Be Water, My Friend (2020) is part inspirational guide, part intimate memoir, centered on Bruce Lee’s “Be water” philosophy. Drawing on Lee’s deep relationship with the element and his lifelong martial arts practice, it offers simple yet profound teachings on self-actualization.
Introduction: Let Bruce Lee guide you to your fullest potential.
Table of Contents
You don’t have to be a die-hard martial arts fan or film aficionado to know the name Bruce Lee. A rare master of both disciplines, Lee was beloved by many and is often credited with helping bridge the wide divide between East and West in the twentieth century.
Yet underneath the Herculean physical feats and Hollywood glitz and glamor was a deep thinker who prized personal growth and enlightened living above all. In fact, Lee believed his external achievements wouldn’t have been possible – nor had meaning – if not for his philosophical system, frequently distilled to the simple maxim, “Be water.”
Lee’s philosophical system was rigorous, to say the least, but he was always wary of imposing his teachings upon others. Instead, he sought to be “a finger pointing at the moon” – a conduit by which his students and followers might experience truths for themselves.
That said, he saw the ultimate goal as one we all share: self-actualization. To make the best version of ourselves a reality.
In this summary, we’ll explore five core tenets of Lee’s philosophy: the wisdom of water, the value of emptiness, the gifts of opponents and obstacles, the truth of kinship, and the way of jeet kune do.
At times, the teachings may seem contradictory. That’s intentional. Life is an ever-changing ecosystem, and enlightened living requires an arsenal of responses to draw on, according to your context. Challenge yourself to be receptive to contrasting ideas. After all, the approach you’ll need tomorrow may very well be the polar opposite of the one you take today.
As Lee himself acknowledged, the path to self-actualization is a long one, but it begins with a single step. And although he’s no longer here to guide us, the teachings he left behind are. So, pack lightly and join us. The journey toward your fullest potential starts now.
The wisdom of water
Reflecting on his love for martial arts, Lee once mused that “everything” he knew he learned from them. For Lee, these practices were more than just physical. They mirrored and reflected life – they formed a remarkable microcosm. But it wasn’t always that way.…
Lee was 13 when he started learning wing chun under the skilled sifu (teacher) Yip Man. Yip Man wrapped his training in Taoist philosophy, the concepts of yin and yang, and imagery from the natural world. However, these threads didn’t come as naturally as the physical components to the hotheaded young Lee. He was far less interested in heeding the flow of nature than he was in asserting himself over it.
So how did this fiery teenager come to adopt “Be water” as his guiding philosophy?
The revelation came after he was sent home for a week to meditate on his sifu’s instructions. Frustrated and resentful, he rowed a small boat out into Hong Kong harbor and infamously punched at the South China Sea. In doing so, the water became his teacher, conveying the message his human sifu had tried to convey for so long: there is strength in softness, power in pliability.
You may not be a martial artist, but remember – Lee’s philosophy was primarily concerned with self-actualization and enlightened living, two aspirations we can all relate to. So how can we apply the way of water to these endeavors?
First, consider water’s unparalleled ability to respond deftly to its environment. Sometimes water flows; sometimes it crashes. Sometimes water runs around obstacles; sometimes it runs obstacles into the ground. The same applies to us amid the flux of life. Sometimes the wisest response is to yield; other times, to assert. We can follow water’s example and recognize that each response has its time and place.
In this way, water can also be described as “being whole,” as it embodies yin and yang. Yin and yang are often depicted as black and white, negative and positive, cold and hot – and therefore opposites. Yet this isn’t exactly right – “complementary” is a more accurate description.
And isn’t it true that we possess both yin and yang, and that life itself does, too? We each have strengths and weaknesses; life has joy and sorrow. Water can remind us that the healthiest way to move through life is to acknowledge both. That’s what makes us, and life, ultimately complete and indivisible.
The gift of emptiness
“Empty your mind.” This was Lee’s ongoing counsel to himself. After all, as several wisdom traditions have pointed out, the value of a vessel – whether a cup, pot, or bottle – is in its emptiness.
To Lee, emptiness in the context of enlightened living was twofold: operating from neutrality, and being an “eternal student.”
Lee viewed operating from neutrality as standing between positive and negative. Rather than deciding firmly that an experience was good or bad, he strove to embrace the “what is.”
Given how conditioned we are to have preferences and make conclusions, this can be easier said than done. However, using Lee’s note to self – “Empty your mind” – as a cue is a great place to start.
Say something “positive” happens to you. Allow the emotions and feelings to arise as they inevitably will. Then, when they’ve run their course, let them pass through you, circling back to “empty mind.” In this way, you still see and experience what is – the elation at an unexpected promotion or the irritation at an equally unexpected flat tire, for instance – but you don’t hold on to anything longer than necessary.
The second branch of Lee’s philosophy of emptiness – being an “eternal student” – promoted constant self-examination. To Lee, the person in the mirror was just as valid a classroom as anything else.
