Be Like Water – Meaning and Wisdom Of Bruce Lee’s Philosophy

be like water meaning

Bruce Lee’s famous ‘be like water’ quote means that you have to become soft with life, be flexible to change and be as resilient and multifaceted as water.

Apart from his martial arts and Hollywood fame, Bruce Lee was famous for his wisdom and philosophies. Perhaps the most famous is his ‘be like water’ analogy.

The be like water meaning has many superficial and philosophical meanings and holds some truly valuable life lessons.

There are famous people and then there are those who transcend the typical mould of success and fame.

These people are the troublemakers. The mould breakers and weird ones.

They are the people who forge their own path. They look within for guidance and follow their inner calling at all costs.

They are unique, different and special not because they try to be but because they did something that very few people are able to do: they were authentically themselves.

Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, Malcolm X, and the list goes on. I put Bruce Lee firmly in this group of people because his life was a testament to living by his higher self.

He did not conform. He never limited himself to what people believed was possible/impossible. His teachings and philosophy long outlived his life

It seems like one of the hardest things to accomplish in our modern world is the ability to truly and authentically be your Self.

We are all unique and special and if we can only live out that uniqueness we can get closer to self actualization.

The problem is that society tends to ‘force’ us into conformity – either consciously through the pressure and expectations of friends and family or the subconscious pressures of wanting to fit in and be loved.

There are some great lessons to learn from Bruce Lee, his life and his philosophy. One of his most famous quotes is where he says be like water, meaning that we have to avoid being rigid in our own minds.

Bruce Lee’s Be Like Water Quote

With a strict Catholic mother and a Buddhist father, Bruce Lee always insisted that he has no religious beliefs. Most of his philosophy to life can be traced back to his martial arts training under the Chinese teacher Yip Man.

Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot.

– Bruce Lee

Martial arts have many parallels to the teachings of Lao Tzu and The Tao Te Ching and Yip Man was no different.

While Bruce Lee had no formal relationship or references to Taoism as a ‘religion’ many of the ideas of The Tao Te Ching was firmly rooted in his training and martial arts education.

Be Like Water – 5 Profound Life Lessons From Bruce Lee

The Be Like Water meaning has many connotations to The Tao as there are many references and direct analogies in The Tao Te Ching.

The Tao, directly translated, means The Way or The Great Way and references to ‘the way’ to live and live your life. Some of the most direct references to water is that The Tao is directly compared to water.

In chapter 8 of The Tao, we see some direct comparisons between water and The Tao. While Bruce Lee makes no reference to The Tao, his philosophy most certainly does.

Here are 5 great lessons we can learn from Bruce Lee’s be like water quote and what it means.

  1. Have a Mind That Is Open To Everything and Attached To Nothing
  2. Empty Your Mind
  3. Flow With The Current Of Life
  4. The Art Of Detachment
  5. Let Go Of Your Ego

1. Have a Mind That Is Open To Everything and Attached To Nothing

Water does not get set into one form. It can adapt and change WITHOUT changing what it is. People tend to believe that if they accept change it will change who they are.

The challenge is that we tend to get attached to ideas and beliefs. In the 9th century Tilopa said to “Have a mind that is open to everything and attached to nothing” and this relates directly to what Bruce Lee means with be like water.

Don’t become stuck in your thinking. It is your ideas and your thoughts more than anything that makes you rigid and incapable of change.

Change is scary because it represents the unknown. The familiar will always feel comfortable because it is known and familiar.

We use this idea of being open minded very loosely in our culture. Very rarely are we truly open minded.

As long as you are attached to any of your own ideas and beliefs you can not truly be open minded. When you start opening your mind you not only invite new ideas into your life but your entire perception of life changes.

Our beliefs control so much of our lives and perception that it can blind us completely.

Being like water is a great analogy as it shows us how to constantly change and adapt without changing our nature and what we truly are.

2. Empty Your Mind

God’s one and only voice is silence. When your mind is abuzz with fears, worries and all the demands of everyday life you simply can not ‘hear’ that still small voice inside.

Finding time to be quiet by yourself is not a luxury but a necessity in modern life. When you get still and allow your mind to calm down you can empty your mind of all the chatter.

When you empty your mind, you become formless and shapeless. This means that when your mind is free from the chatter you create ‘space’ inside yourself to be filled with more positive and constructive ideas.

What Bruce Lee means with this idea is that when you empty your mind you become more like water and you can take on new ideas and reshape your life more deliberately.

