years ago, “ he said gently.  “So you are older today and your body has changed.  Everyone had physical limitations to overcome.”

“That’s all very well for you to say,” I replied.  “If ever a man was born with natural ability as a martial artist, it is you.”

Bruce laughed.  “I’m going to tell you something very few people know.  I became a martial artist in spite of my limitations.”

I was shocked.  In my view, Bruce was a perfect physical specimen and I said so.

“You probably are not aware of it,” he said, “but my left leg is almost one inch shorter than the right.  That fact dictated the best stance for me – my right foot leading.  Then I found because the right leg was longer, I had an advantage with certain types of kicks, since the uneven stomp gave me greater impetus.”

“And I wear contact lenses.  Since childhood I have been near-sighted, which meant that when I wasn’t wearing glasses, I had difficulty seeing an opponent when he wasn’t up close.  I originally started Wing-Chun because it is an ideal technique for close-in fighting.  I accepted my limitations for what they were and capitalized on them.  And that’s what you must learn to do.  You say you are unable to kick over your head without a long warm-up, but the real question is, is it really necessary to kick that high?  The fact is that, until recently, martial artists rarely kicked above knee height.  Head-high kicks are mostly for show.  So perfect you kicks at waist level and they will be so formidable you’ll never need to kick higher.”
“Instead of trying to do everything well, do those things perfectly of which you are capable.  Although most expert martial artists have spent years mastering hundreds of techniques and movements, in a bout, or kumite, a champion may actually use only four or five techniques over and over again.  These are the techniques which he has perfected and which he knows he can depend on.”

I protested.  “But the fact still remains that my real competition is the advancing years.”

“Stop comparing yourself at forty-five with the man you were at twenty or thirty,” Bruce answered.  “the past is an illusion.  You must learn to live in the present and accept yourself for what you are now.  What you lack in flexibility and agility you must make up with knowledge and constant practice.”

By Joe Hyams

(Taken from “Knowing Is Not Enough”, Fall 2000)