Instructor Profile: Jim Mullen

mullenDEvery man and woman travels through the martial arts by himself or herself. The journey is nothing if not personal and often intimate. For Jim Mullen, one of our top teachers, the journey has been a long one and, as you will read, a fascinating one…

Jim Mullen: Verbatim

…….So, what’s the next question?

Q: How did you get involved in martial arts?

JIM: Okay. It all started when I was 7. That’s when I began to notice martial arts. But I was too scared to participate in them because all I was around was Karate and it seemed to me like it was kind of bossy and people were getting hurt. But I was really attracted to ballet. There was a ballet school right across from my elementary school, but this is Queens, New York City, so I pretty much knew that if I took ballet I’d have to fight my way home after class everyday, which I pretty much had to do anyway because there is a lot of fighting in New York City.

I really wanted to take ballet and I couldn’t. It wasn’t until I was 11 that my parents had me sign up for Judo. During the summer vacation they took me to the YMCA to take Judo. And of course when you are 11, the neatest thing about taking Judo is wearing the gi. I was really excited about that. It was a very traditional school; a completely mixed class There were some kids in there that were 6 and the oldest person there was like 60. It was a very traditional class, and in a traditional martial arts school there is no age discrimination. I did this for 2 years. I still remember an exercise we would do where 2 guys would kneel down and cover their heads and then a third guy would dive-roll over them and put himself at the end of the line. Then the line would get longer and longer. And us little kids could fly the longest. We could get out over like 6 guys, because if we crashed it was no big deal, but if a big guy crashed it took out a couple of guys at the end of the line. We’d run as fast as we could and then we’d fly and when we go to the end of the line we’d roll out . Pretty exciting!

From 12 until 18, I did no martial arts at all. I think I watched the show Kung Fu. I moved to L. A. when I was 14. I was really into drums. I think every martial artist should take up a musical instrument. It’s a real advantage if you play a musical instrument and you come to martial arts because of 2 things: one is the rhythm and the beat–deh, deh, deh–and the other is you learn the value of practice.

At 18 a friend of mine came to me and said “You can increase my energy level through this system that’s called “The Fourth Way”. It was developed by a man named Gurdjieff. The Fourth Way says maybe you can already sit in the lotus position. You don’t need to spend 2 years sitting in the lotus just because the Hatha Yoga program says you should sit. Skip it!! Pick and choose from the different disciplines what you need to fill the holes. If you can already kick over your head, there’s no point in spending hours and hours kicking over your head. You can already do it. You got it.

The first 2 tenets of the Fourth Way are that the largest amount of wasted energy is through unnecessary talk, where people just blab and blab. The other is unnecessary muscle tension. He told me that one way to deal with muscle tension was Tai Chi, and he told me about this great class which was free at the time. It was in Bronson Park in Los Angeles; directly under the Hollywood sign. It has 2 particular distinctions: it has trees that were imported from China, and it has pretty good air because of the nature of the canyon–you have that little pocket of air in there. To this day Tai Chi class meets there on Saturdays. It’s a drop-in. You can go and there will be about a hundred people. Everyone does warm-up and then they divide up according to skill level.

I dropped in on the Tai Chi and I just fell in love with it. That’s when I really fell in love with martial arts, which has really never, ever wavered since then. My teacher was Marshall Ho, a very effective, famous Chinese teacher. He was the Dean of Physical Education for USC. His teacher was Master Dung, and his style of Tai Chi was Dung style. So that’s how I got into it. I studied for about 6 years down there, from 18 to 24. I studied with Marshall Ho and Master Dung’s son. On Chinese New Years, he did an incredible broadsword set with a totally sharp, scariest broadsword I’ve ever seen. Then we all went out to a super-traditional Chinese dinner in Chinatown where half the stuff arrives with head and tail and eyes and everything else intact.

