Bruce Lee, Surfing, and the Concept of No-Mindedness
“We are always in a process of becoming and nothing is fixed. Have no rigid system in you, and you’ll be flexible to change with the ever changing. Open yourself and flow, my friend. Flow in the total openness of the living moment. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo.” -Bruce Lee
As a child, on Sunday afternoons I would watch martial arts movies with my father. If we were really lucky, they would play a Bruce Lee film, as he was practically a superhero to me. A huge poster of Bruce graced my bedroom wall. He was posed in a fighting stance, with slice marks across his abdomen and face; a still taken from the film “Enter the Dragon”. Bruce Lee’s approach to marital arts seemed flamboyant, yet fully in control and executed with precision; a true master of his art. He captivated and yet compelled me, I would be totally transfixed one moment, then barely able to sit still the next. Soon I would leap off the ground, doing my best kung fu imitation, flailing about, yelling, fighting imagined adversaries in front of the television. I tried to emulate the movements and sounds of Bruce Lee, much to my father’s amusement.
My father was also a martial arts practitioner and instructor, and I was a student for the greater part of my childhood. I was never the best, nor the worst in the “dojo”. Most times I enjoyed practicing karate, but eventually my fondness for the practice waned. I was starting to come into my own, discovering what was going to be the path of my choosing. I remember the day I told my mom I didn’t want to go to karate class anymore. I asked if she could tell my dad, as I was ashamed and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I wanted to focus more of my time on skateboarding, which would eventually lead into my pursuit of surfing.
Over my lifetime I never lost respect for the martial arts, the commitment it takes to become a faithful student of the path. In fact, as I’ve grown older, part of me toys with the thought of once again returning to the practice. Like most things in my life that I have given a part of myself to, I can find common ground between those things and the art of riding waves. It’s as if I see just about everything through the “eyes” of surfing.
A few years back, while living in California, I was reading a book of quotes by Bruce Lee entitled “Striking Thoughts”. I came across the concept of “wu-hsin” or no-mind. Reading the quotes and understanding some of the concept, I, of course related it to surfing. When truly surfing well, we enter into the state of no-mind. We are not fixed on, nor attached to any one thing, yet we are completely present, engaged in the eternal “now”. We are open, we are flowing, we are flexible, this enables us to react to the moment without pretense, and this is when I feel the most magical moments in surfing happen.
What follows are quotes from Bruce Lee’s book, “Artist of Life”, on the developmental stages of a student on the path of gung fu or as we know it in the west, kung fu. As I read these stages, they ring true to the same developmental stages I’ve personally experienced in surfing. Following each quote from Bruce Lee, is my personal interpretation, as they relate to surfing.
“The primitive stage is the stage of original ignorance in which a person knows nothing of the art of combat. In a fight he simply blocks and strikes instinctively without concern as for what is right and wrong. Of course, he might not be so-called scientific, but he is, nevertheless, being himself.” -Bruce Lee
The first stage, the primitive stage, is likened to a child-like stage of ignorance. You have no clue what you are doing, yet you are making your best attempt, and in doing so, in your state of ignorance, you are being completely true to yourself. Your approach is not riddled with thoughts of what is right and wrong, technique, or style. You plunge into the ocean, this seemingly aquatic foreign realm, and in most cases you are thrown this way and that, based on the ever-changing whims and rhythms of the sea. You are pure, uncorrupted by concepts, there are moments of fear, exhilaration, confusion, and the most unadulterated joy. This beginner stage of surfing is an amazing one and should be enjoyed to the fullest extent. Don’t project into the future, worrying about your progression, wondering when or if you will ever get “good” at surfing. The next stage will come upon it’s own accord, if you keep true to the path.
“The second stage, the stage of art, begins when a person starts his training. He is taught the different ways of blocking and striking, the various ways of kicking, of standing, of moving, of breathing, of thinking. Unquestionably he is gaining a scientific knowledge of combat, but unfortunately his original self and sense of freedom are lost, and his action no longer flows by itself. His mind tends to freeze at different movements for calculation and analysis. Even worse, he might be “intellectually bound” and maintaining himself outside the actual reality.” –Bruce Lee
The Second stage, the stage of art, is when we have come far enough in our surfing to start developing and polishing technique. We went through the trials and tribulations of getting hammered paddling out, tossed over the falls innumerable times, flailing in the whitewater, nose-diving, and getting served a steady diet of “humble pie” by the ocean.
We have finally learned to drop in at the precise moment, come off the bottom, to ascend up the face of the wave, hitting the lip in the pocket, then projecting down the line. We now feel like “surfers” and have earned a ranking in the unspoken hierarchy of our local line up. We experience moments of surfing glory, when everything comes together. Then we feel the collapsing feeling of defeat, when nothing seems to link up. This is all part of our growth and personal surfing evolution.
We study surfing by reading surf literature, watching films, following the pro tour and gazing at photos of surfers we admire. We examine superiorly skilled surfer’s technique, whether they are local heroes or paid professionals. Oftentimes, we may end up consciously or unconsciously adopting a bit of a beloved surfer’s style and approach.
It is here that we are making steps toward becoming skilled surfers, yet in our pursuit of progression, we tend to fall prey to imitation and emulation. What surfing “is” tends to be dictated to us through the surf media machine. We find it hard to see any alternative to the approach that is being jammed down our throat by youth-centric companies looking to sell us their wares at the cost of our very self.
I dwelled in this place with my surfing for years and there’s nothing wrong with it. It is all part of the journey we tread, gliding across moving walls of water. If you’re here now, again, enjoy it, every single moment. But know, it is simply a temporary manifestation of your surfing voyage. Things change, surfing changes, just like the very surface of the ocean itself.
“The third stage, the stage of artlessness, occurs when, after years of serious and hard practice, he realizes that, after all, gung fu is nothing special and instead of trying to impose his mind on the art, he adjusts himself to the opponent like water pressing on an earthen wall, it flows through the slightest crack. There is nothing to “try” to do but be purposeless and formless like water. Nothingness prevails; he no longer is confined.” – Bruce Lee
Now we reach the third stage, the stage of artlessness.
I can’t say I’ve fully reached this stage in my surfing, but I have had momentary flirtations with it from time to time. When all expectation, projection, and pretense are stripped away, I can be fully present and emerged in what is happening. Those times when I become fully open to the moment, with no preset programming dictating the line I draw on the wave. I transcend the years of trying to align my surfing with convention, I flow, I glide, and I do so in such a way that my mind is not creating interruption.
What made Bruce Lee so enthralling to watch, above all else, was his flow. He was one such master who attained the “artless” state in his practice. He moved, unconfined by the limiting mind, like water.
In the artless state, our surfing becomes less about ripping and shredding, forcing ourselves and our board into critical positions and places. The need to dominate the wave falls way.
We are no longer riding a surfboard, we are now riding the wave.
Surfer: Author Shawn Zappo. Photos: Christor Lukasiewicz
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