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Bruce Lee Knew the Key to Growth and Improvement: Be Water

Bruce Lee knew that to improve our lives, we must "be water."

Key points

  • Change is life's only constant; adaptability is key.
  • Flexibility fosters growth, making it life's purpose.
  • Bruce Lee's 'No Way as Way' illustrates adaptive living.
  • In today's chaos, being 'water' is more crucial than ever.
Viktor_Gladkov/iStock
Source: Viktor_Gladkov/iStock

Disclaimer: I don't claim that what I say is totally "true," because the truth is elusive in this complicated world. Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help perceive the world, others, and ourselves in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

To say that 2020 has been a rough year is an understatement. Most of us are ready to close the chapter on 2020 and embrace the new year. Why? It's because we are ready for a change. As we look for change in the new year, it just so happens that life is about change.

“The world is maintained by change.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

"He knows changes aren't permanent, but change is." — from the song "Tom Sawyer" by Rush

A Purpose of Life

As discussed in a previous post, there are many ideas about what the purpose of life is. I don't claim to have the answer, but one viable answer is that, since we evolved to live, we also live to evolve. Thus, consistent with the evolution that got us here, a purpose in life is to change and grow.

If we can agree that this is a purpose of life, the next question is: What's the key to change and growth? As described in greater detail in a previous post, a reasonable answer is flexibility. Growth inherently requires flexibility and adaptation. Flexibility provides the space in which growth is made possible. Just as a sapling cannot grow into a majestic oak tree within the confines of a small box, our personal growth is limited if we are constrained by rigidity. These constraints can come externally, but we are often constrained internally as well through inflexible ways of thinking and acting.

Learning the Benefits of Flexibility from Diverse Sources

Instead of interacting with the world in the rigid, dualistic way of either/or, we should approach life in a non-dualistic, flexible manner that allows the space for change and growth. I call this the way of both/and (WOBA). Since the way of both/and is inherently adaptive, in reality, it is not a “way” that can be followed in any strict sense of the word. Any “way” is fundamentally restrictive and limiting, especially if it’s presented as the way.

"All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns." —Bruce Lee

I am inspired by martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee who, when describing his approach to martial arts, promoted the idea of using “no way as way.” His art of Jeet Kune Do (JKD), or way of the intercepting fist, was built upon this general concept. Lee was well-aware of the seeming contradiction of creating his own martial art “style.” But, as Lee said, “my style is no style.” What did he mean by this and how is it relevant to us?

Using No Way as Way

Lee viewed traditional martial arts as too rigid and stifling. In fact, he referred to traditional martial arts as a “classical mess” and “organized despair,” which was blasphemous to the traditional martial artists of his time. He viewed life as dynamic and often unpredictable. Is there one attacker or multiple attackers? What is the terrain like? What clothing is one wearing? Does the fight go to the ground or does it remain upright? Does the attacker have a weapon? What kind? What is the attacker’s body type?

As you can see, an almost infinite number of variables can come into play. An inflexible approach to a combat situation could be problematic because life is not rigid. Techniques that were effective became part of JKD. Those that didn’t were discarded. JKD could evolve and expand to incorporate new ideas and techniques as they were shown to be effective. There were no limits to what could be incorporated.

The way to be a more effective martial artist, according to Bruce Lee, was to liberate oneself from any particular style or system. Thus, one was not a “kung fu” or “karate” or “judo” practitioner. Instead, one was a martial artist in a broader sense. This didn’t mean that one didn't have to learn techniques and practice. However, a person would not restrict him- or herself to the idea that there is only one approach to self-defense.

According to Lee’s approach, we must be adaptive or suffer the consequences. In a self-defense situation, this could literally mean life or death. While the idea of approaching martial arts as fluid and dynamic, especially in this age of mixed martial arts, seems obvious now, it was revolutionary at the time. Plus, Lee’s iconoclastic approach garnered much criticism from the old guard. This brash young man was upsetting the status quo by criticizing hundreds of years of tradition.

While Bruce Lee applied “no way as way” to martial arts, he was quite the student of philosophy as well. He was especially fond of Eastern philosophy, such as Taoism and Buddhism, and he was also a big fan of Alan Watts (a philosopher and speaker who interpreted Eastern philosophical and religious teachings for a Western audience). Lee realized that rigidity was contrary to life itself. Life is fluid. Thus, we should be as fluid as water as well. This puts us in greater harmony with the way the world works.

“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow. Water can crash. Be water, my friend." —Bruce Lee’s character in the television show, Longstreet

The Takeaway

Wisdom for how to live our lives can come from diverse and unusual places. So, it might at first seem a bit strange to read a blog post about Bruce Lee on Psychology Today. However, Lee's lessons are both profound and timeless. Life is dynamic and ever-changing. We never know what it is going to throw at us, and 2020 is proof of that. We need to be more adaptive than ever to meet the challenges of this day and age. When we do not adapt, we, and those around us, suffer. We must learn to be more flexible and less rigid if we wish to be more effective. To be a better you in this new year, be water, my friend.

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