Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Aikido: Interview with Harvey Konigsberg


Over at Ellis Amdur's excellent blog, Kogen Budo, is an interview with one of the most senior living American Aikidoka, Harvey Konigsberg. At excerpt is below. The full interview may be read here. Enjoy.

How did you get started with aikido and what was your first impression?

 Harvey: It all started back in 1965. I was living in Manhattan in a loft on 24th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. I was also the building superintendent. My friend, Harry McCormick, who is also an artist, and I were in the same gallery in Greenwich Village, the Phoenix. Harry told me about aikido. Since I was living on 24th Street and the New York Aikikai was on 18th Street, it was easy to find my way there to check out a class. My friend, Clem Florio, went with me to observe my first class. He was a professional boxer, who had eighty-seven professional fights with boxers such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, and others. So, he was well versed and knowledgeable in boxing. (He was the boxing and racing editor for the New York Post.) We went to the Aikikai to see what this was all about. We entered the dojo, then up the stairs we go. It was a small class, but on the mat were Yamada sensei and Koichi Tohei sensei.

I had never seen anything like this in my life. I had already stopped pursuing boxing because I realized I really didn’t like getting hit. However, I missed the martial aspect and the activity. I saw aikido and asked myself, “What is this?” I think a lot of people associate aikido with the grabbing and throwing in judo or jujutsu, but I immediately equated it with what I loved about boxing—totally free movement—spontaneous movement. But I still did not know what was going on! Clem, who had better eyes than I, said, “You do not know how great this is – this is amazing! Do me a favor – when you start training, grab one of them, and let me know how it feels.”

I started about a month after that. They were a wild bunch, and it was rough training. People were from all kinds of martial arts backgrounds. They had to pry my hands open, since I was used to keeping my hands closed from boxing. Sensei approached me and asked me if I knew how to fall and I said I did, so no one ever really taught me how to roll.  I was persistent and kept going. I loved it so much! I was twenty-five then and physically strong, full of piss and vinegar from working, lifting heavy containers in a warehouse in Florida, before moving up to New York.

One time, Tohei sensei came up to me, and I put my arm out straight, and with one finger, he dropped me to the floor. I said, “Sensei, I was not ready,” He did it again. “Sensei, I was not ready.” He replied, “Are you ready now?” And again, I was on the floor. How did that happen? I had no understanding of what was happening. It became a great mystery for me. I was entranced.  Yamada sensei and Koichi Tohei sensei would train with us and throw us. The encounters were always different. They were always mysterious. I tried to capture that. It became my white whale. What was the difference in that feeling? How did that happen that I was on the floor? This is how I started aikido.

I went to the New York Aikikai for a year or two, then we moved to Montreal, and I panicked. How was I going to train? I started dreaming about aikido. You do not know how deep this goes into you at some subconscious level. By chance, I heard on French radio that someone was teaching aikido in Montreal. That was Massimo di Villadorata. I joined the dojo and trained three or four times per week. I got really hooked. I owe that to Massimo. I will always be grateful for that.

 You are now 80 years of age, and you are still practicing. What continues to draw you to continue practicing and teaching aikido?

 Harvey: This experience with aikido was life changing. I was once with Yoshioka Sadao sensei from Hawaii in Yamada sensei’s office, and Yoshioka sensei said that at a certain age—forty years or so—people in Japan stop taking break falls. I thought, “Why would I stop taking break falls?” My body could still do it, and this was before we got tatami. What we were practicing on at the time was much more forgiving in a certain way. Then Yoshioka sensei said, “When you make a sword, you start with raw iron, and you take a rock and beat it into shape. Then, as it takes shape, you take a finer rock. Finally, you use a rough surface to smooth it out until you have the final blade. In the end, you use a shammy cloth. If you took a heavy rock to it then, you would destroy everything that you had done.”

