Like a Long Drink of Water

“Nothing in the world Is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, Nothing can surpass it.”

Preeminent Chinese philosopher, Laozi (老子)

The Old Boy, Laozi, is one of China’s most renowned philosophers. Hailing from Quren, a hamlet in what is today Luyi in eastern Henan Province, he made waves in 5 BCE and they are still lapping on the shores of human consciousness 26 centuries later. He is lauded as the father of Philosophical Taoism, a philosophy of non-resistance to all of life’s ups and downs.

Going with the flow, according to Laozi was the only way to happiness made manifest in “Wu Wei”, translating roughly as non-doing, or “doing nothing”.

Basically, this means action through inaction. Like life itself, Laozi was an incorrigible purveyor of paradox.

It sounds like the Procrastinator’s Dream, action through inaction. Don’t want to write that reference list? Flip your mattress? Scour the new colour-coded rubbish bins? The Philosophy of Wu Wei will be of no use to you there, my friend. For tasks that require effort, Wu Wei offers little guidance. Certain things in life require hard slog, attention and diligent action.

Yet, there are other times, when success cannot be achieved by simply “trying harder”. And these ephemerous treasures often evade the chase in an oxymoronic way; planning to be spontaneous, or not thinking of a polka-dot panda.

These moments must be stumbled upon, tripped over, discovered when the time and place and stars align. Wu Wei, then, is the ability to discern between situations when a “go-get-‘em” attitude is appropriate, and when it is quite simply, not.

From Laozi to Bruce Lee, philosophers have laboured to explain the intricacies of this concept, using water as a metaphor.

Thinking too rigidly has negative consequences. Laozi celebrates the fluidity of life in his work, “Tao Te Ching”, the oldest section of which dates back to 400 BCE. Modern historians agree Tao Te Ching was written by many different hands, but popular lore still credits Laozi with its authorship. As a spiritual guide to a life of peace, parable and aphorisms are used to explore the benefits of being a bit less rigid, a bit more like water.

The Universe is ever changing. The dance between opposites is inherent in life. Being receptive to opposing opinions, softness and flexibility allows for adaptation to change.

Being willing to change your views is often seen as weak, flaky or shallow. But it’s also true that a certain flexibility allows us to meet whatever comes our way with less anxiety.

The nature of water is resilient to change. It can take many forms; it waves, it sits still, it floats and it freezes.

Uncompromising people generally have difficulty dealing with change. This is problematic, given that life itself, is impermanent. The reality of impermanence; small changes like changing a hair-conditioning brand or large changes, like illness or death affect us all in different ways. Especially if you’re in a committed relationship with a hair product. Like a river, we should find our way through each event that plops onto our path. We can move over it, erode it, flow around it or simply sit still and wait.

Bruce Lee, more commonly known for his martial arts prowess, actually wrote a book about the art of living a good life, “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do.” His treatment of martial arts and philosophy has become the world’s bestselling martial arts book to date. Like The Old Boy, Lee uses water as a metaphor to illustrate the deeper meaning; “I’m moving and not moving at all. I’m like the moon underneath the waves that ever go on rolling and rocking” and “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.”

But Bruce Lee isn’t a post-modern icon because he was a poet and a philosopher, or a Jeet Kune Do King. Like water, he was so much more. In a 2012 documentary, “I Am Bruce Lee”, Linda Lee Caldwell, Lee’s widow, recollects the day the old masters descended upon Lee’s martial art’s school, Wing Chung, in California, to kick some sense into him.

The old masters were outraged that Lee taught ancient Chinese arts to these “foreigners”.

Lee accepted the challenge to fight San Francisco master, Wong Jack Man. If he lost, he promised to close his schools and stop teaching non-Chinese students. There was a lot at stake. “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water.” Lee’s maxim was reflected in his fluid style.

The fight was over in 3 minutes. Lee continued to teach all creeds and colours until his death in 1973.

Like water, Lee was versatile and charismatic. Water is one of the few substances that exists on our planet in all states of matter, solid, liquid and gas. It regulates the earth’s temperature, and that of the human body. It always finds the lowest point, sinking through cracks and crevices to get to where it’s going. It is life itself..

Water makes the best of circumstances no one wants to be in. Water is unperturbed and unhurried. It cuts through, goes around, seeps into and sits still as the occasion demands. Water is chill, water is like Bruce Lee.

A post-humous international superstar, Asian-American, inter-racially married, Caucasian teaching Taoist martial artist, Bruce Lee’s philosophy echoes that of Laozi. Seeing the world in categories and separate boxes limits our perception and funnels our thinking into rigid ridges of “the way things should be”.

And given the consensus that we can never be sure of the veracity of what we know to be true, for sure, hand-in-the-fire, cross your heart and hope to die, sure. You can’t be sure. A recent article in The New Yorker explores this tendency to believe that facts that reinforce our worldview; “If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias” (Kolbert, 2017).

Confirmation bias is the tendency to believe facts, opinions and information that support our preconceptions. The mind cherry picks information to bolster previously held opinions. Researchers in the field of cognitive science have confirmed this conclusively in numerous studies. Providing people with reliable information does not work; they simply disbelieve it; “Studies also suggests that people experience genuine pleasure, a rush of dopamine, when processing information that supports their beliefs”, said The New Yorker.

So, since we cannot be sure that even our most entrenched beliefs, are in fact, “true” objectively speaking, how to proceed with this business of life?

The philosophy of The Tao embraces a soft approach as superior to using force. Saving energy and maintaining a tranquil mind allows for focused interventions when the time is ripe. If all that we know may be no more than a sea of emotional hunches, inaction is often preferable to rowing in the wrong direction.

Adapting to different circumstances, nurturing the things encountered, living a life like water. As Bruce Lee said, “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend”.

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