I talk to Daniele Bolelli, author, martial artist & university professor. He is the host of multiple podcasts, including the Drunken Daoist podcast, the History on Fire podcast, and a frequent guest on the Joe Rogan Experience. I talked to Daniele Bolelli previously about teaching martial arts, and since he was a contributor to the “I Am Bruce Lee” documentary we discuss the teachings of Bruce Lee for martial artists and specifically how Bruce Lee used his martial arts as a vehicle for his Taoist philosophy.
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Daniele Bolelli Podcast Transcript
Sonny Brown: Good day, Daniele. How are you today, mate?
Daniele Bolelli: Good. Thanks so much for having a second chat with you here on the podcast. It should be fun.
Sonny: No problem at all. It’s my honor. The reason for this chat, I noticed you’d put out a two-part series on your podcast discussing the life and times of Bruce Lee. You’d also been in the documentary, I think it was I am Bruce Lee discussing in there. Bruce Lee is the prototypical martial artist many people aspire to emulate in lots of ways so I thought what a good opportunity just to have a discussion about him and what he means in the modern world and his legacy that he’s left for us. Probably a good way to start off is, how do you think Bruce Lee figures into your life and understanding of the martial arts?
Daniele: When you look at Bruce Lee’s philosophy there are many, many aspects about Bruce Lee’s life and legacies that are interesting. When you look at his philosophy, that’s where to me is as important as it gets. He has a fantastic example of how to apply those ideas to martial arts, but you can also see how those ideas you can apply them to everything else. That example is now being followed that much despite the fact that it seems to work so well in something that he touches on some topics that get under the skin of people, because ultimately he’s asking– If we just want to get the ball rolling and talk about what are some of those ideas, his a four-step methodology. The whole idea of research your own experience, but basically, is the whole idea of absorbing what is useful, rejecting what is useless and that being what’s specifically your own.
It seems so simple. That’s basic science. You look at the evidence, you take what works, you leave the stuff that doesn’t work and you tweak it a little. Yet, one of the things why was it so revolutionary, well, when it comes to martial arts, but many other fields in life fit the bill as well, is that people develop an attachment to a certain methodology. People are not dressed, though I practice martial arts, people are like, especially back then, they were hardcore about, “I’m a karate guy,” or, “I’m a judo guy,” or, “I’m a kung fu guy.”
That became their identity. Which, when you think about it, it’s stupid. It’s like “Why?” Take whatever works. Judo has great throws, use them. There’s some nice hands in boxing, use those as well. Instead, people became dogmatic about stuff, because ultimately it gave them a sense of belonging. It gave them a sense of membership in a community, gave them a sense of order, of clarity, of, “Our ways, the best way,” kind of thing.
Obviously, disproven by facts, because eventually when UFC put it to the test, and became, “Let’s take people from all these different style and see which one is the best.” It’s not even that jiujitsu was the right answer. It became jiujitsu was an initial right answer but at the end of the day, it became a process. It became MMA, it became you take the best from a bunch of different styles and you mix them together in the way that works best and then each practitioner adopts it a little bit to their physic, to their personality, to their ideas and that’s what delivers the greatest results. Why don’t we do that with religions? Why don’t we do that with philosophies? Why don’t we do that with politics? Because you see the same thing in all those fields. People are, “I am–” Fill in the blank, whatever label they apply to themself. “I belong, I’m leftist, whatever.” “I’m a conservative, whatever.” “I belong to this religion.”
It’s like, look, every system works some of the time and no system works all of the time. Why would you choose to limit yourself and not use all the tools in your belt when at the end of the day it’s about getting the job done? It’s about what is that delivers the greatest results. I think I know why, because unlike with martial arts where the physical practice forces you to acknowledge the results, you can only say so many times that your style is the best one if you get knocked and if somebody drives a knee through your skull 15 times and after 15 fights you’re like, “Maybe your approach is not the best one. I think it has been empirically proven enough times.” With ideas, people can always talk, people can spin the worst outcome into, “No, really. That was not so bad because the real thing hasn’t been tried or whatever.” That’s the problem that they never have to face the music of dealing with the outcome and they are too emotionally invested into that one ideology, that one dogma, that one thing that makes up their identity.
