“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.”

This famous quote by Bruce Lee refers to the philosophy of being adaptable like water.

Imagine a teacup that is filled to the brim. You cannot pour any more water in it unless you pour out the existing contents. That is exactly how your mind is – it cannot be filled with any new thoughts and ideas unless it is first emptied.

It’s like the story of the Zen master and his student who yearns to learn. The master proceeds to pour tea into the student’s cup till it overflows and spills onto the floor. Perplexed, the student asks why the master had done that.

And the master responds, “unless you empty your cup, I cannot fill your mind.”

The empty mind has a sister concept called “no mind”. In Chinese, this means “no heart” or wuxin 无心。It is more popularly known in the western world in Japanese as Mushin 無心.

The opposite of “no mind” is “too many minds”. Or a mind that is like a cup already flooded with too much tea.

We often say “flow of thought”. Thinking is like water; it flows. When the flow is divided into many streams, the thoughts are fragmented, with some side streams going into eddy currents or circular thinking.

When thinking flows smoothly, one popular term used in sports psychology is being “in the zone”. In this heightened state of consciousness, the mind, body and environment are one. There is no “crashing” or stopping of the flow of water, which represents thoughts and volition, movement and action.

The legendary Zen master Takuan Sōhō said:

“The mind must always be in the state of ‘flowing,’ for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death. When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword, which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.”

There are many applications of this concept of “no mind” and being “shapeless and formless”. Bruce Lee never wanted the martial art form he founded to remain static and trapped in fossilised thinking. When he founded the Jeet Kune Do system in 1967, he referred to it as “non-classical”, so as to not be caught up in the nomenclature and rigidity of the other systems. He made it into the history books by being a bit of a maverick in those days. But now, we have the concept of mixed martial arts.

This applies to business, too. It is often easy to be entrenched in a formalised system of thinking. Organisations, particularly big ones, tend to favour the creation and maintenance of policies and structures. These get overlaid one after another over time. Soon, the reasons as to why the policies and structures were created are forgotten. “This is the way we do things here” becomes a familiar refrain by those who resist change.

Business process re-engineering is the attempt to relook at the usefulness of policies and processes in work and how these can be simplified. While change is the only constant, change is often unwelcomed and resisted. We don’t want our cheese to be moved. We like to stay in our comfort zones, even if the frogs will soon be boiled in the increasingly hot water.

Be water, be flexible. Don’t crash into the rocks; flow around them.

A quote from The Matrix goes, “Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realise the truth. There is no spoon. Then you’ll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”

Change yourself when it is called for.