Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

29 MAY, 2013

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

By:

“In order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

With his singular blend of physical prowess and metaphysical wisdom, coupled with his tragic untimely death, legendary Chinese-American martial artist, philosopher, and filmmaker Bruce Lee (1940-1973) is one of those rare cultural icons whose ethos and appeal remain timeless, attracting generation after generation of devotees. Inspired by the core principles of Wing Chun, the ancient Chinese conceptual martial art, which he learned from his only formal martial arts teacher, Yip Man, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. When he left Hong Kong in 1959, Lee adapted Wing Chun into his own version, Jun Fan Gung Fu — literal translation: Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu — and popularized it in America.

In 1971, at the peak of his career, Lee starred in four episodes of the short-lived TV series Longstreet. In one of them, he delivered his most oft-cited metaphor for the philosophy of Gung Fu:

But the famed snippet belies the full dimensionality of the metaphor and says nothing about how Lee arrived at it. Luckily, in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life (public library) — a compendium of his never-before-published private letters, notes, and poems, offering unprecedented insight into his philosophy on life and his convictions about martial arts, love, and parenthood — Lee traces the thinking that originated his famous metaphor, which came after a period of frustration with his inability to master “the art of detachment” that Yip Man was trying to impart on him. Lee writes:

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.”

And so he did, spending the following week at home:

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.

Bruce Lee (right) with his only formal martial art instructor, Yip Man

Quoting from Lao Tzu’s famous teachings, Lee writes:

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.

Bruce Lee: Artist of Life is fantastic in its entirety.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

24 MAY, 2013

Love Letter as Obit: How To Praise Like David Ogilvy

By:

“Many nice men are too dumb to be anything else.”

Few are the legends of communication arts whose legacy tells us something not merely about how to sell well but how to live well, whose minds reveal something deeper about the inner workings of the self rather than the mere machinery that fueled “the century of the self,” who teach us something not only about the tricks of the commercial trade but also about what makes the human heart tick. Among those exceptional few is advertising icon and original “Mad Man” David Ogilvy. From the out-of-print 1986 gem The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library) — the same compendium of his lectures, memos, and lists that gave us his 10 timeless tips on writing — comes this memo sent to a veteran copywriter on April 2, 1971, which bespeaks with equal measure Ogilvy’s unapologetic standards, his wry wit, and his self-conscious but unrelenting humanity:

Harry just read me the letter you wrote me yesterday, on your anniversary.

Shyness makes it impossible for me to tell any man what I think of him when he is still alive. However, if I outlive you, I shall write an obituary along these lines:

––––––––– was probably the nicest man I have ever known. His kindness to me, and to dozens of other people, was nothing short of angelic.

Many nice men are too dumb to be anything else. But ––––––––– was far from dumb. Indeed, he had a superb intelligence.

His judgment of men and events was infallible; I came to rely on it more and more as the years went by.

He was one of my few partners who worked harder and longer hours than I did. He gave value for money. And he knew his trade.

He was an honest man, in the largest sense of the word. He had a glorious sense of humor.

He had the courage to challenge me when he thought I was wrong, but he always contrived to do it without annoying me.

There was nothing saccharine about him. Tolerant as he was, he did no like everybody; he disliked the people who deserved to be disliked.

He never pursued popularity, but he inspired universal affection.

The Unpublished David Ogilvy is fantastic in its entirety, a treasure trove of wisdom on business, creative culture, and the human condition.

Photograph via Ogilvy One

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

24 MAY, 2013

The Philosophy of Immortality

By:

“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

“If we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision and impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?,” Rilke famously asked. “The idea that you’d have to say ‘goodbye’ to all this — even though it’s infuriating and maddening and frightening and horrible, some of the time — is even more infuriating and maddening and horrible: How do you spend this time without perpetually being so broken-hearted about saying the eventual goodbye?,” Maira Kalman pondered.

In this short interview for Brain Pickings, pop-philosophy hunter-gatherer Filip Matous sits down with Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave to crack open some of the insights from his fascinating book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library) — which also gave us this stimulating, if unsettling meditation on the mortality paradox.

The crux of Cave’s argument falls somewhere between Montaigne’s reflections on death and the art of living and John Cage’s affinity for Zen Buddhism.

We, like all living things, want to live on — we want to project ourselves into the future, we have this will to live. And yet, unlike other living things, we have to live in a knowledge that this will is going to be thwarted, that we’re going to die. And so we might have to live with this sense of personal apocalypse — the worst thing that could possibly happen, will. This is what it means to be mortal.

But this very sense of our inevitable mortality might also be a steering wheel for life: Cave reminds us that “busy is a choice” and that how we spend our time shapes who we become:

The American novelist Susan Ertz says, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that: Actually, it’s the fear of death rather than the love of life, often, that’s motivating us. If people complain that they don’t have enough time, why do they watch so much TV? It doesn’t seem, actually, when we look at the way people behave, that lack of time is their problem. On the contrary … when you look at how much time we waste, [it seems] that life is already too long — so long that we become complacent and we waste great swathes, so many hours. And, in fact, being conscious of the fact that our time is limited is what makes us really value and appreciate the time that we have.

Cave touches on Tolstoy’s wisdom, observing:

There’s a kind of conspiracy of silence… We, culturally, don’t like to talk about death. I think we need to talk about death because only by talking about our mortality can we understand the lives we’re leading and why we’re leading them the way we’re leading them.

Immortality remains a must-read, and the Ernest Becker book mentioned in the conversation, The Denial of Death, is also very much worth a read.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.