I started taking regular, paid, private lessons. I’d meet with my teacher, Mike Arno, three times a week. We spent a year on the refrain! (By the way, David Carradine was in the class the first year. I think it was after the show had already been on and off the air. I’m not sure about the timing, but I don’t think I would have recognized him had he not already done the show. He wasn’t the best person in the class, that’s for sure, definitely middle of the road.)

mullenADuring this time the Chinese community said that a Chinese master of Choi Li Fut Kung Fu, Howard Lee, had to teach what he knew, because he had mastered the entire Choi Li Fut system. From what Ted has said, his teacher was the greatest master of Choi Li Fut to come to America, Lau Ben. And the way you become a master is when the Chinese community says you are a master. (Jim produces a photograph.) That’s him in his 60’s! He’s the number one student of Lau Ben. He really didn’t want to teach, but they insisted because he was the only one who had everything that Lau Ben had to teach. So one day he showed up at the Park with Marshall Ho. They walked through the group and Marshall pointed to different people and said that we should meet off to the side. There were about 12 of us, guys and girls, young and old. Marshall had planned it , you know. Howard had a very special kind of knowledge, and Marshall picked the people he thought would be appropriate. So he asked Is anyone interested in studying Gung Fu? , and most everybody was interested. And so the next Saturday, after Tai Chi, we met in a shopping center basically, that was called Cross Roads of the World and it was almost like a slice of U. K. or Italy. It was on Sunset Blvd. near La Cienaga and it had cobblestones and a kind of a railing, kind of a Florence market, and a beautiful courtyard in between the shops, and that’s where we did our first work-outs, in that courtyard. That’s how we started, by working on the horse. But he started teaching punches right away which is kind of unusual from a traditional Chinese viewpoint, where they are in no hurry to teach you something fancy. Normally they are going to try to do the opposite; they make you earn it; make you put up with a bunch of stuff you hate before you finally get to the things you really like.

I would go to Tai Chi 3 or 4 times a week and Choi Li Fut once a week. My practice at that time would take 5 hours a day; I practiced 2 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoon–5 hours a day–I kept it up for 4 years. Every day of the week. You get amazing results when you’re doing it that intensively. I’d get up in the morning and I would meditate, I would do yoga exercises, then I would do Tai Chi, and I would take off at 8 in the morning. Then I’d come home in the afternoon, I would work out an hour of Choi Li Fut, I’d practice my drums for an hour, I’d meditate, do my yoga—that took 3 hours in the afternoon–every day, day after day. The results you get are staggering.

When I was 24, I stopped doing Tai Chi and focused exclusively on Choi Li Fut. I had the most profound experience that this is the way we are supposed to move. This is like a tiger. Look at what the tiger’s got!” the way I’m moving now (demonstrates), feels animalistic. That is the way we should be moving. We shouldn’t be reaching for a glass like this. We should be moving with our whole body like this. That was the most overwhelming feeling, sort of, wow!”this is the way we were meant to move! Very exciting.

We didn’t even know what we were getting back then. They didn’t teach Gung Fu to white guys back then.

I only found out years and years later that one of Howard’s students was Carlos Castenada. Carlos who had changed his name because he didn’t want any special treatment. He finally came clean about 10 years into studying with Howard. Howard and Castenada and Marshall Ho used to go into Marshall Ho’s basement and make home martial arts video movies.

I forgot to tell you that between age 14 and 18, when I had no ambition with martial arts, it was particularly bad timing because I happened to live next door to Bruce Lee. I lived in Bel Air. Here’s Bruce Lee’s house in this block (gestures), and my house is right behind his, and my friend’s house is right next door (to Bruce Lee’s). And they had a common fence. Bruce Lee would work out in his backyard—he had his whole back yard set up for working out. So my friend–in fact, all my friends–would come over and they would look through the fence; they loved looking through the fence and watching Bruce Lee work out. We didn’t really know who it was. We knew he was Bruce Lee and we knew he was a martial artist, and we knew he was famous. But he was Bruce Lee, the Green Hornet. We didn’t know he was Bruce Lee, BRUCE LEE. They would look through and they kept begging me to look through the fence and I thought that was kind of rude, and I wasn’t that interested. But they all told me about it. Bruce Lee had whiffle balls suspended from all the trees in his back yard at various heights that he would then do multiple kicks; and he also had a big bag hanging there. Bruce Lee always worked out slow, like Tai Chi.

