Be Water, My Friend…
In this post we’re going to tackle the most iconic and well known Bruce Lee quote and try to do it some justice. Below is cool video made for this quote.
“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes a cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” – Bruce Lee
We’ve all heard this, or some version of this quote. Depending on what interview we saw, or what book we read, the quote might be slightly different, but the idea is always the same. This quote is a tough one to approach because the implications can be very superficial, or incredibly deep and philosophical. We’ll try to briefly look at it from a couple of different perspectives and hopefully catch the essence of what Bruce Lee was trying to tell us.
Let’s first start with a superficial view and look at this as talking about movement practices and martial arts. The ability to move fluidly and be formless in martial arts means that you have a better chance of not being hit. Being like water means that you’re able to effectively absorb your opponent’s attacks and find the cracks and crevices in their defense. It allows us to flow, and then when the time is right, to crash with devastating power.
From a movement perspective, we usually begin by training individual skills and motions. We chunk things down into bite-sized pieces so that the neurology of the brain can pattern the movements. Only once we accomplish these small chunks can we begin to put things together. As we progress with any movement practice, we gain more fluidity.
Fluid movement requires greater control of our bodies. It oftentimes requires greater mobility and greater stability. Once we have these things, then we can begin to move like water. You watch the best movers in the world, whether in the areas of parkour, capoeira, break-dancing, gymnastics, etc, they all seem to be moving effortlessly. They transition between skills and styles with ease and fluidity. This is what Bruce Lee looked for in his own physical practice and what formed a major basis of his Jeet Kun Do teachings.
Now let’s dig a little deeper and look at the mental implications of Bruce’s water idea. Philosophically, Bruce is saying to be adaptable. Don’t allow yourself to get stagnant in one style or one way of thinking. Many people think that they are the teapot. If you put a teapot into a bottle it doesn’t work too well. The teapot is rigid and firm in its own form, and all it can ever be is a teapot. But water, on the other hand, can be a teapot, or a bottle, or a cup, because it hasn’t tied itself to any particular form. You can learn something, practice something, and embody something, without permanently transforming into it.
As soon as we label ourselves as one thing, we shut down the possibility of being something else. Water represents this idea well as it’s the substance on Earth that has the most possibility of form and behavior. The idea of “emptying your mind” speaks to this. By creating stillness of the mind, we invite the opportunity for any possibility to happen.
Bruce Lee certainly wasn’t original in this idea of the mind being like water. You can trace this very same idea back over 2500 years to the Tao Te Ching. Eastern philosophy has long recognized and revered these attributes of water.
It’s no surprise that the highly-revered Flow States are named as such. In these states, our minds become calmed and centered and 100% focused on the task at hand. We don’t worry about bills, or laundry, or relationship issues, or whether or not we’ll succeed. With an empty mind, our entire being is free to be a freestyle rapper, or a surfer, or a fighter, or a video game player. Our activity becomes the vessel with which to hold our water, and we change our being accordingly. Sounds an awful lot like becoming the cup, or the bottle, or the teapot, right?
So how can we apply this directly to our everyday lives? I think that the best way is through some form of regular meditation practice. By calming our mind and allowing it to settle we can begin to see ourselves not as our prevailing thoughts and patterns of behavior, but instead as the “water” behind all of it. We can detach ourselves from the teapot or the bottle (or whatever other ideological vessel that we’ve put ourselves in) at any time and become something else.
So you can look at this quote from Bruce superficially, as speaking about physical movement and martial arts, or you can dig deeper into the Taoist philosophies and get into the ideas of our very essence being similar to water, and the implications of that. Either way, water is a good role model for us. So play around with these ideas, and see what works for you. And as always, “Be water, my friend”.
Join Higher Performance Network!
Receive the latest news & exclusive content from HPN!