BY SOFO ARCHON
When you hear the name Bruce Lee, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?
I know, a diehard martial arts freak who’d not hesitate to take the life of anyone who made the mistake of messing with him or his family.
Well, although this might be partially true (at least, in the film roles he played), there’s more to Bruce Lee than this: Other than the martial arts badass that he was (and he’s mostly known for), he was also a philosophy badass.
From a very young age, Bruce Lee was obsessed with learning how to make the most out of his life. This is reflected by the countless of hours he spent reading books; by the age of 30, he possessed thousands of titles in his library, most of which on self-help, philosophy, and martial arts. But Bruce wasn’t just a man of theory; rather, he was a man of action. Hence, any important lesson he could grasp on an intellectual level, he’d apply it in his everyday life, with martial arts being his main vehicle for doing so.
Bruce Lee didn’t see martial arts merely as a competitive sport, but in essence as a means of self-discovery and self-expression. By learning to fight, he was able to better understand who he was — he could force himself out of his comfort zone, test his limits, and confront his fears. Fighting was his way of making friends with his inner demons, expanding his sense of self, and expressing the core of his being.
Through his books, films and interviews, Bruce Lee tried to convey the wisdom he had gained over the many years of studying philosophy and practicing martial arts. Here I’m going to share with you seven of his most profound philosophical insights, which, if you give them the attention they deserve, will help awaken your inner warrior — that is, the fighting spirit that will guide you through any hardship in life. So without further ado, let’s jump right into them!
Be like water.
According to Bruce Lee, life is in constant change, and unless we learn to adapt to it, we’re bound to experience tremendous resistance that will entrap us in a constant state of suffering.
Having been deeply influenced by the philosophy of Taoism — especially by the teachings of the Chinese sage Lao Tzu — Bruce Lee likened the person who has learned to embrace change to water. Here’s a small video clip taken from an interview Bruce gave on live TV in 1971, where he’s sharing his thoughts on the matter:
People tend to think of water as a symbol of weakness. Far from that, Bruce Lee regarded water as the ultimate symbol of strength. In his own words:
“Be like water because it is soft. resilient, and formless. It can never be snapped.”
Water is soft yet stronger than everything else in existence. That’s because of its ability to elude, adapt, and move with the nature of things. By doing so, it conquers all without fighting. This is well-illustrated by a scene from Bruce Lee’s phenomenal movie Enter the Dragon — here’s a description of it by Lee’s biographer John Little, taken from his book The Warrior Within:
The scene has Lee on a large junk that is sailing from Hong Kong to an island destination, the locale of a brutal martial arts tournament presided over by Han, the renegade Shaolin Temple monk who has turned to a life of crime.
On the junk, a New Zealand martial artist begins to flex his martial muscle, attempting to intimidate his fellow passengers, some of whom will be his opponents in the forthcoming tournament. He chooses to do this by picking on and brutalizing the smaller Chinese stewards and cabin boys. After kicking a basket of fruit out of one’s hands and then side-kicking him across the deck of the boat, he focuses on Lee, who is standing, unbelligerently, looking out across the waters. He attempts to goad Lee into a duel on the boat. Lee ignores him. Incensed, yet curious, the martial artist asks him: “What’s your style?”
Lee smiles at the question. “My style? You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.”
This intrigues the martial artist. “The art of fighting—without fighting? Show me some of it!”
Sensing that his adversary is not to be dissuaded and that some action must be taken, Lee agrees—with the proviso that they not fight aboard the junk. “Don’t you think we need more room?” Lee asks.
“Where else?” comes the martial artist’s reply. Lee smiles again as his eyes return to scanning the ocean. They come to rest upon a sandy cove. “That island—on the beach,” says Lee, who then gestures to the lifeboat that is attached to the junk. “We can take this boat.”
Nodding in agreement, the martial artist says: “Okay.” As Lee works to unfasten the rope securing the boat to the junk, the martial artist steps into it. At that moment, Lee lets the line play out in his hands setting the martial artist adrift at sea. Lee had no intention of ever joining the man at all. His swiftness of thought had given him victory without his once ever having to throw a punch or kick. He had, in fact, won the battle through the use of “the art of fighting without fighting.”
