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Bruce Lee’s Moment of Self-awareness and How it Inspired His Philosophy “Be Like Water”

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My drawing of Bruce Lee.

“Meditation is a rich and powerful method of study,” said Montaigne in his timeless essays, “for anyone who knows how to examine his mind, and to employ it vigorously. I would rather shape my soul than furnish it. There is no exercise that is either feeble or more strenuous, according to the nature of the mind concerned, than that of conversing with one’s own thoughts. The greatest men make it their vocation, ‘those for whom to live is to think.’”

Indeed, we all have a capacity for self-awareness, but to actually practice it and attain it is not a common pursuit. To think about your thinking is not an automatic behavior but rather a disciplined, conscious practice that requires a mindset focused on growth and self-improvement. We rationalize our decisions and behavior in order to flee from reality,

Bruce Lee, in Artist of Life, a collection of his private poems, notes, letters, and meditations on everything from psychology to martial arts to life, contains a beautiful passage that reflects a moment of self-awareness and why it is so vitally important to our growth. Lee reflects on a moment when he couldn’t understand the admonishment from his trainer, Master Yip. He writes [emphasis by me]:

“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.”

“Be like water” is one of Bruce Lee’s famous quotes, for it reflects his precision, understanding, and vigor both in the martial arts and how he conducted his life. This moment of self-awareness fostered great change within him. The lesson here is that we’re all capable of experiencing these moments. Many times we are unaware of the opportunities that allow us to be self-aware, to learn from our mistakes, and to ultimately change minds and ourselves. It requires us to pause, to think about our thinking, to digest the event and to extract lessons that help us mature and learn.

Bruce Lee: Artist of Life is a beautiful and meditative read into one of history’s lost but never forgotten martial arts heroes. His philosophy on life, understanding of psychology, and a multitude of other topics that all seemingly blend together just goes to show that his art influenced his life and his life influenced his art.

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