The Philosophy of Bruce Lee – On Flow, Self-Actualization, Creativity, Willpower and More

By on December 29, 2016

What made Bruce Lee such an icon was not his portfolio of martial arts films, but rather his philosophy. This is what elevated him above other film stars at the time and cemented him as a legend with a legacy that would outlast his films.

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But what exactly was Bruce Lee’s philosophy all about? If you dig a little deeper than the handful of quotes and memes circulating the web, what do you find? How did his philosophy define who he was and ultimately dictate the course of his career and personal development?

The Nature of Bruce Lee’s Philosophy

Bruce Lee studied philosophy along with psychology and numerous other subjects at the University of Washington from 1961 onward. Philosophy was not a passing interest then, but rather a lifelong pursuit as crucial to the man as his martial arts.


It’s also interesting to put Bruce Lee’s philosophies into context by considering his influences. Of course, Bruce was Chinese living in the USA, which instantly gave him an interesting dualism. As we will see, the roots of many of his ideas also lie in his study of martial arts and particularly Wing Chun. And don’t forget as well that Bruce was alive during the 60s, when Eastern philosophies were particularly in-vogue!

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It should come as no surprise then, that Bruce had countless musings and notes on a diverse range of topics. Like any good polymath, Bruce Lee kept copious notes that recorded his training regime, along with his diet and his philosophical musings. He always carried a 2×3” ‘pocketbook’ and perhaps this predilection for note taking is the first thing we can learn from him.

It is from these notebooks that many of his views and ideas have been gleaned, covering practically every topic under the sun. To demonstrate this diversity, consider this passage on the nature of ideas:

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“[There are] Three types of ideas. Innate ideas (inborne), adventitious ideas (from outside events), factitious ideas (which one invents).”

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If I was to try and cover all of Bruce Lee’s thoughts and ideas, then this would be a very long article indeed. Instead then, let’s focus on what appears to be the essence behind many of his ideas. The governing principle if you will by using something akin to qualitative analysis. In short, what ideas arise most often and can create a cohesive narrative from his copious ideas?

Bruce Lee and Flow

If we are to look through all of Bruce Lee’s notes and quotes, then one concept arises more than any other: that of ‘flow’.

This is exemplified by one of his most famous quotes:

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“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”

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As well as many more, lesser known ones. One of my favourites:

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“Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo.”

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Or to put this bite-sized morsel within its larger-context:

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“Flow in the living moment. We are always in a process of becoming and nothing is fixed. Have no rigid system in you, and you’ll be flexible to change with the ever changing. Open yourself and flow, my friend. Flow in the total openness of the living moment. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo.”

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This can be interpreted in many ways and one of the most obvious connections to draw is the martial arts application. It appears that Bruce Lee is advising us to stay adaptable to our opponents and almost describing ‘Mushin’ – the Zen expression of ‘mind without mind’.

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And Mushin, as I explained in my last post, can be equated roughly to being ‘in a ‘flow state’. It is the mental state when all other things fall away and you are present purely in the moment. This makes you faster to respond, faster to adapt and less distracted by outside thoughts.

Today, we know that this state roughly correlates with reduced activation in the prefrontal cortex called ‘temporohypofrontality’, and the state is reportedly experienced by many top-level athletes and even creative types during their peak performance.

Bruce speaks of being ‘in the moment’:

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“The moment has no yesterday or tomorrow. It is not the result of thought and therefore has no time.”

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Being ‘in the moment’ can also be likened to more modern mindfulness practices and indeed, Bruce’s descriptions bear remarkable similarity:

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“Listen. Can you hear the wind? And can you hear the birds singing? You have to hear it. Empty your mind. You know how water fills a cup? It becomes that cup. You have to think about nothing. You have to become nothing.”

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The Flow in Combat

This liquid, flowing state can also see application in Kung Fu practices such as pushing hands and Bruce has alluded to this concept directly:

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“There is another bit of Chinese philosophy that has a bearing on problems common to all humankind. We say, “The oak tree is mighty, yet it will be destroyed by a mighty wind because it resists the elements; the bamboo bends with the wind, and by bending, survives.”

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He also developed this idea further in his own words:

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“The law of harmony, in which one should be in harmony with, and not in opposition to, the strength and force of the opposition. This means that one should do nothing that is not natural or spontaneous; the important thing is not to strain in any way.”