Sonny: The stakes of martial arts dogma and then in terms of other types of dogma is probably a lot lower, especially with the training of different styles. This is a life and death context of training which, I guess, does raise the stakes there. If you’re talking about personal safety, but for the most part, I guess, that’s not what was really being pushed forward by Bruce when he was pushing it forward. He gave a speech, or was in his book, when after the old guard of traditional martial arts, it was really just for not being effective and not testing that stuff, right?
Daniele: Yes. There was even an article, a fantastic article by the way, that he wrote for a black belt magazine called Liberate Yourself From Classical Karate. In just a few pages, he really sums up some of the key elements of his philosophy and is spot on. I think, again, the difference there is– yes, you’re right. People are not as invested in a martial art as they are in a religion or their philosophy of life or whatever, but they are still pretty invested. The only way that people have abandoned it is by being forced to stare at the results in a way that the beauty of martial art is that the outcome is rarely too ambiguous. You can go in, you can test it. If you lost maybe you can make an excuse once and then you try again and you get your ass kicked again. Then you do again and after a while is like, “It clearly doesn’t work.”
Whatever it is that you’re doing is not working. People are like, “I guess, I’m tired of getting my face rearranged. I should be open to other ideas that seem to work for other people.” Martial art forces you to do that because the results are so objective. Most other fields of life, not that clear-cut. I think that’s one of the huge appeals of sport in general and competition is that you get outcomes that there is always the time when you say, “Oh, this guy really won the fight and he got screwed over by the judges.” There’s always some ambiguity but so much less than in pretty much any other field. Sport has this beautiful simplicity. That you get the results and in many cases, you can’t really argue with them.
Sonny: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. There’s still some ambiguity, but just a lot less than other sports because even Conor McGregor, his submission losses don’t really count, the decision losses. I don’t really like count guys. It’s the knockouts that are the only ones that count which, of course, I think to onlookers, it’s still on the scoreboard.
Daniele: Yes. nobody takes that seriously.
Sonny: Exactly. He had some not like notable fights because there’s always been some discussion about his fighting ability itself. There was one that happened.
Sonny: It was behind closed doors that did actually get spun from– Was there a bit of spin on both sides or is it just only the people who were there that really knew?
Daniele: It wasn’t on video. You will have the people who were there. Of course, when you have two sides and they are the only ones there, they are going to tweak it in the way that’s most favorable to them. It’s pretty clear he didn’t lose it. He probably won it in a way that was less than satisfying. It was probably sounded like a crappy fight where neither one did particularly well.
Bruce Lee really ended up feeling very disappointed, feeling like, “Man, I should have been able to take care of this so much easier, so much faster.” It really forced him to re-tweak his approach to martial arts. That’s when he started going further into abandoning Wing Chun and developing his idea of JKD and embrace even more than he was already doing which he was already doing some but even more so embracing cross-training, including working on his stamina, working cardio, doing all these other things that were important to him. I think it was an important fight in his life that really helped him shape his perception of things. As far as his skill, the general opinion by pretty much anybody will come in to train with him, including really high-level guys is that he was very skilled, but at the same time, who cares?
He could have been awful. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things because he’s like, what’s the legacy? The legacy is that he came up with brilliant ideas that have revolutionized most people’s approach to martial arts that in some way planted even the seeds for things like UFC that really had a big impact. From where I’m standing, the evidence seem to say that he was a very skilled martial artist. This is not to say. Today, when everybody’s training the same in MMA, the greatest guy in the world is not the greatest guy in the world two years later. and suddenly …
Any of this obsession about the greatest whatever is bullshit, anyway. It doesn’t matter. It’s like, he was a guy who knew his stuff. He was good for the time, he was probably really good. For today, probably, he would have lacked a lot of things that are important, particularly in the grappling department. He was a good guy. He was a skilled guy. I was skilled, who cares? That’s beside the point. To me, the main focus should be on the ideas.
Sonny: Yes, especially the best person in the world changes week to week, really. No one can hold the titles for that long, exception GSP, I guess. He’s got to be there.
Daniele: Bowing at G.S.P’s Name!
Sonny: With those ideas, he did a lot of writing that I’ve familiarized myself with portions of it over the last couple of years because there just seems to be more and more– As I dig, all these letters, I just even discovered this or a whole series of books of letters that he’d written. Does that go then deeper into other areas of his application of that into the rest of his life or is he mainly just focusing on breaking those traditions of martial arts? Was he able to see that fulfilled in his life, do you think?
