There are certain people in this world, very few, whose personalities are so big that, for better or worse, simply meeting them can change the entire trajectory of our lives. These people seem larger than life. They draw attention by simply stepping into a room. Their very existence leaves an impression on everything and everyone they come into contact with. These strong personalities are often the outer expression of an internal conflict. A bubbling cauldron of emotions brimming over into the world around them, a focused chaos like some sort of psycho-emotional alchemy that would drive the weaker among us insane, these are people of overwhelming energy and, therefore, action. It’s almost as if they are so haunted by the fear of being mediocre or of becoming something repulsive they see inside themselves that their demons fuel an internal fire, a fire of life that burns so brightly that it lights up the world around them, but can also burn those closest if not tempered with love. These people change the world. Joe Sheya was one of these rare individuals.
I first met Joe in 1998 when I was struggling with some of my own inner demons. A close friend suggested to me that martial arts might help me to focus my energies in a positive way. Specifically, he insisted that I would benefit from practicing hapkido, specifically hapkido under the teachings of Joe Sheya. My friend had trained with Joe for some time, but had since stopped. In spite of this, he walked me in the dojang and introduced me to Joe. He then left and, for all intents and purposes, never went back. This introduction changed my life and I am forever grateful to that friend. What I found in Joe was an extreme personality, someone who spoke with authority and backed it up with action. His presence was captivating, almost hypnotic, not because he was so charismatic, but because of his sheer intensity. To this day, I’ve never met a more powerful martial artist.
I was a 21 year old arrogant punk equal parts idealist and nihilist. I had dreadlocks, a nose ring, and I almost exclusively wore black – because I was so dark and mysterious in my own mind. I was later told by Joe that my nickname within the hapkido group was Rasputin and that he was happy that I finally let go of the dark cloud I walked around with because it really made hanging out with me a drag. Anyway, if there is a manual for how to behave inside a traditional martial arts school, I had not read it. As a hapkido instructor now, I look back at myself and cringe at the idea of having a student like I was then. To give an example, Joe said to me more than once, “Explaining to me why you did it wrong is not a productive exercise for either of us.” I was oblivious to the fact that I was not there as a peer. This was not a dialogue. I was there to learn. He was there to teach. He didn’t seek me out and ask me to join his school. I was a guest and I was there at his pleasure. As a student, I was a burden. I brought nothing to the relationship as I had nothing to offer within this context (or in general) and I made it worse by being contrary.
I was often offended by what I considered to be harsh treatment. It was never abusive, but no one was pandering to my delicate sensibilities either, least of all Joe. I came and went as I pleased, showing up inconsistently, and I wondered why I was not improving and why I was not receiving positive attention from my teacher. I was paying him after all. I remember him once telling me that one day I would hear a loud pop and the world would get much brighter because I would have finally pulled my head out of my ass. Well, there was no pop, but things gradually got brighter because I started to take accountability for my own training, I learned to shut my mouth (mostly), and I started showing up regularly (every day there was class which was four days a week at that time). Strangely, I started to get better and to get treated better. In fact, the way I was treated was often inversely proportionate to my attitude of entitlement. This doesn’t mean that I was never again lambasted for doing offensively poor hapkido, simply that I could see Joe grin instead of grimace after doing so.
Joe wanted the best. He wanted the best for himself and he wanted the best for and from those around him, especially in hapkido. He was never truly satisfied. This was part of his greatness even if also the cause of his restlessness. A man of extremes, those who were fortunate enough to be loved by him knew that his love was true and boundless. Joe’s intensity masked a soft heart, one that he tried, but often failed, to protect. He was as easily pleased as he was disappointed. If someone hurt him badly enough, he would not seek revenge, but he would also neither forgive nor forget the wrong. This is not because he was mean. Quite the contrary, it is because he knew that he only knew one way to be and that was completely open with those around him. So, the only way for him to defend his heart was to surround it with those who loved him and to disown those who did not. Joe was a man with no filters, for his heart or his mouth (and he’d be the first to tell you that). “I only know how to be me,” he would say.
As unlikely of a candidate as I was to continue training hapkido, Joe saw something in me that he was willing to tolerate. In my arrogance, in my sarcasm, in my cynicism, and in my inability to change for the sake of the feelings of others, he saw himself. I know because he told me… often. When telling me things about myself, he would often ask, “Do you know how I know?” I’d just look at him and he’d say, “Coo-coo-ca-choo mother&%$#er!” and then walk away (not really a Beatles fan, I never got the reference until hearing ‘I am the Walrus”). More so, in my obsessive dedication to hapkido, he saw himself. I practiced as if it were the most important thing in the world, just as he did. This never guaranteed me his attention or even positive attention, but he let me into his life. I wouldn’t say that we were ever friends. We were family. There is a difference. He was nearly twice my age. We would never be peers nor would we ever be training partners. However, he called me ‘brother’ and he called me ‘son’ and he treated me like both.
Joe Sheya changed the world, my world. He showed me simultaneously how to and how not to be a man, but mostly the former. No one is perfect and he’d have been the first to tell you that he wasn’t, but he wanted to be and he tried to be. He liked to say, “Just because you find enlightenment doesn’t mean you get to stop being the same angry asshole you were when you started.” I don’t know if I believe in enlightenment, but I do know that, because of Joe, I believe in being myself. Because of Joe, I also believe in living my life as if I’m running out of time because I am. We all are. Joe Sheya gave my life purpose when I couldn’t find any on my own.
I think it would have been impossible to meet Joe Sheya without having it leave an impression. He was larger than life. He left a legacy of love, both given and received. This doesn’t mean everyone liked him. In fact, if he didn’t piss you off, you didn’t know him long enough. However, he was always true. He was a stand-up guy who would rather help you than turn his back on you. Joe didn’t always tell The Truth ™, but he always told His Truth and he told it loud and with no apology. He was the definition of the phrase ‘loyal to a fault.’ It caused him much heartache, but he never closed his heart to those who returned that loyalty. Joe wanted to be surrounded with the people he loved and those who loved him. There were many. He always said that hapkido, our hapkido, was a family. For him, this was not some superficial hippyism. For him, it was true. We were his family. We were who he spent his time with, ate dinner with, who he laughed with, and told stories to. Birthdays, weddings, funerals, he was there with us, for us.
I’m not a 21 year old punk kid anymore. I’m balding where I used to have dreadlocks, I do not wear facial jewelry, and I wear a polo shirt and slacks to work in colors other than black. I still talk back too much, but it’s less often. I don’t think people call me Rasputin any more although some of my students might call me names when I’m out of earshot. I teach hapkido at my own school now, but I never stopped going back to Joe’s dojang. I can’t say I learned much at his dojang in the last year or so. As a friend said, after a while all you learn from your teacher if you don’t leave to do your own thing is to be a better student. In fact, I don’t even teach the way he taught me. I teach what he did, not what he taught. There’s a difference. I kept going back because I wanted to see Joe. Sometimes a visit would make me skip a week or two before going back, but, no matter what happened during class, I was always greeted with a hug and a smile when I showed up and an “It was good to see you” when I left. I kept going back because I knew he meant it. It was good to see him also.
Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo & Taikyoku Mind and Body