David James — Martial Artist, Steward & Disciple

David relaxes in the Paramhansa Yogananda shrine before our conversation, Ananda Community central green.

David James serves as manager of the Ananda community in Mountain View, California. Still active as a martial arts instructor at age 50, he recounts the events that led him to the path of Self-realization. Our conversation didn’t touch on the arts, but perhaps readers will draw inspiration from David’s creative approach to his life and service.

Q: What was your childhood like?

David: I was born on the south side of San Jose, California. It was a rough neighborhood, what most people would call “the other side of the tracks.”

I have two brothers and a sister, and my parents adopted kids, so I grew up in a house that was always full of kids and very busy. Everyone was welcome at our place. We were the house where everybody brought their friends, so on a given Saturday morning you would wake up and find a slew of people in sleeping bags all around.

I was the youngest, and as the little brother I was constantly getting picked on and pushed around, not only in our house but in the neighborhood, and I was scared a lot. I think it’s why martial arts movies were so important for me. Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan were huge for me as a kid, and Kung Fu Theater on Saturday night, where you could watch a double feature of old Hong Kong films.

I think what resonated with me was the fact that one man or woman could stand up to a host of enemies and take care of himself and walk away the hero.

I’ve always known that I was a martial artist, even though I didn’t start my training until I was eighteen. In one of the earliest photos of me, I’m heading off to kindergarten with a lunchbox that has a picture on it of David Carradine from the Kung Fu TV series. And to this day those stories play a large part in the way I look at my practice. When I teach I still quote from the Kung Fu series, because those lessons resonated so deeply with me growing up, and I still think they are true.

David Carradine and the Wise One from the temple said many wonderful things, and I believed in that philosophy, more even than I believed in the martial arts, because it was the philosophy that appealed to me, and the temples with their austere ways.

Growing up, I saw that martial artists often ended up on a spiritual path, so meditation and the martial arts were always linked in my mind.

The martial arts have been a kind of moving meditation for me, and my inner sense of martial arts as meditation naturally unfolded over the years. I believe that natural progression is why many martial artists eventually find a spiritual path.

Some of the people I started out with were very tough guys. They were gang members or they came from parts of the world where there was war, and they’d had to participate in that, so they came in ready to fight and win. I’ve been friends with those guys and gals for decades, and they’ve all become lovers of God. We’ve matured in spiritual ways that you might not have expected, if you had known us when we were younger.

Again, I attribute it to the Kung Fu TV show and the Bruce Lee movies, where you would usually find the heroes and heroines at some point in the film sitting in lotus posture. So it was in my awareness from the start.

Q: To what extent was the spiritual side anchored in the physical for you? Was there a goal of gaining control over your energy and your mind?

David: Let me back up. When I started in the martial arts I was afraid of everything. As a child I walked around afraid all the time, and in my pre-teen and teenage years, living in my neighborhood, you had to put on some kind of armor. Because you couldn’t walk around fearful, or you’d be a target. So I built a persona of a tough guy, but behind the armor I was still scared. I guess I was afraid of getting hurt, afraid of losing, afraid of looking like a failure. And when I joined the martial arts it forced me into situations where you’re going to lose and you’re going to fail, and I believe the martial arts help you learn to lose gracefully and be okay with others being better than you. Because if you’re climbing the mountain together, the one who’s better than you will always stay better than you.

You’re going into a ring with a fighter who, while there are rules and referees, and maybe you’re friends outside the ring, once you’re in the ring with them all they want to do is go wham on you. And when you step into the ring with somebody who wants to beat the crap out of you, it really makes you dig down inside and find something that, for me personally, I never knew was there as a child.

So while I wasn’t a champion, I was an okay fighter. I didn’t bring home a ton of trophies, but that was never my aim, to be the best fighter, and I’ve always felt like a winner just getting into the ring, because it’s scary, and that is the lesson that I’ve passed on to my students. “We’re going to tournaments, not so that we can bring home trophies, but because it’s an excellent way to apply what we’re learning.”

The martial arts are a way that you can get past those scary fears that people don’t usually have an opportunity to face unless they’re in the military, and you can choose to get in there and face something really scary and get past it. And for me, it was realizing that once I got back out of the ring, whether I won or lost or walked out with a broken nose or a trophy that I was proud of, it was a form of victory that I was able to get in the ring and face that foe and realize that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. So I grew from the experience.