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This is seen in Kung Fu when defending against strikes. The objective here is not to block the strikes head on, but rather to redirect the energy gently. The fighter thereby exerts less energy, feels less impact from the blow and is able to put the assailant off-balance using their own force. When performed correctly, it should feel almost as though they are fighting a ghost!

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The Flow and Jeet Kune Do

The idea of remaining adaptable, flexible and flowing can also be applied in other ways. For example, it can be seen as a retaliation against strict forms, traditions and practices which is essentially what gave birth to Jeet Kune Do.

Jeet Kune Do is Bruce Lee’s own approach to fighting that seeks to do away with ‘the classical mess’. Rigid forms and structures are meaningless and so why should one rote learn elaborate routines or add unnecessary flourishes to their movements? Why should a fighter be wed to one style of martial art at all, when all that does is limit their options?

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Jeet Kune Do is ‘The Way of the Intercepting Fist’ and it teaches the fighter to take the shortest and most powerful and most instinctual line of attack. It teaches them not to anticipate but to respond and to do so in the way that is the most natural expression of that individual.

Bruce Lee’s final film, The Game of Death, was to demonstrate the futility of sticking to rigid fighting forms and the importance of adaptability. In that film, Bruce was going to ascend a pagoda, fighting masters of various different disciplines on his way to the top. His character fights using a free and fluid style akin to Jeet Kune Do and this allows him to neutralize each opponent. Bruce’s weapons in the film would even reflect this: nunchaku and a green bamboo whip, both too fast and light to block or anticipate.

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The Flow as a Guide for Living

The idea of flowing like water is also applied to many other areas of one’s life. The idea of ignoring convention and structure in favour of flexibility for example can help to create harmony among religious groups too:

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“Religions divide people, just as styles in martial arts divide people. If all the religions of the world were one, the world would be united in brotherhood.”

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He felt that tradition, too, was a root of racism:

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“Many people are still bound by tradition; when the elder generation says ‘no’ to something, then these other people will strongly disapprove of it as well. If the elders say that something is wrong, then they also will believe that it is wrong. They seldom use their mind to find out the truth and seldom express sincerely their real feeling. The simple truth is that these opinions on such things as racism are traditions, which are nothing more than a ‘formula’ laid down by these elder people’s experience. As we progress and time changes, it is necessary to reform this formula.”

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Constantly flowing and moving forward can also be a key to happiness:

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“Learn to walk on. Why add the tension of emotion/thought to a situation which is illusion, to the extent that it is real, of a passing moment (in any event, the result of previous causes)? Do what seems wise to be done, forget it, and walk on. Walk on and see a new view. Walk on and see the birds fly. Walk on and leave behind all things that would dam up the inlet, or clog the outlet, of experience.”

Even to health:

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“The method for health promotion is based on water, as flowing water never grows stale. The idea is not to overdevelop or to overexert, but to normalize the function of the body.”

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And here is what I find so awesome about Bruce: that he honed his body to become a living testament to the philosophies by which he led his life. His power, fluidity of movement, speed and quickness of wit allowed him to respond as the situation demanded and to truly and swiftly express himself in the moment:

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“You have to keep your reflexes so that when you want it – it’s there. When you want to move – you are moving. And when you move, you are determined to move! Not accepting even one inch less than 100 percent of your honest feelings. Not anything less than that. So that is the type of thing you have to train yourself into. To become one with your feelings so that, when you think – it is.”

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Bruce believed in a close union between mind and body:

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“Every emotion expresses itself in the muscular system.”

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Bruce Lee on the Will, the Self and Learning

Bruce Lee believed strongly in the power of the will, in self-development and in achieving self-actualisation. (It was around 1954 when Maslow described actualisation in his hierarchy of human motivation, so again, this thinking may be a product of the time.)

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Bruce Lee believed in fulfilling your destiny, on using mantras and self-affirmations (again similar to cognitive behavioural therapy). He believed in reading copious amounts and on repetitious training in the extreme. But how do these notions gel with the idea of being a free and flowing? Is exerting your will and learning set knowledge not a contradiction to being adaptable and ‘going with the flow’?

Not entirely, if you think of yourself as a crucial part of that nature – that your will is something that exists within and that simply needs to be expressed. Going with the flow means going with your own nature, being true to who you are and working in harmony with your circumstances to express that true self.

