sideways common sensei book

11 Feb


What is ZENtensity exactly? Enjoy an excerpt from CommonSensei to shed some light on this incredible mind of matter experience:

*All rights reserved © CommonSensei

-By Bill Viola Jr.

-Sensei Bill Viola Jr. with Shihan Bill Viola Sr. (early 1980s)

While I feel like I’ve lived ten lives already, we all start from scratch.  For me, that’s being “the student,” and I got my sea legs before I could walk.  As a toddler, I was taught mental warfare at the dōjō – not your typical preschool.  I wasn’t much older than three-years-old when karate officially became my whetstone. You see, in my household training was a religion, and when church was in service, Shihan (master) exercised the demons! The dōjō was “hot as hell,” and my feet were constantly held to the flame.  If I was lazy punching the bag, I’d catch the “Wrath of Kahn.”  Stylistically, my dad resembled one part Bobby Knight, two parts Mike Ditka, three parts General George Patton with the punch of Jackie Gleeson (Google em’).  Volatile, tough, decorated, and animated — well intended and damn good at building champions. Outside the dōjō he personified Dr. Jekyll; inside the sanctuary, Mr. Hyde. You just never knew who you’d get, the serious Dean Martin type or the jovial Jerry Lewis?  He was an enigma, making his process unpredictable, yet very effective. Shihan (pronounced she-hawn) was preparing me for a battle, and it required full fudōshin. We had endless private lessons where every microcosm of my being was scrutinized. Tired? Too bad.  Sore? Too bad.  Incapable? Too bad.  Sick? Too bad.  The Japanese have a saying, mō ichido meaning “once more,” and it became our credo. Do it again.  Again.  Again.  Again. Again. When it was time to practice, it was shut up and put up. 

I’m not going to lie, it took years for me to discover my fudō-frame, but when I did, anguish shifted to determination, but I wasn’t there… yet. I was still a typical kid who’d rather be watching Saturday morning cartoons, especially He-man. Life has a peculiar way of imitating art, and soon I was living in the Masters of the Universe. “By the power of Grayskull,” I sharpened my first sword. I can’t tell you the exact day or time “it” happened, I just remember I was a blue belt.  My kata of choice that day was an advanced pattern called Bassai Dai, literally meaning “penetrate the fortress.”  Pretty convenient since my mind was under siege. My dad fondly recalls that lesson when “It just clicked 😈.” Or was it, I “just   snapped” 👿, shattering the mental shackles holding me back.  Shihan always told me how good I could be, but that day I became great. I’d given 99% a thousand times, but never went full throttle. The endless harping, yelling, and screaming: “harder, harder, harder” lit a wick that burned slowly.  Then, without any warning about half way through Bassai Dai — ignition!  I exploded in martial bliss. Bruce Banner became the Hulk, and I saw my true potential for the first time. I was “aware” of what Bill Viola Jr. was capable of.  My nostrils flared as the clouds parted. It scared the bejesus out of me; frightening and glorious all the same. Yin to the yang!  Up until this point I was a hard worker and winning, but still a mere mortal.  Finding “ZENtensity” was immortal. It was the spark Shihan had been longing for, and his face gleamed like the 4th of July — an expression forever tattooed in my mind.  That image is a permanent reminder of my breakthrough to the dark side of the moon.  It’s since become my mission to help other’s reach for the stars.

Sensei, what exactly is ZENtensity?” Great question.  While there’s no words to fully describe this physical/mental phenomenon, ZENtensity is achieved when outside influences vanish, and one harnesses all potential power into an activity. Zen symbolizes tranquility while intensity reveals ferocity and potency. One inner; the other outer.  One making peace; the other waging war. Its mysterious synergy of amity and vehemence — pure alchemy!  Such beautiful music can be heard only when the mind, body and soul leap onto the “stairway to heaven.”



0:01 -❍──────── -8:02, ↻ ⊲ Ⅱ ⊳ ↺

In the pantheon of rock ‘n roll, this is my anthem of ZENtensity. The tempo progressively increases until what the band describes as an orgasm at the end. ▂▃▄▅▆▇  ZEN ZEN ZEN ZEN ZEN ZEN ZENtensity!  The YIN and YANG of Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar and Robert Plant’s epic lyrics shreds of materialism and the path you take. It’s wildly open to interpretation, so go ahead and make your own determination. PS, the song also made my elementary recorder (fipple flute) cool for a minute 😆. 

