I had the good fortune to interview Ramon Correa from his rooftop garden in the center of Cruz Bay, St. John. As the sun began it’s descent, the colors radiated a golden hue and a zen vibe enveloped the space. The chaos of the busy town seemed distant from our 260 degree perch. The only intrusions were the distant sounds of church bells, a steel pan band practicing and the odd rooster. I asked this extraordinarily humble man about his life as a disciple of martial arts, a conscious excavator and his hopes for humanity and his Virgin Islands community. Our conversation seemed as limitless as the azure sky overhead.
(Martial Arts weapons demonstration by Ramon Correa, 5 minutes in length)
Know Your Center, Find Your Balance
JK: When did you leave St. John to pursue your love of martial arts?
R: I was in my early 20’s. I had been training for a few years but I wanted to further it. When I arrived in New York City I had no money and no place to stay but I wanted to pursue my dream and that is what I did for 14 years.
JK: What do you think is the most misunderstood part of martial arts?
R: Violence. Many think it’s about fighting and proving oneself. But martial arts training is about defending yourself so you don’t have to fight and learning to have self control. With alignment, you put the spirit in charge of the physical. The current way of life is the opposite, the physical is in charge. And the spirit gets out of the timing. The timing of now is the spirit in charge. There is nothing more spiritual than the now.
JK: So “this” is a spiritual practice with a physical element to it?
“In reality we are spiritual beings going through a physical time.”
R: Most definitely. In reality we are spiritual beings going through a physical time. But most people get caught up in the physical mentality.
JK: Would you consider yourself an expert in this field?
R: That’s a very interesting question. I consider myself a beginner student.
JK: How long have you been practicing?
R: Only for 37 years. I’m just getting ready to begin. I learned such a great lesson from my teacher Sensi Tomy Agero. He was a true Master. We lived together and we trained day and night in NYC. When we were training together, he told me, “everyone calls me a Master but I am a student. I advise you to be and remain a student. A master means you know it all. A student means you are ever learning.“
I am constantly learning. Now, at this moment. This is the true existence of life. Everyone is so caught up in the past or the future. We call this “off-timing.” The true timing is actually now… at this moment with the breath you have inside of you.
JK: When training, do you start with one weapon and then add others from there?
R: Each one is a whole discipline by itself. The mother of all the martial arts is the Bo Staff because it teaches you body alignment and hand/foot coordination, balance. This is something you need with all the weapons. Also, you need this in your life. In reality, we are all about alignment, just like the universe—the earth and the planets.
JK: So this practice is a metaphor for life?
R: Yes, know your center. It is in our nature to find balance. When you find yourself, you find balance.
New York City vs. St. John
JK: How has your physical environment influenced your martial arts? St. John is full of all kinds of opposing energies and disruptions. Including if I can be so bold – what you do for a living – excavation – carving into the earth. How has that influenced your martial arts practice and vice versa?
R: The influence on my (martial arts) practice is life! My thing is to live and live good. I use to have this emptiness and I was searching from the time I was a small child. Then through my searching I found myself through martial arts. Finding myself… it’s about the divinity. From influences outside, we get influenced inside. Most live from outside in, but through a martial arts practice we can learn from the inside out. So, if I stay within the practice then when I step into the outside world, there is less chance of being distracted.
JK: I would imagine that there are less distractions on St. John than in New York City.
“you have more privacy in New York City than here.”
R: It’s so interesting because the differences between St. John and New York are day and night. But in New York when you walk down the street you are alone with yourself even though there are all these other people. On St. John you can’t be on your own walking down the street. People are always interacting with you. In a sense you have more privacy in New York city than here. You could go to a park and do your practice in NYC and it’s nothing to people, but if you do your practice here people stop and look and say “hey what’s going on”?
JK: Yes! It’s like when you try to go to the post office to check mail – which should take 10 minutes but it ends up closer to 30 because it’s the place where many people catch up and check in with one another.
On the other hand the natural environment that exists here must be more conducive to a martial arts practice than doing it inside some office building in NYC?
R: Yes, the natural environment can really help you find your true inner nature. But the difference with NYC is when it’s really cold you are inside, but as soon as you can go outside you are jumping on bikes and riding to search out and find nature in parks or where ever you can and you really, really appreciate it! Being over there (in NYC) taught me a great lesson in gratitude. I appreciate nature so much more now because I had to seek it out.