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Knowledge and repetition are simply tools that can be used to help you fulfil your purpose but should not be seem as absolute truths and should not be allowed to guide or mould you into a different person.

All knowledge is ‘self-knowledge’ and you should ‘absorb what is useful’ and ‘discard what is not’.

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“Instead of dedicating your life to actualize a concept of what you should be like, actualize yourself. The process of maturing does not mean to become a captive of conceptualization. It is to come to the realization of what lies in our innermost selves.”

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Many of us struggle to be who we are and instead find ourselves trying to live up to others’ ideas of what we should be, to societal norms, or to our ‘herd instinct’. This is when we are going against our true nature and this is when our words and actions lose their conviction and their power.

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“What does self-willed mean? Does it not mean ‘having a will of one’s own?’ The human herd instinct demands adaptation and subordination, but for his highest honour man elects not the meek, the pusillanimous, the supine, but precisely the self-willed man, the heroes.”

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Another:

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“A self-willed man has no other aim than his own growth. He values only one thing, the mysterious power in himself which bids him live and helps him to grow. His only living destiny is the silent, ungainsayable law in his own heart, which comfortable habits make it so hard to obey but which the self-willed man is destiny and godhead.”

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In other words, it is when we deny our true nature and will that we meet resistance, even if it might seem easier at first to go along with those ‘comfortable habits’ and those laws.

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“The yielding will has a reposeful ease, soft as downy feathers; a quietude, a shrinking from action. An appearance of inability to do (the heart is humble, but the work is forceful). Placidly free from anxiety, one acts in harmony with nature; one moves and revolves in the line of creation.”

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Become awesome, and then let that awesomeness flow through you:

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“Wait in the calm strength of patience – he that is strong should guard it with tenderness. One need not fear lest strong will should not prevail; the main thing is not to expend one’s powers prematurely in an attempt to obtain by force something for which the time is not yet ripe.”

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And yes, this too has martial application:

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“You must have complete determination. The worst opponent you can come across is one whose aim has become an obsession.”

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It makes sense then that one of the things that Bruce despised most was ‘falseness’ in people. Practice and research allows us to better fulfil our will but we must concentrate on the moon not the finger and we mustn’t settle on one set of ideas or allow them to stop us from growing.

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“An intelligent mind is one which is constantly learning, never concluding – styles and patterns have come to conclusion, therefore they [have] ceased to be intelligent.”

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“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”

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Even Bruce’s approach to creativity, involves the pursuit of knowledge combined with the ‘letting go’ and then emptying your mind:

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“Gather materials. Masticate the facts. Relax and drop the whole subject. Be ready to recognize and welcome the idea when it comes. Shape and develop your idea into usefulness.”

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Neuroscience again backs up Bruce Lee’s notion that we have to absorb information and then ‘forget it’. In fighting and sports, rote learning specific movements and reactions allows them to become automatic and unconscious and this is how we are able to respond in the moment with a block, kick or throw.

And of course in martial arts, as in life, knowledge and intent is of no use without action.

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“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

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Closing Thoughts

Of course there are some contradictions in Bruce Lee’s thinking and this is to be expected. After all, we have only collections of notes written at different points during his life. As the very nature of his philosophy demands, Bruce’s ideas were constantly changing, flowing and developing and who are we to say whether his later ideas should trump the latter?

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All we can do is to listen to his teachings, reflect on them and then move forward, allowing them to empower our own philosophy and purpose.

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“A teacher is never a giver of truth – he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for himself. A good teacher is merely a catalyst.”

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The biggest tragedy of course is that Bruce was never able to fully develop and evolve his ideas, as he was struck down before his time. Who knows what new insights he might have come to? But even on the subject of death, Bruce was philosophical:

“The round of summer and winter becomes a blessing the moment we give up the fantasy of eternal spring.”

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“Here now, forever more our lives must part. My path leads there and yours another way; I know not where tomorrow’s path may lead, nor what the future holds.”

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“Remembrance is the only paradise out of which we cannot be driven away. Pleasure is the flower that fades, remembrance is the lasting perfume. Remembrances last longer than present realities; I have preserved blossoms for many years, but never fruits.”

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I’m an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I’ll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.