I still get chills when I think of this analogy; it resonated so deeply with me. What is interesting and what is conversely true is that when you start practicing, you do not use a shammy cloth. You need that process of the heavy rock; it is very important. However, if you start at a certain age, you cannot use that heavy rock. This analogy from Yoshioka sensei was life-changing in my relationship to aikido. This is part of my goal now, my focus, to use a shammy cloth.

We were practicing hard in our twenties and thirties, and physically well-tuned, and yes, I could bounce off the wall and be OK. I was resilient, but as one gets older, things change and one’s practice changes and adjusts. Suddenly, you begin to see the changes in your body and in your practice. As I adjust in my own practice, I see areas of power or areas that are much more profound. In many ways, it is even more fun. I am in a fortunate position in that, and for whatever reason – experience or seniority – I am a teacher. Yet I see many talented people who came along at the same time who feel that they cannot train anymore.

The question becomes how do we tailor aikido without losing its essence, so people can come and still train and be connected? If we have been doing this for all these years and have a passion for it, why should we have to give it up? I am really working at this and have just started a class where people who have physical challenges can do aikido without the falls that may make it unpleasant or even endanger them, but where aikido can still be effective as a martial art.

This fits into my philosophy of aikido right now. When we talk about the efficacy or the efficiency of aikido, I do not think that aikidoka realize what is actually done by nage. It is the encounter. The dramatic and magnificent throw is up to uke. Even after training for twenty or thirty years, what goes through people’s minds subconsciously as they execute a technique is, “Oh, I did that.” If your uke is thrown across the mat and does not have beautiful and impressive ukemi, you have somehow failed in executing your technique. But that is not true. The truth of aikido is that effectiveness is in the encounter itself; and with the encounter you have options. This is what I try to stress to people. It is the mental, spiritual and emotional effort that one brings to the encounter and how one approaches it. This is perhaps the most important aspect of what we do; to work at this does not require one to take falls or stop their training, which they have enjoyed with passion for so many years.

I am eighty years old now, and I am still practicing, simply because I cannot stay away. Today, I went to the dojo. I just came back home, and I am renewed. Even if I am tired, aikido has a nutritional value to the soul, to the psyche, and it is always different. Aikido is like a kaleidoscope. You will not get faster or stronger at eighty, but you will go deeper.

 

 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Zheng ManQing (Cheng Man Ching) 37 Form as Neigong


Scott Meredith was a senior student of the last Taijiquan master Ben Lo. Scott has recently produced a 2 hour video tutorial on using the 37 form as neigong. 


 

 


Thursday, June 24, 2021

Monday, June 21, 2021

How to Become Anti-Fragile

A post at Zen Habits described a program to develop oneself to become anti-fragile. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

As I’ve been diving into my Fearless Mastery mastermind program, with some of the most amazing people, I’ve been introducing some key ideas for training ourselves …
These are ideas I’ve been developing in my Sea Change and Fearless Training programs, as I’ve trained thousands of people to shift their habits as well as the patterns that get in the way of our meaningful work.
Here’s the problem when we try to train ourselves to change:
  1. We set out to do something regularly — exercise, meditate, write, create something, etc.
  2. We fail at it.
  3. Then we fall apart. We might beat ourselves up, get discouraged, and give up.
This is a fragile, non-resilient approach. Maybe we try this half a dozen times, and eventually we think something is wrong with us.
There’s nothing wrong with us. The problem is with the fragile approach of falling apart when we fail.
Instead, I’ve been training people with the idea of anti-fragility built into our training system.

Anti-Fragility, in Short

The idea of anti-fragility comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Black Swan: the basic idea is that many human-made systems are fragile. Something comes to stress the system, and it falls apart. Some systems are robust or resilient, which is much better than fragile.
But even better is the idea of being anti-fragile: stress makes the system stronger.
Human systems are anti-fragile — when we exercise, we’re stressing the system, and after we recover, we’re stronger and better able to handle that stress. Bones get denser with impact. Lots of natural systems have anti-fragile mechanisms built in.
We can make human-made systems more anti-fragile by designing ways that stress will make the system better able to handle stress. Failure helps the system get stronger.
Let’s look at how to apply this idea into our training — any kind of learning, habit formation, physical or mental training, anything where we’re trying to improve something.