I’ve been using the term for decades, and not just for karate. For you it could be soccer, ballet, or weight lifting. Whatever. ZENtensity is a performance that intentionally leaves absolutely nothing to be desired!  In simplest terms, it’s giving more effort than you thought was possible: One more inch, one more ounce, one more rep. ZENtensity has nothing to do with winning a trophy, and everything to do with beating yourself.  It’s the secret to sharpening your sword! The experience was mind-blowing. I held in my possession a sparkling new katana, one of a self-motivated young boy. My superpowers were no longer dormant, and for once, I wasn’t Barry Allen, I was the Flash ⚡. Everyone has unrealized potential bottled up. Shihan was the corkscrew, and I popped off 🍾! I went from sippin’ boxed wine to Cristal, the finest cuvee champagne.  Drunk with confidence, I was under the influence of my new found awareness.  I’d only been using a fraction of my private reserve, and that was a waste of my God-given talent. That lesson offered a life-changing realization — the human body can do more; much more. Call it “mind over matter,” “where there’s a will there’s a way,” whatever. I became inebriated with mental fortitude, and I would not be denied. ZENtensity was a drug and I was addicted.

I fought flipping that switch 💡 for years.  Why? Was I scared?  Was I embarrassed?  Was I storing up energy like a dam retaining water? Something was restricting my flow, but when I fully opened the valve a flood 🌊 followed. Hanging on for dear life, the raging rapids were breathtaking.  ZENtensity rushed through my mind, body, and spirit as a single stream of solidarity.  The marriage of shoshin and fudōshin unleashed the vast power of my katana, and I’ve never be the same since.  Although I cracked the ceiling of my capabilities, there was still a huge learning curve.  I had accepted Shihan’s tough love, but that didn’t mean the training got any easier. The world will always try to break you, so Shihan progressively pushed me harder. The difference was, I “got it” now. Adversity, fear, pain, and failure didn’t dull me anymore, it sharpened my blade.  Shihan refined my skills in a John Kreese / Mr. Miyagi kind of way: Equal parts intimidation, I mean motivation 😉, and inspiration. Yin to the yang! Strict and blunt, yet wise and honorable.  Long before the Karate Kid film franchise, “Fear does not exist in this dōjō!  Pain does not exist in this dōjō.  Defeat does not exist in this dōjō!” Does it?  “No Sensei!”

Back in the ‘80s, our North Irwin dōjō held court at an old converted meat locker. Shihan presided over a hardcore group of men and women who lambasted the harsh conditions. His militant tone, intense commands, and passion were calling cards of a warden laying down the gauntlet. There wasn’t room for democracy. Nope, he was judge, jury, and executioner… and the students wouldn’t have it any other way.  Allegheny Shotokan was known to set the precedent for grit, and pushed the legal limits of hard work.  The scales ⚖ tipped back and forth withblood and sweat; cheers and tears; yin and yang. There was a colorful cast of soldiers:  Jack Bodell, member of the United States Secret Service who protected President Jimmy Carter; Jacquet Bazemore, World Heavy Weight Kickboxing champion and sparring partner to Muhammad Ali;  Doug Selchan, the first American to win a Gold Medal in Kumite at the Pan American Games, and little old me. What a trip!

ALL ABOARD! 🚂🚂🚂. Prior to being a freezer, the dōjō was a train terminal and hub for freight headed to Pittsburgh.  Thick concrete block walls hugged a “mindfield” of warriors trying to kick down mental barricades. The tracks were adjacent to the school, so on any given evening one could hear the howling of boxcars marred by battle cries — kiai.

Sensei Says🥋: A kiai 📢 is a battle cry or spirit shout signaling ATTACK: “Hi-yah!” or “Eeee-yah!” followed by a deadly chop 👋👋😂.  Instead of yelling a bunch of vowels, it can be your favorite motivational quote, lyric, or mantra.

Outside, the air horn would sound: WAAANK WAAANK!  A warning signal to all its path that a collision was eminent. Inside, fists and feet traveled at top speeds, equally difficult to stop. Students methodically pounded away to the CLICKETY-CLACK-CLICKETY-CLACK cadence. It was all very surreal.  There weren’t many children passengers back then, but since dad the conductor, Addie and I were exceptions. My sister and I took the fast track growing up, as only a handful of elementary soldiers stood in line.  We rode that same locomotive every day of our lives: CHOO CHOOOOO, CHUGGA-CHUGGA-CHUGGA! Destination, “Pain Town, USA.”

Our home away from home was reminiscent of the musty old boxing gyms of yesteryear, an atmosphere that fit the mold of Clubber Lang, Apollo Creed, and Rocky Balboa. Absolutely no amenities; by design. My father would patrol the lines with a bamboo stick, a tool he adopted from Teruyuki Okazaki. The “Big O” and other Japanese masters introduced pain as “encouragement” to correct your form: SWAT! My dad followed the tradition: THWAP! People actually paid to be treated this way 😂. Those methods might not be kosher today, but they were effective.  There’s something to be said about that.