Daniele: I think there are two separate tracks there. The one level where yes, he did, is, in some way, his identity that was a global one. It wasn’t a Chinese one. It wasn’t an American one. He invented his identity as he went. He was not even full-blooded Chinese and he got a lot of shit for it back in Hong Kong. At the same time, he dealt with a lot of racism in US, they reinforced the Chinese side. He embraced this idea of, “I’m an individual who’s willing, able, and happy to pick a move between cultures. I don’t feel that I have to be stuck to one culture alone or I have to obey the dictates or I have to discriminate against any culture.”
He had this very open-minded, non-racist, and very fluid approach to ethnic identity which I think is great. That’s another one of those dogmas where people get really stuck on whether it’s ethnic pride or national pride or something where, “The way we do things is the right way.” He seemed always– Take from any source across the globe you can find that helps you. Now, of course, that methodology could turn out terrible in the hands of somebody who’s bad at it. You grab somebody who’s going to mix and match ingredients without a full understanding of all the things and you can come up with horrendous crap. Somebody else come up with strokes of genius.
The methodology is good, the idea is good, the result, of course, is not guaranteed because it depends on the talent of the person actually employing that approach. I think in that regard, that approach translated to his life. In other ways, I think he died way too young to be able to tell. His life was such a crazy meteoric rise from showing up in US with very little money in his pocket to suddenly becoming the most famous martial artist and one of the biggest actors in the world in the space of just a few years. I think he just did not even have the time to process it. Especially when you look at his success, there really had been on a two-year period, just the last two years of his life. That’s it.
From a financial standpoint, the money hadn’t even fully come in for him. He wasn’t even seeing the result of the work that he was doing that was extraordinary. He wasn’t quite there yet. Money usually arrives fairly quickly if you had tremendous success. That tells you how weak the whole process was. One of the things that I noticed when doing this series that I never picked up on earlier when looking at the Bruce Lee story, something that I never realized was his relationship with success and how he struggled with it. This is not news. Most people who achieve incredible success will have struggles with it which, of course, infuriates anybody who’s not as successful at them.
It’s like, “What do you mean?” Real hard to be adored by millions of fans and making a bunch of money and being– The fact is, in his case, there are several passages in his writings where he said the fact that his quality of life had gone dramatically down since his success. He didn’t know who to trust anymore because everybody wanted something from him. He did not know if that success was going to last. He felt pressure to say yes to everything, any project, anything he had to strike the iron while it was hot. He felt his need of grinding, grinding, grinding, working super hard, never taking a break which in some ways probably is the stuff that set up for his downfall.
While there are all sorts of theories his death, the allergy to medication, this and the other, there’s no argument that he was way overworked. He had lost a whole lot of weight on a guy who was already at barely any body fat, to begin with. Was just working himself ragged because he was just working crazy hours. In Hong Kong, he was working like a dog, morning to night, he never minded the emotional pressure that he was feeling. I think that definitely did not help him. He didn’t have the time to metabolize the success and come to terms with it and set boundaries so that he could still have a good life and take breaks and feed self, recuperate energy, feed his spirit, and go back to doing what he was doing. It was all happening too quickly. He was just caught into the rush of it all.
Sonny: Perhaps, when we’re talking about the benefit of martial arts is being able to get that instant feedback and your instant results. That level of success and not being able to trust people and having the world perhaps somewhat distorted to the truth of the feedback that you’re getting then would be playing a difficult role for him to interpret it?
Daniele: For sure. It’s even worse when people are younger than him. He was young, but not as young. When you look at how many child stars have come out really well adjusted, it’s like you need to be really mature and have lots of help around you and have time to come to terms with it because their level of success comes with a tremendous level of pressure. Whereas when you have a little niche following, people love you, when you go big, you’re going to have a bunch of people who hate your guts. Suddenly, you’re going to find crazy things said about you that may not be true at all being spread left and right.
You have to deal with all this accusation. You have to deal with people suing you because they want money. There’s a lot of stress that go with that stuff that if you don’t have somebody who know how to handle all that stuff, who can shield you from some of it, if it’s happening all at once and you never even envision that that could happen or at least couldn’t happen that quick, it’s too much. Mess you up.
