The forests that surround our village here in Nara, Japan are filled with beautiful bamboo. The symbolism of the bamboo plant runs deep and offers practical lessons for life and for work. I shared some of the lessons learned from the bamboo in this 12-minute TEDxTokyo talk below which was recorded (and streamed) live from Tokyo on May 21, 2011. You can see the slides I used in this talk below on Slideshare.net. These slides were made in Photoshop and Keynote and exported as a PDF file for Slideshare. Following the video and slides below, I give a very short summary of the "bamboo lessons" from the presentation.
Lessons from the Bamboo (TEDxTokyo)
Be Like Bamboo (TEDxTokyo slides)
(1) Remember: Size is not the most important element
What may look weak may actually be strong. The body of even the largest type of bamboo—which is actually a type of grass—is not large compared to the other much larger trees in the forest. But the plants endure cold winters and extremely hot summers and are often the only trees left standing in the aftermath of a huge storm. Remember the words of a great Jedi Master: "Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you?" We must be careful not to underestimate others or ourselves based only on old notions of what is weak and what is strong. You do not have to be big and imposing to be strong. You may not be from the biggest company or the product of the most famous school, but like the bamboo, stand tall, believe in your own strengths, and know that you are—or you can be—as strong as you need to be. Remember too that there is strength in the light, in openness and transparency. There is strength in kindness, compassion, and cooperation.
One of the most impressive things about bamboo is how it sways with the breeze. This gentle swaying movement is a symbol of humility. The foundation of the bamboo is solid, yet it moves and sways harmoniously with the wind, never fighting against it. In time, even the strongest wind tires itself out, but the bamboo remains standing tall and still. A bend-but-don't-break or go-with-the-natural-flow attitude is one of the secrets for success whether we're talking about bamboo, answering tough questions in a Q&A session, or just dealing with the everyday vagaries of life.
(3) Be firmly rooted yet flexible
Bamboo is remarkable for its incredible flexibility. This flexibility is made possible in part due to the bamboo's complex root structure which is said to make the ground around a bamboo forest very stable. Roots are important, yet in an increasingly mobile world many individuals and families do not take the time or effort to establish roots in their own communities. The challenge, then, for many of us is to remain the mobile, flexible, international travelers and busy professionals that we are while at the same time making the effort and taking the time to become involved and firmly rooted in the local community right outside our door.
(4) Slow down your busy mind
We have far more information available than ever before and most of us live at a fast pace. Even if most of our work life is on-line, life itself can seem quite hectic, and at times chaotic. Often it is difficult to see the signal through all the noise. In this kind of environment, it is all the more important to take the time to slow down, to calm your busy mind so that you may see things more clearly. There is an old Taoist saying that speaks to this idea of clarity and slowing down: "We cannot see our reflection in running water. It is only in still water that we can see."
(5) Be always ready
As the Aikido master Kensho Furuya said in Kodo: Ancient Ways, "The warrior, like bamboo, is ever ready for action." In presentation or other professional activities, too, through training and practice we can develop in our own way a state of being ever ready. Through study and practice we can at least do our best to be ready for any situation. No matter how good we think we are today, the training and the spirit to improve remains with us always.
(6) Find wisdom in emptiness
It is said that in order to learn, the first step is to empty ourselves of our preconceived notions. One can not fill a cup which is already full. The hollow insides of the bamboo reminds us that we are often too full of ourselves and our own conclusions; we have no space for anything else. In order to receive knowledge and wisdom from both nature and people, we have to be open to that which is new and different. When you empty your mind of your prejudices and pride and fear, you become open to the possibilities. Bruce Lee used to remind people that "The usefulness of the cup is its emptiness."
(7) Commit yourself to growth & renewal
Bamboo are among the fastest-growing plants in the world. It does not matter who you are — or where you are — today, you have remarkable potential for growth. We usually speak of Kaizen or continuous improvement that is more steady and incremental, where big leaps and bounds are not necessary. Yet even with a commitment to continuous learning and improvement, our growth — like the growth of the bamboo — can be quite remarkable when we look back at what or where we used to be. You may at times become discouraged and feel that you are not improving at all. Do not be discouraged by what you perceive as your lack of growth or improvement. If you have not given up, then you are growing, you just may not see it until much later. How fast or how slow is not our main concern, only that we're moving forward.
(8) Express usefulness through simplicity
Aikido master Kensho Furuya said that "The bamboo in its simplicity expresses its usefulness. Man should do the same." Indeed, we spend a lot of our time trying to show how smart we are, perhaps to convince others — and ourselves — that we are worthy of their attention and praise. Often we complicate the simple to impress and we fail to simplify the complex out of fear that others may know what we know. Life and work are complicated enough without our interjecting the superfluous. If we could lose our fear, perhaps we could be more creative and find simpler solutions to even complex problems that ultimately provide the greatest usefulness for our audiences, customers, patients, or students.
(9) Unleash your power to spring back
Bamboo is a symbol of good luck and one of the symbols of the New Year celebrations in Japan. The important image of snow-covered bamboo represents the ability to spring back after experiencing adversity. In winter the heavy snow bends the bamboo back and back until one day the snow becomes too heavy, begins to fall, and the bamboo snaps back up tall again, brushing aside all the snow. The bamboo endured the heavy burden of the snow, but in the end it had to power to spring back as if to say "I will not be defeated."
(10) Smile, laugh, play
The Kanji (Chinese character) for smile or laugh is 笑う. At the top of this character are two small symbols for bamboo (竹 or take). It is said that bamboo has a strong association with laughter, perhaps because of the sound that the bamboo leaves make on a windy day. If you use your imagination I guess it does sound a bit like the forest laughing; it is a soothing sound. Bamboo itself also has a connection with playfulness as it has been used for generations in traditional Japanese kite making and in arts and crafts such as traditional doll making. We have known intuitively for generations of the importance of smiling, laughing, and playing, now modern science shows evidence that these elements play a real and important role in one's mental and physical health as well.
These are just ten lessons from the bamboo; one could easily come up with dozens more. These are not things that we do not all ready know. Yet, like many a good sensei, the bamboo simply reminds us of what we already know but may have forgotten. Then it is up to us to put these lessons (or reminders) of resilience into daily use through persistence and practice. You do not need to be perfect. You need only to be resilient. This is the greatest lesson from the bamboo.