I’m going off script for just a minute, but only to illuminate my dad’s attitude.  I had a chance encounter with a man named “Moe” a few weeks ago.  I was picking up a couch I purchased from an auction when a man (late 50s) yells, “Are you related to Sensei Viola.”  Evidently he saw “Viola” on the receipt, and sprinted across the parking lot to introduce himself.  “My name’s Mohammed, and your dad was a real bad ass [laughs].  He taught me science in middle school, and I’ll never ever forget him.”  Moe expressed he didn’t fancy school too much, but when it came to Mr. V’s class, he sat up straight and paid attention. I asked why? “If not, he’d send my ass to Siberia.”  Siberia, I asked?  “Yup, if you acted up he’d put you in the corner (holding a stack of books) in a horse stance until you behaved – that was Siberia [laughs]. One trip, and you didn’t wanna go back!  “Man, he taught me discipline (dropping into a stance and firing off a few punches).  See, I still got it!”  Moe flagged down his fellow workers and proceeded to gush about how my dad was his Sensei back in the 1970s.  He shook my hand and said, “Yo, your dad made a difference. He was tough, but it was from the heart. I appreciate him. Tell him Mohammed says thanks.” I’ve heard hundreds of these tales over the years, and each and every story has the same ending:  appreciation. In an age where accountability and discipline are lost arts, “Karen” and “Ken” would cry child endangerment, but I’d argue “time and place.”  No matter, this was who my father was, and so the first twenty something years of my life went like this…

One muggy afternoon I was tasked to rep out 100 kata!  My father didn’t fancy AC or heat, so depending on the elements the dōjō was either an ice rink or sweat box.  Today, the house that Shihan built was sweltering. To a neophyte, doing a bunch of kata might not seem like much, but this wasn’t a wimpy walk through.  Kata is like shadow boxing, only in a strict and precise memorized fashion. Each routine is a 2-3 minute workout that was, how can I say this delicately, “balls to the wall.” No matter, the result was music to my ears. 

Kata is a symphony of all the martial arts instruments in perfect arrangement.  My movement, akin to the strings, is like a violin 🎻 both sparkling and brilliant.  Stances sink deeper and deeper, that of the lowest bass cello or tuba 📯, anchoring my position. AHHH-OOOOH-GAA, that’s the sound of my jinkai (war shell). It’s monotone and melodic tenor alerts samurai of an attack. The volume is deafening. Blocks slice through the air, smooth as John Coltrane on the sax 🎷 and strikes shred imaginary foes, electric like Eddie Van Halen on guitar 🎸. As I float effortlessly across the mat, I work up to a fever pitch. The percussion hits—BANG!  Punches thrash the snare drum 🥁—BOOM! Kicks clash the cymbal—CLANG.  Each technique shrill like the brass: “Da-da-da-DAT-da-DAH 🎺” CHARGE! I’ve called out the enemy! Each kata an epic mental battle to the death.  Each kata an invigorating breath of life.  “Wow Sensei, quite an ensemble!” Yes, music and kata can equally heal the soul.  

It is a performance of a lifetime.  Shihan the maestro waving his stick, and I, the one man band. His animated gestures set the tempo, but it’s his brow, oh man that brow that intently interprets my score 🎼! A wrinkled scowl indicated I better pick it up, while a slightly raised eyebrow granted silent approval. From the podium his head gently lowers; I bow. Then with no warning the master’s hand flings upward.  I strike accordingly, and the choreography engages.  Up-down, up-down, up-down his baton moves in fast sequential movements as my mind and body anticipates and reacts.  As the wand glides slowly through the air, my core engages in deep breathing and dynamic tension.  He snaps – explosion! He waves – 360 spin. He spears – punch kiai 🔊! I have to laugh, I was literally a human Konami cheat code:  UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, B, A, START.

Sensei Says🥋Konami is a Japanese video game company famous for classics like Frogger, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dance Dance Revolution and of course Contra (1987) which popularized “cheat codes, and you can still dial it in today!  Contra Returns is now available on Android and IOS.     

Kata is a free-for-all of internal and external expression that can’t be quantified, only experienced.  While Shihan might be pulling the strings, I’m not a puppet. We need to, we “must” work in unison. Each kata tells a unique story opening a gateway to the past. As I speak to my ancestors with this war dance, I’m creating my own time remnant. As the “chosen one,” my methods will be passed down to the next generation and it’s an honor.  “Sensei, this is epic!” Yes, Shihan the narrator, and “I” the author. Ultimately my words, stances, and desire determines a happy or sad ending, so I push.    

