Heart in My Mouth – On Having a Mentor

I’ve been asked to write a piece on the meaning of having a mentor.  The request came from a fellow who sends me great videos of Tyson training and...

I’ve been asked to write a piece on the meaning of having a mentor.  The request came from a fellow who sends me great videos of Tyson training and inspirational clips of the boxing persuasion.  The relationship of Tyson to his mentor, Cus D’Amato, is not only the obvious reference,  but a very good example to me of what it feels like to have Master K in my life.

The question, “what is it like?” is somewhat perplexing.  I think immediately of Tyson as he is now, the former prize fighter who is calmed and at once a little lost in his new life.  He’s thoughtful, though not all together articulate in his expression of those thoughts.  But it always strikes me that the mere mention of Cus’ name in a question sends Tyson into a state in which he can barely speak.  He tears up and chokes on his words as he tries, very earnestly, to honor his mentor and express how much he means, his generosity and Tyson’s gratitude.  And not one single word he speaks expresses it better than the simple fact of his difficulty in these moments.

I think also of the opening scene of King Lear, in which the three daughters are asked to express their love for their father.  The two wicked sisters blurt out some very standard words of admiration in the form of superlatives, and the one sister who truly loves her father, expresses the most beautiful devotion by her inability to express it at all:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.

It sounds like a crap answer, but it’s so moving to me.  She loves her father and her king “according to [her] bond”.  When you have a brother, for example, he can be a total jerk or he can be your confidant, but either way you love him; and you probably love him just as strong in either case, the difference being whether or not you actually like him also.  I love Master K, and I also really like him and respect him.  I love him according to our bond, so I reckon the question here is whether or not I can explain that bond.

I came to Master K as an adult, with an uninformed and yet curious feeling toward Muay Thai.  I’d seen it in a movie, thought it was one of the more beautiful things I’d ever seen and wanted to learn how to perform the movements.  He started training me just a few months prior to his 69th birthday.  He’d already been practicing Muay Thai for over 50 years and that alone is evidence for how much he loves it.  My appreciation for the art grew into a deep love for the tradition of Muay Thai and I owe a great deal of that to Master K.  He didn’t teach me to love it, but rather through his generosity and power of spirit he infused me with a love for it.

And I know it hasn’t been easy for him.  He’s fairly traditional and very Thai in a way that your grandfather might strike you as being “very American.”  Master K loves women and is a very respectful person, so I know he accepted me on a very deep level from the start, growing to see me as a daughter pretty early on.  It was partly the urge to protect me as a daughter and partly an old-school Thai attitude that made it difficult for him when I decided I wanted to fight.  But according to our bond, Master K decided to support me, even if he didn’t like it.  And I guess it was largely according to this bond that I decided to push him in the first place – your teacher tells you “no” and you might just take that as a final word, but your father tells you “no” and you will likely keep pushing.

A few weeks ago on the FX show “Lights Out,” the title character aligns with a new trainer.  The trainer happens to be Lights’ next opponent’s “Cus D’Amato”, although the trainer had been ultimately betrayed by the champion and abandoned.   The trainer explains that when you take a kid who has nothing into your home and treat him like a son (like Tyson’s story), that turning him into a fighter gives him power that he didn’t have before.  Once he tastes that power, he wants to cut everyone out of his life who ever knew his weakness – which is what happened with this coach – to erase it.  I can’t imagine anything more horrible; and turning your back on the person who has seen your weakness and pushed you through it is to reject everything you can ever become.  Goethe wrote that if he accepts you as you are, it will make you worse; but if he treats you as if you are what you are capable of becoming, then he helps you become it.  Master K sees what I can be, and he makes that potential ever greater.  He knows my weakness – he sees it all the time; but he helps me to shape it into my power.  You cannot replace weakness with power, you must transform it.  And this task is never finished.  I will never have “accomplished the end” of my training, of this path, of what I can learn from Master K.

I think, too, that a lot of what having a mentor means is a matter of how much I value what Master K gives me.  He is an incredibly generous man and he is also a proud man.  He loses face when I fail and it’s hard for him; it hurts him.  Everything I do in Muay Thai is – either directly or indirectly – for the sake of bringing all that Master K has taught me and given me to the fore, so that I can honor him and make him proud.  There is a saying that talent is God’s gift to you and what you do with that talent is your gift to God.  I think that works on the mortal scale, too.  I think that Tyson is haunted by this, by trying so hard with everything to give back to Cus D’Amato to a degree that feels like repayment.  The pain of this is that Cus isn’t around to tell Tyson that he’s proud and within Tyson, whether Cus were here or not, these things cannot ever really be repaid.  It never feels like enough.  But I guess that’s why the phrase uses the word “gift.”  A gift is decidedly not a matter of payment and in gift-giving, the scales are never equal.

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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