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photo by Joe Putrock
Going With the Flow
By John Rodat

Local author Joseph Cardillo draws upon his experience as a martial artist for his
“functional memoir,” Be Like Water

Joseph Cardillo’s latest novel sits uncompleted in a drawer. After he had made significant and steady progress—writing somewhere in the neighborhood of 450 pages—a conversation with a friend and fellow writer brought the project to a halt.

With friends like that, you’re thinking.

But it wasn’t an unkind critique or a mean-spirited, competitive jibe that motivated Cardillo to delay—there was no sudden crushing doubt, no authorial anxiety, no writer’s block. Cardillo’s conversation with his pal didn’t sap his energy, it redirected it.

“I was just with some friends at a barbecue, standing around flipping some burgers,” he explains. “One of my friends, who’s had some success as a nonfiction writer, was asking how the novel was going, and so on. We were just talking about our stuff, and I said, ‘You know, I could write a nonfiction work.’ ”

The friend, playing along, solicited more information, asking Cardillo how he’d go about switching from the familiar precincts of poetry and long-form fiction into this newer realm. Cardillo found that the answers came easily.

“I said I’d make it a functional memoir—a term that didn’t really exist—and I’ve already got a title.”

Cardillo’s most recently published book, Be Like Water: Practical Wisdom From the Martial Arts, bears a blurb by Joe Hyams, author of Zen in the Martial Arts, that lauds the work as a “fascinating and helpful book for everyone trying to make sense of our crazy world.”

What’s more, Cardillo relates with apparent pride, Hyams communicated with Cardillo’s publisher in a private letter that he was happy to be “passing on the torch” to Cardillo. As he tells the tale, Cardillo tips his head back and puts his hands to his chest as if hugging a loved one.

“In the world of the martial arts, there are two books,” he says, “the Tao Te Ching and Hyams’ Zen in the Martial Arts. So, this was just incredible. You know, if Hyams had said there was something wrong with the book, I really would have known that I was on the wrong track, but . . .”

But, now, there’s reason to believe that in the world of martial arts there are three books.

Cardillo, who has been training in various marital arts since he was 14 and now holds a black belt in Kenpo karate, admits that when he began he had no great vision of torchbearing for a tradition.

“At first, honestly, it was just for self-defense—I was a skinny little guy,” he laughs.

So, it was in a YMCA in central New York, just north of Binghamton, that the adolescent Cardillo received his first lessons in the disciplines that would lead ultimately to Be Like Water.

The worldview in which the martial arts originate intrigued the young writer, as well, and when he later entered Siena College his intention was to focus on coursework in philosophy and theology (which at Siena, Cardillo points out, meant primarily Western theology). But as he moved on from undergraduate to graduate work at UAlbany, Cardillo made the shift to literature, which appealed to him as a “freer form of philosophy.”

It was a freedom in which Cardillo, the writer, thrived. Over the years, he turned out a number of novels and poetry collections, among them Pulse, No Surrender, and the regional cult fave Rock N’ Roll Journal. And he went on to become a professor of creative writing at Hudson Valley Community College, a post he still holds. But his interest in a unifying or animating force never waned, he says.

In fact, to this day, Cardillo says, his favorite of his previous works is the collection Turning Toward Morning, for which he traveled to the Middle East for two summers, and which deals explicitly with what he now terms “that other dimension.”

“I wouldn’t call it religious in anyway whatsoever,” he qualifies, “but it’s spiritual. It’s a sense of the other beyond the physical plane.”

When speaking of this other, Cardillo constructs his sentences with some care. “Correctly understood, spirituality is a function of energy; correctly understood spirituality is a physical thing. And the martial arts were created to access spirituality through the physical realm.”

As outlined in Be Like Water’s chapters—which flow between personal anecdotes drawn from Cardillo’s life as a martial artist and Meditations or Resolutions, which distill from the anecdotes practical exercises—the point of the discipline is to “make spirituality experiential.”

Unlike Western theological practices—which, according to Cardillo, put “your experience on the back burner [and] have somebody else walk the walk for you”—Eastern disciplines prioritize the experiential. And this, says the author, can have immediately beneficial effect on physical health, and mental, social and spiritual well-being.

“My book emphasizes the way ordinary, everyday activities can access that other, that spirituality,” Cardillo says. One of his own early and most profound experiences came, he reveals in the book, while using breathing-
regulation and chi-focusing exercises to aid him in the drudgery of stacking wood before a rainstorm:


My labor transformed into a meditation of sorts—not that I thought of it that way. It just happened that way. I soon forgot about being tired and worked spiritedly, continuing the martial arts exercises as I went along. Rather than begrudging my work, I felt comforted by it. When I finished stacking, I felt restored. Instead of feeling beat, I was animated. Not only had I completed the job with much less effort than usual, but what’s more, I felt happy.


It is in this unthinking way, Cardillo says, that great healing is possible. In this unthinking way, an individual can learn to be like water, and can obtain a state in which “you fill every moment with living, you force nothing, you become, you experience, you interrelate.” And no training in a specific martial art is necessary, as “anything physical can trigger the experience.”

Currently, Cardillo is pursuing several projects tied to or inspired by Be Like Water: He’s already working on a follow-up book, in which he’s “writing from a matrix of holistic arts, sacred writings and science”; and he and his wife, Elaine, are considering starting a martial-arts training program, which would function with a pay-it-forward model.

“We’d train the adults for free, and then they’d go into the community and train kids, also for free,” Cardillo says. “And someone suggested that senior citizens might be interested as well, which I thought was a great idea. So, we’re looking into that.”

It’s been a fruitful and rewarding path for Cardillo, and all this industry seems to stem from a grillside conversation with a peer, from a subtle deflection and redirection of energy: “I’m tempted to say to use the word ‘accidentally,’ ” Cardillo says. “But I know there aren’t any accidents—so, it all happens coincidentally.”

So it is coincidentally that a 450-page novel sits in a desk drawer, while Cardillo courses past on a different

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