Lessons from the Master: Be Like Water

Tranquility by Sean Rogers

Water is not only essential to life, it makes a pretty good role model.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.” – Bruce Lee

Being like water is a fairly common goal within the world of martial arts, regardless of style. Students of everything from gong fu to karate to muay thai have sought to improve themselves by emulating its fluidity, force and formlessness. Not only martial artists can learn lessons from it though. So what does it mean to be like water, and how can doing so help improve our lives?

Formlessness

Another quote by Bruce Lee that’s often tossed around is this one:

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and 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

Technically that was him reciting lines he wrote for his role on the TV show Longstreet, but I think it still reflects both his thoughts on the matter and an essential property of water that can seriously help people in their day to day lives.

Water, as he says, is shapeless. It doesn’t fight when it’s put into a new container, instead it adapts and changes to perfectly fit its new home. If an object is dropped into the water it doesn’t fight back it just moves out of the way and swallows it up. This formlessness and adaptability is a quality that everyone should strive to achieve.

So how are some ways we can practice this attitude? Think of all the times you’ve been forced into a new situation. Maybe it’s something benign like going to an unfamiliar coffee shop or maybe it’s something more serious like losing your job. What have your reactions been like?

For most people change, no matter how small, is at the very least uncomfortable if not completely terrifying. The natural reaction when people are forced into a new situation is to flee or to fight to get back to the way things were. Instead, try to be more like water. Let go of all that energy you’re wasting trying to cling to the old way things were and let yourself reshape to fit your new surroundings.

The key to achieving water-like adaptation to new situations is understanding the concept of formlessness. The reason water doesn’t fight when it’s placed into a new environment is because water doesn’t have it’s own form. There is no one ‘shape’ of water, it assumes the shape of whatever its container is.

The best way to achieve a similar lack of form is to work on letting go of your self-created identity. I’m not saying you should completely abandon your personality, but rather that you should come to accept yourself as a malleable being. Once you understand that, like water, your defining aspect is that you are constantly changing you can easily adapt to any new situations that may arise.

Fluidity

Ok, I understand that fluidity and formlessness are essentially the same thing since formlessness is a general physical property of all fluids, but bear with me here because fluidity as a concept for our purposes has a slightly more nuanced meaning that separates it out.

When water is flowing, like in a stream or a river, it’s difficult to stop. You can try and push it back but it will slip around you and continue on its way. Like all currents it finds the path of least resistance automatically and follows it without effort or hesitation. If there is even the slightest crack or weakness it will find its way through and keep going.

You can apply this principle to your own life through the practice of wei wuwei (爲無爲) or action without action also sometimes referred to as effortless action. The idea of wei wuwei is central to Taoism and is characterized by releasing conscious control of your actions over to the flow of the infinite Tao.

In more Western terms – go with the flow.

As I said this may sound a lot like the above point of adapting to your surroundings but it’s slightly different. Adapting to your surroundings means changing yourself to become as comfortable as possible in the situation that has presented itself to you. Being fluid, or practicing wei wuwei, deals more with how you deal with obstacles.

Traceurs will understand this concept well. The idea is that when faced with an obstacle you react instantly and naturally taking the path of least resistance around it and moving on. Rather than slam into obstacles you let the natural order of things take its course as you glide around them.

Here obstacles doesn’t necessarily mean physical things. These can be any blocks to your progress tangible or not. When manifested into your general attitude it can also be an effective way to overcome mental blocks. When you hit a block in your thinking or creativity don’t dwell on the problem, just accept that its there and move on.

Dealing with problems this way is not only more effective, it keeps stress to a minimum as well.

There are likely other lessons that you could learn and apply from observing the properties of water, the way when it’s focused into a single stream it can cut through steel, the way a tiny trickle of it can dig out the entire Grand Canyon given enough time or maybe the way it’s nearly incompressible. Can you think of any other good additions? Leave a comment and share them!

Photo Credit: Sean Rogers

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

  • Guest

    Good stuff – are there any books that talk about this? I looked it up on Amazon, and found “The Tao of JKD”. Do you know anything about that particular book?

    • Adam

      ‘The Tao of Jeet Kune Do’ is an excellent book, but its focus is still mostly on martial arts training and strategy and a little less on philosophy. ‘Bruce Lee – Wisdom for the Way’ is a pretty good collection of most of his thoughts on philosophical matters, though it’s more like an archive of quotes than a straight narrative.

      Unfortunately as far as I know he never wrote a whole book solely about philosophy.

  • I was pretty amazed to find out that tai chi when sped up is a martial art form. I did it almost ten years ago at the Tai Chi Chuan Center with a teacher named C K Chu. Apparently the fighters there won a lot of competitions. A lot of it seems about being grounded and flowing at the same time.

    • Yeah, I’ve seen some really impressive things from fighters using applied Taijiquan. From what I understand it focuses a lot on the grounding and flowing like you said – capturing and breaking your opponent’s center of gravity. I’d like to give Taijiquan a try someday, if just for the meditative aspect.

  • neiljohn

    i salute the legend b.l. he enlightened and changed my way of thinking and acting towards martial arts and also to my life in its entirety.. I was a boy who went to practice and imitate various martial arts like karate, fma, etc. searching for the best art that suits my taste and interest when it comes to killing or severely injuring an attacker but i was totally universally wrong with that when i heard b.l. said,” Their is no superior martial art, the superior is in you.. i can not teach you i can only help you find your own way” 🙂 thanks Bruce

    • I’m probably partially biased since my first art was Jeet Kune Do, but yeah he was definitely way ahead of his time. The ‘take what is useful’ mindset has served me well in all kinds of areas outside of martial arts as well.

  • Naveli

    Lao tze’ s quote – be like water.

  • Rui

    This is very inspirational, and I find it very interesting the way Bruce Lee puts things! I agree with your interpretation of his words but the thing that I dont quite understand is the “crash” part. If the flow means the way you deal with a situation and the way you try to find the most natural and simplest form of resolving your
    problem, what does the “water crash” mean? Does it mean failure or something else? Because if it means and you want to be like water, you have to build yourself in order to be the fluible water and not the one that it crashes. I would apreciate another person’s opinion, especially you Adam wik. Thank you.

    • Rui

      I read that the crash means the force of the water, because water is not a thing that simple hurts you but when it does its the force of the water that makes you feel pain. So the crash means the stregth. This is what I found but I think that is right so I agree with it. So my thought of crash has changed thats why Im replying to my own comment. But give more thoughts and opinions on that part of the sentence of Bruce Lee pls

  • Priyesh

    Nicely explained.