JK: How did you get into the excavating business?
R: My brother Edwin was in the business and I joined him when I moved back to St.John.
JK: Do you think your approach to excavation is different than others in your profession because of your reverence and appreciation of nature?
“I do a quiet prayer “
R: First of all, I’m honest about what I’m doing. I want to do the best I can at whatever I do. For example if I’m taking down trees, I do a quiet prayer and I apologize. This brings me closer to nature. I’m always conscious of what’s happening around me. I don’t want to mistreat anything. Sometimes when I’m excavating and I see a lizard that’s climbed up a tree I’m taking down and I also see the owner of the property watching me, it’s tricky but I try to move things with respect and without harming anything unnecessarily.
JK: So, are you also a vegetarian?
R: Yes and no. I eat fish. When I first became a vegetarian I didn’t eat fish but in my practice my body needed more and more and I found it difficult to find alternatives. It was hard for my body to adjust physically and so I began eating pescado (fish) again.
JK: I understand that the very nature of being human and living means we are having an impact on our environment. We harm nature just by living – ants, lizards, taking down trees. I wonder if because you have alignment through your martial arts practice and through your spiritual beliefs if you feel like you are more in harmony verses at odds with the natural environment.
“This way of life is truly beautiful once you tap in.”
R: I’m absolutely in harmony. You cannot be in true harmony unless you are in harmony within yourself and this is where the workouts and training come in. When you find harmony within yourself, then you can harmonize with others, with nature and the universe. This way of life is truly beautiful once you tap in. I can’t see how anyone would ever want to go away from it once tapped in. And harmony is key. Even how you move and step becomes in tune with everything.
The Humble Teacher, The Life Long Student
JK: Who was the most influential person in your childhood?
R: My grandfather. He was a very down to earth person but also strict in a positive way. He taught me discipline. He was like a father figure. I was the oldest grandchild and like his youngest son. That is how close we were. My parents separated when I was very young. Until I was 9 I lived in Guayama, Puerto Rico with my mother and stepfather. As a little kid my grandfather would come to visit on the weekends and we would go up into the mountains of Cayey together and go horseback riding. This is where I learned to appreciated nature and where I go back to when I return to Puerto Rico.
JK: You are a teacher of martial arts. Do your students call you Sensi?
R: Actually, I had a Sensi. He was at such a high level – I don’t see myself at that level. I have my students call me Ramon. But we have a way of greeting and giving courtesies by saying “chien”, which means “all good positive things of life.” So when they come to class they learn these courtesies and they say, “chien Ramon” and I return it back and create a harmony from there.
JK: Do you teach youth and adults?
R: Yes, young, old who ever wants to learn. The ingredients that a student needs are first that they want to do it. Second, they have to be willing to put in the effort and third to be respectful and humble. If you have those ingredients you can do (it) no matter what age you are.
JK: What is the most rewarding part of teaching martial arts?
R: My reward is when I can show someone how to feel good and positive about themselves. If that can happen with one person a lot is being done for humanity because that one person is going to share with someone else.
Community Means Unity
JK: What do you think would be the number one pressing issue on the Virgin Islands community right now?
R: There is too much separation and differences between us. Inside we are all equal and we all need each other. It is a spiritual crisis.
JK: If that is the challenge, what is the solution?
R: People need to do things to support the spiritual way of life. To get reconnected with the self and their community. We get caught up in the material way of life and we get disconnected from the divinity.
JK: What does community mean to you?
R: Community means unity. But that is what is missing from our communities now. We all need each other. We are all valuable.
JK: If community is unity what is one thing you would suggest to help reconnect people and show that we are all valuable?
“It’s very simple. Be nice to each other. Carry a smile.”
R: It’s very simple. Be nice to each other. Carry a smile. If I see your smile it will make me smile and that will make me happy. If we can share like that, something as simple as a smile, that alone could do so much. It’s about your positivity and sharing that.
JK: What is your idea of a perfect day?
R: A happy day.
JK: Do you have a favorite spot on the island for this happy day?
JK: Is it a secret?
R: No, it’s in my heart, right here (points to himself).
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