You can take on different ‘forms’ not because you are forcing it but because your mind is not rigid and filled to the brim.

Start a simple meditation practice where you silence your mind and focus on your breathing.

Meditation and quieting the mind makes up a significant part of martial arts training and philosophy.

If you have no control over your mind you have no control over your Self.

3. Flow With The Current Of Life

The idea of going with the flow is often seen as a careless hippy-type idea. We think that achievement and success comes from taking a stand and facing the storm and working hard to carve a path through it.

Working hard and facing opposition and challenges has its own value and merit. There is a fine line between going against the current and facing opposition.

When water carves its way through rock, there is opposition but the water does not fight the rock. It just keeps flowing.

The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to.
It flows to low places loathed by all men.
Therefore, it is like the Tao.
Live in accordance with the nature of things.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling be just.
In action, watch the timing
No fight: No blame
One who lives in accordance with nature does not go against the way of things.
He moves in harmony with the present moment, always knowing the truth of just what to do.

Chapter 8 (Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu)

Life is forever flowing and changing. If you remain fixed, rigid and stuck then you can not move with life.

Fighting the current will leave you tired and exhausted and in most cases you simply can not win.

Going with the flow simply means you ‘dance’ with life. You don’t try to fight the current of life but use the energy of its flow to direct it and move with it.

4. The Art Of Detachment

When we set goals and have ambitions in life it is easy to become attached to them. We often get attached to the point where we start believing that we “have to” have it in order to be happy.

Attachment can be dangerous though because we start believing in the delusion that we need X, Y and Z to experience the live we truly want.

Any time your happiness is attached to some external thing, you experience some sort of suffering.

Detachment does not mean you have no goals or ambitions. It simply means you do not ‘need’ them. Having a preference instead of a need changes everything.

Set your goals. Have your ambitions. Know what you want and set your course, then detach from the outcome. Dr. Joseph Murphy often talked about this idea as Divine Indifference.

You are indifferent about the outcome because you KNOW it will come. The outcome is certain and you can step away and live your life and enjoy your life.

When you are attached you are living in fear. There’s a level of doubt which causes you to be attached. You feel like you have to ‘make it happen’ and you do not surrender completely to the power of the universe.

Water is not attached to any shape. It takes on whatever shape it occupies. Water does not get upset when it is in teacup and happy when it is in a glass. It simply “is”.

5. Let Go Of Your Ego

Your ego is that part of you that is your face to the world. Much of your personality is made up by your ego and it helps you to function in polite society.

Your ego is like a mask that covers up your higher self. Your higher self is the most authentic and truest depiction of who you really are. Your higher Self is who you are at the level of your soul.

Most people allow their ego’s to control every aspect of their lives. Your ego is only interested in itself. It does not like generosity, compassion or kindness. It wants to be the best, the most important and the most significant.

If we look at the water analogy from Bruce Lee we can see how water is nothing like the ego. Water is not concerned with itself. It conforms with all of life and according to The Tao it “It flows to low places loathed by all men.”

While nobody can completely shed their ego, we can choose to live more from our higher self and less from the ego.

If the world lives less from ego we will also see a very different world. The idea of competition and having to fight for your little bit is in stark contrast to the ideas of being like water.

Living more from your higher Self breeds compassion. Water is like compassion. It is gentle and kind and respects all.

The ego always wants to elevate itself yet water always flows down and seeks to be humble.

Even though water always seeks to be humble, gentle and kind it is still the strongest force in nature. The ego tries very hard to be strong yet water is strong without trying.

The Be Like Water Meaning – Conclusion

Much of Bruce Lee’s early training in martial arts involved water. He spent many hours punching water and many more hours contemplating the nature of water.

No matter how hard he punched the water, he could not hurt it. Water is the strongest force in the world and it can carve out paths through solid rock yet he can punch straight through it with little effort.

Bruce Lee believed that water was the essence of Kung Fu. Not using force but being powerful is the essence of water.

Bruce Lee’s be like water meaning is firmly rooted in Taoism and Chinese philosophy but is also a very practical philosophy.

The analogy with water is a great way to look at life and whenever you feel stuck or like your life is out of control, come back to these lessons.


With a passion for spirituality, self discovery, and understanding this life, Neod spends his time musing about what is, what could be and what might come about. After writing for 20 years he's still growing, learning, exploring and sharing with love, joy and compassion.

Recent Posts