Just like water, we can learn to overcome any obstacle we find on our path, not by fighting against it, but by embracing it, moving along with it and silently conquering it with the least effort on our part.
Moreover, by flowing with the river of life, not clinging to this or that circumstance, but letting the current of existence take us to new, unknown places, we learn to not get stuck in the past. This way we can live more intensely in the present moment, as well as gather experiences that will help us grow into wiser human beings. As Bruce put it:
“Running water never grows stale. So you’ve just got to ‘keep on flowing’.”
Kick dogma out of your life.
In the summer of 1972, Bruce Lee was asked by a journalist if he was affiliated with any religion. Lee’s answer was: “None whatsoever.” As if this answer didn’t suffice, the journalist continued by asking him if he believed in God, to which Lee replied: “To be perfectly frank, I really do not.”
Bruce didn’t subscribe to a dogma of any kind, and that’s because to him all organized belief systems are not only personally restricting, but also as essentially untrue. Although he was an avid reader of religion, philosophy, and martial arts, he viewed religious or philosophical ideologies at best only as signposts pointing to the truth, but not as the truth itself. Hence, according to Bruce, one shouldn’t be attached to them, but instead look at what they’re pointing to. To paraphrase one of Bruce’s lines from Enter the Dragon:
“It is like a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”
The truth is multi-sided and beyond what words can express, Therefore, it can’t be named, packaged, and presented in a certain way without losing its essence. As Lee put it:
“You can’t organize truth. That’s like trying to put a pound of water into wrapping paper and shaping it.”
Hence, Bruce advised people not to cling to any belief system — not even his own. On the contrary, he urged them to think for themselves, so they can reach to their own conclusions from their first-hand experiences. As he pointed out:
“A good teacher protects his pupils from his own influence.”
Although learning from others is a necessary part of your psycho-spiritual growth, we’d better not hold tightly to a certain ideology that was handed down to us. A wise teacher knows this very well, and hence doesn’t let his students become his followers; rather, his whole work is to help them break free from the shackles of external authority and create their own path in life.
Bruce Lee said:
“It is not daily increase but daily decrease, hack away the unessential. The closer to the source, the less wastage there is.”
If you think about it, most of us are wasting much of our time on things that don’t truly contribute to our well-being. We do work we don’t enjoy, we buy stuff we don’t need, we spend time with people we don’t like, and so on. No wonder our everyday life has become so complicated and stress-full.
According to Bruce Lee, simplicity is key to contentment and self-development. In his own words:
“The height of cultivation should move toward simplicity. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation …. the process to simplify is like a sculptor who continuously chisels away all the inessentials until he creates a master piece.”
By learning to simplify, we can let go of what isn’t serving our happiness and growth, and focus on what actually does. We can unburden our psyche from unnecessary wants and pay attention to our true needs. We can stop distracting ourselves with myriad things that turns life into a burdensome mess, and instead dedicate ourselves only on what makes it a worth-living adventure. In short, we can live a life that’s filled with purpose and meaning.
Love is way more than exciting romance.
Nearly everybody likes talking highly of love, but only a few are truly loving and satisfied with their relationships.
That’s because most people have a wrong impression of what love is.
From a very young age, books, movies and pop songs have conditioned us to believe that love is about finding the ideal partner who will complete us and with whom our life is going to be in a constant state of passionate excitement. But this kind of love — the so-called romantic love — is unreachable. Although in the beginning of a relationship it might seem like a concrete reality, the truth is that it’s nothing but an illusion that quickly vanishes into thin air, resulting in disappointment and discontentment. To quote Bruce Lee:
“The happiness that is derived from excitement is like a brilliant fire — soon it will go out.”
Bruce Lee pointed out that in order for a relationship to go on past that stage of initial excitement, plenty of time is required. Once this happens, love can grow deeper and take root in two people’s hearts. As Bruce put it:
“Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning, a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep burning and unquenchable.”
Talking about his relationship with his wife Linda Lee, Bruce noted:
“Before we married, we never had the chance to go out to nightclubs. We only spent our nights watching TV and chatting. Many young couples live a very exciting life when they are in love. So, when they marry, and their lives are reduced to calmness and dullness, they will feel impatient and will drink the bitter cup of a sad marriage.”