After 10-15 kata, my shortness of breath wheezed like emphysema echoing off the mildew stained walls. Shihan didn’t acknowledge my doubts, he simply turned the page and said, “Again.” Waggling his fingers, maestro analyzed every nuance and scrutinized each position.  As clay, I was molded and sculpted into a warrior.  We continued to negotiate with our eyes, but he sees things I can’t.  He hears things I don’t.  I stumbled up to 25 patterns, on the brink of exhaustion. Fudōshin was fading. WTH, I’ve got 75 more.  No way! “Dad, I can’t do anymore.”  He just glared.  It’s true, my mind was lying to me. I had plenty left in the tank, but I had to break a pain barrier to reach the reservoir. I hadn’t scratched the surface of ZENtensity… yet.  Running out of gas was accepting defeat, meaning I’d have to push my car the rest of the way.  That’s silly, especially since I knew how to manipulate the needle.  We all have a reserve tank where potential is stored, and pain is the universal code to unlock it. For most, it’s rarely tapped because we follow the path of least resistance. Luckily, Shihan didn’t believe in taking the easy road.   I forged ahead talking to myself, “no-pain no-gain” and struggled to #50. The mid-point gave me hope and a second wind.  Minutes earlier I was ready to throw in the towel, but something changed. There are only two choices at this crossroads, give “up” or give “all.” Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right!” HORSEPOWER! My desire to grow overpowered my desire to quit. “The mind quits before the body,” I said it over and over. I said it so many times I disabled my governor and modified my mind. With the restrictor plate removed, my engine was free to cut loose and speed across the threshold: #51! I was finally closer to the goal line than the start line. Fudōshin supercharged! I took control of the wheel, realizing this was my orchestra. Shihan set the tone, but the melody, that was all me!  Pain was no longer pulling me down, it was pushing me forward in beautiful harmony! I visualized 👀 victory, and in doing so, defeat disappeared!  Out of its sheath, SHIIIING, my katana chopped that mission into mini sets of 10, banging them out: 60-70-80-90 — slaying one dragon at a time, one micro goal at a time, crossing one finish line at a time. My song was coming to life.

By now I’d been swimming in a pool of perspiration, a gi drenched in sweat, but #100 was in sight. The low fuel light illuminated my dashboard for over an hour now, but somehow I was still trucking? My heart raced: thump-thump ❤❤ thump-thump ❤❤ thump-thump ❤❤. Grasping for oxygen like a panting dog in full blown heatstroke, I closed my eyes and took a few slow deep breathes in through my nose to regain composure.  SINGLE-MINDEDNESS!  My gaze shifted to hyper focus. I’ve come this far, one more rep for triple digits. KIAI 🔊!!!!!! Dropping to my knees, I felt TRIUMPH!!! Shihan smiled… “mō Ichido!” 

Are you kidding me?!?  Ah man, my father relished in these “Will” power moments. After all it was our namesake 😉. Finding another gear in his pupils was his specialty, something only a master mechanic can discover. He had a magic way of reading the room and calling out emotional bluffs.  Shihan was not only a composer, but in fact a sorcerer of sorts. My posture slouched and my eyes welled up; I felt broken.  In a louder tone, “I need everything you got.”  I quipped back, “I just gave it to you!?! I’m spent.” My needle was buried on “E” with no gas stations in sight.  Shihan, oh Shihan.  He wasn’t interested in gas, he wanted the fumes. He sensed I had, “one” more in me, even if I didn’t. I started to sob. “Suck it up,” he barked.  How was my limp body gonna react?  My arms and legs were jelly; my lungs breathless. Was I truly empty? Fuel is “anything” that reacts with “something” to create energy.  That “anything” is your mind, and that “something” is your potential.  Calmly this time he said, “Eye of the tiger, son.”  This was virgin territory and I chose to be a man. Eff this kata, I’m creating my song. Like Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart, this became my opus. Grimacing, but with renewed fervor, fudōshin assured me this rep would be a master piece.


BUGLER’S DREAM (1958) by Noël Leon Marius Arnaud

0:01 -❍──────── -4:26, ↻ ⊲ Ⅱ ⊳ ↺

This classical theme hit home during the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and has since become a symbol of the Games. The composition is synonymous with the quest for TEAM USA 🥇.   

