Be formless, shapeless… be like water

Water: The source of life on our planet.
Water: The source of life on our planet.
Since the invention of language, people have frequently used the qualities of inanimate objects to describe some of the most desirable human traits. “As good as gold”, “as solid as a rock’, “as tough as nails”, and in the words of famed ESPN SportsCenter™ anchor – Stuart Scott (may the good Lord rest his soul) – “as cool as the other side of the pillow”. These are a few examples of the general trend which uses the characteristics of inanimate objects as metaphors for desirable characteristics that we humans would like to embody. While all the above stated character traits are very desirable, it doesn’t take long to realize that attempting to embody the characteristics of any single one of the objects mentioned above is insufficient to live a fully balanced life as a human being. It is true that it is good to be as physically tough as nails if you are a martial artist who finds him or herself in a caged octagon opposite another person whose sole purpose in life for the next 25 minutes is to cause you as much pain as possible. However, that same physical toughness won’t really help you when it is time to have your first awkward conversation about sexual intercourse with your 13 year old son or daughter. Always being as “good as gold” could actually get you killed in the ghettos of Southside Queens, or fired in the corporate world… one must know when to be “bad” in order to survive in such tough environments. The above logic and rationale therefore begs the following question: is there any single inanimate thing or object that possess all the characteristics one can embody to aid growth in almost every area of life? I have pondered this question for many years and have picked the minds of some of the most philosophically brilliant people I know in search of an answer. As fate would have it, the best answer I could find to this riddle came from spending a Saturday afternoon watching video clips of Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali on YouTube. Allow me to share what I have settled on as a solution to this riddle after many years of thought, intellectual discourse with others who have gained my respect, and a Saturday afternoon spent watching video clips of icons in the martial arts.

The theory of the evolution of species highlights the ability to adapt to circumstances and conditions as the single most important quality which determines the probability of the survival of a given species. A close second to the ability to adapt to circumstances as far as predictors of survival go is the quality of strength. Nature doesn’t really care about either of us in a personal sense… she will do as she pleases and it is up to us to find ways to adapt to her, develop the strength to stand up to her, or risk being crushed into oblivion by her might. Thankfully, we humans have displayed a remarkable ability to adapt to almost any circumstance or environment which in turn has allowed us to attain and maintain our position as the undisputed kings and queens of the organic world. Although we are far from the physically strongest beings in the animal kingdom, humans have shown a tremendous amount of mental strength to evade extinction time and time again. The source of our power as a species does not really come from anything physical… while some of us (like the average NFL running back and mixed martial artists in the light heavyweight division of the UFC) might seem freakishly strong relative to the average person, we are all still weak and frail creatures compared to gorillas, lions, elephants, and so on. The source of almost all our power is from the biological “super computer” that we all have lodged securely in our skulls – the human brain. Its raw processing power, and its innate creativity has allowed us to find solutions to various intensely challenging problems and many existential threats. It is worthwhile to mention here that the solutions we have found to our most daunting problems haven’t come from being as “solid as a rock” or as “good as gold”, but rather, our most life altering inventions and solutions have come from a certain characteristic that only exists in those people or things that can seamlessly adapt to circumstances. Let us call this quality or characteristic of the exceptional humans who have lived amongst us fluidity.

