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

“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 (November 27, 1940–July 20, 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, based on the Chinese concept of wu wei:

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.

BP

The Power of Process: What Young Mozart Teaches Us About the Secret of Cultivating Genius

On the “powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice.”

“The trick to creativity … is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time,” observed Denise Shekerjian in reflecting on her insightful interviews with MacArthur “genius” grantees. “Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” attested Thomas Edison. “It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Alexander Graham Bell proclaimed. And yet our culture continues to perpetuate the notion that genius is a “God”-given blessing.

In The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (public library), David Shenk presents a rigorously researched blend of historical evidence and scientific data to debunk the myth that genius is a special gift serendipitously bestowed upon the chosen few and shows, instead, that it is the product of consistent, concentrated effort, applied in the direction of one’s natural inclination. But beyond the familiar argument for the power of process, Shenk stresses the importance of early childhood experience in recognizing and cultivating the inklings of talent, and building the right framework for achievement. He gives “the mystifying boy genius” Mozart as a prime example:

Anonymous portrait of the child Mozart, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni; painted in 1763 on commission from Leopold Mozart (public domain)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [was] alleged to be an instant master performer at age three and a brilliant composer at age five. His breathtaking musical gifts were said to have sprouted from nowhere, and his own father promoted him as the “miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.”

The reality about Mozart turns out to be far more interesting and far less mysterious. His early achievements — while very impressive, to be sure — actually make good sense considering his extraordinary upbringing. And his later undeniable genius turns out to be a wonderful advertisement for the power of process. Mozart was bathed in music from well before his birth, and his childhood was quite unlike any other. His father, Leopold Mozart, was an intensely ambitious Austrian musician, composer, and teacher who had gained wide acclaim with the publication of the instruction book A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. For a while, Leopold had dreamed of being a great composer himself. But on becoming a father, he began to shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children — perhaps, in part, because his career had already hit a ceiling: he was [assistant music director]; the top spot would be unavailable for the foreseeable future.

Uniquely situated, and desperate to make some sort of lasting mark on music, Leopold began his family musical enterprise even before Wolfgang’s birth, focusing first on his daughter Nannerl.

[…]

Then came Wolfgang. Four and a half years younger than his sister, the tiny boy got everything Nannerl got — only much earlier and even more intensively. Literally from his infancy, he was the classic younger sibling soaking up his big sister’s singular passion. As soon as he was able, he sat beside her at the harpsichord and mimicked notes that she played. Wolfgang’s first pings and plucks were just that. But with a fast-developing ear, deep curiosity and a tidal wave of family know-how, he was able to click into an accelerated process of development.

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

But buried in Shenk’s argument for the power of nurture is also a subtle but menacing dark side that speaks to the power of how social norms and gender expectations shape the investment in nurture:

As Wolfgang became fascinated with playing music, his father became fascinated with his toddler son’s fascination — and was soon instructing him with an intensity that far eclipsed his efforts with Nannerl. Not only did Leopold openly give preferred attention to Wolfgang over his daughter; he also made a career-altering decision to more or less shrug off his official duties in order to build an even more promising career for his son. This was not a quixotic adventure. Leopold’s calculated decision made reasonable financial sense in two ways: First, Wolfgang’s youth made him a potentially lucrative attraction. Second, as a male, Wolfgang had a promising, open-ended future musical career. As a woman in eighteenth-century Europe, Nannerl was severely limited in that regard.

From age three, then, Wolfgang had an entire family driving him to excel with a powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice. He was expected to be the pride and financial engine of the family, and he did not disappoint.

How many genius-level female composers never received this “powerful blend” we’ll never know. But the bigger point in The Genius in All of Us resonates loud and clear: To reap the fruits of genius, we must plant the seeds of practice and process.

BP

Amanda Palmer on Creativity as Connecting Dots and the Terrifying Joy of Sharing Your Art Online

“We can only connect the dots that we collect.”

“How are we so brave to take step after step? Day after day?,” Maira Kalman pondered. “How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip, and then get up and say O.K.?”

In her wonderful keynote at the 2013 Grub Muse literary conference on creativity and the marketplace, Amanda Palmer — she of great wisdom on the art of asking without shame — considers why creativity is the product of connecting dots and addresses the quintessential question of how to put yourself and your work out there, in the Wild West of the internet, fully knowing how messy it can get and yet how wonderful, how open to cold criticism it can leave you and yet how capable of warming others.

Some thoughts, highlights, and dot-connecting below:

Buried in the generally brilliant argument of her opening parable is a specific unfair assumption: What Amanda describes as the supremacy of art’s disposition over that of science applies not to science vs. art but to bad science vs. good art, for “the impulse to connect the dots and share what you’ve connected” is not only what makes a great artist or writer but also, unequivocally, what makes a great scientist.

She recounts reactions to her recent experience of the Boston bombings:

To erase the possibility of empathy is to erase the act of making art.

She notes with equal parts eloquence and poignancy the duality of the internet’s promise and the tsunami of trolls that can come with each wave of attention:

For every bridge you build together with your community of readers, there’s a new set of trolls who sit underneath it.

“Every line and word is vitally connected with my life, my life only,” Henry Miller observed in his timeless reflections on writing, “be it in the form of deed, event, fact, thought, emotion, desire, evasion, frustration, dream, revery, vagary, even the unfinished nothings which float listlessly.” Beloved graphic designer Paula Scher likened creativity to a slot machine of subjective lived experience. Amanda eloquently echoes these sentiments in her own creative credo:

We can only connect the dots that we collect, which makes everything you write about you. … Your connections are the thread that you weave into the cloth that becomes the story that only you can tell.

She sums up what it all comes down to on the internet:

In order for it to work, the door must remain unlocked. People might enter without knocking, they might crash your party and drink your wine. Let them in, and let them drink — because you might meet somebody interesting.

Creating art in a time of trauma, she argues, illustrates with greater poignancy than anything what makes the internet beautiful:

People might shout, “This is not the time for metaphor! This is not the time for art! And this is certainly not the time for art about you!” But once you’ve shared your art and it’s resonated with a single person, it’s no longer about you — once you share it, it’s about everybody. And if your art is found by a single soul, shared with a friend who links it to a friend, and the response is whatever it is, you start to see how art becomes about everybody — just through the act of being shared.

(Cue in David Foster Wallace, who famous wrote, “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.”)

But, ultimately, Amanda’s most pressing point is about dismantling the antiquated structures that tell us how to touch people with what we create and building from the ground up this new ecosystem where the only thing that matters is that we touch them:

Self-publishing without authentication and without that wand of legitimacy brushing your shoulder is truly scary. And there’s self-publishing a book, which at least resembles something real, and then there’s posting your shit to the internet. But I’ve found, what resonates resonates — the format doesn’t matter. … I’m not suggesting in the slightest that you forsake your painstakingly edited work and your protected, well-groomed and agonized-over treasures, and post them to the internet tomorrow. … But you can, if you want — if you’re brave — you can yell down into the marketplace and find your friends, and the crowd that would resonate with you, without permission from on high. Because anything you write in any format can change somebody, can change an opinion, can scratch an opening in a scared up heart of a human being — and it doesn’t matter how you do it.

If your writing is good, if it resonates, if it connects the dots for anybody out there, the lovers will come, the haters will come, support will come — sometimes in the form of money, sometimes in the form of something less expected — and it balances.

A resounding secular Amen!

Amanda is one of the good humans. You can support her by buying, as pay-what-you-will downloads, some of her gorgeous music and enjoying her writing.

Open Culture

BP

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