"Practice formlessness. Be water," was the late Bruce Lee's advice to young martial artists. "Put water into a cup it becomes the cup; put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it into a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."
Thoughout the history of literature and religion, H2O has served as a metaphor for human action. Without this translucent liquid, we and all the plants and animals of the world are just dust.
Water pops from our pores, leaks from our eyes, we spit it out and spurt it out and swim in it. The yearning for water is in our cells, our psyches: this is our manna from heaven. This is our rain of gold: rain itself. It gets up in our blood and dances us, calling to our water nature.
Like water, we want to blend in with others. We want to enter a larger humanity. Especially in love. Lovers live for that moment when they meld into one another like two streams, and when love is gone what else but thirst could stand in for the crazy all-consuming craving we're left with.
We are the water, and what we do to the water, ultimately, we do to ourselves.
Water is our imagery for thought itself. We reflect. We look down into the liquid mirror of the mind. But dive through the imagery and you're in the undermind, where our monsters lurk in their sunken closets.
Yes, the mechanics of water also serve as a model for mental illness. When our reservoir of repressed feelings gets "dammed up" we are in danger of "spilling over" and possibly "flooding" the system. It is better, as the Buddha said, to go with the flow.
And the very essence of water its one liquid quality is to go with the flow. It doesn't even cling to its own form. It practices matter-based non-attachment. I especially like the way water doesn't hang on to its injuries; run it through a reverse osmosis charcoal filter and it'll leave everything but itself behind in an instant, sliding out of the shit and poison like essence itself, instantly purified.
Perhaps it's this quality that has made water such an apt analogy for the ways of the spirit. In the documentary The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill, an insight of Zen master Suzuki Roshi is recounted: the master, while visiting Yosemite, saw a river rushing over a cliff. On the way down to the bottom, it separated into droplets. Our lives are like those droplets, Roshi suggested. We think we are singular and individual, but when we reach the bottom, which is death, we are joined up once again in the larger water.
The point is that we do not lose by dying. We gain the river.
In her book Grapefruit, the young but wordly wise Yoko Ono has a slightly more cynical take. "We're all water in different containers," she wrote. "That's why it's so easy to meet / someday we'll evaporate together / but even after the water's gone / we'll probably point back at the containers / and say that's me there, that one."
There's something intimately and instinctively communal about water, too. It can't be owned; it must be shared. Even the IMF, when it tried to privatize the water in Peru, had to back down before the sustained outrage of the people. "The rain," as Bob Marley sang, "does not fall on one man's house alone."