Key ideas for Anti-Fragility

Before we get into specifics for training systems, let’s look at some key ideas I’ve found to be useful:
  1. Expect stress, failures, crashes.
  2. Design the training system to not only be resilient, but to get stronger with stresses & failure.
  3. Start by removing fragility from the system. Examples: smoking, debt, having too many possessions, or being super hurt or pissed when you get criticism or failure.
  4. Take small risks often. Small experiments designed to help us learn from failure. Example: every day, I try to get better at doing hard work, with each day being a mini-experiment. I fail often, which means I learn often.
  5. Embrace uncertainty, risk, failure, discomfort. These become things to help you grow, rather than things to be avoided or complain about, or things that cause you to collapse entirely. Embrace variability, noise, tension.
  6. The attitude is to always learn & get better from failure. Don’t bemoan it, embrace it and learn, improve, grow stronger. Love error. When your system gets stressed, how will it respond to get stronger?
  7. Intentionally inject stress into your life – do sprints, lift heavy weights, fast, take cold showers, take on challenges, experiments and adventures.
Now let’s apply this to our training systems.



Friday, June 18, 2021

The Dao De Jing, #79: After Calming Great Anger

The Dao De Jing is not only one of the world's great classics, it is one of the foundations of Philosophical Daoism. A free online version of the Dao De Jing may be found here. Today we have #79: After Calming Great Anger.



After settling down for great anger

There are always resentments left over.

How can this be considered as good?

Therefore the sage keeps her part of the deal, 

And doesn't badger the other party.



The virtuous ascertain the content of the contract itself;

Those without virtue are concerned about it's being exacted. 



The Heavenly Way has no favorites:

It always raises up the Good. 1

 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Fu Zhen Song Biography

Below is an excerpt from a biographical piece on Fu Zhen Song, the founder of the Fu internal martial arts system (which includes Baguazhang, Taijiquan and Xingyiquan) that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

... Fu’s peripatetic life contains many twists and suggests lingering, unanswered, question. Yet it also exemplifies the ability of the Chinese martial arts to function as a pathway for social mobility for poor youth from the countryside during times of almost unimaginable political and social upheaval. Fu’s life was shaped by the banditry and militarization that defined the end of the Qing dynasty, and the early years of the Republic. The social networks shared by martial artists, soldiers, armed escort companies and bandit chieftains proved to be essential in not just surviving, but thriving, in the volatile world of the 1920s and 1930s.

Through of his expertise in the martial arts, Fu received the support and sponsorship of some of the most powerful men in China. In exchange he would support their mission of building a strong and unified state through martial practice. The entrance of the northern fighting systems into the south was not a matter of happenstance.  Both his contributions to that event, and life in general, can only be understood when we place them in the proper social/political context.
As with other entries in this series, I should begin with the disclaimer that I am not a Baguazhang student and my own practice of the southern arts falls far outside Fu’s sphere of influence. This biographical sketch does not claim to use any secret or closely held information. I have relied on a handful of published sources that have discussed Fu Zhensong’s contributions to the internal arts as well as my own understanding of political and social worlds that he attempted to navigate.
By far the most helpful of the existing sources is Lin Chao Zhen’s (edited by Wei Ran Lin and Rick L. Wing) Fu Zhen Song’s Dragon Bagua Zhang (Blue Snake Books 1997, 2010). While not attempting to be a scholarly book, the historical discussions in the first two chapters of this work are truly important.  At one point in time, prior to the current explosion of publications on the topic, this would have been one of the best sources on modern Chinese martial arts history that readers could hope to encounter. The editors of this work did an excellent job parsing conflicting accounts and reconstructing the most likely course of events. Yet as a popular work they did not list the specific sources they were dealing with, and there appear to be a few minor mix-ups as they move into discussion of the politically chaotic environment within the KMT during the 1920s. Still, their book is clearly where anyone interested in reading more about Fu’s life should begin.

