Lessons from the Master: A Finger Pointing at the Moon

Hello Moon by Stephen Poff

Don't miss all that heavenly glory.

“Don’t think. Feel. It is like a finger pointing out to the Moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” – Bruce Lee

It might surprise some to learn that, in addition to arguably being the greatest martial artist that ever lived, Bruce Lee was a philosophy major. His writings, heavily reflecting both his love of martial arts and his love of philosophy, are widely regarded as some of the best on martial philosophy. However, for some reason people often fail to see the applications outside of martial arts.

Take the quote above for example. Lee often expressed that his study of martial arts was the best method of self-expression he could find for himself. His martial arts were not an end in and of themselves, but rather a path to self-knowledge. The finger pointing at the Moon was study of the martial arts itself – if you focus only on the study of martial arts you miss the ‘heavenly glory’ of self-knowledge.

On a slightly more shallow level, this quote expresses another truth about martial arts training. Many people who study a martial art get hung up on whether or not their style or their training method is the best it possibly can be. People argue over whether to do kata or sparring, if traditional arts are better than contemporary arts, if hard styles or soft styles are better and on and on when really – none of this matters.

True proficiency in the martial arts comes when you have gotten beyond the training and can ‘feel’ what you need to do intuitively. When muscle memory takes over and, rather than thinking, you just react; then you are a proficient martial artist. People who focus too much on analyzing the training miss out on the true goal of being able to blend elements of the art together in new ways without needing to think about it.

So what other areas of life can we apply this to?

Language Learning

If there is one area where people most seem to completely miss the Moon for their focus on the finger, it’s in the area of language learning. People go crazy about figuring out which method is the best to learn a new language. They try local courses, Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, online programs and everything else they can. As much money and time as they spend focusing on finding the perfect learning method, they never realize that studying a language isn’t the answer and that you can learn it all for free.

When people start getting too obsessed over the method, they completely lose track of what their goal was in the first place. In the end, all language learning methods are fine as long as they get you where you want to go. Personally I’m a big advocate of learning through immersion and speaking from day one, but if you find a way that works for you that is entirely contrary to everything I suggest – awesome! What matters is that you reach your goal, not how you reach it. Don’t concentrate so much on the method that you miss out on your goal.

Entrepreneurship / Business

I know that most of the people who are interested in living the kind of life Caroline and I are working towards tend, like Caroline and myself, to feel a very strong proclivity toward entrepreneurship.

It makes sense, particularly given that owning your own business and being able to make a living without being tied to one particular location is a huge asset in really being free to live how you want. The problem is, entrepreneurship can be really complicated. Do I start a blog? Do I develop a product? Do I try to make my living off of affiliate links or advertisements? How do I handle all this social media stuff?

Most people, when faced with a complicated situation, turn to the experts for advice. This is where a lot of people can get into trouble though. Not because the experts give bad advice, the majority of the real experts give fantastic advice. The problem is that the prospective entrepreneurs fall victim to paralysis by analysis and information overload. They get so hung up on optimizing minutia like post timing and Twitter strategy, that they lose sight of what they were trying to do in the first place.

If your goal is to build a fantastic blog then worry about creating awesome, useful content before you worry about your social media strategy. If your goal is to sell a new product, make sure you’ve created an incredible product and are connecting with your customers before you worry about tweaking every little bit of your sales pitch.

General Self-Improvement

By now you should be seeing a bit of a pattern. When people set out to do something, it’s an extremely common mistake to focus on the method more than the goal.

Once you’ve realized this tendency you can check yourself in any endeavor you take to improve yourself. Whether it’s learning a new skill like swimming, or working towards your dream of traveling the world. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and there are always systems and methods to help you do those things. Always remember though that those systems and methods are just fingers pointing to the Moon, if you concentrate on them too much you’ll never realize your true goal.

Do you have any other specific areas where you’ve found you or others tend to focus too much on the finger? How did you get past that tendency? Share with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Stephen Poff

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com