In his day-to-day life, this involved using meditation, reading, and journaling to think deeply, ask himself probing questions, and capture pertinent musings. Talking things over with trusted friends or attending formal therapy are other practices to consider, but the “what” ultimately matters less than the regular commitment to self-reflection.
Every day – every second – offers us the opportunity to return to neutral or learn something new. And thank goodness! Consider how boring, stagnant, and uninspiring our lives would be without these ever-present possibilities!
The gift of opponents and obstacles
Opponents and obstacles: as long as we’re living, breathing organisms, we can guarantee we will encounter both – and often.
For the most part, opponents and obstacles are seen as adversarial. Very few of us would volunteer to encounter either if we had the choice.
Yet Lee saw difficult people and circumstances as less black-and-white – perhaps no surprise, given his appreciation of yin and yang. Rather than challenges to fight against, they provided opportunities to co-create with.
As with the philosophy of neutrality explored in the previous section, this approach is easy to embrace in theory – less so in practice. Fortunately, however, Lee was happy to act as a signpost on this path, too.
First, get to know your opponent or obstacle. Moving toward that which is undesirable may seem counterintuitive, but conflict is essentially a heightened relationship, and we’re always served by understanding its nature. Ask yourself why you consider this person or circumstance adversarial. Are there any common patterns in your past? How have you contributed to this specific occurrence?
Then, flex your “empty mind” muscles and reflect on what the underlying lesson might be. Whenever Lee got knocked down – physically or spiritually – he would take some time to get quiet, shake off his judgments, and ask, “Why?” Why had he lost or failed? Was there a new skill he needed to learn or an old wound he had to heal? Investigate your own experience. What are you being taught or asked to change?
Finally, before taking any action, secure your mindset. Challenge yourself to move past the fear or pessimism. Neither will help you overcome what you’re being called to overcome. As Lee wrote to himself, “Defeat is a state of mind.” Don’t hamstring your chances of growth and success by deeming them impossible before you even start. Lee regularly used affirmations to ensure his mind was helping rather than hindering him, but journaling or talking are effective tools here, too.
This last point offers a profound – and perhaps confronting – realization: we are often our greatest opponent and obstacle. But this is actually good news. After all, unlike others and the world around us, we can become masters of ourselves if we choose. Lee certainly did.
The truth of kinship
When Lee was interviewed by Canadian journalist Pierre Berton, he was asked whether he identified as Chinese or American. His response is as poignant today as it was then: he identified as human. After all, as he continued in the now famous clip, “Under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family.”
Those close to Lee remember him just as much for his kindness and generosity as they do his expansive mind and physical prowess. Even those who weren’t in his inner circle fondly recall his use of the expression “my friend” – the warm refrain that littered Lee’s conversation and writing.
Perhaps Lee chose to see humans as belonging to the world and each other because he didn’t neatly fit anywhere. Deemed too American to be Chinese and too Chinese to be American, Lee was a perennial outsider.
Yet he wasn’t going to let prejudice hold him back. Instead, keeping in line with his deep understanding of yin and yang, he let other people’s fear teach him love, their judgment teach him acceptance, and their shadow teach him light. This wasn’t to condone or excuse the racism he experienced; rather, Lee took the high road because he recognized that hate couldn’t be conquered by hate. When he needed to take a stand – which he certainly did – he did so with compassion for his human brothers and sisters.
Whether or not we find ourselves facing the same magnitude of prejudice in our own lives, we can remember that how we treat anyone is how we treat everyone. Excluding even one person from our hearts means we have the potential to exclude all – including ourselves.
We needn’t be everybody’s best friend, but we can be fellow humans. We can continue Lee’s legacy of modeling acceptance and light, even if it takes us some time to get to the unconditional love he embodied.
That said, let’s not be too quick to dismiss ourselves. It’s likely we can all call to mind instances when we experienced the bliss of this state. It’s bliss because it’s true. Kinship lies at the heart of all personal growth and enlightened living.
The way of jeet kune do
Here’s a little-known fact: Bruce Lee was quite a controversial figure in the martial arts scene.
According to the tradition of the time, Lee, being “only” three-quarters Chinese, shouldn’t have been allowed to learn Chinese kung fu. It was thanks to his sage sifu, Yip Man, who trained Lee in private to avoid public uproar, that he had the opportunity.
Later in life, Lee incurred criticism for studying under several teachers across various disciplines. His belief that there was “no Chinese way of fighting or Japanese way of fighting” again countered tradition and wasn’t popular.
Lee then topped this off by creating his own school of martial art, jeet kune do. As you can imagine, the boldness of such a move, along with his integration of elements of boxing, fencing, and biomechanics, was met with resistance. Nonetheless, he forged on. He was striving toward self-actualization, after all, not pleasing the masses.
Jeet kune do loosely translates to “the way of the intercepting fist.” In Lee’s mind, his art had taken the best of everything he’d learned, discarded what he’d found unhelpful, and been infused with an essence entirely his own. Why is this worth noting? Because Lee’s shaping of jeet kune do mirrored how he shaped his life – and how he encouraged us to do the same.