My sister would talk for hours about it. She looked through the fence all the time! But I tell you what we did do—we would hide in the bushes out in the front and watch the movie stars come and go. The funny thing that I remember is, well, first of all, Steve McQueen was there a lot , and he drove a Porsche. Sometimes he was there 5 days a week. Karim Abdul would come up to Bel Air. As I remember, he drove a convertible Porsche also, and the funny thing about him, his head would stand above the top of the windshield. He could never bring the top down on his car. I’m not sure if he was borrowing McQueen’s car or if he also had his own car, but I do remember seeing his head sticking up above the windshield and thinking how odd that was.

Anyway, I studied Choi Li Fut for a total of twelve years, two hours a day. I still practice it everyday.

At 32, I stopped practicing, got married, and moved to Santa Cruz. This was in 1984. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done, by far. I love it here. I love it.

It’s a good thing I had dropped out of my school earlier, because otherwise I would never have left my teacher. I kind of stopped with my teacher; then I was able to move. I couldn’t have done it the other way around. The same way, I can’t leave Santa Cruz now with Ted here; I couldn’t leave. There’s no way. It’s pretty unusual. Ted’s the only white guy I’ve ever studied with. I’ve only studied with Chinese.

Q: Did it hurt you to quit with your teachers?

JIM: It was hell. It was pure hell. What happened was that it was physically painful to practice after a while. I was working out and one of my best moves started to tense up. I could barely do it because I was so tense. The harder I practiced, the worse I got. That’s why I had to stop because it was too painful to continue. But then I was able to move (out of LA) which turned out to be great thing! But I was completely, uh, tortured psychologically. I never stopped thinking about martial arts, I never stopped thinking of myself as a martial artist. I would think about it with every movement I made.

It was agony deciding; it was agony living with it (stopping my practice); there were 10 years of agony where I missed martial arts, always thought about them, wanted to do them, but I gained so much weight. From 32 to 42, I took 10 years off for beer and materialism and family. I gained 100 pounds! So from 32 to 42, no martial arts; loving it and missing it, but not doing it. I was thinking about it all the time; never stopped thinking about it.mullenC

Then at age 42, my wife asked me for a divorce. Divorce is awful, just awful. It was the second worse experience of my life. I couldn’t eat for three weeks and lost like 35 lbs, something insane like that. I thought, I want to get back to Tai Chi. When you’re having problems with a relationship, martial arts is a good place to go to work them out. So, here I am at 42, and I’m sitting there in front of Charles Belyea and Kevin and they are literally pushing the catalogue art at me and saying, “This is fantastic; just keep going!”. I’m happy; they’re happy.

Then I ask, “Is there anyone who is really good at Tai Chi here in the town?” And I thought the tops of their heads were going to blow off and they’re saying, “Gimme that!” , and they are fighting over the paper, grabbing the pen! They have the number memorized, because at that time, if you went to Five Branches, you had to go to Ted to study Tai Chi; it was part of the curriculum, so he had a lot of (Five Branches) students. He’s the man, Ted. To me, it was so obvious that I never questioned them. I never called anyone else. I picked up my phone and I called Ted a day later. And I said, “Hello. I’m….I’m old!” , and he said, “That’s okay; I’m old too.” We talked a little bit and we talked about what I was looking for and he said, “Yeah, I think you should come in and continue the conversation.

So I go into his office and the first thing I see is a bottle of this Dit Da solution. We used it for hardening our bones; that’s what it does, it hardens your bones. It does a real interesting thing. First of all, the surface you apply it to becomes really stiff and tight, and then you’ll literally experience it seep down and then the surface will become really pliable again. It’s the most powerful herb I’ve ever experienced. Howard Lee used to make it for me. And I saw the solution in this bottle sitting there and looked at him, and I wasn’t kidding, I said, “I know what that is.” And I pick it up and I open it and I say, “Yeah. That’s it.” It had the right smell. It’s hard to get it right; not too many people get it right. I bought it at the Herb Room and it wasn’t even close to what Ted had. So when I saw that he had a solution of that, I thought, Whoa! …… So when I recognized the solution of Dit Da, it sort of ended any doubt he had. End of issue. I’m a student now, know what I mean? I came back and I was still wanting Gung Fu and he’s like, Well….. you might like Tai Chi better, you know. And he sells me on the Tai Chi. And it was the right decision.