Bandits and Boxers
Fu Qian Kun was born to a farming family in Mape Village in Henan province sometime around 1872. The exact date, like many other details of Fu’s early life, remains a matter of dispute.
Students of Chinese martial history will no doubt be familiar with the many surveys of this region that have been completed by scholars such as Esherick, Perry and Cohen as they attempted to deal with the region’s long history of social unrest and the eventual outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion in 1899-1900. While most details of Fu’s childhood and early life are missing, we actually know quite a bit about the world that he grew up in. Shaped as it was by successive waves of famine and banditry, it is unsurprising that the martial arts would be a critical force during his formative years.
Tradition within the Fu family lineage note that Mape followed the common regional pattern of setting aside a plot of land as a communal boxing ground. The village would hire outside instructors who taught skills that could be used for community defense, or simply for entertainment during the agricultural slack season. Such village boxing grounds would become central locations in the rise of Plum Blossom Boxing, the Big Sword Society and later the Yihi Spirit Boxing movement. They would survive as a social institution well into the twentieth century when they were repurposed as the training ground from the Red Spears that resisted local warlords, KMT tax collectors, and Japanese invaders with equal ferocity. Given the weak position of the gentry and landlords in these more marginal areas, boxing grounds became an important mean of social organization in a crisis and a means of asserting local autonomy.
Lin notes that in 1888, when Fu Qian Kun was about 16, the village decided that it was expedient to hire a communal martial arts instructor. Chen Yanxi (father of Chen Fake) received a contract and traveled from Chen Village to begin teaching at the Mape boxing ground. It is believed that his curriculum would have included “Old Frame” Chen-style Taiji (larger circles, with a pronounced emphasis on striking), a push-hands method and probably spear work (a Chen family specialty and practical skill for a community worried about bandit incursions).
Lineage tradition states that Fu’s family was poor and, not being able to afford the tuition, he stood outside the boxing ground copying the movements from afar until Chen Yanxi took notice of him and, realizing his dedication, accepted him as a student. Lin and Wing note this reading of events sounds suspiciously like a number of other stories. Such stereotyped tales are probably retold as a way to emphasize the dedication of the student and the virtue of the teacher. A more likely scenario is that, given the lack of security in the region, all available young men would have been encouraged to study with the boxing master as this functioned as a type of militia training that the community as a whole benefitted from. Indeed, Fu’s martial practice would remain intertwined with military for most of his life.
It is unclear exactly how long Chen Yanxi remained in Mape. We know that after he left the village hired Jia Qi Shan, a Bagua master and student of Dong Hai Chuan, as their next instructor.  Sources say that Fu studied with Jia for 8-9 years and may have become his formal disciple. Lin and Wing caution that those numbers don’t actually fit well with Fu’s life. This may be the amount of time he worked with both Chen and Jia, or he perhaps he continued his association with Jia after they both left the village.  The existing accounts are not clear on this point.
What we do know is that Fu began to go by the name Fu Zhen Song (“to overcome the mountains”) around this time. With a background in both Chen Taijiquan and Baguazhang, Jia encouraged his student to travel to Beijing in order to gain connections and experience the larger world of martial arts mastery for himself.  It seems likely that Fu was in his mid 20s when he took this step. There are also accounts that suggest that Fu himself may have served as the village boxing instructor at some points during this period.
If so, his tenure was likely to have been an eventful one. 1900 saw widespread violence as the Yihi Boxer movement swept the countryside of Northern China before centering its fury on the foreign presence in Beijing.  The immediate aftermath of this was more bloodshed and foreign military raids into the countryside around Beijing as the seven powers attempted to hunt down any remaining Boxers. Nor can we forget the lingering effects of the famine that motivated so many young men to join the ranks of the Yihi Boxers in the first place.
