Maria Popova’s “Be Like Water: The Philosophy and Origin of Bruce Lee’s Famous Metaphor for Resilience”


The father of Mixed Martial Arts, filmmaker, movie star, and cultural icon, Bruce Lee is forever etched in the annals of time for his incredible blend of physical and mental mastery. He was a rare force that transcended category and limitation of all kinds in his journey of self-discovery and expression. Aside from his feats of strength, martial arts legacy, and genre-bending movies The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon, and the posthumously made Game of Death, Lee is renowned for his intellectual depth and wisdom. One of his more famous quotes is from an appearance he made on the TV series Longstreet: 

Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot . Now water can flow or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend.

The wise advice is posted on websites all over the Internet and lodged in the memories of every Lee fan across the globe. But few know the backstory behind the wisdom. The lovely Maria Popova, writer and founder of the informative website, cites passages from a collection of private entries Lee wrote discussing his philosophies on life, love, martial arts, and parenthood, entitled Bruce Lee: Artist of Life. A candid piece details the origin of Lee’s most famous quote.

When my acute self-consciousness grew to what the psychologists refer to as the “double-bind” type, my instructor would again approach me and say, “Loong, preserve yourself by following the natural bends of things and don’t interfere. Remember never to assert yourself against nature; never be in frontal opposition to any problems, but control it by swinging with it. Don’t practice this week: Go home and think about it.

After spending many hours meditating and practicing, I gave up and went sailing alone in a junk. 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 this water the very essence of gung fu? Hadn’t this 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 of 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 I was absorbing myself with the lesson 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 birds flying over the water? This 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.

Powerful stuff, right?

Beautifully penned by Popova, the rest of the article offers even more insight into one of the most profound people ever to grace this Earth. Check it out in its entirety here.



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