Be Like Water

Bruce Lee is said to have told his students to “be like water.”

While I have always appreciated his action sequences in the movies Bruce starred in, I am learning to appreciate the incredible philosopher he also was. Yes, he invented a completely new form of martial arts (Jeet Kune Do) by incorporating the best of several other forms. And yes, he was driven to break through many of the barriers put up before Asian Americans in Hollywood.

But, the more I read about Bruce Lee, the more I realize he was also a profound philosopher. And his statement to his students to “be like water” is one exceptional example. Why? Let’s explore just a few thoughts about this.

Water flows through its environment, but always maintains its purpose. Water consistently and patiently flows downhill in spite of any obstacle in its environment. If it encounters a rock, it will immediately go over, under, or around the rock. And given enough time, the water will wear the rock away. There’s a lesson in this, if we’re willing to learn it.

Water takes the shape of whatever is containing it, but always maintains its essence. If you put water into a glass, it takes the shape of the glass. But it is still a collection of groups of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen bound together (H2O). If you put water into an ornate pitcher, it takes the shape of a pitcher, but is still H2O. If you cool water enough to put it into the shape of an ice cube, it takes the shape of an ice cube, but it is still H2O. If you heat water enough to put it into the shape of steam, it takes the shape of steam, but it is still H2O. There’s a lesson in this, if we’re willing to learn it.

Water simply accepts whatever is happening and returns to a state of calm. If you fill the sink and then put your hand into the water, the water will simply make room for your hand. If you leave your hand in long enough, the water will return to calmly resting in the sink around your hand. And when you pull your hand back out, the water immediately fills back in where your hand was and eventually returns to calmly resting in the sink. There’s a lesson in this, if we’re willing to learn it.

Water allows things to happen according to its inherent nature. If we truly understand water’s inherent nature, we do incredible things – or not. For example, an Olympic high diver can “fall” into the water from nearly 40 feet above and barely make a splash. But go to a backyard pool party and you are almost guaranteed to see at least one clumsy goofball doing a “cannonball” dive from only 4 feet above and making an enormous splash. The water is simply being water. There’s a lesson in this, if we’re willing to learn it.

Yes, this list is by no means comprehensive, but should give you a decent launch pad for your own thinking about water. And how you can be like water.

I offer my gratitude to the master teacher Bruce Lee.