            “Gentlemen, start your engines 🏎.” It was now a two car race, mind vs body, and NASCAR had nothing on me. I flipped the switch: SHUUUSSSHHH ‍💨, slowly injecting NOS into my engine for one final surge of torque and power. Inching the line I prayed, “Please don’t stall.” Shihan commands,  “Ready, hajime (begin)!”  Fast and furious is the only way to reach ZENtensity, so naturally I squealed out in a haze of burning rubber.  Squeezing every last smidgen of nitrous oxide out, I drained the tank. PUNCH. KICK. SHIFT. BLOCK. STRIKE. KIAI 🔊🔊🔊!!! Fudōshin stood firm and I hurdled over the pain barrier 🏁.  The race was over, and a ticker tape parade rained down in my head. I’d called out my mind, “you’re a liar,” and put fear in the rear view mirror. Weakness left my body, and confidence was vindicated.  Shihan nodded; I bowed back. He demanded an encore, and I delivered.  The standing ovation was his subtle approval, and I basked in its glory! There may have only been two of us in the dōjō, but together we were louder than the New York Philharmonic. It was my final bow, at least for that day.  Pain might not always be tangible, but I could taste the gain… and it was sweet. No seriously, we’d celebrate with a half-gallon of Islay’s hand-packed chocolate ice-cream on the way home.  It was heaven 🍨🍨🍨.    

Potential was reached at the curtain call #101, not #100. That last kata is what separates a “warrior from a worrier.”  My dad’s words, not mine.   I cried a lot in those days, but those sessions are how I practiced my fudō-frame. Those workouts allowed me grasp the lesson, “pain is inevitable; suffering optional.”  In karate we don’t say “why me” we say “try me.” I no longer hated the drill, I loved the result 🙌. “Now that’s a powerful mental block, Sensei!” Yes it is, here’s your new mantra, “Yesterday’s pain; today’s gain; tomorrow’s tears of joy!” Whether it’s a bark or a bite, pushing you past what you thought you’re capable of is a dog you want in your corner. Shihan growled, I whined, but in the end… we both howled at the moon in victory.  “A ‘ruff ryder’ eh, Sensei?” Yup, with some serious fangs!  ZENtensity will make you the leader of the pack.  ARrrrr Rufff, where my dogs at?!?



0:01 -❍──────── -3:42, ↻ ⊲ Ⅱ ⊳ ↺

WARNING [Explicit] This banger ranks as the most intimidating song on my playlist, and “Iron Mike” agrees 🥊.  In 1999, Tyson made his first return the ring after a suspension for biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear 👂. He proceeded to knock out South Africa’s Francois Botha. The iconic walkout to “Intro” is full of aggression and ferocity.  It is the hardest opening track ever, prove me wrong!  RIP DMX 😥.

Throughout my upbringing I took some lickings, but my skin became rhino thick; an unbreakable armor. I was a remnant of Shihan’s volcanic eruptions: wurtzite boron nitride!  That’s the hardest substance on earth! Getting a beat down is the only way to really appreciate a glow up. Ya feel me? Everything that attempts to break you either succeeds in destroying you or strengthening you. I “chose” to feel the burn 💪.  Pump p-p pump p-p-p pump it up!

Look, everyone walks to the beat of their own drum 🥁.  While Shihan was some heavy metal, your sensei (coach, mom, dad, teacher, mentor, etc.) could be smooth jazz?  You might not have a bandleader at all?  Just because his style of music 🎼 got a rise out me doesn’t mean it’s a one size fit all anthology?  I’ve learned as a Sensei that every single genre should be explored. If you aren’t open to challenges outside your comfort zone, you’ll never know if your ultimate score is a country or hip hop concert. All that matters is that you discover the right rhythm: a regular recurring motion that pushes you past what you thought you’re capable of.  I am a unique artist.  You are a unique artist.  We all have different lyrics and songs to sing, but in the end we’re faced with two tracks 📻: 

1. Hit?   😁

2. Flop? 😖        

Billboard only has room for 100 on the hot list, so you better “Hustle & Flow 👇”. 

Kickin’ Flicks🎬:  Hustle & Flow (2005) stars Terrence Howard as a Memphis hustler with aspirations to be a rapper. The film received widespread praise and garnered a host of accolades including an Academy Award for Best Original Song.  “You know what they say, everybody gotta have a dream”.

Sensei says, “Anything is possible; nothing is actual.” How you arrange your sounds determines your future playlist.  It’s your choice to live life in stereo or monotone?  Raise the volume: 🎚 ▂▃▄▅▆▇ to its fullest potential. Do you hear what I’m saying?  ZEN ZEN ZEN ZEN ZEN ZEN ZENtensity!  Never back down, and you’ll find a way to rise up!

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Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Bill Viola Jr.

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