Q: Did your relationship with your body change in terms of how your ego related to your body? For example, if you’re getting pounded or you’re losing, is there a point in the martial arts where you’re more impersonal about the body, and being hurt?

David: Definitely. I don’t know if it’s common for martial artists to have that type of awakening, but it’s always been there for me.

I took a lot of punishment growing up, from my brothers and sisters and in our rough neighborhood. I took a lot of beatings, and because I was afraid I never fought back and I just took it. And it didn’t take long for me to realize that I can take a punch and keep moving.

I think that’s a quality that’s common among martial artists, that they can take a punch. And a common rule among most styles and teachers and schools is that if you get knocked down, you get back up. It’s not that you aren’t going to get knocked down, but it’s getting back up that matters. “Get back on the horse.” And that’s what martial artists do.

I’ve seen a lot of people wash out of the martial arts, and I’m not talking about the people who were afraid, I’m talking about the superstars.

They walk in, and they look like they’ll be formidable on the floor. I’m thinking of a gentleman who was a genuine tough guy, and he came to my school wanting to learn some self-defense because of the nature of his job. And to this day most of my black belts are women, and the style that I train in is geared toward preservation of life. There are styles that have lots of flowery movements, and there are styles that are geared toward fighting in tournaments and winning trophies. But our style is absolutely toward saving your life on the street.

So the ladies that I’m mentioning, who’ve reached the black belt level, are what we call “tough” in the martial arts world, but they aren’t badasses. And this gentleman, while he was a good boxer, he wasn’t a great ground fighter, and I recognized that about him early on.

He would hang around after the lesson and chat with us, like you do in a dojo, but on the days when he lost he would grab his bag and leave right away. So I thought I would give him a lesson, and I started inviting three really good women black belt grapplers to our class, and I would let them play with this gentleman. And his ego just couldn’t handle it, and he went to maybe two of those lessons and he never came back.

So to answer your question, I think the martial artists who go the distance, I think that in their mind they end up realizing, wow, I wasn’t aware that a loss doesn’t mean the end.

I had to learn that, but it was already a seed inside me that just needed to be nurtured.

As far as the physical side, I would say it was the biggest hindrance for me. I started when I was eighteen, and I was in good shape. I was a dancer, so I knew my body well. But when you’re getting to know your body and you realize “I can make this happen, and I can make it happen often,” there’s an element of ego that tries to creep in, and I think it’s true when you become proficient in anything.

There’s a saying that I use in the martial arts – “We don’t beat you down, but we’ll beat you up.” So by getting your lickings and getting lifted back up by your teacher and your colleagues, it helps you build that strength, and the belief that until I’m truly down and can’t get up, I’m going to keep getting back up.

One of my right hands is a big, tough guy. We were already buddies when he joined my class, and he moved ahead quickly because he was very skilled, and he became a champion.

Early in his career we went to a tournament where he snapped his tibia and femoral bone, just snapped them in half. He called me after the weekend, and he said, “Sifu,” he goes, “I don’t know if this is worth it, man.” And I said, “You know, I totally get it. I absolutely get that.”

So sometime in the next couple of days there were maybe forty of us in the dojo, and he came in on his crutches. I’m not sure why he came, maybe to say goodbye or to grab his stuff. But he walked in with his crutches and the whole school stopped and turned around and started cheering. And you could see that that kind of support was exactly what he needed.

Not the win, not the trophy, not even his body being whole. It was that support from everybody, that even though he lost, he lost moving forward, and to this day he’s a high-ranking instructor with two schools.

He just continued forth, and it was such a poignant moment for me, to watch that lesson happen for him. And I’ve seen many, many things like that, that have encouraged me to continue.

Q: On the spiritual side, did you spend a lot of time seeking, or did you come straight to Ananda?

David: I searched my whole life. As kids we grew up Methodist and we were in church every Sunday. It was only on Sunday, but I always knew that Jesus was my friend.

When I was eighteen I moved out right away because I wanted to start my life as soon as possible, and I began looking for a church to join.

