Being Like Water in These Times: Waging Resistance Like Bruce Lee
Posted on October 1, 2017
(Image of Collin sleeping in his bed and holding his brown teddy bear. There is another teddy bear, which was his birthday gift from his uncle Joe.)
After being away for a week, it’s hard to re-adjust sometimes. While my mind is still buzzing from the deep and powerful conversations, re-entering home life can be a little tough. Sometimes the guilt of being away catches up with me. The night I came home, I immediately relieved Mychi, who was exhausted from the week. Collin hasn’t gotten to the point where he makes me feel guilty for being away but it just shows up in different ways. For example, he asked for warm milk and I said “NO” because he knows that there is no milk during bedtime. He then said, “Baba is busy. I’m going to ask mama.” Ouch… and super deep! The next morning, he woke up at about 6 am and walked to our bed with teddy in one hand. In Mychi’s words, “He didn’t want to leave teddy behind.” This was the first time he did this. This is a small thing maybe but a huge leap for him to start growing this attachment to his teddy. The next morning, we had one of the fastest morning routines from the waking up and brushing his teeth to breakfast and putting on shoes to get out of the house. He is truly growing up! I miss these moments and sometimes feel like I never want to leave, but I know that is not realistic or healthy.
This tension is a big question for all parents. I’ve seen parents make their entire lives about their children. Some do this and build up resentment and/or high expectations, some take a “break” from the movement and some try to do both and weave it into our lives and movement work. With the urgency and the pressing needs of the community, I’m always wondering what is the right “balance”? Do I throw down more now or do I reserve my time and energy for the next crisis in this period. How do I be like water in these times?
Many versions of this post has been sitting on my computer the last several months. The political times and my life conditions have kept changing and will continue to do so. I finally understood my hesitation. I feel like many of us have “been like water,” adapting to our conditions. That is the constant. But, the more critical question is have we been adapting towards our purpose? Have we been living and leading with our rage and anger or our love and compassion? As Adrienne Maree Brown puts forward in Emergent Strategy, we need “intentional adaptation.” When Bruce Lee talked about being like water, he said, “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.” More importantly and often what is overlooked is that he described this process as the path to seeking reality and truth. Many of these concepts have helped me through last year, as a parent and leftist during one of the most difficult years of my life with Collin’s autism diagnosis and the election of Donald Trump.
“I feel like many of us have “been like water,” adapting to our conditions. That is the constant. But, the more critical question is have we been adapting towards our purpose? Have we been living and leading with our rage and anger or our love and compassion?”
So here is how my Bruce Lee kick got started, no pun intended. Last Christmas, after an intense election debrief where people were arguing about the “best” strategy, I did some last minute gift shopping. I came across a Bruce Lee book that made me realize he has even more to offer us in this current political moment — Fighting Offense and Defense simultaneously! Bruce Lee described it as in every move you make there is no separation of offense and defense, it is one movement. As you get hit, “you block by hitting back.” It all turns into one movement, one true flow. In every moment, we are present and adapting all the time.
This helped me a lot as a new baba and it helped me in my daily movement work. With Collin, I constantly felt I was on the defense with Collin’s uncontrollable sensory meltdowns OR that i was rigidly trying to control and change Collin’s behavior. In the movement world, there continues to be debate on what is the proper response to Trump and the new era of conservatism, neo-fascism, and white supremacy. Is it decentralized or centralized? Is it local or national? are we on defense or offense? populism or not? In the current moment, we need both or ALL and they need to be one movement, one true flow.
(Picture of a dumpster with grafitti art of Bruce Lee punching and the words “POW!” on the side. Located in Oakland, Chinatown)
Okay, you all following? Let’s dig deeper.
Breaking out of our “styles”: In martial arts, one of his main contributions was breaking out of centuries of traditional and dogmatic Chinese martial arts styles. No matter if you were the “Praying Mantis” style, “Shaolin” style or “Monkey” style there was only one true style. He didn’t see his martial art form, “Jeet Kun Do,” (截拳道) as a set style; it was about research, experimentation, and constantly evolving the practice — not static and stagnate. Many are also unaware that one of his influences was the western style of fencing. Called the “stop-hit” technique, which when attacked, instead of a “1-2” punch, the fighter uses an offensive and defensive strategy at the same time. He took the best out of every style. To him, Jeet Kun Do allowed him to “honestly express himself” every single day. As a baba, my “style” is embedded from what I learned, what I saw from my parents and how I’ve been socialized as a cis-gender Chinese man. This is the same in the movement. We’ve been trained in rigid, often sectarian, styles and need to learn to breakout of our style and take the best from all our styles. It is less about forcing ourselves to “unlearn” our styles and more about borrowing and building from what we know to form a new and evolving practice.
Praxis: Jeet Kun Do (截拳道), literally translated as “the intercepting fist” is a constant evolving practice. Bruce believed that every theory, every move, needed practice and needed application. We are on a new terrain of organizing and need to keep testing our practice and theories of change. We need to be able to make sharp assessments of the time, place and conditions in where we operate and keep practicing. This couldn’t be more true in parenting. As a new baba, I came up with big and small new theories (babahacks) on how to approach Collin and autism. Some worked, many didn’t but it was through application and practice that I got closer to the truth.