I’ve seen even people, people I know who have achieved ridiculous success and there’s something about them even when they handle it well, where on a personal level, there’s a part of them that’s always guarded. There’s a part of them where there’s the field in front because they have to shake hands with so many people every day and every single day, everybody, including their friends really deep down want something from them because they know that if they do something, they can open doors that could change their life. Everyone is like, “Oh, you know, I like him, he’s my friend, but I also want this thing from him.”
In every interaction, you have to deal with that stuff. That’s heavy because you don’t know who to trust anymore. You don’t know who you can just be you and should the shit and relax with and instead, you have to constantly deal with people’s expectations and everybody thinking that meeting you is going to change their lives and it’s just like, “Ah, man, that’s a lot.”
Sonny: Yes, that’s a difficult one to process, I guess, especially if he spent so long moving to America and to make it to that point and has that strong philosophical backing and purpose to live to then have that distortion and the fame perhaps clashes really then I guess, with what he was trying to do, but a necessary part to spread at the message.
Daniele: Yes, for sure. It’s important to learn how to deal with success because there are opportunities that come with it. There’s a reason why you got there in the first place is you wanted it and you wanted it for good reasons, but we often, when you don’t have it, you tend to see the good stuff and you forget all the baggage that comes with it. I think it’s something I mention in the podcast when I did about him. I had a micro version because, of course, you don’t compare my experience to Bruce Lee’s experience.
We’re talking about such levels of magnitude of difference that it’s not even funny, but in my experience, I noticed when I achieve the most success I ever read, I would wake up in the morning, work like a dog, never have time to do anything for me and suddenly you look at yourself and you look like the stereotype of every asshole father in every other movie was too busy to play with his kids and too busy to pay attention to the people you love and too busy to eat well, and you’re like, “Wait, is this success? This sucks. This is not success, this is me being an idiot. This is me ruining–” I’m like a hamster on a wheel and just running around and doing these things saying, “Can’t you see how successful I am?”
And he’s like, “No, that’s not success.” [chuckles] It’s contradictory because the thing that made successful was that ability to grind, that hard work, that crazy work ethic, that ability to push, but then when you have it, you also need to learn how to let the foot off the accelerator a little and say, “Great that I did it,” pat on the back, but remember, this is a marathon, this is not a sprint, you need to last through this. [chuckles] It’s not just getting there, it’s also staying through it for a long time and that’s not an easy skill. It really is the opposite of what allow you to get there in the first place.
Sonny: That’s definitely a tricky one, I guess, just finding that balance of how you’re going to make it work. I know Bruce was big on setting goals or at least he’d written out a lot of his major goals that he’d want to achieve during his lifetime. Is that something that’s shown up more in his writings? Any affirmations or things like that?
Daniele: Big time, he was huge on that stuff. He really believe in this idea of keeping a journal, writing it down, putting it into words, saving it there and he did the impossible. He set for himself crazy goals and he actually from most of them in a really short period of time, there was that other side to it. No wonder he did the right, but he didn’t have the time to do it. How to integrate all this in an actually more harmonious life, in a happy sustainable life.
He did achieve check the boxes of making X money, achieve this fame, or do this and that. The other part of being able to actually have a good life connected with his wasn’t there yet. Maybe he would’ve. Maybe he lived longer, maybe he would’ve figured it out and would’ve been just a bump in the road of getting adjusted, and maybe he would’ve figured out a great way to deal with it. He didn’t have the time to do it.
Sonny: That’s a heavy one to think about then if perhaps maybe the order can be reversed on that. If things had turned out differently of which one comes first or could just be a chicken in the egg type situation, right?
Daniele: It’s hard, it’s really a balancing. Think about in very practical terms about martial arts, how do people get really good in martial arts? They work really hard, they push themselves to the limit. Sometimes they push a little past the limit, but if you do that forever and always you have the foot on the accelerator and push harder, work out harder, lift harder, put in three times a day kind of thing, you’re going to burn out eventually. It’s like, you are going to get great in a shorter time than other people, but it’s not sustainable forever. You cannot train like that for your entire life.
