Bruce Lee’s Private Letters Explain What He Really Meant By ‘Be Like Water’

Mike Longstreet is a character from a 1971 TV series named Longstreet. Bruce Lee made a now very popular statement about the water in this TV series. He summarized the concept of Wu Wei – act forcefully without force, or effortlessly without effort.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” ~Bruce Lee

According to Maria Popova an author on Brain Pickings, the quotes do not give us information about how Bruce Lee got this conclusion.

“But the famed snippet belies the full dimensionality of the metaphor and says nothing about how Lee arrived at it.” ~Maria Popova 

Bruce Lee died in 1973, and before his death, he made an archive of personal letters, affirmations, journal entries, messages, and training notes to himself.

Many of these are included in The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. A lot of the material was never published, but the Bruce Lee Foundation published a collection of his notes in the book named Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (2001).

Back in 2016, the foundation published even more of his notes, so we can now understand his personality better. So, we can learn how and what “Be like water” means.

The notes let us peek into the process of self-awakening as well as self-actualization of Bruce Lee. Maria Popova says that his popular metaphor came after a lot of frustration because of the inability to detach.

Here is a quote from the book Bruce Lee: Artist of Life:

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 the next days on meditation and reflection, Lee made some conclusions about his ability to practice the art of detachment. So, he made a connection to the fleeting influence of thoughts and attachments and to water.

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.

Moreover, Lee writes about his thoughts on the teachings of Lao Tzu after he finished his understanding of the art of detachment.

“The natural phenomenon which the gung fu man sees as being the closest resemblance to wu wei [the principle of spontaneous action governed by the mind and not the senses] is water:

Nothing is weaker than water,
But when it attacks something hard
Or resistant, then nothing withstands it,
And nothing will alter its way.

The above passages from the Tao Te Ching illustrate to us the nature of water: Water is so fine that it is impossible to grasp a handful of it; strike it, yet it does not suffer hurt; stab it, and it is not wounded; sever it, yet it is not divided. It has no shape of its own but molds itself to the receptacle that contains it. When heated to the state of steam it is invisible but has enough power to split the earth itself. When frozen it crystallizes into a mighty rock. First it is turbulent like Niagara Falls, and then calm like a still pond, fearful like a torrent, and refreshing like a spring on a hot summer’s day. So is the principle of wu wei:

The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury. And since he will not strive, none strive with him.”

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