“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup; it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put it in the teapot; it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” – Bruce Lee
If we watch Bruce Lee in action as a martial arts master, we see a physical manifestation of the perennial eastern wisdom Lee here expresses. His bodily movements were flexible, fluid, like water, capable of adapting to changing circumstances. His body often appears to have no boundaries, no limits. We might say that Lee “empties” his body. This emptying is the experience of the body as intrinsically without form or shape. Therefore, it is capable of taking on many different forms and shapes.
But here Lee speaks of “the mind,” not the body. He says “empty” the mind. He says to be “formless, shapeless.” What is it, then, for the mind to be empty, for the mind to be formless or shapeless?
First, observe in yourself the tendency to give consciousness a form or shape: anger, sadness, bliss, anxiety, being tired, perceiving a tree, or remembering yesterday’s breakfast. Or better yet, think of the presumption that consciousness is this or that form. I am angry because I have experienced some deep emotional injustice. I am sad because my partner dumped me. Here consciousness has shape or form. And so do I, for notice the subtle psychological identification of self with these states of consciousness. It’s not simply that anger or bliss is present to or in me. How impersonal is that? Rather I am this! This is why pleasant and unpleasant experiences land a powerful punch or kick. Consciousness has been incarnated, and we experience attachment to it or we experience aversion to it. I like this thing “bliss,” and I don’t like this thing “sadness.” In the first case, I am happy; in the second, I am unhappy.
To speak of consciousness as shapeless or formless is in the first instance simply to cease identifying consciousness with any particular name or form, be it a pleasant or unpleasant one. It’s to communicate the idea of a larger consciousness or mind, of which anger, sadness, and such are but temporary manifestations. Eastern spiritual teachers often use the analogy of the wave and the ocean to communicate the idea of smaller, temporary manifestations of a larger enduring reality. This larger enduring reality is pure consciousness, what Vedanta calls the Self and Zen calls the larger or bigger mind.
When we examine our experience, we find thoughts, feelings, and sensations, or more properly the activity of thinking, feeling, and sensing. Upon more careful introspection or meditation, we also find a witnessing background to these mental activities, an ever present, abiding awareness, the one who watches the coming and going of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The eastern teachers tell us that our sense of being an I, an enduring self, derives from this witness, but this true “I” is veiled through a false identification of “I” with the body-mind. And this delusion is the root of our suffering. We think we are something we are not. We therefore want what we do not need. Consequently, we suffer.
Return to the water metaphor. Like water, consciousness is essentially without form or shape. Therefore, like water, consciousness can permeate everything and it can become anything. You put consciousness into an unpleasant experience, and it becomes the unpleasant experience. You put consciousness into a pleasant experience, and it becomes the pleasant experience. Better yet, formless consciousness becomes incarnate in every thought, feeling, and sensation, but consciousness itself is neither pleasant experience nor unpleasant experience. It can therefore take the name and form of either. It is not this or that experience, but the witnessing background of all experience. Since it is no thing, it can become everything, just as the water is one though it becomes many names and forms – now pot, now cup, now bottle. This is why the Upanishads identify the true Self with Brahman and declare that “Brahman is the world.”
If, then, you are that shapeless, formless mind, understand that you are no less present when it is incarnated as the unpleasant experience than when it is incarnated as a pleasant experience. You are there, not merely in the background of all experience but in the foreground, as the very knowing inherent in all thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It is this presence for which the small mind searches because, being small, it has judged itself as in need of completion or enlargement, and implements clever but unsuccessful strategies of assimilating and rejecting this or that object. We take ourselves to be teapot-water longing to be bottle-water, or cup-water longing to be teapot-water. Only if I am “this” or “that” can I fail to be what I want or succeed in being that which I do not want.
However, if consciousness is like water, it matters not whether consciousness is “in the bottle” or “in the cup” or “in the teapot.” It is not intrinsically confined to any of these forms. And if the container should crack or shatter, nothing is lost but a limiting condition of our essential nature. This is why, as Kahlil Gibran noted, “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
What does it mean to “empty the mind”? Not the dissolution of the contents of the mind, but rather the dissolution of the understanding of my relation to these contents, specifically the dissolution of the belief and subsequent feeling that what I essentially am shares in the limits and destiny of the body-mind. I do not deny the shape the water has taken when it is in the cup if I say water is formless and shapeless. I imply that the water is more than this, that it is essentially not this shape. What is dissolved in emptying the mind is a particular story the mind tells about itself, the world, and the relation between them – the dualistic story that divides the world essentially into subject-object relations. To empty the mind is not simply to take something away; it is to give the small mind the very completion for which it searches. This completion is the cessation of the story that perpetuates its suffering.
Of course, if you are the water, now flowing then crashing, the call to “be water” is simply a way of saying notice or lend attention to what you already essentially are. You flow and you crash. You are fully present in each moment of life as it happens. And the peace you seek is your very Self, whether flowing or crashing.