I went to many churches, not by denomination, but I would drive by a place and feel something there, so I would go in, and there were some deep places that held my interest.

But like any relationship, after a year or so your partner stops behaving at their best and they start showing their true colors, and so about ten years ago I gave up looking for a congregation, because I was thinking that people are people, and the higher calling is probably just for the movies, or for saints who are far removed from the world.

My journey with Ananda started long ago, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Paramhansa Yogananda’s book The Science of Religion was on my parents’ bookshelf, and although I didn’t read it, it stuck in my mind, and I can see now that he was whispering to me through the book.

Community residents love having David visit their apartment with his upbeat energy.

Then some years ago we were watching Jeopardy, and I don’t remember the question, but the answer was Autobiography of a Yogi. The title sounded fascinating, so I wrote it down, and then forgot it. But my wife, who’s an excellent gift-giver, found the note with the words Autobiography of a Yogi, and she went on a quest to find it. And, interestingly, she located it at a martial arts bookstore.

So I read it, but it didn’t resonate with me in the moment, even though I could feel the depth of truth that was running through it from cover to cover. So I put it on the bookshelf, and that was that.

Then a couple months later I was at an extremely noisy and crowded public event in downtown Campbell, helping my parents with their booth, and as we were leaving we walked past a used bookstore, and even though our car was in a different direction, I felt something drawing me to the bookstore.

I said to my wife, “I need to go over there.” She knew how much I dislike crowds and noise, so she said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yeah, let’s just go over there real quick.” So we went in, and we found ourselves immediately looking at Paramhansa Yogananda’s photo on the cover of his book. And Leti and I looked at each other, and we immediately knew why we were there.

I grabbed the book and took it home and read it over a couple of days, and in the back I saw that there were some places nearby that were part of that lineage.

I was in my car a few days later, and I was asking God, “Okay, where am I going?” And something kept telling me, “Go to Palo Alto.” But because I lived in San Jose and the other place was closer, I went there instead, and it was the Self-Realization Fellowship church in Los Gatos. And, interestingly enough, I had spent four years working across the street, but I never knew it was there.

So I drove over and I found a note on the door that said, “We’ve gone to LA for a week. Come back later.”

I thought, okay, this is my lesson for the day. So I drove straight to Ananda, where I found Navashen at the front desk. He said, “Are you here to sign up for the meditation training?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” I had no idea why I was there, but he told me why. And that’s how my path led me here.

The first meditation class was in the temple with the pictures of the masters on the altar, and I’m probably not the only one who has thought, “Thank God, Jesus is there!” Because it might have scared me away if my friend Jesus wasn’t on the altar.

Q: From the first time I saw you and Leti sitting in the congregation, you seemed happy and at home.

David: The thing about Ananda is that I’ve been serving my whole life, and even while I was learning martial arts, I knew that I would be a teacher.

My family didn’t have a lot of money, so our parents taught us to be self-sufficient. They didn’t give us a lot, and I’m not complaining, because it made my brothers and my sister and me strong and independent. But as soon as I started martial arts, I knew that I wanted to give it away.

For me, to be a well-rounded martial artist means that you have to close the circle, and if you want to call yourself a true martial artist you have to teach. So I’ve always been one to share what I have, and I’ve tried to be one to help my friends who are in need.

I’m a construction guy, and I can help in many areas – plumbing, electrical, building, and so on, and before I came to Ananda my friends would ask me why I gave so much of myself without getting anything in return. So I always felt like it might be a fault, until I came here and realized that what my heart had been telling me my whole life, and that was contrary to what my friends were saying, was actually true.

So it was very easy to fall into the vibration of Ananda, since it was what I believed in already, even though it had been pushed down by my friends and family. “You should watch out for yourself and make sure you don’t give everything away, and you need to get something for whatever you give.”

If that’s all you’re hearing, and you don’t have a strong connection with God, you tend to believe it. But, thank God, I didn’t relinquish that attitude completely, because when I got to Ananda it flowered, and it was such a gift to realize that God had been whispering to me the whole time. And it was by the grace of God and Guru that I was able to cling to that whispered inner voice until I could make my family at Ananda.

Q: What is your job like?

David: I’m the manager of the Ananda Community here in Mountain View, and my job is what I like to think of as an art form, because that’s how it feels to me.