Social violence echoed throughout the countryside and Mape village was not spared. There are accounts of Fu personally facing down a small gang of local bandits while armed with a pole (possibly made of iron) in 1900.  In another account, which Lin and Wing deem to be credible, Fu was forced to interrupt his time in Beijing (where he was studying Bagua with Ma Gui, a senior disciple of Yin Fu) to return to his village in 1908 where there were rumors of trouble.
In the most spectacular versions of the story Fu, discovering the villagers massively outnumbered by a force of 300 bandits, Fu offered to fight a duel with their top 20 men.  The bandit leader was so impressed with his subsequent victory that he broke off the assault.  However, Lin and Wing note that Fu’s own account of the events (while cryptic) is far more realistic.  When directly questioned later in life he told his student Lin Chao Zhen “They told me there was trouble, so I grabbed a spear and went out to face them.  There were about 30 of them. I fought them, they left.”
According to Lin and Wing, it seems likely that Fu killed two of the raiders in a clash between roughly equal numbers of villagers and bandits. The legal repercussions for killing someone in Imperial China were serious, and on the dusty northern plains the line between one village’s militia and the next’s bandit gang was paper thin.  It was not uncommon for villages militias to turn bandit and raid neighboring settlements in times of famine, or for them to be used to settle disputes.  We don’t really know what sparked this particular clash, but its implications were serious enough that Fu left home and he doesn’t seem to have really returned. Instead this clash seems to mark the beginning of a long period of martial pilgrimage that would only end with his settlement in Guangzhou in 1928.
Banditry was a major problem in the final years of the Qing dynasty.  Successful groups could assemble forces numbering in the thousands and occasionally tens of thousands. These bandit armies would lay siege to small cities and challenge the authority of civil and military authorities. Lacking other options, the state sometimes dealt with particularly successful bandits by offering them commissions as military officers in exchange for their services hunting down other bandit groups or suppressing insurrection in the countryside. Like the martial arts, banditry proved to be a pathway for social advancement for some of China’s landless youth during volatile times.
Nor should we underestimate just how high one’s fortunes could rise.  Republic era generals Zhang Zuolin and Li Zongren were important figures in the political history of the 1920s and 1930s. Both men also crossed paths with Fu at various points.
Zhang and Li each began their rise to power as bandit chieftains in some of the same areas of Northern China that Fu would explore as a member of an armed escort company.  Both men would successfully parlay their original commissions by the Imperial military into positions of influence, and immense personal enrichment, in the armies of the 1920s and 1930s.  During the early 20th century they would also use their followers as “armed escort companies” when periods of relatively peace allowed regional trade in Henan and Shandong.  Fu’s formative years occurred in decades when the line between martial artists, bandit, soldier and armed escort/security guard were thin and ever shifting.  Indeed, these social networks would have an important shaping impact on Fu’s own rise to prominence.
Between the years 1910 and 1913 Fu Zhen Song traveled widely, exploring northern China.  In 1910 he was hired by one of Henan’s many armed escort companies, the Heng Xin Bio Ju. While working with them he traveled the dangerous routes between Henan and Shandong until the firm was ultimately forced to close by the conclusion of the revolution in 1912.
Fu continued to travel for another year, apparently seeking out martial arts instruction.  During late 1912 or 1913 he encountered noted Daoist and swordsman Song Wei Yi (1855-1925). While he may have studied some sword material with him, Lin and Wing report that his main aim was to learn Taiji Lightening Palm and Rocket Fist.
During this time Fu somehow found the opportunity to marry Han Kunru, the daughter of another martial arts teacher from Northern China. They would eventually have four children in total, two sons and two daughters. The elder son would go on to inherit his father’s martial lineage, and later taught Mark Bow Sim, the mother of film star Donnie Yen. While the younger son was not interested in martial arts, there are accounts of both daughters assisting their father in Taijiquan demonstrations.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Traditional Martial Arts vs Reallity