In practice, this means paying close attention to our lives and leaning on some of the tools mentioned earlier – meditation, journaling, talking – to discern our own jeet kune do. What do we want to keep in our lives? What do we want to discard? And how can we make this manifestation of life entirely our own?
If you like a visual, Lee compared the pursuit of personal growth and enlightened living to being a sculptor. Our life is the block of marble, and we – the sculptor – determine what remains, what’s chiseled away, and the flair and style in which we sculpt, with the intention of arriving at an authentic, sincere form.
Here, it’s worth circling back to where we started: Lee didn’t create jeet kune do or share his philosophy to create a legion of new Bruce Lees. Instead, he offered his body, mind, and spirit as the metaphorical finger pointing at the moon, understanding that we must see the moon for ourselves. Our way won’t be the way of the intercepting fist, and it mightn’t even be the way of water. The labels weren’t of consequence to Lee; the expression was. What’s the fullest expression of you?
Although Bruce Lee may be best known for his superhuman physical abilities and slew of box office hits, his focus was always directed toward the quest for self-actualization.
By assimilating core tenets of Lee’s philosophy, such as the wisdom of water, the value of emptiness, the gifts of opponents and obstacles, the truth of kinship, and the way of jeet kune do, you too can enjoy much of the personal growth and enlightened living the cultural icon left as his legacy.
About the Author
Motivation, Inspiration, Mindfulness, Happiness, Biography, Memoir
“Be Water, My Friend: The True Teachings of Bruce Lee” is a book written by Shannon Lee, the daughter of the legendary martial artist and actor Bruce Lee. The book is a comprehensive guide to Bruce Lee’s philosophy and teachings, which emphasizes the importance of being adaptable, fluid, and open-minded in both martial arts and life.
The book is divided into four parts. The first part explores Bruce Lee’s early life, his introduction to martial arts, and his development of the hybrid martial art of Jeet Kune Do. The second part delves into the core principles of Jeet Kune Do, including the concept of “stop hits” and the importance of economy of motion. The third part discusses the mental and spiritual aspects of martial arts, including the importance of mental clarity, relaxation, and awareness. The final part of the book offers practical advice on how to apply Bruce Lee’s teachings to everyday life, including tips on physical training, self-defense, and personal growth.
Throughout the book, Shannon Lee draws on her personal experiences with her father, as well as his writings, letters, and interviews, to provide a detailed and nuanced understanding of his teachings. She also includes examples from her own life and the lives of other martial artists to illustrate the practical applications of Bruce Lee’s philosophy.
One of the key takeaways from the book is the importance of being adaptable and open-minded in both martial arts and life. Bruce Lee believed that rigid adherence to dogmatic principles and techniques can limit one’s potential and hinder growth. Instead, he advocated for a flexible and fluid approach that allows individuals to respond to changing circumstances and situations.
Another important theme of the book is the concept of “emptying the cup.” This refers to the idea of letting go of preconceived notions and ego, and instead, embracing a beginner’s mindset. This allows individuals to approach situations with fresh eyes and an open mind, leading to greater learning and growth.
The book also emphasizes the importance of mental and spiritual development in martial arts. Bruce Lee believed that physical training should be accompanied by mental and spiritual cultivation, including meditation, visualization, and self-reflection. This holistic approach to martial arts allows individuals to cultivate inner peace, discipline, and awareness, leading to greater self-mastery and personal growth.
In summary, “Be Water, My Friend” offers a comprehensive and insightful look into the teachings of Bruce Lee, providing practical advice and philosophical insights that can be applied to both martial arts and everyday life. The book is a must-read for fans of Bruce Lee and anyone interested in martial arts, philosophy, and personal development.
“Be Water, My Friend” is an excellent book that provides a detailed and nuanced understanding of Bruce Lee’s teachings. Shannon Lee’s writing is clear, engaging, and informative, making the book accessible to readers of all levels of martial arts experience. The book is also filled with personal anecdotes and stories that provide a unique glimpse into the life and philosophy of Bruce Lee.
One of the strengths of the book is its emphasis on the mental and spiritual aspects of martial arts. The book provides practical advice on how to cultivate mental clarity, relaxation, and awareness, which can be applied to both martial arts and everyday life. The book also emphasizes the importance of self-reflection and personal growth, which is a valuable reminder for martial artists and non-martial artists alike.
Another strength of the book is its emphasis on adaptability and fluidity. The book encourages readers to embrace a beginner’s mindset and to be open to new ideas and experiences. This approach can help readers to overcome obstacles and challenges, both on and off the mat.
In conclusion, “Be Water, My Friend” is an excellent book that provides a comprehensive and insightful look into the teachings of Bruce Lee. The book is a must-read for fans of Bruce Lee and anyone interested in martial arts, philosophy, and personal development. Whether you are a seasoned martial artist or a beginner, this book has something to offer, and it is sure to inspire and motivate you on your journey.