The year my father passed away I was given a birthday gift. It was from my friend Bruce. I was a bit obsessed with Bruce Lee at the time. Not from a martial arts point of view. From a philosophical point of view. He found me a copy of The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do. Today, you can buy it on Amazon for about $25. At the time, it was hard to find. And probably cost about the same in 1996 money. The Bruce who gave me the book was not the legendary martial arts master. Just another guy names Bruce. Inside the front cover Bruce had written the words:
You’ve been a rock for your father. Now, be like water.
It is inspired by the following quote from Mr. Lee:
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.
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and 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.
It took me a long time to understand those words. And even longer to put them into practice. I still haven’t mastered it. But I’m working on it.
Being able to adapt is crucial in life. If you can’t adapt, you will find yourself stuck in a rut. In a professional career, the ability to adapt makes you easy to promote. In almost every job I’ve held, I’ve been quickly promoted. Sometimes into leadership positions. Much to my own chagrin. Being the boss sucks. Especially when you have to fire someone. But you adapt. You become like water and take the shape of the position you are in.
Things will always change. As much as my OCD would prefer otherwise, there will be disruptions to routine. The ability to adapt to those disruptions and still function is crucial. I love life in my own private world. To many, these walls would become a prison. To me, they are an intricate part of my carefully constructed existence. But some day, I will move. This is inevitable. It will suck to make an adjustment. But I will have to do so. I will have to be like water.
Because nothing is forever. People die. Friendships fade. New people are born. New friendships are made. And the world spins on.
The Buddhists get a bad rap. The Buddha is misquoted a lot. Or at least one of his teachings is taken very out of context.
Life is suffering.
Sounds fatalistic doesn’t it? But it is one of the most liberating sentences I’ve ever read. It doesn’t mean that every hour of every day requires you to be miserable. It just means that suffering is unavoidable. Everyone goes through hardships. And to each person, the worst thing they have experienced is what they measure future pain against.
So how is “Life is suffering” helpful? Because it gives us permission to feel things. It is OK to hurt. It is natural to feel pain and grief.
We cause ourselves so much more pain trying to avoid pain. If we embrace our suffering and acknowledge it as a necessary part of life, it passes faster. Think of a trip to the doctor for a flu shot. You know the needle is going to hurt going in. You know there will be some tenderness afterwords. Maybe some side effects. But if you walk in dreading the needle stick, it will hurt more than if you just accept that the jab will hurt.
The same can be said for almost any “normal” or “routine” pain. Mental or physical. Anxiety over the outcome invariably magnifies the actual outcome. The same can be said for “holding onto” the pain.
I know that it is easier said than done sometimes. Believe me I know it. But not having perfected something does not remove my obligation to try. And it is an obligation. I have an obligation to myself to mitigate as much suffering as I can. Not the suffering caused by living life. That is impossible. The suffering I inflict on myself is my own responsibility though. Maybe we should rewrite Buddha’s words a little:
Life is suffering, but needless suffering should be avoided.
Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same. But that is OK. Perfection is a rare thing.
Back to the “be like water” thing and maybe we’ll wrap a pretty little bow around this. Water has another property besides its amazing shape shifting liquid ability. Water is a solvent. In fact, it is the “universal solvent” because it can dissolve the highest number of things.
Think of a stream of water. Whether it is a raging river, or a gentle creek. That isn’t just H2O flowing past. Everything that water has come in contact with has left a part of itself suspended in that water. Even the stones at the bottom of the river bed have given up particles into the water.
Be like that water. Conform to the shape of the river bed, but take with you parts of it. Memories of the places you have been. The things you have experienced. The things you have felt. Everything is a learning experience to an open mind. Sometimes you learn something earth shaking. Sometimes you learn something small. But you should always take things with you from one experience to the next.