Consistency Through Change

Over the last year, I’ve had a few discussions about the phrase “It is what it is”. My friend took offense at this phrase because she felt that it’s a shirking of one’s agency to produce change, to drive, to control.

However, we don’t control nearly as much as we think, and ultimately, saying “It is what it is” isn’t passive. That’s because active vs. passive is a false dichotomy. Our actions in life and the situations we are involved in are far more complicated than wrestling things to one’s will or being wrestled into submission.

This is one of my favorite aspects of Taoism and Eastern philosophy more generally. In fact, the strategy of The Art of War fits with this in a lot of ways. The successful general on the battlefield isn’t he who forces his will onto a situation at all costs. That’s simply stubborn and out of touch with reality. That’s a way to get oneself and one’s forces slaughtered. No. It’s about reading the landscape, the opposing forces, the weather, the resources, etc. for what they are and adapting to make the most of the situation. It is what it is. The situation you are in is the one you have to work with. Honestly, this applies very well to my experience in project management as well: to get things done requires adaptation, flexibility, and a kind of poise that works with new problems.

I was recently thrilled to come across a book about Bruce Lee’s philosophy by his daughter, as I was immediately taken with the title: Be Water, My Friend. It reminded me of one of my favorite passages in the Tao Te Ching:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don’t compete
they aren’t maligned

Lao Tzu’s Taoteching, Verse 8, Trans. Red Pine

There are several aspects here I could point to in regards to what I’ve said about the poise of adaptation. Water flows; it finds the empty space, follows the path of least resistance, and it can even wash things away through erosion or the great weight of a wave. It nurtures, but it doesn’t press an agenda of it’s own over and against others (“without competing”). Water lacks a particular form but it always reaches its destination. We can see clear affinities here even with some of my favorite parts of Mahayana Buddhism in the “governing with peace, working with skill, and moving with time”. Skillful means and flowing with impermanence are precisely what we should aim for in moving with the ebb and flow of life.

Let’s compare this to the Bruce Lee quote that inspired the title of the book:

Empty your mind.
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup; it becomes the cup.
You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot.
You put it into a bottle; it becomes the bottle.
Now water can flow, or it can crash!
Be water, my friend.

Bruce Lee, in preface to Be Water, My Friend

The emptiness within a form is reminiscent of the importance of emptiness in rooms, bowls, etc. in the Tao Te Ching as well. The emptiness makes the form what it is. The empty space is what informs the use, shape, and function of these objects/spaces. Being able to flow around through emptiness, through the openings in situations, is where formlessness adapts to the surroundings and governs with peace, works with skill, and moves with time, without competing. However, yes, maybe sometimes a situation calls for a crashing wave. Even the stories of the past lives of the Buddha has an adventure where he killed a band of pirates to save the lives and suffering of others. The problem is that so much of what we are taught is to always be the crashing wave – crashing against rocks without much forward motion, rather than flowing around them, even if that flow is a slow trickle. It is what it is.

I was truly inspired to write about this topic tonight as I read some of the Bruce Lee book, but I also did a reading of the I Ching for myself last night to help find guidance with heartbreak. One of the two hexagrams I drew was #32 Enduring. The book I have spoke to ancient Chinese perspectives on how one endures. It wasn’t the remaining steadfast and refusing to give ground that we might immediately call to mind. Instead, they held another facet of the skillful means and responsiveness in being like water that I’ve been trying to elucidate here:

In the Western tradition things endure because they are unchanging. The Book of Changes [i.e the I Ching] takes a different view. Things endure not because they do not change but because they do change: They grow, they evolve, they respond, and in this way they continue. The symbol of the eternal is not in the unchanging but the cycle, which a process of constant movement and alteration governed by principles of order. In a cycle every beginning results from a previous ending, and every end point is followed by a new beginning. What endures are not the momentary manifestations of physical reality but the basic principles that shape change and give it order and continuity. Analogous principles apply to the world of humanity. Change is inevitable: The secret to endurance is to make the changes in one’s life intelligible through principles that endure; it is to learn to grow continuously with integrity.

To endure means to keep going despite obstacles. Endurance is neither stagnation nor a state of rest. It progresses forward, unlike stagnation, and it keeps moving and growing, unlike rest. What endures renews itself and its effects through continuous activity. What endures does so through change, not in spite of change. Its effects are understood against the experience of change. We see this in the cycle of the seasons that continually renew themselves as the earth moves around the sun. The cycle of the seasons repeats perpetually because its underlying causes continue. Plants and animals grow and change as they endure over time. When they cease to grow, they die, and then they cease to endure.

The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Life, Jack Balkin, p. 351-552.

While this doesn’t speak to the metaphor of water, it follows the same ideas of emptiness and flow that is the adaptation and change to situations. We flow around obstacles; we don’t stop and give up or flail against them to try to break through in the dichotomy of active/passive that we started with at the beginning of this post. No, the skillful way is to flow past them like water, maybe sometimes to crush them through force… Sometimes.

To return to Bruce Lee – his practice was one of being pliable yet ready to respond to the scenario. That’s precisely how one is pliable: responsive to the world, rather than reacting out of one’s egoic position. That’s the key point in all of this. There’s a balance of being soft and pliable yet having the right tension to move forward with the moment. Such is the way of working with skill, moving with time. Such is the way of endurance that progresses forward, moving and growing through change. Bruce Lee is another great example because he endured as a great warrior by training intensely all the time. This is how one harnesses change to continue forward: our bodies break down, so we must maintain them through the change of effort and nurturing. This is both the emptiness of form (Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”) and the response needed to live concretely in a world of that principle of emptiness. Ultimately, this pliable tension in a responsive dance with emptiness is wu wei, and such doing without doing is being water, my friend.

If you’re interested in these ideas and want to further consider skillful responsiveness rather than the egoic dichotomy of active/passive, I recommend starting with my post on Verse 63 from the Tao Te Ching and the posts that are linked within.

May this make you think about change, enduring, and skillful responsiveness to the challenges of life.


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