Be Like Water,
The Essentials of Learning How to Flow

Bruce Lee said be like water. Water fills the cup that it flows into. Likewise the teapot. And the reason it does this is because of gravity. Without gravity, up in space, water doesn't flow.

And so for water to flow, it needs the earth, since it's the earth that creates the gravity that causes water to flow. But it also needs a shape, a channel to guide the way it flows. It's the shape of the cup, plus gravity that causes water to fill that shape. In a riverbed, it is the sides of the river that help to shape water and guide it so that it can flow.

If we want to flow, then it helps if we have something to pull us and something to guide the way that we shape ourselves.

When doing kung fu, the mind isn't completely empty. It's empty of thoughs irrelevant to the doing of kung fu. But it is also filled with the idea, the experience, the practice of kung fu. Kung fu is like an inner shape that guides the way that bruce flows when he uses his skills.

But something else that guides him is an awareness of what is happening now. And this is perhaps more of what he means when he says "empty the mind". With the mind empty, you don't think about what to do. Water doesn't think when it flows into a cup. And even if it could think, it isn't exercising that facility when it is flowing. Instead it "senses" where it can go and it goes there. If the cup were to change shape as the water is poured, or if the cup is moved, then the water still continues to fill it, perhaps it sloshes around a bit, but even as the cup is shifted or moved, water responds and finds a way to fill it.

It doesn't think "dammit the cup has moved, now I have to change what I am doing." Instead it continues to flow, assuming that the cup is still somewhere beneath the source from which the water is flowing.

Since this is a site about yoga (and yoga poses) it makes sense to talk about how we can flow into a yoga pose. I'm not talking about a "flow yoga class" where you flow from pose to pose, rather, how we can flow and fit into a single pose.

What helps is knowing the shape of the pose we are flowing into. This could be equated to the force of gravity. The knowing of the pose, when we know it well enough, is what draws our body into the shape of the pose. However, rather than going into the shape of the pose like a robot, we can become more like water when we focus on feeling our body, and via our body, whatever it is connected to. When we feel our body as it is now, we can find the best way to make our body fit the pose, as the body is now. And each day we can make the slight changes so that our pose is the best fit for our body.

Extending this to the practice of flowing from pose to pose, or from movement to movement, when we know the pose we are moving into we can look for, or sense the best way to go from where we are to where we want to be. This is how we can flow. And if something gets in our way, then when we sense that blockage, we can move around it.

In kung fu or martial arts in general, in any "skill" in general, we practice to make a skill a part of ourselves. We practice different blocks and strikes, or we practice different yoga poses, or we practice different ways to write a computer program. Initially we practice a set of skills in the same sequence so that we can get imbed those skills into ourselves. An example, the alphabet. We learn the letters in order so that we can remember them easily. But once learned we hardly even need the alphabet. We instead need the letters that make it up.

Breaking letters free from the order of the alphabet, and instead using the letters of the alphabet in the new context of words and sentences, we can communicate freely.

Likewise, when learning skills, we initially learn them in a set order to learn them. But once learned, we can break the rules that we first learned them within so that we can play within new rule sets.

That's how we learn to flow.

Water flows into a cup, and fits the shape of that cup. But it doesn't remember the shape, or else how would it flow into new cups. What it remembers is how to fit into the shape of whatever it is flowing into.

Water doesn't always flow though. Sometimes it's difficult. If you've ever bled a brake system, or a radiator, you know that air bubbles block the flow of fluid. This could be equivalent to blockages in our ability to feel our body or control it. When we have blockages in our senses, we can't sense what is happening now. If the blocks are in our ability to respond, then even when we can sense a new cup, we can't flow into it.

And that may be the goal of practice, learning to remove the blocks from our senses and our responsiveness so that we can flow. And that's the advantage of an organized system. It helps us to see where the blocks are so that we can remove them. Learning the alphabet in order helps us to learn all 26 letters without missing anyway. Likewise learning an organized system of kung fu or yoga.

But then once we have learned the essentials, it's time to let go of the initial form that helped us learn those essentials so that we can be like water and flow.

What are the essentials of flow?

  • Knowing what we are doing, so that we dont' have to think.
  • Being able to sense our body and what is around us.
  • Being able to respond to what we sense.
  • The knowing guides the way we use our senses and the way we respond.