Below is an opinion piece from the South China Morning Post which posits the question: Are most traditional martial arts fake?

The full post may be read here.

It is followed by an excerpt from Kung Fu Tea, which references the first post and makes a counter argument. That full post may be read here. 

I still remember my first ice hockey fight. All the movies I’d watched as a kid, where highly choreographed fight scenes looked like expertly planned dance routines, had horribly lied to me. By the time I realised I was in a fight, at the tender age of 16, it was already half over and I’d taken three or four solid shots to the face and my jersey had been pulled well over my head, rendering me blind.

The experience was jarring: unfiltered chaos, blurred vision in one eye from an errant thumb poke, a ringing eardrum from getting punched in the side of the head, the taste of my own blood and swallowing a tooth. There was just disorganised, violent confusion with a skyrocketing heart rate and buckets of adrenaline.

I held my breath as my body went into shock and when it was over I threw up in the penalty box from exhaustion, even though the whole thing lasted less than 45 seconds.

After about a dozen or so, I started to get the hang of it and learned a few things: an actual fight is about survival. Fights do not happen in closed environments and any time to think is about the same amount of time it will take for your opponent to break your nose.

In one fight, I remember getting my hand caught on my combatant’s shoulder pad. I took three off the chin before I realised his pads were tied to his body and I could use them to take him to the ground. In another tilt, the first punch I threw shattered one of my knuckles on my opponent’s visor and I had to learn how to be a southpaw in about two milliseconds. In one fight I ended up on the concrete ground at the rink as the trainer had forgotten to close the bench door because he was too busy watching the madness in front of him.

What I’m getting at here is that I’m pretty sure no dojo or tai chi master teaches this. There are martial arts you practice in a vacuum, and there is being in a fight. These are two very different things. By no means am I an expert pugilist, but I've been in enough altercations to know things like meditation and flow states will get your head kicked in during a real bout.

A fight is a visceral, primal experience and when you are fighting your physical doppelganger, you can get seriously hurt if you mess around even for a split second.

I’ve watched enough of the same videos I’m sure you all have where a wing chun or kung fu master gets quickly dismantled by a mixed martial artist. The morbid curiosity has got the best of me many times even though I know the storyline: MMA, which teaches people to fight, is a far cry from other traditional disciplines which are heavy on the artistry. 

Still, I can’t help myself in watching these beat downs because I think it exposes an important fallacy floating around the martial arts world: that going to a couple of karate classes or learning moves from a wing chun master will help you in an actual fight, be it in a ring, octagon or out on the street.
 
While the recent documentary The Game Changers talks about former UFC fighter James Wilks’ experience in investigating plant-based diets, one part of the film stuck with me. Wilks remembers being young and getting into his first street fight after taking years of karate and getting rightly pummelled. It was a watershed moment for the fighter and it should ring true for many within the fighting world. You don’t know how ill-equipped you actually are against a much better fighter until you are brutally exposed in embarrassing fashion.

The important thing is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Karate is great for things like self-confidence, discipline, meditation and various other life skills. Wing chun can teach you how to control your mind, regulate your breathing and helps with stretching and toning muscles. These disciplines work around relaxing and centering the psyche, which is incredibly beneficial for kids who have attention issues and adults who have anxiety and stress.

But the buck needs to stop there. Mixed martial artists, pioneered by Bruce Lee himself, have come on the scene as taking the best of various disciplines, from taekwondo to boxing, from jiu-jitsu to Muay Thai, and combining them with the purpose of teaching people how to fight, and more importantly, defend themselves properly from other fighters.
 I still remember my first ice hockey fight. All the movies I’d watched as a kid, where highly choreographed fight scenes looked like expertly planned dance routines, had horribly lied to me. By the time I realised I was in a fight, at the tender age of 16, it was already half over and I’d taken three or four solid shots to the face and my jersey had been pulled well over my head, rendering me blind.