In order to build a healthy relationship, two partners need to spend intimate time together. By doing so, they can deeply get to know each other and see how well they feel in each other’s presence on a day-to-day basis. Then and only then can they find out if they truly match, and therefore if it’s worth continuing their relationship.
Express your whole truth.
Some people might have the impression that Bruce Lee was a cocky person who was showing off his martial art skills solely in an effort to boost his ego by attracting the attention of people on him. This, however, isn’t the case at all. In reality, as Bruce explains in the following video, martial arts was first and foremost his way of expressing himself:
One of the most well-known Bruce Lee quotes is:
“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”
In Bruce’s mind, every single person is a unique individual, yet most people haven’t embraced their uniqueness. Instead, they’re trying to become someone they are not, either out of fear of what others think about them, or out of their own desire to imitate those they admire. Yet, they don’t realize that by doing so they are ruining their lives, as Bruce Lee beautifully points out in an essay he wrote in early 1974 entitled In My Own Process:
“Most people only live for their image. That is why where some have a self, a starting point, most people have a void. Because they are so busy projecting themselves as “this” or “that,” they end up wasting and dissipating all their energy in projection and conjuring up of facade, rather than centering their energy on expanding and broadening their potential or expressing and relaying this unified energy for efficient communication.”
“In life, what more can you ask for than to be real? To fulfill one’s potential instead of wasting energy on [attempting to] actualize one’s dissipating image, which is not real and an expenditure of one’s vital energy. We have great work ahead of us, and it needs devotion and much, much energy. To grow, to discover, we need involvement, which is something I experience every day — sometimes good, sometimes frustrating. No matter what, you must let your inner light guide you out of the darkness.”
Keep on growing.
Bruce Lee saw life as an ongoing journey to wisdom: Through our everyday experiences, we get to better understand who we are and the world we live in, thus maturing as individuals.
However, this journey is filled with obstacles, and making mistakes is a necessary part of learning how to overcome them. Hence, committing mistakes isn’t necessarily something bad, contrary to what most people think. In fact, making mistakes can help us to become better problem-solvers and decision-takers. Yet, in order to learn from our mistakes, we firstly need to be honest enough to admit them, as well as to make sure not to repeat them. As Lee said:
“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.”
Wisdom is a never-ending process. The older we get, the more we develop our understanding, and those who stop growing in mind and soul are those who don’t truly live — in a sense, they are like zombies, physically alive yet spiritually dead. Hence, Bruce Lee noted:
“There is no such thing as maturity. There is instead an ever-evolving process of maturing. Because when there is a maturity, there is a conclusion and a cessation. That’s the end. That’s when the coffin is closed. You might be deteriorating physically in the long process of aging, but your personal process of daily discovery is ongoing. You continue to learn more and more about yourself every day.”
Don’t just talk; Do!
Bruce Lee was a philosopher in the truest sense of the word — that is, a lover of wisdom. To him, seeking wisdom wasn’t just an intellectual game of acquiring knowledge; rather, his aim was to apply what he learned in order to improve the quality of his life. In his mind, knowledge that isn’t applied is useless, for it serves no actual purpose. Therefore, he said:
“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”
Living too much in the head can prevent us from taking action and creating the life we want. That’s because overthinking can fill us with worries, paralyze us with fears, and make us anxious about what the future might bring. As Bruce expressed:
“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”
In order to get unstuck from such a helpless emotional state, Bruce Lee’s advice is simple: Take Action! Of course, to do so doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to succeed. In fact, if your goals are difficult, chances are that you’ll fail many times before you achieve them. But even if you fail, that’s totally fine. Embrace failure and learn from it, realizing that it’s an inseparable part of the path to success. The true problem, as Bruce reminds us, isn’t failing, but not making a serious effort to succeed:
“Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”
Life is fleeting, so we’d better make the most of it while we can, by fully immersing ourselves in it and doing whatever it takes to turn it into an amazing journey, no matter its ups and downs. Otherwise, what’s the point of living?
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