Sonny: Sometimes I think the portion of its philosophy of adding what’s uniquely your own, sometimes maybe I’ll add a couple of rest days that are uniquely my own in there. Maybe a few too many here and there. [chuckles]
Daniele: I think that allows you to practice until you’re 80, whereas the other approach– I was chatting with somebody today and we were talking about wrestling and saying, isn’t it tricky that wrestling is people do it as kids? People, if they’re really good, they compete in college, but there are very, very few places where, as an adult, you can go and train wrestling as an adult. You train it as part of jiujitsu, you train it maybe as judo, you train it as straight-up wrestling.
The stuff that makes wrestlers phenomenal is that they have this insane endurance disability to push through things that most everybody would’ve taught by then and somehow they come out the other end, okay, in semi one piece and it’s this crazy willpower drive harder, harder, faster kind of thing, but then nobody does as an adult. People do it on the side, but they switch their practice to something a little more mellow because you cannot train like that for the rest of your year. You can do it when you’re 18, you can do it maybe in your 20s, but after that, you’re going to be broken all the time.
Sonny: Yes, for sure. One thing I wonder with that is the way that it is set up in America of being through school systems and being available to every school anywhere, I know it’s not in every school over there then perhaps not having then the financial incentives for business owners to do that when four people who are graduating or something like that to keep it going, is there–
Daniele: For sure, but even the people who are great wrestlers, half of the time they end up either going into judo, going into Jiujutsu because they still want to grapple and they’re going to be great at it because they have all these maths sense and balance and skills, but training the way they did when they were 18, when they are 45 and they have a job and they have to deal with them, the reality is that y’all going to be great one day. You’re going to be great the second day and next week you’re injured for the next six months and don’t get me wrong. Of course, not everybody.
Some people manage to still train high-level wrestling for the rest of their life, but it’s such the energy behind wrestling. What makes it successful, tend to be so intense, so punishing on the body that it’s not the easiest thing to be able to keep training that way for the rest of your life. Even lifting weights or anything really is like there’s stuff that well, no pain gain approach works in the full term. Tend not to work very well as you age.
Sonny: Yes, that’s for sure. Pain is is a message from the body that something’s going wrong so you got to respect that at some point. That brings up a point then of how we know about Bruce Lee and his training methods because you mentioned that he did get into obviously physical fitness, I’ve seen his stretching routine and he obviously was a physical specimen. What do we know about how he was putting his training together in a practical sense and what he was doing for recovery as well?
Daniele: There’s a lot of stuff out there were some of the books you mention, they have books of letters, they have books about, they’re going to his daily routine. The problem is his daily routine change all the time because he was experimenting with things and learning new things. His daily routine in 1969 was different from 1971 and he was a guy who was enamored with experimentation. He was trying a million things from nutrition to actual lifting weights, everybody has an idea and they’re probably right for a period of his life, but it’s hard to generalize long-term because I don’t think there was a long-term yet in that regard. I think he was stealing this process of figuring it out as he went.
Sonny: Do you think then reflecting on my own question it’s probably missing the point then to try and look at the actual specifics of what he was doing rather than the methodology he was applying as a whole?
Daniele: The specifics are interesting and if you can catch a piece of information that like, huh, that’s interesting, maybe it works in experiment, but I think that’s as far as it goes. For the most part, I think the information that we have today about most athletes are great, we have access to tremendous amount of information. You may run into something that nobody’s doing today that like, “Oh, that’s actually interesting and shows promise,” but probably not a whole lot because realistically a lot of these things have been developed by other people over time.
Sonny: Part of that experimentation would’ve been applying the same philosophy of trying things, seeing what works, rejecting what doesn’t. Obviously, his upbringing would’ve played that role, but what would’ve really been the driving force behind him developing that? What was the foundation of it?
Daniele: When you read about his biography, he seems to have been born different by other people. His energy level was different from other people’s. His siblings say that he would just– Most kids move through the night. He just was a furnace. He was just constantly burning with energy. One of his nicknames, when he was a kid, was this kid that he couldn’t sit still, that he was in constant motion. He was hyperactive to the 10th power.
He has this vitality that was this very explosive, very go out there, do things, jump, try this, do this other thing, could not be contained kind of feeling. I think that’s a lot at the root of his personality. There was no going slow with him. He was like 120 miles an hour all the time in everything he did. I think in some way, there’s almost a genetic element there where he was born that way. Other people in his family weren’t.