(Image of one of my babahack. I am sitting and carrying Collin in the boba baby carrier while eating lunch at a restaurant in Sausalito. Collin’s is covered with a napkin, he is wearing noise cancelling headphones. I no longer do this because he our conditions have changed, he is older and heavier.)
There are some people who want to keep analyzing and come up with the “perfect” strategy before doing anything. This paralysis is exactly what the system wants. Just like in parenting, we need realtime practice and application our theories. We need to fail fast and fail forward to find our true flow. As Bruce Lee reminds us, the more we practice, the easier and effortless it becomes; we are not stuck in our thinking or feeling self but just becomes an intuition, the space between the theory and practice.
“There are some people who want to keep analyzing and come up with the “perfect” strategy before doing anything. This paralysis is exactly what the system wants. Just like in parenting, we need realtime practice and application our theories.”
Playing offense and defense simultaneously: As you can already tell this one blew my mind the most. Like I mentioned earlier, In the 20th century, in traditional martial arts and American boxing, there is a defensive move followed by an offensive move, the “1-2” punch or “stage by stage” approach. In the 21st century, in this stage of the world, we need all strategies at the same time, a fluid yet organized chaos. More than ever, we need to launch defensive tactics for our strongest offense in one motion. This does NOT mean to do everything but it does mean to be purposeful.
How can we go on the offense in times of defense and how can we use our defense as offense? For example, how can blue states like California, New York, and Washington use the new $15 minimum wage ordinances to build regional power through advancing new models of local and statewide enforcement. How do we make local work national? CTUL in Minnesota won a Responsible Contractor Policy at Target which was a catalyst for Target to raise their minimum wage to $15 for all workers by 2020. BOOM, mic drop!
How do we use our defensive battles to bring a new generation of leaders into the movement, build long term infrastructure, and contest for power. Under the dark years of Reagan in the 1980’s, Left movements organized and won rights for cannery workers in Watsonville, California, started the Rainbow Coalition and led Jesse Jackson’s historic runs for Presidency, won redress and reparations for Japanese who were interned by the US during World War II, and led the anti-apartheid and divestment struggle, which helped to end apartheid in South Africa. In the 1990’s California was almost just as reactionary as these times. How did that shift and turn around the last 20 years? We can also turn to many international examples from the Philippines, South Africa, and Brazil of how movements have fought offense and defense simultaneously.
This is probably the most important one for me as a baba. I need to constantly adapt but this takes incredible presence and focus. I need to be present and anticipate if and when something triggers Collin. I know all parents need to do this regardless if you have a disabled child. The key is that every motion is a moment of offense and defense. Like in the ocean, waves come in all directions, there are ebbs and flows but if you looks closely, every wave is embedded with an ebb and flow for one true flow. All this real time practice in parenting has made me stronger and more agile in all parts of my life and work.
The “Long Arc”: I got this from Norman Wong, a long time sovereignty activist and organizer and strategist. I think the hardest thing about this moment is that we need remind ourselves that the current moment one small slice of the “long arc” of change; often we think of our current moment as the long arc itself. With the ongoing deportations, the climate crisis, the (un)natural disasters, police violence, the attacks on the poor and working class, to name a few, this moment appears bleak. We need to practice to taking bows and taking turns, practice celebrating the big and small wins and make space for others to step up. In battle, since he was smaller and shorter, Bruce Lee always talked about how he knew he was going to get hurt pretty badly and how he needed to mentally and physically prepare. However, he was also faster and knew when to attack, which took patience. He talked about how patience is concentrated strength.
A lot of this is just common sense and has more to do with our purpose and intentions. But how do we know if we have been adapting towards our purpose? And how do we be like water in these times? One method that has helped me is my constant practice and centering. Even if you slowed down your day by 3 minutes a day, you could start developing this practice. I have a daily mantra i developed through Rockwood and Generative Somatics that I say daily. I am a commitment to being a BOLD PRESENT BABA in all parts of my life… what is your commitment? The other one I say enough is to live and lead with love and rigor. Every moment I have I say “I love you” to my son, in these moments I can say it enough and he cannot hear it enough. Yesterday, we celebrated Collin’s 3rd birthday and I couldn’t be more proud of him and grateful for the community that supports us. Every moment I have, I express my gratitude and appreciations for friends and comrades, especially my life partner and wife, Mychi and the good people at the Chinese Progressive Association, who have supported my leadership the last 13 years. Next week, we are celebrating 45 years of harnessing a thousand rivers! There is much to celebrate in these times. My heart goes out to all the folks who are organizing and/or parenting on the frontlines of struggles and/or raising the next generation.
All this has helped me be like water in this moment. I hope it will help you too.
(Images of Collin’s 3rd year birthday yesterday. The top image is Collin in his happy place with a big smile looking up. The bottom left photo is of me and Collin taking a break (thank you Mei-Ying Williams for this photo!) and the bottom right photo is of Collin playing a puzzle by himself with a big black chalkboard background that says “HAPPY BIRTHDAY COLLIN TOM.”)