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The Martial Art of Humility: Bruce Lee, Self-Negation, and Self-Defense

Mark Bauerlein

How does humility get us through confrontations?

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 . . .”

 

 

I wasn’t pushing back, insisting on my space in the car, nor was I running away in fear.I got past him and shrugged, “You can try.”  That surprised him, and when I went out the doors he amplified his threats. As I stepped down to the next car, keeping watch behind me, he jumped out and growled something about cameras in the station and held up his fist. I moved toward the other doors before they closed upon me, but looked at him with a blank expression and pointed forward as if to say, “I’m going to sit in here.” He didn’t pursue me. I seated myself, eyeing the door and breathing slowly. The adrenalin that had started pumping subsided quickly (adrenalin is an enemy to clear apprehension and swift, smooth action). Nothing more happened. I think I know why. It’s because I didn’t give him a reason to escalate beyond his silly threats. I provided no material on which he might exert his hostility. First, I didn’t react directly. I just got out of his space and moved to neutral ground. How could he object to that? The second point is more complicated. When I said, “You could try,” that was not an invitation. I spoke it casually, as if I were observing a simple fact of life. There was no “and I’ll put you down hard” attached to my statement. It might just as easily be, “You could try and you just might succeed.” But the calm and factual delivery carried a secondary meaning as well, namely, the absence of fear. I wasn’t nervous or uncertain, despite his bluster. What was he supposed to do with that? Make a move? Try me? That wouldn’t fit my demeanor, which wasn’t confrontational or timid. I wasn’t pushing back, insisting on my space in the car, nor was I running away in fear (which often emboldens an attacker).
“The consciousness of self,” Lee asserts, “is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action.”This is all because his ego was in play, but mine wasn’t. I had no stake in the contest, no pride to uphold. There was, thus, no fear beyond the worry over a hand forming a fist or reaching into a pocket for a knife—and if that was the case, then the hand-to-hand training would take over without any self-reflection at all. In other words, I didn’t show him any ego, only humility. Ego would have made me combative or frightened. I would have pushed back to protect my pride or run away to protect my body. The first response would have dared his ego and the second one would have complimented it. Humility prevents both.

Humility and Self-Awareness

When humility reaches a certain point, self-awareness dissipates. This is, Lee maintains, a worthy aspiration. It is a moral condition and a defensive one (in the martial sense). “The consciousness of self,” Lee asserts, “is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action.” While in the midst of a “situation,” the more you think about yourself, the less you are able to respond fluidly to the objects coming at you. When under threat or attack, the most fatal thoughts are: “Why is this happening to me? Am I going to get hurt or humiliated?” They get in the way of an instantaneous block or grip. They load your actions with too much meaning, as if too much depended on them. Instead of simply responding to a physical assault with a defensive maneuver that is itself all physical, your reaction acquires a heavier burden of self-preservation. Of course, it is an act of self-preservation, but when you think of it that way, it becomes harder to execute. The stakes rise too high and you freeze up. Humility in this regard isn’t just a modest measure of oneself. It is a loss of self. The paradox holds. Selflessness, non-assertion, a humble relation to the world . . . they make you stronger. That doesn’t go for spiritual matters alone. It goes for combat as well.