by | Aug 21, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 6 comments

by Sonja Stone

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You… Stronger, Bitter, Drunk. It Depends On Your Attitude.

Michael Cerpok, mobile monk, sabakiball
My sensei, Michael Cerpok

I was having dinner with a friend last night, and he said, “I couldn’t help but notice the uncanny resemblance between you and your main character. You’re both five-two, of Irish-Lebanese decent, have dark wavy hair… You also seem to share a childhood history.”

Since I care what my friend thinks, I was unable to state the truth (that I’m a low-key narcissist, lack imagination, and pretty much wrote out my fantasy life thinly disguised as a novel). Fortunately, he has the attention span of a gnat, and a second later our sushi arrived.

Saved by the fish.

It’s true that my protagonist, sixteen-year-old Nadia Riley, shares a bit of my history and backstory. But she’s not me. She’s way better than me.

One of my characters, however, is very much based on someone I know: Nadia’s mentor and martial arts instructor, Hashimoto Sensei. Sensei is reserved, serious, traditional, and focused. He’s quietly compassionate, but doesn’t tolerate excuses.

Enter my sensei, jujutsu instructor Michael Cerpok. Below are a few of the myriad lessons he’s taught me.


  • Pain is Temporary

Respecting that she’s a hard worker, Hashimoto Sensei concedes to Nadia’s request for private lessons. Over the course of her training, Nadia is repeatedly struck with a split bamboo pole, the length of a broomstick. It stings like a giant rubber band and makes a cracking sound as it connects with the body. I’m very familiar with this particular training device. At one point, she complains about his use of the bamboo pole, because it’s quite painful. He responds: 

Crack! “It is only pain. When you are in pain one of two things will happen: The pain will be so great that you will die, or the pain will eventually go away. Either way,” he smiled and bowed his head, “no more pain.”

This is a direct quote from my sensei, who has eagerly tested this theory with great frequency.

  • If You Can’t See Bone, Ignore It

“Sensei, I’m not sure I can grapple today. My shoulder hurts.”

“Of course it hurts. You’re old. Hajime!” (begin)

After my third set of X-rays from the ER (without ever actually breaking a bone), I stopped seeking medical attention, and instead asked my sensei to fix the pain. As part of my training he taught me Kappo, a method of Japanese massage. He insisted that I learn: if I had the skill to injure, I must also have the skill to heal.

The current M.O. of everyone living under my roof is as follows: sustain an injury; try to walk it off; try not to cry because feelings make us vulnerable; watch for swelling and intense pain; text Sensei a picture and wait for instructions. Only once has the response been, “Yeah, I’d get that checked out.”

Michael Cerpok, mobile monk, jujitsu
Sensei in the dojo


Interestingly, Sensei has taught me more about coping with emotional pain than physical pain. (Though he’s inflicted way more of the latter.)

  • Attachment Causes Pain

Though questions during lessons are strictly prohibited (“I will tell you what you need to know.”), at the end of our private sessions, Sensei invites me to sit seiza (on my heels) and speak freely. This is the time when he answers questions, shares his philosophy, and guides my spiritual development. 

Almost every one of my concerns can be addressed with this: Attachment to people, places, and things causes distress. Without attachments, we have no expectations. Without expectations, we have no disappointments. This isn’t to say we don’t love one another; but to love unconditionally is to wish for the greatest good for everyone involved. Sometimes the greatest good won’t include me.

  • Not Everyone Gets a Trophy

My sensei adamantly opposes participation trophies. I don’t get points for showing up and doing what I said I would.

While it’s lovely that small children are presented with an end-of-season trophy, I agree with him on this one. Do your effing job. Your reward is that you haven’t been kicked off the team. (For more on my stellar management skills—aka, “Why No One Wants to Work with Me Ever,” please see my last post, 5 Spy Secrets I Learned In Culinary School.)

I will say this: In all our time grappling on the mat, Sensei only ever tapped out once (indicating that I was the victor). Let me tell you something about that glorious day: I never questioned that I had found the position of strength. I earned that victory, and it was sweet. (Admittedly, he was several months into intense chemotherapy, but still…)

  • Control Your Breath

Breathing is an art. Sensei taught me the Zazen method of breath control. When we began, I was able to sit Zazen for approximately two uninterrupted seconds. I am now able to extend a single breath for over a minute.

The breathing method is as follows: Inhale through the nose for a count of four (to start), then exhale through the mouth as though blowing through a straw for a count of eight. Blowing through the imaginary straw (lips rounded) slows the exhale, which enables one to breathe out for twice as long as one inhales. Why is this important? The heart rate accelerates on the inhale, and slows on the exhale. For anyone who’s ever experienced anxiety, this is a valuable piece of information.

He insisted I sit Zazen to develop self-discipline. Another benefit he promised was endurance: I don’t tire quite so easily in a fight.

Osensei Michael Cerpok and his wife, Sensei Monica Rosen

Having known them for a decade, I consider my sensei and his amazing wife, Monica, to be two of my closest friends. They’ve both helped me thorough difficult times (mostly involving the raising of teenagers). My respect for him is so great that to this day I still address him as Sensei, whether in the dojo or at a party. 

It’s a title he’s earned.

Legal Disclaimer: Any resemblance to any person, real or imagined, is strictly coincidental. 😉

Here’s my question: If you could pick any fictional character to be a real part of your life, whom would you choose? A mentor like Albus Dumbledore? A childhood friend like Scout Finch? A boyfriend like James Bond?

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Gayle Lynds

    What a wonderful post, Sonja. You write about lessons I've forgotten – thank you for the memories, and now I will do better again! 🙂

  2. Sonja Stone

    Gayle, it's difficult to forget the lessons when they're constantly beat into you! I'm delighted to pass them along sans pain.

  3. KJ Howe

    Sonja, I have the deepest respect for your commitment to your training. This is exactly the kind of determination needed for the publishing industry, so you're prepared and then some. Well done.

  4. Chris Goff

    Sonja, I agree, dedication. I have to say, Your Sensei Michael Cerpok–though he sounds mean, looks kind. However, his wife, Sensei Monica Rosen, looks like she could be a bit mean.

  5. Sonja Stone

    KJ, it's so true that dedication is necessary in the publishing world! For me, it's easier to spend 8 hours on the mat fighting than 8 hours in a chair writing!

  6. Sonja Stone

    Christine, that's so funny! Sensei looks kind but isn't, and Sensei Monica is one of the sweetest people I'ver ever met!