Bruce Lee mentored me for a month in my living room. Although the idol passed away long before I was born, our paths crossed over the last few weeks every morning over coffee.
The famous Jute Kune Do master holds a special place in my father’s heart and just about any other man I’ve mentioned him to. When I was a child, not yet even 7, my father sat in open-mouthed fascination in front of our television set watching Bruce Lee films. My dad, probably my age at the time, was like a kid himself. He’d sit cross legged on the floor in his tighty whities next to me, the both of us eating a bowl of cereal as we saw bodies fly. Lee’s face is stitched into the folds of my childhood. Over time though, he and all the other action heroes my father played on our box-shaped television, faded into the background of my mind never to be thought about again... until now.
One month ago, I picked up a book that called to me. The Warrior Within by John Little was wedged between other books in the nonfiction section of a used bookstore in St. Augustine, Florida. Its cover features a smiling Bruce Lee who seemingly stared up in my direction from the shelf. Upon picking it up I reflexively set it back into its place before a phrase caught my attention, “to better understand the world around you.” So, this isn’t a karate book, I thought.
I flipped through the pages and learned that Bruce Lee was far more than a martial artist. After reading just a few of his quotes, he immediately resurfaced back into my life. We’re an unlikely pair Bruce and I, but over the past few mornings I’ve sat on my couch being spoken to by his archived interviews and essays. I read his teachings and I feel the presence of someone who was far more enlightened and interesting than I. I’ve even caught myself flipping through this book in search of his advice. Sometimes it literally feels like he’s talking to me; perhaps because his simple wisdom is timeless, or I’m reading all his quotes with a thick Chinese accent in my mind. He’s become the Gung fu master I never knew I wanted.
This was one of the first lessons I learned from Bruce Lee: the real meaning of Gung fu, which is total mastery of one’s craft. One can master anything once he masters himself. The term is used in the West almost exclusively related to martial arts. Just the words Gung fu signified something unrelated or uninteresting to me. I almost skimmed through the section merely reading the title, which revealed just how closed minded I can be.
Now, I want to be a Gung fu creator. According to Lee’s philosophy, I can get there. We all can. But the path isn’t easy. At first glance, I begin to put together his plan and apply it to my own life before I realize that is exactly opposite of what Bruce Lee believed. He believed in no style only the unique style of each human being. Our individual power within.
The seemingly contradictory advice of being present and aware yet not thinking. Thinking separates us from the moment in front of us, he believed. There is no “meaning of life” we should be searching for. There is only life. To first master ourselves, we need to convert ourselves into a state of statelessness. Purposelessness is the goal. However, deep awareness of the self is your only path to get there.
WTF? This one stumped me for a week. I furiously reread his passages and those of the great thinkers that influenced him, like Lat Tzu, while literally speaking into my book with frustration. How can I become aware if I don’t think? How can I stay in the moment if I have to analyze myself? And that’s how that week’s coffee dates went, until one day it fell into place.
There was no magic realization, I just let it go. In my not trying to understand it faded, and I was revealed to myself in the moment. It didn’t matter. In the process of seeking answers, I learned about my true nature. It reflects a very Western way of thinking: the need to label everything we encounter in order to place in into a convenient category. The problem with our approach is that we attempt to explain life as opposed to experience it.
At week 3, I began to speak less sternly into my book. Instead I read with a smirk. Bruce Lee, you devil you. I see what you did there. Although there is no particular order to learning things, his earlier lessons on the concept of Chi began to cement the lessons of self mastery. Chi is the Chinese term for the free flowing energy that makes up the natural world. It was his belief this boundless reservoir runs through us and when channeled precisely can help us achieve anything we want.
Chi, life and our bodies are all in a constant paradoxical state of changing changelessness. This coffee date blew my mind. In his words, he describes the millions of biological changes our body goes through to simply keep itself in a state of equilibrium. These self-regulating functions ironically work to keep us in an apparent changeless state. This miraculous process that occurs in all of us is also how life works around us on a macro level. We are one, and self consciousness only serves to create drama, unwanted pain and suffering in our life.
“To contemplate a thing implies maintaining oneself outside it, resolved to keep a distance between it and ourselves.” - Bruce Lee
In other words, in order to control your mind, to self master, you must accept yourself by going with your own nature, not against it. I stop and think about what that means. Everything in our society is about changing, self improvement, becoming the better version of yourself, you 2.0 baby! But here, Bruce Lee is saying that you will never change by forcing yourself against the grain, nor should you. Instead of opposing the forces of the natural world, flow with them. Bend with them. Be water.
“Let the mind think what it likes without interference by the separate thinker or ego within oneself. So long as it thinks what it wants, there is absolutely no effort in letting go, and the disappearance of effort to let go is precisely the disappearance of the separate thinker.” - Bruce Lee
This was a classic Bruce move. A seemingly incongruous concept only understood when felt not contemplated. Every time I banged my head against the wall rationalizing the irrational statements of changing by not changing, I’d come up short. It wasn’t until I accepted my thoughts as separate from me that I experienced letting go of them for the first time in my adult life. We in the West are taught that we are special. We’re taught that our thoughts are ourselves. We are not taught to flow with the world, we are taught to forcibly change it. In that moment I could not recall a single time in my life when I coercively took something and it was successful. Despite being an American through and through, and truly believing, knowing even, that I can tear into the world and take what’s mine, I sat there staring at his smirking face on the cover unable to produce one good example. It was apparent that everything good in my life had happened naturally. No forced moves. No fighting. It all came through acceptance of the current natural forces and a hopeful desire matched with dutiful dedication to myself.
We went full circle. Every dynamic of sensei-pupil relationship checked. First, eagerness to learn and copy. Then, frustration and anger over not understanding. Thirdly, grasping that only I can teach myself. Lastly, applying the philosophies that worked for me and being so open to life I could fly.
Had I not been open to a mentorship from the beyond, I would have simply been reading a book. Instead, I unlocked my soul to the philosophies of a person I admire and otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. Here’s what else it taught me: everyone in your life is a projection of you. Whether they are standing before you or speaking from the dead with their words in a book, we are our own mini universe.
This truth allowed Bruce Lee to be who I needed him to be and ultimately the only person he could be for me and anyone else who came to know him: a deeper manifestation revealing my own true essence.