“He can’t keep that up for very long.”
It was 1982, and my fellow Tae Kwon Do student Steve Waldenburg sat, watching our classmate, Ko, with amazement. Steve shook his head. “He’ll bounce into a wall any minute now.”
Ko jumped into a straight-legged, flying front kick and gently folded to a graceful shoulder roll, then stood up to face the center of the Dojo. With a slow, reverent bow, hands perfectly positioned, Ko saluted the master, two other instructors, and the class. Ko was testing for his red belt in Tae Kwon Do. Upon completion of the test, we all scored him top marks. The master, Kwon, scored him nine out of ten. “Ko has an advantage over the other students,” the master whispered. “He sees deeper and will progress more quickly.”
What made the scene remarkable was that Ko had been blind for four years because of a car accident. I was 17 at the time of his test, and only sensed what the master so clearly observed: that there is an inner world of strength that cannot be glimpsed through common sight. Ko was already familiar with this inner world; its landscapes were not foreign to him as they were to the other, fully sighted students.
As a practitioner of martial arts for more than 30 years, and as a therapist and teacher of transformative and healing arts, I have witnessed the special presence of the differently abled among us as one of healing and enlightenment. Every encounter I have had with people from this vast community has enriched my training and my sense of mission.
The Jewish sages teach us that we find true strength only through mastery of ourselves. One who has conquered himself is said to be more valiant than one who can conquer an entire city. The way of the Jewish sages and that of practitioners of the Tao Te Ching are very similar. Both paths help people to understand that the true conquest of obstacles must happen internally before it can happen externally.
Ko himself told me that the loss of his vision forced the opening of his true sight. My students who have faced physical challenges have often had to marshal their courage, inner determination and will just to meet life’s daily challenges. They have learned to face their dragons, align with them, and channel that energy to empower their journey rather than hinder it. Ko showed me that, even when God seems to close some doors for us, other gifts and portals of perception are opened.
Another example of this phenomenon was the late Dr. Milton H. Erickson. A psychologist and healer, Erickson was widely regarded during his lifetime for his talent as a clinical hypnotist. Erickson displayed the remarkable ability of bonding instantly with those he met and leading patients quickly into a complete, deep trance. He credited his mental gifts to a variety of disabilities, including physical weakness resulting from being twice stricken with polio. Because he was restricted in his movements, he was able to observe human dynamics more subtle than most people would detect and use this skill in his work to help others. Erickson’s bouts with polio may have limited his access to physical expression, but it opened a portal of possibility that even today is changing the way some therapists approach the human psyche.
People like Ko and Erickson are masters in the true sense, those we call “Sensei” in the martial art traditions or “Tsaddikim” in the Jewish mystic path. They show us that what we have in common as human beings is the constant striving for excellence in the application of our deepest human traits, such as courage, love and determination. I look forward to the day when our eyes will be opened and our ears attentive to not just the plight, but more importantly the might, and the very special light coming from the world of the differently abled.