“Be water, my friend.” A calm, flexible mind can adapt to any situation. Stop thinking you need to control all aspects of your life. Listen to your inner voice and know that the thing you can control is your reaction to any situation you may find yourself in.

In our modern society we think we need to be in control of everything. Of all aspects of life. With our over-stimulated minds we have the illusion we can control all internal and external forces around us. When we lose control we feel anxiety and become stressed. We feel like we have failed. An empty, open mind is like water. With such a calm, flexible mind we can be open and flow with the circumstances by responding accordingly. That way we do not lose control but redefine it. We accept we can not control everything that happens but we can control how we can react to it.

Bruce Lee: Be Water

Bruce Lee was one of the most influential martial artists of all time and has become a true 20th century pop culture icon. What not many people know is that Lee was also into philosophy and poetry. He studied drama and philosophy in the United States and loved to read about these subjects. At home he had a large library with books about martial arts and philosophy. We can get a glimpse of his thoughts and ideas when in a 1971 interview he speaks about ‘how we should all be water’.

This is the – now famous – quote from that interview:
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

The beauty is that everybody has their own interpretation of these wise words. Some people think he talks about adapting to every situation that may occur on your path. Other people interpret the quote as ‘be fluid in your movements’, referring to martial arts. Another explanation I heard was ‘be gentle, yet powerful!’.

All these interpretations are not entirely wrong but don’t really capture the essence. When Bruce Lee talks about being water, he uses his words carefully. He doesn’t say ‘be flexible, adaptable or powerful like water’. He says ‘Be water’!

Tao wisdom

In fact, Bruce is talking about an ancient Tao wisdom called Wu Wei – knowing when to act and when not to act. Wu Wei literally means ‘not doing’. But the deeper meaning, is being calm. In the moment. Still. Like water. We can also translate it as ‘effortless action’ and it is about recognizing the right moment to act. Also about knowing in the moment itself what the right way of acting is. Because it is impossible to teach how to identify these moments and the right methods of action – we must turn inwards and trust our intuition. We must become really good at listening to our own internal voice. And respond calmly to any situation. This is how we can ‘be water’.

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