I’m 42 and all excited I coming back to martial arts. But, I’m thinking, Oh my God! I’m going to have to really pay physically and with pain, you know, for 10 years of neglect! Uncomfortable in that I’ll feel awkward and my body won’t go where I want it to go, and painful in that it’s just painful because I haven’t made it move in years! And so, was I surprised! Because 45 days later, shortly after the first month, the energy was just flaming out of my body!…..I mean, I was shocked! And I happened to get this truth: YOU NEVER LOSE YOUR TRAINING. This is probably the most important message to get in there; it is true. This is the most important thing I’m going to tell you, which is: you never, ever lose your training!

Ted was so impressive to me that I was scared to death of him! When I first entered the school, I was intimidated because I thought he was so good! He picked up on it and he made Pat my teacher. I did very well with Pat for the first 2 years.

I made a list of the things we’ve learned. We’ve learned Yang Style Tai Chi, Tai Chi Sword, Xing Yi, broadsword, staff, the Chen set, San Tsai Sword, Ba Gua, Elkhorn knives, and double broadsword.

About 6 years ago, I was visiting Los Angeles and I went back to Bronson Park. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. It’s the kind of thing that’s so exciting because back then, you know, 12 years ago I didn’t know, I didn’t realize that I had landed anything special. I thought everyone knew about Tai Chi; I thought anyone could study Choi Li Fut. It never occurred to me that there was anything special about what I was showing off to Ted, and he said, “Oh my God! Lau Ben was Howard Lee’s teacher?!! He’s one of the best martial artists to ever come to America..”

mullenEI went back there to Bronson Park recently, I was so excited I just can’t tell you! By 11:30 there are 100 people there! And then people are practicing Tai Chi sword which had never happened before. And I had brought my sword with me and could do the Tai Chi sword set and they were impressed. We were sharing notes…..

A couple of his students were talking and they said I could find Howard if I went down to The River’s End bookstore. So we’re walking down Santa Monica Boulevard towards The River’s End talking about it, and this kid behind us says, Oh, you’re talking about Howard Lee, my teacher. He leads us into the bookstore and he pulls out the Carlos Castaneda books, the last book that Carlos Casteneda wrote has a dedication to Howard Lee! He told us that Thursday he would do a demonstration of his technique. Wow, I can’t believe we are going to reconnect to Howard! We go to see Howard do this demonstration of Chi Gong where he is projecting chi, which he can really do. There’s a fairly good turn out ; there’s got to be 50 people there for a little mini-seminar. It’s in a dank, concrete office space that has no dropped ceiling in it; it’s a rental, just some chairs. Howard tells about who he is and what he’s been doing. Then he starts doing his Chi Gong. Then it happens ! I look around and everyone else is kind of meditating, you know. And then I’m falling into it. And you can feel it— ka-jung! — ka-jung! It’s like wind going by me. You can feel the air going by your face. He’s 50 feet away; there’s no way it can be air. And it becomes more and more prominent. It’s his energy being projected over the group.

After we leave the seminar my friend says he is a reality person, then asks, “What happened?!” And I say, “Okay, the short explanation is — your reality has been shattered! Someone stood in the front of a group and was able to affect you at a distance of 50 feet without touching you. And that’s not possible in your world. But it just happened. Now I’ll talk about how that’s done and I’ll give you the long explanation.” By the way, that was the highlight of that day. It was a violation of reality; it’s not possible for someone to stand in front of you and project your chi and have you feel it, right?

That was my introduction, my re-meeting with Howard. He didn’t recognize me at first, but when I started talking, —you know me and my personality—pretty soon he goes, Yeah, yeah!

Choi Li Fut has 100 sets and the first maybe 15 or 20 sets are hand sets. All the rest are weapon sets. Anyway, Howard Lee is now willing to teach me the last set in the Choi Li Fut system which is the only set in Choi Li Fut that is done at Tai Chi speed. That’s the one I still practice on Saturdays.

