Lessons from the Elements: Water

No doubt you will be familiar with the concept of the five elements: water, earth, fire, air, and spirit/void. In Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings), Miyamoto Musashi uses each of the five elements to explain and teach different elements of his Way of the Warrior. In this short series of posts, entitled Lessons from the Elements, I will attempt to follow in Musashi’s footsteps: sharing lessons I have learned from contemplation of these fundamental aspects of nature.


Water. Chemically speaking it is one of the most important substances in the universe; it is necessary for life to exist.  Spiritually it is viewed as pure. In the Bible water is essential in cleansing rituals and the creation of life. Jesus even went so far as to say, “Ye cannot enter heaven unless ye be born again of water and the Spirit.” For Buddhists, water symbolises purity, clarity, and calmness. For me, water teaches fortitude, fluidity, and serenity.


A striking characteristic of water is its ability to overcome any obstacle set before it. At its full force water is deadly, decimating entire cities in tsunamis and floods. Even when it is ‘weak’ it has the ability to erode deep into the earth forming massive canyons and caves. Simply by throwing a rock into a stream we can observe the natural inclination of water to overcome. But that’s only the obvious. If we think a little more carefully we can see that this inclination to overcome can show many small, encouraging lessons for us to learn.

Let us suppose that we build a small dam. We take rather large stones and block the flow of a stream. As we observe, we see the water level begin to rise. Take note. We see previously unnoticed lines of water that have managed to find gaps in our stonework. Take note. The water then, not only rising, swells in width. Take note. Eventually the water is flowing over the top, through the holes, and around the sides of our little dam.


There are four key lessons to be found in this simple observation. The first is found in the rising water levels. Very often we attempt to tackle a problem only to give up when we find ourselves failing. The water, instead of ceasing to flow or trying to create a new river, builds up. To us, this would be the equivalent of asking someone for help. Far from helplessness, this is actually an act of humility and fortitude. Instead of refusing to deal with the problem, we do what must be done to overcome it- even if that means enlisting the help of others.

The second lesson is found in the small streams of water that found their way through the holes in the wall. To a martial artist, this is a lesson in exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses. To your average person, this is a lesson in optimism. No matter how big a problem may seem, there is always a way to get through it, even if we cannot overpower it. A wise person will use this optimism, not as a way to avoid trying to fully overcome an issue, but as motivation to continue her efforts in dealing with the issue completely.

The third lesson is in the widening of the water, but I wish to discuss this under fluidity. The final lesson in fortitude is found in the path the water takes after overcoming the obstacle placed before it: it continues down the same river. Now, obviously we know that, in terms of geography this is simply the easiest path to take, and there is much to be said for that observation. However, for our purposes I would like us to view the water following the same path as analogous to us getting on with life. After we have overcome a problem, we must not dwell on it but instead press on comfortable in the knowledge that we have, indeed, overcome that which hindered us.


I said before that the third lesson was to be found in the widening of the water. In our little story this would have been the water’s attempt to simply flow around the dam. For us, it speaks about being willing to adapt. Sometimes it is better to not obstinately bash our heads against something which stands against us because, although we may overcome it, it is simply more beneficial to avoid the issue. As much as we must have fortitude, it must be kept from becoming pride and stubbornness by being tempered with a willingness to change.


The last lesson to learn from water is to always return to serenity. Though outwardly we may have to rush with the force of a strong river at first, once we overcome that which besets us we must return to a sound mind and a sound heart. More than that, we must always seek to have this serenity. A river always runs to a calm lake, or the ocean, no matter how many waterfalls it has. Why is this important? Because serenity gives us the ability to accept the things we cannot change. Fortitude gives us the courage to change the things we can, and fluidity gives us the wisdom to know the difference.



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