Some of the best memories of my youth are the seemingly endless hours of games on the soccer pitch. Growing up in the states, I had the rare opportunity of having a European coach, one who scolded me when I called it soccer: “you mean football don’t you Mr. Williams” would be his constant jab. He saw promise in me as an offensive player which was exciting to me as this was the position that scored the goals! So, I was shocked when he assigned me to last wall of defense. I was confused and disappointed and his response provided no succor: “Mr. Williams, to be a good offensive player, you have to master defense. After you become adequate at back defense, I want you to assume the goalie positon.” I left the pitch inconsolable that day and arrived at Tae Kwon Do class with complete disinterest. My Korean Sifu poked fun of my frustrations and said simply “go home and read the book I gave you” — then the training chased away the confusion of the day.
The book my Sifu was referring to was The Book of Five Rings. He had given me the book as a gift for being his dedicated student. The verse he wanted me to discover is as follows:
You must not depend on understanding your art only by studying the one art with which you are involved. It is difficult to understand the universe if you study only one planet. One must be aware of all of the arts by becoming familiar with many of them as part of one’s complete devotion to one of them. Endeavor to know all things. Though you cannot do this, you will become more aware of the world around you, an essential strategy if you choose to be a warrior.
This idea germinated within me and inspired me to become an effective defensive player. Almost 35 years later, I now enjoy playing creative offense in soccer with a deeply treasured perspective of the flow of the game all due to the advice of a coach and a samurai. The words of my middle school coach echoed in my mind as I became involved in triathlon competitions in college, soon realizing that as I worked closely on my swimming technique, my running improved; and when I fine-tuned my cycling training, my swimming endurance would deepen; each discipline seemed to cross pollinate resulting in a complete integrated physical transformation. I once again encountered this idea in my studies of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. I discovered that as my knowledge deepened within on medical system, unique insights would appear in my studies of the other respective system of medicine. The classical Ayurvedic medical text Sushruta Samhita expressed this as follows:
By mastering one branch of science, a person does not comprehend science; a physician should broaden his understanding by the study of many disciplines.
Ancient texts of great profundity should be studied by the wise analytically, constantly and devotedly after having learnt the principles of other disciplines.
As one studies Ayurvedic medicine, the systems of Vedanta, Yoga, Jyotish and Tantra are all examined in depth, each one overlapping in exquisite harmony. It was not uncommon for my Indian teachers to have second disciplines such as physics or engineering alongside their lifetime study of Ayurvedic medicine. And these concepts are once again adumbrated in my pursuit of martial arts: my studies in Wing Chun complement my studies in Hawaiian Kempo and boxing, and my study of Escrima and weapons use complements my ability to use my hands and body without a weapon.
In Eastern praxis, one was not considered a “master” unless one displayed talents in a diverse array of studies, not just one myopic obsession; one must master both the “pen and the sword.”
The idea of integrated learning is all but lost in the modern world. Due to technology we have access to an almost unlimited amount of resources for transformational study yet seem unable to focus on anything for more than 30 minute segments of time. Individuals claim to be overwhelmed with choices due to their inability to see the subtle connections existing between a diverse array of studies.
We see this prominently displayed in the medical and academic fields with the growing pressure of “specialization” resulting in departments literally unable to read or comprehend one another’s work. I personally feel this is one of the most troubling issues with the modern world: the inability of the individual to pursue a wide range of studies and experiences.
The Eastern mind prized the pursuit of various fields of study in order to strengthen and hone the mind, body and personality of the individual. The Western mind today seems content to exist in a standardized homogenous environment while blindly searching for mysterious reasons for the existential malaise of the majority. I see this over and over with my patients. Often suffering from unexplained symptoms such as fatigue or depression which allopathic medicine is unable to address, they seek solutions or “cures” from Eastern systems of medicine.
After examining them and finding perhaps minor issues which can be resolved by say more sleep, sunshine, or exercise, I ask them particularly “What brings you passion in life? What pursuits do you have outside of work which inspires your life?” The most common responses to these questions are: a blank stare, and “what does this have to do with my condition?” The idea of infusing life with various tributaries of inspiration is not taken into realm of possibilities for the majority of patients.
I see this as a major issue in the modern diseases of depression, insomnia and fatigue. Individuals are in a constant search for exotic cures yet are blind to the most basic areas of balance in life. This is all too common in the occult subcultures whereby individuals seek mystical and “magical” secrets to sugar coat a bland unhealthy uninspired life. These groups often function more as social support groups allowing individuals to group together to feel “elite” or “enlightened.” Yet despite the apparent possession of initiatic powers, the “highly empowered” individuals are often unable to balance the most basic elements of life such as physical vitality, the reality of basic financial resources and social skills.
This can also be seen in cases where individuals are obsessed with the “left hand path” completely ignoring the overarching foundational idea of balancing the Right and Left Hand paths. In this sadly humorous example, the deluded individuals seem unaware of the most basic concepts of polarity in the universe expressed in the harmony of Yin / Yang, Fire / Water, Agni / Soma, Shiva / Shakti; one cannot explore one without the other!
It’s vitally important for individuals to seek out avenues of deep inspiration in a world full of vapid commercialized content. Instead of seeking happiness in the perfect job, perfect relationship, or the perfect teacher, strive to find sources of inspiration which guide one to the taproot of the Soul! When one can see how various life activities cross pollinate one has access to an unlimited amount of mental and spiritual sustenance. The potential for transformation and growth is unlimited if one can begin to envision life as a ritual of creation and exploration.
We can blindly expect “the world” to provide us with satisfaction or happiness or acquire the tools within to open doorways to the Soul. Dedicated passionate pursuit of creative pathways also protects us from what Thomas Merton often referred to as the “tyranny of diversion”, the parasitic appetite of the virus of modernity which seeks to turn anyone and anything into a standardized product; the modern spirit promises success while providing a never ending supply of dead end pursuits. Our diversions should be our assets not our enemies!
This is one of the foundational ideas of Tantra, whereby we see our entire life expression as a web of alchemical potential. The world is as much an oasis as it is a wasteland as long as we acquire the inner tools of creative transformation.
When we learn to connect to our inner source of Soul power we can begin to see how all of our activities in the world become as sacraments; we become as the Gospel of Thomas says “passersby”, in this world fully, but not devoured by it. This is the central vision of the Master who sharpens the sword and the pen, the Ayurvedic physician who studies a diverse blend of subjects to benefit his patients, and the twelve year old who becomes skilled in defense in order to learn offense. What are your pursuits? What are your passions? Find them before the world devours them whole.