Of course the quote above comes from Bruce Lee, the legendary martial artist, poet and philosopher. While it has been re-quoted often, few actually understand what Lee meant by that, and the story of how it came about.
I want to revisit it here, because it holds a very important lesson for everyone on the path of self-development and prosperity consciousness.
The story begins when Bruce was still training with Professor Yip Man, head of the wing chun school of gung fu, during the only formal martial arts training he received. During the training, Yip Man repeatedly came up to Lee and said, “Loong, relax and calm your mind. Forget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movements. Let your mind, the basic reality, do the counter-movement without any interfering deliberation. Above all, learn the art of detachment.”
These were abstract concepts to the young Lee, and he experienced great frustration and consternation. He would tell himself to relax, but instinctively do something to contradict his will. Seeing his anxiety, Yip Man returned again and said, “Loong, preserve yourself by following the natural bend of things and don’t interfere. Remember to never assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it.” After a time, the instructor told his youthful student to stop practicing for a week, go home, get away from the routines and reflect.
Lee spent a week practicing and meditating, but felt no closer to what he was seeking. In an attempt to clear his mind, he went out sailing by himself on a junk in the harbor. Here’s what happened next, in Lee’s own words:
“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 the water the very essence of gun fu? Hadn’t the 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 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.
“Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then as I was absorbing myself with the lessons of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the bird flying over the water? That was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached—not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”
After his epiphany, Lee just lay there and let the boat drift freely, feeling united with Tao. He possessed a feeling in which opposition had become mutually cooperative instead of mutually exclusive, and he lost all feeling of conflict in his mind. That experience on the water was a seminal moment and became a defining concept later in life when Lee went on to found Jeet Kune Do (JKD). And that is where we can learn much about how we can best respond to challenges, setbacks, and the mindset necessary for success. Because here’s the thing:
At some point, you’re going to get a bad medical diagnosis, lose a loved one, get fired, be in a horrific accident, go bankrupt, be jilted by the love of your life, have your business fail, or other similar event. And mostly likely, a lot more than one.
Like you, I hate to see a kid get leukemia, parents unable to have children, entrepreneurs get their dreams dashed, or a child lose a parent. But these things are all part of this tapestry called life and they happen to some of us everyday.
I’m not going to tell you it’s easy. Often it is not. Sometimes we are tested to the limits of our fortitude. It is times such as these that we must be like water. Bend, adapt, reshape and reform. Find new directions or different levels. You have to stop trying to assert yourself with frontal opposition against nature, but by bending with it.
Sometimes we don’t have a choice in the events that happen to us. But we always have the choice in how we respond to those events. So what is the area in your life right now, where you must be like water?
Randy Gage is the author of nine international bestsellers on success, including, Risky Is the New Safe. He’s currently on sabbatical, writing his next book, but posts occasionally here. If you find these postcards helpful, please share them.