“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”
“Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle 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’s poetic language concerning water was developed on the principle that what we call ‘nature’ can serve a metaphorical purpose and reveal to us fundamental truths about living, dying and thinking. This idea that humanity is ‘artificial’ can distance us from the opportunities natural metaphors provide.
The natural metaphor serves an incredibly powerful purpose. Over the course of man’s endless relationship with symbols, trees have come to represent genealogies and hierarchies. Mountains are symbols of trial and tribulation. Desert land is representative of vacancy and nothingness. These are just a few example but I imagine you get the idea. Thinking of nature in terms of symbolic language can be a helpful and philosophically stimulating exercise as long as we don’t apply the symbols too fervently or mistake them for the previously-discussed dangerous type of Truth. If anything, these symbolic gestures are worth examining and pondering. Why do our abstract thoughts and feelings end up mirroring the structures and processes found
To return to Bruce Lee, water, at least in this poetic instance, represents the dichotomy between risk and reward. Imagine yourself floating in a pool. Breathe in, and the water cradles you on the surface, allowing you to float and look up at the sky, safely cradled over the depths below. Exhale, and you begin to sink, the possibility of drowning becoming more and more real, the only saving grace the fact that you can We constantly walk the fragile balance between life and death, happiness and suffering, just as our computers operate on fundamental combinations of 1’s and 0’s and every atom has its + and -. As poetry and metaphor these symbolic representations are beautiful and salient; it’s only when they become the very basis of our day-to-day thinking that they become destructive. And it’s surprising how often this tends to happen.
Water both creates and destroys. It’s a reminder of the balance between fragility and profundity in nature. The moderation of a modest rainfall allows for crop growth, temperature regulation and vital fuel for every creature on earth. The devastation of excess is revealed in the massive destruction brought on by flash floods, tsunamis and hurricanes. But as we all know, matter is neither created nor destroyed. Water forms and deforms, always changing.
Simultaneously destructive and regenerative, ‘disasters’ create new beauty through their annihilation of the old, just as major life events end up producing new circumstances. Change is not an upward or downward trajectory but instead a complicated web. Sometimes we need to tie up loose ends before we proceed. There are times when chaos and destruction are unavoidable before anything can continue. Very often the calm relies on the storm and vice-versa.
What we can learn from this is a sense of balance. Nature functions objectively, its processes neither Good nor Bad; it’s just part of the whole. And while our collective actions may alter its functioning, it has no opinions. We cannot destroy Earth, only ourselves. It is not sentient but instead part of a universal process of entropy that will have its way with us regardless of the vibrancy of our sex lives or how many cappuccinos we drink with breakfast. Nature functions as a process unto itself with no end goal and and it will continue to function indefinitely. If humans do not respect nature, it will take care of the problem itself and continue functioning just beautifully without us.
To be like water means to be mindful of the material world, mindful of our simultaneous distance from and reliance on the natural world that birthed our species. The utmost value should be placed on a state of adaptation; to be a ‘good’ human means to respond to change and chaos with diligence, intelligence and mindful physicality. We must care, think and act. With every moment we turn into someone else, someone we’ve never been before. To pretend we’re holding strong or not changing is silly and stubborn; we are constantly in flux and this provides endless potential for opportunity. To make the most of it is to assert one’s humanity and better oneself and others for the sake of all.
Lastly, we can let this practice in being mindful of symbolic exploration serve as a sort-of meta-symbol for what we can do with metaphors in general. To be observant of the natural world, to see what goes on, what causalities there are, and why things happen the way they do, and then to apply these tangible observations of events to more nebulous less-definable things like thoughts and feelings, is incredibly valuable and if applied properly will allow you to see your world entirely differently.
Exercise: Go for a walk. Choose something you see, ideally completely arbitrarily and without judgement. Stare at it. Try to abandon your preconceived notions about this thing. What is its function in the natural world? How about the artificial world? What is its relationship to the objects around it? What’s its relationships to you? What are some potential origins of the object? Keep asking questions, like a child pestering its parent with Why’s. Probe deeply and try to figure out the significance of this object, or how it can apply to concepts outside of itself. You’ll be surprised and over time will learn to see the world in a new way.