Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bruce Lee, Joseph Smith and Water



by Saint Mark (bio)

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?" - David Foster Wallace

I recently saw this fantastic video of one of my childhood icons, Bruce Lee. In a rare interview, Bruce Lee talks about his philosophy of not only fighting but of life. "Empty your mind ... be formless, shapeless, like water," he cajoles, for "water can flow or crash."

His philosophical approach initially appealed to my Eastern-centric interests in the mystical fighting arts. As a youth, I studied Taekwondo, and at one time I supposedly had a private lesson from a "ninja" but that's what my dad called him, I think only because he knew I was into ninjas back then.

At any rate, I'm a fan of Bruce Lee and if he said to be like water then my childhood instinct was to become like water. But then I decided to research the intersections between water and Joseph Smith. I thought that if this "be like water" idea was substantive then the Prophet surely had something to say about it.

Well, he did, but what he said wasn't what I expected.

Joseph Smith did speak about water and its powers and instrumentality, but not for good:
On the ninth, in company with ten Elders, I left Independence landing for Kirtland. We started down the river in canoes, and went the first day as far as Fort Osage where we had an excellent wild turkey for supper. Nothing very important occurred till the third day, when many of the dangers so common upon the western waters, manifested themselves; and after we had encamped upon the banks of the river at Mcllwaine's Bend, Brother Phelps, in open vision by daylight, saw the destroyer in his most horrible power, ride upon the face of the waters; others heard the noise, but saw not the vision (History of the Church Vol. 2, 202-3).
The next day, Joseph Smith received a revelation, known today as Section 61 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Here's what the Lord thinks of water and its role:
Behold I, the Lord, in the beginning blessed the waters; but in the last days, by the mouth of my servant John, I cursed the waters. Wherefore, the days will come that no flesh shall be safe upon the waters. And now I give unto you a commandment that what I say unto one I say unto all, that you shall forewarn your brethren concerning these waters, that they come not in journeying upon them, lest their faith fail and they are caught in the snares. The destroyer rideth upon the face thereof (D&C 61:14-19).
The reference to John is John the Beloved who stated in Revelation of the New Testament:
And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood; And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed. And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the water, because they were made bitter (Revelation 8:8-11).
As Alma Jean Porschet writes in her thesis Orson Scott Card: Without Joseph Smith and Mormonism There Would be No Seventh Son, No Red Prophet, No Alvin Maker, "Common Christian belief is that the Book of Revelation is John the Beloved's vision of those events that will occur in the last days prior to the second coming of Christ. According to the prophetic predictions of both John and Joseph Smith, water will play a significant role in ushering in those last days."

Maybe this is why LDS missionaries are counseled to avoid water when traveling and forbidden to swim while serving a mission? So, what do I now do with water? Do I fear it or be like it?

President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, counsels a deeper approach to water in his April 2008 New Era message Worthy Music, Worthy Thoughts. He doesn't counsel us to be like water; he accepts the fact that we or our thoughts are "like water." He also doesn’t counsel us to fear this type of water, but to fear the consequences of allowing it to freely flow without control or guidance.

President Packer shares a personal anecdote before explaining his view of our water-like thoughts:
When I was a boy, we lived in a home surrounded by an orchard. There never seemed to be enough water for the trees. The ditches, always freshly plowed in the spring, would soon fill with weeds. One day, in charge of the irrigation turn, I found myself in trouble. As the water moved down the rows choked with weeds, it would flood in every direction. I worked in the puddles trying to build up the bank. As soon as I had one break patched up, there would be another. A neighbor came through the orchard. He watched for a moment, and then with a few vigorous strokes of the shovel, he cleared the ditch and allowed the water to course through the channel he had made. He said, "If you want the water to stay in its course, you’ll have to make a place for it to go."

I have come to know that thoughts, like water, will stay on course if we make a place for them to go. Otherwise, our thoughts follow the course of least resistance, always seeking the lower levels. Probably the greatest challenge and the most difficult thing you will face in mortal life is to learn to control your thoughts. In the Bible it says, as a man “thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Those who can control their thoughts have conquered themselves.
I love that last line: "Those who can control their thoughts have conquered themselves."

When reading this line, I couldn't help but think of David Foster Wallace who approached this topic in a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005. He knew that thoughts need to be channeled. If they are, then your potential is limitless. If they are not, however, you will waste time in envy, strife, malice, bearing grudges, creating new grudges, lasciviousness, and allow the natural man to thrive within. He even referenced suicide as a result of the lack of control of one's thoughts, which is horribly ironic since Mr. Wallace succumbed to his thoughts and took his own life a few years later.

But he was right, and President Packer is right and I'm sure Joseph Smith and John the Beloved are right. And even Bruce Lee, the greatest martial arts warrior in the history of civilization, was right to a point. He knew that in our essence we are water. We are the culmination of our thoughts, for thoughts lead to words which lead to actions which lead to behaviors which leads to character which ultimately leads to our destiny.

Heaven or hell: it's what we create from the beginning of our own thoughts. May we flow and not crash.

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