I went flying back and forth down to L.A., I don’t know, 6 to 8 times to get this set. It’s the longest set in Choi Li Fut. It speaks to the expert problem, right? Nobody knows it. No one ever gets to see it because not that many people ever get there! It’s very effective; it has made me very strong. You know how potent the Yang style Tai Chi set; it brings it together and makes it happen for you. This set does the same thing, it really pulls you together and it’s so powerful that it projects itself into your daily life.

Q: And your practice?

JIM: It changes. Three years ago I was at 2 hours a day, 2 years after that I was running at about an hour a day, currently I’m running at 50 minutes a day. About 18 months ago I decided to treat myself and let myself have an all-sets practice. In the past my practice has always been filled with a lot of stuff I hated to do, because the stuff you hate doing is the stuff you need to work on. And so I practice what I love and I practice what I hate and I never practice anything in the middle. But I decided to splurge and give myself a whole set practice. I mean no pieces of set, no lines, no drills, no working on the bad movements. We’re Americans. It’s not how good you are at martial arts, it’s how many sets you know. How impressive you look. Can you beat somebody up? It doesn’t matter. Does it look impressive? Yeah!! Alright! I didn’t know how it would go but it turned out to be really cool!! I’d do my warm-ups, of course. And then I’d do the elkhorn knives set, I would do the tai chi sword set, I would do the broad sword set, I would do the stick set, and I would do my five animal set. That was my workout. It took an hour, and every time when I finished it I would feel like I could tear down a building. I did this for about a year. And then I caught the flu. I was really sick. I couldn’t get out of bed for a whole week. I couldn’t go to work. I have never done that in my whole life, 20 years. I just didn’t show up. For over a month I was weak as a kitten. I’m now back up to 50 minutes, 4 days a week. I don’t think there’s that many people doing that kind of thing.

That’s it! Now you know everything. Do you have any other questions?

Q: What is the thing you like most about martial arts?

JIM: That’s really easy. It goes back to that feeling I had in Choi Li Fut, which I have all the time. I feel like an animal. This is the way we are supposed to move. It really is. We’re not supposed to be stiff and straight.

Q:What’s the hardest thing for you about martial arts?

JIM: Practicing!! Practicing is a lonely experience, you know? You are there alone. Nobody’s watching through the fence! I wish they were watching through the fence…, if I knew they were watching through the fence, that would really motivate me to practice more.

But practicing is painful, physically painful. It’s never not painful–that’s the problem; you would rather not do it. You would rather sit on the couch and watch TV, than force yourself to move. That’s the bottom line. But I’m really greedy. I want a lot. I want to be the guru. I do; I really do want that. And I know that this is one way to get there. I may never get there. And arriving is never good anyway. God help you if you arrive! Really, because traveling is where it’s really at. I call it traveling hopefully . Traveling hopefully is the key to really enjoying the trip. Maybe I could be a guru if I keep practicing this hard, and traveling hopefully. This is a profound truth. This is profound in my opinion. Traveling hopefully far beats arriving. Americans are all about “I want to get there!” Remember that guy Jeff who used to study with us? He comes and says, “Today we’re going to finish tai chi sword!” I go, “Far out! How are we going to do that?!” Of course I knew what he meant, that we were going to learn the last movement. But it was that fact that he used the word finish, it kind of irked me. How do you ever finish a study like that?

It reminds me of the point–why are we doing this stuff? Why do we put ourselves through this? You’ve heard me say it before, I had an exciting thought about two weeks ago. The thought was, I’m not a martial artist if I don’t do martial arts! I am what I do. I’m not who I say I am; I’m not who I think I am. I am what I do, and only what I do. If I do martial arts every day, then I’m a martial artist. With martial arts, it’s a process to try to make yourself into the person you think you are. Bruce Lee said that.

There is only one reason I do martial arts– and you’ve heard it before, but it doesn’t hurt to hear it again– and that is for every tension in the mind, there is a corresponding tension in the body. Whether you free the tension in the mind, or whether you free the tension in the body, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what side you pick. But if you free one side the other side will release.

So! Martial arts is about freedom from the past.

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