Absorb What is Useful

June 30, 2012


Absorb what is useful

Reject what is useless

And add what is specifically your own”

                                – Bruce Lee

With these words, Bruce Lee defined the driving principle behind both his martial art and his personal philosophy.  Although he introduced this idea in the late 1960s, it is in fact a timeless principle that transcends generations.  It encompasses a progressive concept for self-growth and personal evolution and as such it can be a powerful and life transforming tool to help us live a life without limitations.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the martial arts, Bruce Lee was the founder of Jeet Kune Do, or The Way of the Intercepting Fist.  JKD, as it has become known, was perhaps the first non-traditional martial art, a hybrid of styles and techniques that were hand-picked by Bruce and his friend and training partner Dan Inosanto.  On the surface JKD might appear to be nothing more than an eclectic mish-mash of techniques and training methods, a misunderstanding that has led many would-be Bruce Lees to believe that they too could create their own martial art style.  JKD isn’t simple eclecticism however; it has something more…intention.  The intention behind JKD is what brings the techniques and styles together, it’s the guiding energy that takes a raw collection of tools and unifies them for a greater purpose.

What is that purpose then?

Nothing less than the truth in combat; or put another way, to win a street fight.

With this intention as the criteria, Bruce and Dan analyzed, formulated, modified, tested, experimented, and arrived at a new expression in the martial arts, a new expression that would turn the martial arts world on its head.

In essence, they absorbed what was useful, rejected what was useless, and added what was specifically their own.

This principle was therefore the guiding force that helped give birth to Jeet Kune Do.  But the beauty behind this concept lies in its universality.  It doesn’t apply just to the martial arts, it applies to life.

Upon closer examination, this principle reveals a methodological process to discover the most efficient and effective means to accomplish a goal.  However, before we can begin to absorb or reject anything we must take a crucial first step: honest self-examination.  This step is absolutely essential.  We must be willing to honestly assess our abilities and skills, discern our weaknesses and shortcomings, and arrive at a baseline of functionality in any given arena of our lives.  It can be difficult to look at our weaknesses, but until we’re ready to acknowledge those areas of opportunity, we will never be able to take responsibility for them and make improvements.

In the case of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce recognized the inherent limitations of his original martial art of Wing Chun following a challenge match fought against a rival martial arts instructor.  While Bruce won the fight, he realized that the restrictions of the Wing Chun along with a lack of physical conditioning contributed to the fight lasting much longer than necessary.  He could have walked away and thought nothing more of it, but that wasn’t Bruce’s way.  Instead, he took a hard long look at his situation and realized something needed to change.  This must have been a hard pill for Bruce to swallow, but for him, the truth was far more important than the most cherished illusion.

Having determined our point of departure, we can begin the process of absorbing what is useful.  It’s important to note though that this step isn’t purely about accumulation.  The absorbing of new material into your life matrix has to be aligned with a specific purpose.  Rather than adding new material willy-nilly, the addition of elements must be congruent with your intention.  What is it you wish to accomplish?  What will this serve?  What is the greater picture that these pieces will contribute to?  Without this clear intention, we will resort to mere eclecticism in which we stockpile new pieces without direction.  Consider an all-you-can-eat buffet – an eclectic approach would be one in which you visit the buffet simply to load up a plate with your favorite foods again and again.  These foods may not necessarily be healthy and/or easily digested.  There’s no rhyme or reason; it’s just a collection of random bits and pieces that you happen to find appealing combined into a 10 megaton calorie bomb.

Now, let’s look at the same situation from the perspective of intention.  You grab a plate and make conscious choices with a specific goal in mind, perhaps to have a nutritiously sound meal.  You select items that are in harmony with that purpose.  Those foods complement each other; they are easily digested, are high in nutrition and low in calories.  In the end, the food creates the desired result – you are comfortably filled and know that your body has received a healthy and balanced meal.

To return once again to the example of Jeet Kune Do, when Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto assembled the elements that comprise the art, they weren’t just picking the styles and techniques that they liked or preferred.  The approximately 28 different arts that comprise the original JKD were meticulously studied and dissected, experimented with and tested for validity.  From Western Boxing to Fencing to Wing Chun to Thai Boxing to Western Wrestling, each art or concept that was adopted was based upon its ability to function in an actual fight.  JKD isn’t about an endless buffet or “technique accumulator” mentality.  At its heart, JKD is about simplicity.  More isn’t necessarily better.

