“No matter how full the river is, it still wants to grow.” – African proverb
“Be Water, My Friend. Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend,” the legendary Chinese-American martial artist, philosopher and filmmaker Bruce Lee delivered this metaphor in the television series Longstreet. He got this inspiration of dynamism while struggling to master ‘the art of detachment’ that his teacher was imparting to him.
Why would he liken dynamism to water? Like all profound mysteries, water is simple and unassuming yet it is one of the most powerful elements in life. The ‘Tao Te Ching’, a classic piece of Chinese philosophical literature, highlights the dynamism of this element as “Nothing is weaker than water, but when it attacks something hard or resistant, then nothing withstands it, and nothing will alter its way”. The nature of water is inalienably what all of us aspire to when we think of gaining mastery over ourselves. In fact, during difficult times we often become aware of how we could have been stronger and more dynamic – only we are not.
It is this need for our dynamic selves that makes Bruce Lee’s challenge to us to model the nature of water a necessity. He wants us to be more than ourselves. And that starts with being open-minded, being non-judgemental in our relationships with others. He wants you to cultivate the art of blocking out the noise in order to pick out the nuggets which float in our conversations with others. He dreamed of “you possess a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention and requires effort” on your part, so that you can find a strength and a generative way to live life to the fullest.
Water “has no shape of its own but moulds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam, it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen, it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like the Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day”. This description of self-mastery is what we are encouraged to imitate.
Being one of the few individuals to have gained mastery over himself, Bruce Lee understood how the adaptable nature of water is the proper attitude to adopt if we want to be the best of ourselves and give out our best. Water’s ability to adapt stems from the fact that it does not stop when faced with challenges. It keeps moving and moving until it attains the form of its adversary and conquers it. This formlessness is what gives water its power. Likewise, we should not be stuck in our ways. We should be purposeful, but flexible in our ways to be able to adapt to the changing times.
Bruce Lee understood water beyond its everyday uses. He focused on its generative powers, more like what is described in Christian scripture. Here, we are told that at the beginning of creation water took on the power to edify and sanctify. And in the time of Noah, the very water that caused an end to vice signalled the very beginning of virtue. Finally, it highlights how Christ stepped into the river Jordan to energise water to wash away sins in baptism and in turn forgive those who hurt us. Water is thus portrayed as a servant-leader. Imitating it allows you to be at the service of others, and at the same time powerful enough to nudge them along paths of greatness.
As with all mastery, being like water comes with work and discipline. We need to start from an awareness of our individual selves. We need to know who we are now, to be able to determine those areas of ourselves we need to improve. But more importantly, we have to learn to do the things we do not prefer, in order that we may be able to grow in ways which will make us great.
Kodwo Brumpon is a management consultant and a life coach who inspires individuals, groups and corporate bodies to think and feel that which is true, and helps them to positively respond to that which is beautiful while nudging them to let goodness govern their actions. Comments, suggestions and requests should be sent to him at [email protected]