The experience was jarring: unfiltered chaos, blurred vision in one eye from an errant thumb poke, a ringing eardrum from getting punched in the side of the head, the taste of my own blood and swallowing a tooth. There was just disorganised, violent confusion with a skyrocketing heart rate and buckets of adrenaline.

I held my breath as my body went into shock and when it was over I threw up in the penalty box from exhaustion, even though the whole thing lasted less than 45 seconds.

After about a dozen or so, I started to get the hang of it and learned a few things: an actual fight is about survival. Fights do not happen in closed environments and any time to think is about the same amount of time it will take for your opponent to break your nose.In one fight, I remember getting my hand caught on my combatant’s shoulder pad. I took three off the chin before I realised his pads were tied to his body and I could use them to take him to the ground. In another tilt, the first punch I threw shattered one of my knuckles on my opponent’s visor and I had to learn how to be a southpaw in about two milliseconds. In one fight I ended up on the concrete ground at the rink as the trainer had forgotten to close the bench door because he was too busy watching the madness in front of him.What 

I’m getting at here is that I’m pretty sure no dojo or tai chi master teaches this. 

There are martial arts you practice in a vacuum, and there is being in a fight. 

These are two very different things. By no means am I an expert pugilist, but I've been in enough altercations to know things like meditation and flow states will get your head kicked in during a real bout.









Sunday, June 06, 2021

Sports as Philosophy

When practiced at it's highest, sports is every bit as transformative as martial arts practice and is a study in philosophy. 

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at ESPN about Stoicism and sports. The full post may be read here.

"Waste no more time arguing what a good man should do. Be one." -- Marcus Aurelius, "Meditations"

Here is Ryan Holiday, alone in his off-campus apartment at UC Riverside, a decade before he writes a book that Tom Brady poses with next to his Super Bowl-winning football and Rory McIlroy credits with helping him maintain his No. 1 ranking on the PGA Tour. Here is Ryan Holiday before all of that, a gangly 19-year-old sophomore sitting at his kitchen table in 2006 and reading a book that fundamentally alters his life: Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations."

"How did no one tell me about this?" he thinks.

Aurelius, the second-century Roman emperor, practiced a philosophy called Stoicism that argues individuals shape their destinies by controlling what they can and letting go of what they cannot. The Stoics believe the essence of life is how we choose to respond to the things that happen to us.
"Choose not to be harmed and you won't feel harmed," Aurelius writes.

Holiday writes it down. He copies dozens of passages and tapes them to his apartment walls.
"The impediment to action advances action."

"What stands in the way becomes the way."

He reads other Stoics: Epictetus, whom Aurelius loved, and Seneca the Younger, an ancient Roman senator. Holiday practices Stoicism, even after he drops out of UC Riverside to work at a Hollywood talent agency, even after he moves on to American Apparel, where he becomes the director of marketing before he can legally drink. At home he pursues the Stoic tenets of discipline and humility, reading books on philosophy, science and history. He tracks the insights from these books on 4-by-6-inch notecards that fill multiple boxes and become Holiday's own card-catalog system. At work, his voracious curiosity and consuming ambition fuel risqué American Apparel campaigns that give the company, and Holiday himself, a bad-boy reputation. He serves as American Apparel's spokesperson when former employees file sexual harassment suits against the company. He consults for celebrities like Tucker Max, the author of "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell." He loses his bearings.

His reading tells him: He has a choice to make. He can be the man he is or, as Aurelius writes, the man he should be. He quits his job. He writes a self-immolating memoir about the Wild West of digital marketing, "Trust Me: I'm Lying," which shocks everyone and becomes a bestseller. He moves from New Orleans to New York to a farm outside Austin, Texas, and along the way tells his publisher his follow-up will not be scandalous. It won't even be a business book. It'll be about Stoicism.

It'll show how Stoic thinking can improve modern lives. His publisher says the book won't sell well, but Holiday believes he's far from the only person who yearns for ancient wisdom. He takes the book's title from a phrase on a Post-it note on the Riverside kitchen wall: "The Obstacle Is The Way."