Bruce Lee on Developing “Mind Like Water”

If your Nerve, deny you —

     Go above your Nerve —

-Emily Dickinson

The Obstacle is Your Mind

I have spent a great deal of time lately thinking about Action.  Understanding Action, planning Action, taking Action.  In moments of difficulty and uncertainty, we can find ourselves constrained and paralyzed not by our actual circumstances, but by the mental constructs we build around those circumstances.  We define our own limitations by our perceptions and internal definitions.

Developing the understanding that what you perceive as an obstacle is, often times, only in our minds is a challenge.  Yet once you ponder this, you will find its obviousness and reality floating on the surface of consciousness, ever present, always there and identifiable, if you only sit still long enough to notice.

Bruce Lee’s Pathway to Mind Like Water

Icon and Chinese-American martial artist, action star, and filmmaker Bruce Lee was masterful in developing a personal, mental perception of reality.  Even more, he was unique in his ability to translate his metaphysical insight into both plain explanation and superlative physical action.  Though superficially an action hero, Lee possessed and communicated a profound understanding of the nature of mind, and what was required for a human being to act to fully express himself or herself.

Lee’s worldview began with the notion that the mind was the source of worldly experience.  He told the story of an old man and his son with one horse.  When the horse ran away one day unexpectedly, the boy exclaimed, “What bad luck!”  The father responded, “Who knows?”  When the horse returned with five new mares, the boy excitedly said, “What good luck!”  The father replied, “Who knows?”  In training the mares, the boy broke his leg severely, and mourned, “What bad luck!”  Predictably, the father observed, “Who knows?”  The kingdom entered a war and drafted its young men into military service.  With a broken leg, the son was spared.  Good luck or bad luck?  Who knows?

Lee’s point was that reality begins and ends with the mind.  To successfully navigate the world, Lee believed that you need a combination of natural instinct and control, which are combined in harmony.  Lee’s goal was “unnatural naturalness,” or “natural unnaturalness.”  Keeping these two poles in their ideal balance requires “mind like water,” according to Lee.

Empty your mind.  Be formless, shapeless – like water.  Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the 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.

The revelation Lee had came from a point of frustration he was dwelling on while sailing:

After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. On the sea I thought of all my past training and got mad at myself and punched the water! Right then — at that moment — a thought suddenly struck me; was not this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this water just now illustrated to me the principle of gung fu? I struck it but it did not suffer hurt. Again I struck it with all of my might — yet it was not wounded! I then tried to grasp a handful of it but this proved impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, which could be contained in the smallest jar, only seemed weak. In reality, it could penetrate the hardest substance in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.

Embracing Your Nature Leads to Self-Actualization

Combining Lee’s thoughts lead to self-actualization.  They let us see that we can be our most effective by observing our minds, allowing unblocked emotion, and accepting our nature.  Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching:

In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.

The beauty of Lee’s insight was that in embracing the nature of water lies the path to self-actualization and control.  Being like water is “not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked.”  Lee realized that “in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

This doesn’t come easily.

But to express one’s self, not lying to one’s self — that, my friend, is very hard to do.  You have to train, so that when you want it, it’s there!  When you want to move, you are moving.  And when you move, you are determined to move.