But let me back up. Before I came to Ananda I’d been the chief engineer for many properties in the Bay Area, and because of my handyman skills and my people skills I’d been in leadership positions in many five-star hotels. When I walked onto this property I turned to my wife and I said, “This feels like mine.” And maybe it sounds a little arrogant, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that, no, I think this is what God is really asking of me, to come here and give everything I’ve learned in my life, about work, about giving, and about being open to receive from others who are more experienced than I am, and that it has all been leading up to this point. And I’m very grateful for that.

Looking back over the last fifty years, again, there was always that whisper in my heart – that this is for a reason. I didn’t grow up with a college degree, or leading men and women into battle. I’ve had an average life, to say the least, but I knew that my life was important, even if it might not have seemed exceptional from the outside. But there was that whisper in my heart that this is heading toward something, and I never let that feeling go.

So this step has been coming for fifty years, and it’s the culmination of all that I’ve learned, physically, mentally, and spiritually, and there’s no doubt in my mind that that is true.

Q: When I heard that you’d been invited to be the manager and help Chidambar transition out of that role, I thought, “That’s immensely good karma!” So I was very happy for you, because over the years I’ve seen that for the people who step in and start serving right away, it’s been great good karma and tremendously beneficial for them.

David: I feel that the title of “leader” or “manager” may have worked for me out there in the world, but here in the community I feel more like a steward. In the hotel industry we call it the houseman, and they’re kind of low on the totem pole, and yet they do so much. There’s a lot riding on their shoulders, and if they don’t show up, things start to break down. So that’s how I feel, that I’ve been given this position not as a leader but as a steward and a houseman for the ashram, and what a blessing it is to be able to assist everybody as much as I can.

I’ve had people call and say, “Can you help?” And maybe it isn’t even a maintenance thing. They’ll say, “I can’t reach this,” and I’m happy to come over and help. So it can be very mundane. But every time I walk out of someone’s unit where I was able to help them, I feel so blessed to have been given that opportunity, and I have no intention of taking it lightly.

Q: There’s been an interesting lineage of managers in the community, with Haridas and Gary McSweeney and Chidambar before you.

David: Yes, and to be able to work with a nayaswami day in and day out has been a blessing. I’ve been around long enough to see that Chidambar has his good and bad days, as we all do, but to hear him say at the end of each trial, “It’s all about God,” is one of the biggest blessings – to have that reinforcement and to be teammates with a great soul like Chidambar.

I used to consider myself a “yes-man,” because whenever I felt that someone had a better idea, I would jump on board with no problem. My friends would beat me down for it, for not standing alone and so on. But I’ve come here to receive all the blessings that are available. And the encouragement I get every day from every person I talk to is that most of our conversations are God-related and uplifting.

Q: At Ananda we have the idea that spiritual growth is directional, and that progress can really only come by making mistakes and learning from them.

David: It’s a large part of what has kept me going. I didn’t see that attitude at the other churches and temples I went to – the humility to accept ourselves as we are. But in every one of the leaders here, or “elders” as I like to call them, I’ve seen humility.

Most of my work experiences have been in the outside world, and there’s not a lot of humility in the tech and hospitality fields. So it’s inspiring to realize that the leaders here are so willing to make mistakes, and understand that it isn’t the end of the world. “Okay, it happened, and here’s the next step.”

In that other world, you carry those mistakes around on your shoulders. But to watch people like Asha, Shanti, David Praver, and David G, I could go on and on with tears in my eyes for how I’ve been able to say, “Oh man, I made a mistake,” and we would just move on. It’s probably the most poignant lesson I’ve had at Ananda, that making mistakes is all right, and no one’s going to beat us up but ourselves.

Q: I remember Jaya saying that when he was new on the path he thought it was all about having big spiritual experiences, and how he came to realize that he was really happy if he could just get through the day with a calm and positive, expansive attitude.

David: Chidambar has a saying, “Just keep turning back to God.” Because you can win thousands of times every day if you’re always turning to Him. So that’s become my barometer, when I start to worry too much or things are going too fast. And in my mind I’ll realize, “Oh, I haven’t thought about God in a while.  Let me turn back and just think of Him.”

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