To people with no experience in the form, it will seem obviously false to identify martial arts with humility. What they see when the turn on the television and land on a cagefighting spectacle or a plain old boxing match is endless self-promotion, self-regard, self-aggrandizement. Tattoos are everywhere blaring the same message, “Look at me!” Muhammed Ali’s declaration “I’m the greatest!” is everyone’s aspiration. Aggression and braggadocio never stops.
But if you listen to the voice of the great martial artist of the 20th century, Bruce Lee, you hear a different message. He believes that pride is an error, self-promotion a hindrance. There is something better than vanity and forwardness: “Humility forms the basis of honor, just as the low ground forms the basis for a higher elevation” (from Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living).
The Humblest Substance
It’s a theme Lee repeated in his films, writings and interviews. In one statement well-known in the self-defense world, Lee finds his role model not in great men and women, in heroic deeds, or in wisdom literature. He finds it in one of the elements.
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.
Water is the humblest substance. It doesn’t force other things to adapt to it. It assumes the form of whatever it encounters. (We shall discount the extreme cases of floods and tidal waves, when water becomes destructive.) It doesn’t push against the rock in the middle of the stream. Water flows around it. It lets the cup form it. It goes where gravity and the container want it to go.
The Challenge of the Ego
This is, of course, a challenge for a human being. We have something to maintain against the objects around us: the ego. We hold to our present existence against outside forces that pressure us to adapt, be it the standard give-and-take of the workplace or a bellicose youth who pushes us aside on the bus. Life so often comes down to a stand-off: my self vs. the world’s demands and onslaughts.
How, then, does humility get us through confrontations? How does this self-negation become self-defense?
Taking the “Sub”-Way
I was in a subway car in Atlanta a few nights ago. The train was stopped at the airport and I took a seat and waited for the doors to close. A young man appeared on the platform, shouting something either to someone at the other end or into a cell phone speaker around his neck and attached to the buds in his ears. He seemed keyed up as he stepped inside, paused, then ambled toward a seat a foot next to my seat. He had a thuggish air about him, not making a direct challenge toward anyone but giving off a general intimidation to everyone nearby.
I have no interest in sharing a ride with that kind of pugnacity, so before he sat down I picked up my bag, stood up, and headed toward the door. He didn’t proceed to sit. He changed direction and edged into my path. I stopped and he stopped. I settled into a grounded stance, centered and balanced, arms ready to block but not showing a fighting desire, just an invisible readiness to respond. I inched forward. He backed up slightly. I slid by, but he didn’t let it drop. He muttered, “. . . beat your face . . . take you down . . .”