Having the quality of fluidity simply means that you are not affixed to any one way of doing things or tackling problems. Rather, you thrive on keeping an open mind which allows you to intelligently assess any scenario and utilize the appropriate tools and/or methods to gain the best outcome in each situation you are placed in. Having this character trait or quality of fluidity allows you to see solutions to problems that people who are more rigid in their thinking cannot see. Let us use a practical everyday example to emphasize the point immediately above. We all know about the importance of getting a steady dose of vegetables into our respective daily diets but the problem is that vegetables are for the most part pretty bitter, and therefore not the most palatable things in the world to eat. A rigid thinker would probably do one of two things… he or she would either a) drop the matter entirely and neglect eating vegetables altogether, or b) force him or herself to eat the vegetables (for medicinal purposes as my mom would say) for a short while and eventually quit doing that because, well vegetables don’t taste good. Either way, the rigid thinker ends up back at square one. A fluid thinker on the other hand may take this as a challenge and proceed to dissect the problem. With a bit of deep thought our fluid thinker realizes that the problem with getting more vegetables in one’s diet is not necessarily the bitter taste per se (we’ve all swallowed an advil pill or three in the past), but rather the fact that one has to endure that bitter/bland taste over the course of a 30 – 45 minute meal. Realizing that reducing the time it takes to consume the daily dose of vegetables is really the problem, our fluid thinker’s mind clicks into high gear and starts to look for ways to shorten the amount of time it takes to consume her daily dose of vegetables. Our fluid thinker realizes that humans have pretty much only two ways to ingest nutrition and drinking in our nutrition is much quicker than chewing and swallowing it so she decides to “outsource” chewing to the blender sitting in the kitchen. While she is thinking about blending her vegetables into a drink, our fluid thinker decides to use some tasty almond milk as a liquid base, and adds in some honey and half a pear to mask the bitter green vegetable taste. All of a sudden, our fluid thinker has come up with a perfectly reasonable and easy way to fulfill her daily vegetable diet requirement in a super efficient way that actually doesn’t taste all that bad. Notice that our fluid thinker did not allow herself to be hindered by the premise that one has to “eat” their vegetables. On the contrary, her fluidity of thought allowed her to frame the problem or challenge as finding a way to somehow get the nutrients contained in the vegetables into her body which in turn sparked the thought process that led to her eventual elegant solution. In my experience, this way of thinking and acting may be applied to almost every arena of life. In the realm of combat for example, the best fighters are fluid in their movement and striking. Think about Muhammad Ali’s uncanny combination of lighting reflexes, graceful movement, devastating power, and his ability to smoothly transition through all of these attributes. Ali dominated heavyweight boxing in his era not because he was the strongest or fastest, but because he always did what the fight asked of him. When the time came to defend during a match, he parried punches expertly or got out of the way of them with great head movement. When the time came to “float like a butterfly” and tire out his opponent, he did that expertly. When the time came to deliver the devastating knockout punch, he did that too… all with an awesome fluidity of motion and thought that have been matched by very few ever since.

The greatest of all time - Muhammad Ali - shadow boxing underwater
The greatest of all time – Muhammad Ali – shadow boxing underwater

The image above seems incredibly apropos because it shows the great boxer submerged in the very substance he embodied in the ring – water. Muhammad Ali’s boxing style shared many characteristics with perhaps the greatest fluid known to man. His boxing style could flow around obstacles, or it could crash through them with devastating force depending on what each situation called for… just like water can. Let’s take a closer look at some of the attributes of water and see if and how we could apply those same qualities to reap positive benefits in our daily lives.

Water can flow…

If you’ve ever been kayaking on a river, you would have noticed that water generally flows around rather than through the rocks you may have seen in said river. Water doesn’t waste its time trying to flow through solid rock… instead, it looks for ways around the rocks in order to continue on its path. This same phenomenon can be applied to our daily lives. Although it is sometimes necessary to fight or meet an obstacle head on, working harder or charging headlong in the same old direction that you always have isn’t necessarily the answer to the challenge or problem you might be facing. As a matter of fact it is often times more prudent to find a way over, under, or around an obstacle. Like water, you must be fluid enough in your thinking to assess each obstacle and determine the best way to overcome it. If you must fight, then by all means do so. If there is a way around the obstacle which requires less effort and leads you to your eventual goal however, that is often the best option. Let us look at the subject of losing weight as a practical example.

You and I either put on or lose weight based on the amount of calories consumed vs the amount of calories expended through physiologic activity. Some folks try to lose weight by going to the gym 5 days a week and working out super hard without paying attention to nutrition and other factors (this was me for the first 28 years of my life by the way). Although that might work when you are young and your metabolism is in 18th gear, it isn’t the most efficient way. This method of losing weight can be likened to water trying to flow through rock. The easier way is to fuel your body with lighter foods that have more quality nutrition while keeping up with your exercise routine. The lower the volume of the food you eat and the higher its nutritional quality, the lighter you will be. The lighter you are, the easier it becomes to work out because you’re no longer carrying excess weight around. When working out gets easier, you’ll want to do it more. The more you exercise, the more weight you will lose. This second method is the one of the fluid mind. You’ve effectively “flowed” around the challenge and achieved your goal with much less physical suffering.

