Today is August 5 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you resemble water?” American poet Wallace Stevens once noted “Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its container.”
Learning to navigate the chaos may require you to take a different shape, be pliable, or remain flexible in order to deal with a life situation. Leveraging your mind, body, and spirit is central to doing so. Such a process, however, like so much of the strategies discussed in this Navigate the Chaos series, is easier said than done.
Decades later, Hong Kong American martial artist, actor, director, martial arts instructor, and philosopher Bruce Lee made the following observation
“Empty your mind.
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup; it becomes the cup.
You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot.
You put it into a bottle; it becomes the bottle.
Now water can flow, or it can crash!
Be water, my friend.”
Both Stevens and Lee understood the value of applying water’s characteristics to human behavior as a viable strategy to navigate the chaos. They both realized the benefit of being like water and becoming flexible for a given life situation. These and other modern references to water, however, have their origins in the ancient Chinese text the Tao Te Ching written around 400 BC and traditionally credited to the sage Laozi (also spelled Lao Tzu meaning Old Master).
Lao Tzu likened an individual’s path through life as being like water. In chapter 8 of the “Tao Te Ching”, he described the ideal character a person should have and wrote “The best character is like water. The water’s goodness is that it benefits the myriad things but does not quarrel, and it willingly goes to where others hate. Thus, it is almost like the Tao.” Laozi in the Tao Te Ching explains that the Tao is not a name for a thing, but the underlying natural order of the Universe.
In her 2020 book Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee, his daughter Shannon Lee wrote “The ‘be Water’ quote begins with the prompt ‘Empty your mind.’ This first request is perhaps the most important one in our process because it sets us up for everything that comes next. My father believed that this act – of leaving behind the burdens of one’s preconceived opinions and conclusions – had in itself a liberating power. In fact, if this step is the only one you actively work on for a while, you will expand your life considerably. Emptiness refers to a state of openness and neutrality. When your mind is crowded with thoughts and information about all the things you’ve learned and how you feel about them, there isn’t room for much else. You’ve given up access to new possibilities and points of view; you’ve limited yourself. In order to learn new information, we must first make room to let that information in. This allowance of new information can only occur if we empty our minds. We in the West think of nothingness as a void, a non-existence. In Eastern philosophy and modern physical science, nothingness – no-thingness-is a form of process, ever moving – like water.”
To navigate the chaos today’s reflection offers the option of resembling water. What is interesting and unique about today’s post is a daughter’s reflection upon the words, actions, and life of her father. In her introduction to the book Shannon reminded readers that “you don’t need to be Bruce Lee in order to make the most out of your life and Bruce Lee doesn’t want you to be him; he would want you to be the best version of yourself.”
Practicing the art of living well certainly involves being the best version of yourself. Unpacking the ‘be like water’ philosophy of Bruce Lee, when coupled with the keen observations of his daughter Shannon, provide the following list of questions to consider for today’s reflection.
How often can you empty your mind?
Do you find yourself rigid or pliable, formless, and shapeless, like water?
Have you considered the impact emptying your mind can have on the rest of your day?
Do you feel imprisoned by your thoughts? If so, what have you done lately to liberate yourself from your own thoughts?
How often do you leave behind the burdens of one’s preconceived opinions and conclusions?
Have you given yourself permission to accept how emptiness refers to a state of openness and neutrality?
How often do you find your mind too crowded to take in a new thought?
What can you do today to clear your mind and create a state of no-thingness?
How often do you remind yourself the difference between nothingness and no-thingness?
Are you working towards being the best version of yourself or do you catch yourself mimicking others?