As a natural extension of this testing/experimentation process, rejecting what is useless operates side by side with the absorption of new material and experiences.  While it sounds simple, the rejection of useless elements is fraught with challenges, many of which are the result of psychological or emotional conditioning.   This is where we once again return to our honest self-examination.  We must truthfully evaluate the effectiveness of what we are doing.  If it isn’t working for us, if it’s not serving the overarching purpose or intention, then it is our responsibility to jettison the old, the outdated or no longer relevant aspects of our training or beliefs.

Rejecting what is useless can be extremely difficult due to the fact that it’s our human tendency to grow attached and persistently cling to methods or beliefs from the past, even if they no longer serve us.  As a species, we crave security in the known.  We feel safe in holding onto the way things have always been.  Unfortunately, as eastern wisdom traditions have shown us, much of our suffering is rooted in our inability to let go of our attachment to the past and old habits of thinking and behaving.  Ultimately though, the only way to grow, to become lighter and less bound by our old conditioning is to cut the cords to those things, behaviors, and thoughts that no longer support our growth.

For Bruce Lee, this step was accomplished by discarding the useless elements of his original art of Wing Chun.  Elements of footwork, mobility, and angles of attack were no longer relevant to the matrix of the art he was creating.  Further, the arts that were being added were not absorbed in their entirety.  What was useless was removed, no matter how much personal appeal it may have held.  Only by clearing away the extraneous could the path to simplicity be glimpsed.

As you may have noticed, absorbing what is useful and rejecting what is useless reflect a scientific methodology for discovering what works and what doesn’t.  These two steps function on the objective level.  In other words, we are looking beyond our personal biases to behold a more universal truth. These steps aren’t about what we want; they’re about what works, plain and simple.

Finally we come to the last step, adding what is specifically your own.  From the objectivity of the first two steps we now move into the subjective realm of personal experience.  Here we look at ourselves to understand how we can make this experience unique and personal.  What are your own strengths and weaknesses; what skills and unique talents do you bring to the table; and how can you use them to enhance the overall experience?

We all have unique abilities and talents, and part of life is learning to express these in an honest way to serve the greater good.  When you add your unique perspective to the blend of this process, you create something entirely new and special.  What do you have to add, after absorbing what is useful and rejecting what is useful, to make your expression unlike any other in the world?

In the synthesis of Jeet Kune Do, this was revealed in the unique expressions of Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto.  Bruce Lee was a one-of-a-kind martial artist.  His physical prowess was unlike anything that had ever been seen before (or since) and those abilities gave rise to his unique expression in JKD.  His speed, timing, and reflexes were the hallmark of his fighting style – a unique expression of his body in combat.  Indeed, Jeet Kune Do will be expressed differently for different people.  While the paints and canvas remains the same, each artist is different and will therefore create an image that is a reflection of their personal experience and interpretation.

Dan Inosanto, on the other hand expressed JKD in a different way.  Following Bruce’s death in 1973, Dan’s JKD absorbed elements of his native Filipino culture in the form of Kali and Escrima as well as other arts and techniques.  He added these concepts to the curriculum he taught at his martial arts academy and continued to evolve, adapt, and innovate as a martial artist and teacher.  To this day he is still a student, absorbing and integrating new ideas such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Kettlebell training and other concepts into his unique expression.

As individuals, we each have something to share with the world in our own unique way.  This is how we give flavor to the experience of living.  Ultimately, no one has a monopoly on the truth.  We are all speaking the truth from our own perspective, each valid, each worthy of being heard.

As a student of Bruce Lee’s art and philosophy for over 25 years, I can’t imagine a more direct and efficient path to self-mastery than absorbing what is useful, rejecting what is useless, and adding specifically what is my own.  These are the guiding principles of my personal philosophy and they continue to serve me in every aspect of my life.  I have adopted them in my own expression of the martial arts, my spiritual journey, my relationships, and my teaching style.  They have been irrefutable principles in my growth and evolution.  While they sound simple, they are profound and life changing steps for living a life of transformation.

But don’t take my word for it…Absorb what is useful 😉

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