Water can crash…

Water can also crash with devastating force as can be seen in the case of waterfalls and floods. The very same liquid we all need to drink regularly in order to stay alive is also powerful enough to crash through most obstacles in its path when charged with enough momentum and force. When you try to achieve anything great in your life, you will be met with many obstacles on your way to your ultimate goal. Sometimes, it is more prudent to flow around these obstacles and at other times, you must find a way to crash through the barriers or walls that are trying to keep you down. These barriers may be in the form of other people, circumstances, or your own limiting beliefs. Regardless of what blocks your path to the best version of yourself, you must embody this powerful quality of water and crash through it when necessary. Let us look at developing a skill as a practical example.

Watching a truly skilled musician (like those of us who were lucky enough to see Jimi Hendrix play live) is truly a sight to behold. Most of us take in such a spectacle in amazement filled with emotions that are a mix of admiration and envy. What most of us don’t know is the amount of energy and time that the musician must have put into his craft when no one was watching in order to become that ridiculously skilled. It is almost guaranteed that this musician who now seems so otherworldly skilled was blocked by many musical obstacles, but his intense desire and tireless work ethic allowed him to crash through all of the obstacles along his path to musical superstardom. Crashing through obstacles doesn’t have to be a violent exercise but it does require uncommon grit and everlasting patience.

Water is patient…

Water is extremely patient. If you leave it in a cup, it will stay there for weeks on end (depending on the ambient temperature of course) as it gradually evaporates. Water can slowly eat away at rock for many millennia until it bores a tunnel through a hill or mountain. Water will also slowly induce rust in hardened metal over the course of many months and years.

Most of us want great things to happen a bit too quickly whereas the truth is that great things can only be achieved through a carefully planned process which takes time. Perhaps we should all try to adopt the patience of water and learn to be more methodical as we move towards our goals. A word of caution here… being patient doesn’t mean being inefficient. Try to do as much as you can as efficiently as possible, but avoid rushing to your end goal.

Water can transform…

Water can take on a multitude of forms. When it is heated past its boiling point (100oC or 212oF) it turns into a gas. When it is cooled past its freezing point (0oC or 32oF) it assumes solid form. The other thing to note is that when conditions are reversed, water can return to the normal fluid form that we are all accustomed to. When ice is heated, it melts back into fluid water. If that fluid water is continually heated, it will turn to gas or steam. So not only can water assume various forms depending on the conditions, it can readily and reversibly move between these forms when required. The same may be required of you at different times in your life. Sometimes you might have to play the part of the brave lion who valiantly fights off enemies and haters. Sometimes you might have to play the gentle and loving pussy cat to your lover, child, or friend. Sometimes you might have to play the cunning fox to secure resources for your survival. Even more important than being able to assume any one of the above “masks” is the ability to smoothly transition between them depending on the situation you are placed in.

Water is powerful…

It is a simple compound… two molecules of hydrogen bound to a single molecule of oxygen but it possess an insane amount of power locked up in it. A lion share of the electricity we have in the world today is provided by hydroelectric power plants and the giant dams they possess. Also, according the Albert (Einstein that is) the amount of energy locked up in water is equal to its mass multiplied by the speed of light to the second power.

E = mc2

When you take into consideration that the speed of light is about 3 X 108m/s, you realize that is a ton of energy locked up in such a simple unassuming fluid. I don’t think any of us would balk at the idea of having more energy or power in our lives because those are the raw materials that we will need in order to go out and create great things that will be of service to the world at large.
The following excerpts from Bruce Lee really crystallized the notion of embodying the attributes of water as the highest level at which we humans can operate in life.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round 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.”

– Bruce Lee

In conclusion, life is like swimming where it is too hard to win if you are constantly creating your own resistance due to improper technique and general rigidity. I gently urge you to consider the characteristics of water as an example of how to be and what to embody. It will be a lifelong journey to completely embody this most glorious and vital of all compounds, but a journey that is very much worth the sweat. Looking forward to hearing about your progress on your way to being just like water. Till next time friends, take care of yourselves and each other.
Without Wax
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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