In the late 90’s, I was on a personal quest to find a spiritual path that suited me, a way out of depression and isolation. As I have written before, this search led me to my first martial art teacher in Annapolis, MD. Under Joe Sheya, I learned hapkido, a Korean martial art. Hapkido was merely a scratch on the surface of what I found there, however. For Joe, learning a martial art was just a stepping stone toward a full, rewarding, and purpose-driven life. Self defense and self empowerment were important, but being a well-rounded and moral human being was the goal of the true martial artist, according to Joe. Joe always had a strong moral compass, but hapkido gave Joe him a moral framework, a higher purpose. Hapkido offered him a way to transcend fighting and to empower others to do the same, but hapkido was just an entry point for him. He augmented his martial practice with tai chi, meditation, qigong, and, perhaps most important to him, reiki.
Without getting too deep into it, reiki is an alternative healing practice that originated in Japan, said to have been discovered by a Japanese Buddhist named Mikao Usui. Reiki utilizes light touch as a way to fascilitate healing in the person receiving it. I make no claims as to the effectivenes or medical validity of this practice, but I will talk a little about my experience with it because by the time I met Joe Sheya, he was requiring that every person at his hapkido school who wanted to acheive the rank of black belt must learn and practice reiki, even if only to experience it. He would say, “If I am going to teach you how to hurt people, I want you to learn how to heal them as well.” Reiki was the other side of the hapkido coin and I was exposed to it very early in my martial art jouney.
By the time I entered hapkido, I had already had several of what I will call spiritual experiences. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that finding a spiritual framework for my life brought me back from the dead, but that is a different story, one I will save for another time. Suffice it to say, I was open to what Joe, hapkido, and reiki had to offer and I dove in head first. If Joe said it would benefit my life and the life of those I would help through it, I believed him. Joe sent me to his friend and mentor Katherine Klemstine (now Katherine James) who was teaching and practicing out of West Annapolis, a small artsy sub-section of my then hometown. I contacted Katherine and I, along with two friends, scheduled a day with her to do our Reiki Level 1 attunement. In hindsight, I would recommend not diving in headfirst like this and maybe wading into the reiki waters a little more slowly, but I was young, relatively naive, and on a mission.
In Katherine, I found a gentle and welcoming soul, something that I have found to be generally true of most reiki practitioners I have met since. I feel like Katherine and I connected instantly on a very deep level and she has been a strong influence on me, even if from a distance, ever since. In fact, many years later, Katherine was the minister who married my wife and I. As always, she was a comforting and grounding force and with my reiki attunement she was the same. The moment I entered Katherine’s reiki studio, I felt at peace, like I was in the right place. Meeting Katherine, I knew I had found a teacher and a friend. This was right for me and it was the right time. It was quite clear as to why Joe was so attracted to this practice and to this person.
Joe, like myself, was a naturally restless and even aggitated person who was looking for some peace in his life and in himself. He would often tell me, “Anger is my primary emotion and you and I are the same. I am working on stepping outside of it so that it does not control me. You should also.” I am not saying that reiki was a cure-all for my personal unrest or that Katherine was some a mystical priestess with powers to heal my damaged soul, but what reiki and even Katherine offered me was a new lense and a new perspective. With people like Joe or myself who have strong, overbearing personalities, there is the risk of attracting only people who live at that same frequency or who are attracted to it because of their own relative meekness, people who are looking for strength vicariously. This causes a problem.
By only attracting people who are like you or who live off of your perceived strength and repelling others who are different, one starts to develop interpersonal tunnel vision. Lacking peripheral vision, life begins to shape itself around who you are instead of who you could be. You become limited by your own beliefs and character, rejecting all who disagree with your opinions or behavior. Strong enough to survive in some degree of solitude, life’s interactions become shallow, like living inside an echo chamber of yourself. Life begins to lack contrast. Without contrast, life begins to turn a solid shade of grey, lacking vibrancy. For some, the answer is doubling down on intensity, becoming a thrill-seeker. For others, the answer is more solitude. This often turns to depression and lonliness. For Joe and eventually myself, reiki and the community of people associated with it offered contrast.
Many years ago, I took a fork in my path and walked away from reiki, the community of practitioners, and the practices I had found therein. Then, in 2014, Joe passed away and I walked away from hapkido. After Joe’s passing, I found myself struggling to figure out who I was, what happened to my life, and how I became so tunnel-visioned, focused in the wrong direction. Much like before finding hapkido and, through it, reiki, my life and my character lacked contrast. As I write this, things are opening up. The world seems bigger. My focus broadened and my path more clear. In my martial art life, I have found my community. What I am looking for now, is a community of holistic art practitioners to once again give my life its much needed contrast. Simply by realizing this and setting the intention to re-discover it and myself, I know I am headed in the right direction.
Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo & Taikyoku Mind and Body