It was both his personality, it was his physique, it was his energy. Who the hell knows what those things– the soul?. I don’t know, but it’s something that was uniquely his that’s just constantly driving him forward and constantly making him try things. This use of energy in a way that most people would run out quickly or be like, “Oh, man. Slow down a second.” They’re like, “No, I don’t have that much energy to do 10,000 steps.” He had it. Now, he had it, he also died at 32, so maybe he had to because he went through energy the way that maybe slowing down a little wouldn’t have been a bad idea. That was definitely part of who he was.
Sonny: He would’ve been facing then the limits of different people’s dogmas and ideology in a much faster rate than of what everyone else was experiencing if he’s learning kung fu. While that might then obviously take people a lot longer to press up against the limits, he was probably meeting those limits almost immediately, right?
Daniele: Yes. That’s where I think he’s so big on Daoism. So much of his philosophy is based on Daoism. One thing that clearly wasn’t quite there that is huge in Daoism is balance. He’s using more energy, less in your face flex muscle, and run at top speed and more fluidity, almost tai-chi-like in terms of energy.
I think that’s something that for somebody who was so good at that other side of the game, that’s probably something that investing more time and energy into things that for him may have given him stuff like meditation or stuff like do tai chi for a change, just do form, work on your breath, work on not doing anything, work on sitting on the beach for a month and just relaxing and seeing what that feels like. I don’t know that he ever had the chance to do something like that, both because his life worked out a certain way, but also because his energy was–
What would it be like if you’re not trying to do 10 million things every day and climbing a mountain and running 20 miles, and just sit there, just listen to the waves. What would happen at that point? I think there’s something interesting in terms of– Many people are lazy by nature and you need to start a fire under their ass to motivate them and get them going, but then there are also people who are the opposite, who are so self-motivated, so driven, so push, push, push that they need to learn to mellow out, where it’s important for them.
They’re already good at that stuff, learn the other stuff. Learn how to take a deep breath and do nothing and just sit in your garden for a while. I think it’s something that we all deal with. Just our personalities. Everybody is tilting more one way than another. Whatever you’re good at, that’s great, keep doing it, but learn the other stuff because it may give you that balance that ultimately helps you in life.
Sonny: That’s a very interesting point then, because it seems like in the martial arts world, everyone– Like cross-training is now commonplace. There’s MMAs taken from every style that works, that process is still ongoing, but it does seem then that the other part of finding that balance of everything, still, that’s a constant problem for everyone no matter what side of that spectrum that you fall in, right?
Daniele: Yes. Even I’m talking all this game like I know what I’m talking about. I suck at it like everybody else. There are 10 million things where I know exactly I should balance it out. Being able to do it is not the easiest thing. I think having the self-awareness of where you’re lacking is big. You’re not going to become amazing at what you’re not built for naturally, but if you can tweak it even 10%, if you’re a really driven person and you learn how to mellow out just a little bit, it’s going to go a long way.
Vice versa. If you’re a nice, mellow, happy person, but you don’t get stuff done very much, learning a little bit of assertiveness, a little bit of pushing, and being able to handle the grind is going to help you a bunch. Nobody asked you to become something you’re not and to just completely flip your personality. It’s not even physically possible. Just tweak it a little.
Sonny: As you’re saying it, I’m thinking, “I should probably get back to the meditation schedule a bit more now. I have to drink a bit more water today.” It’s obviously just a constant struggle or process either way you want to put it, really. Was then that form of Daoism, that part of the philosophy then guided that experience of martial arts, and then that is the underlying principles that really makes up the bulk of this philosophy, and the martial arts was just how he was putting it in action?
Daniele: 100%. I think so much of his philosophy is just straight up Daoism, however, creatively applied to the context of the 1960s, so it has a sort of anti-authoritarian bands. Daoism already has, but he takes it three steps further. He’s perfectly adapted to the context of the ’60s and the martial art world and then moviemaking. He took something that in some way is like, “Well, he’s not creating anything new. This stuff has been around 2,000-plus years.” Yes, but he’s able to adapt it in a very novel way to a unique context about when he was alive. I think that was his stroke of genius. He’s just out to take this source material and make it relevant and applicable in 1960s United States.
Sonny: What a way to promote it or make it spread that message then worldwide and for many decades so far. Then, Hollywood and movies and the massive martial arts world at the time. Probably no better vehicle, really.
Daniele: In fact its brilliant that way. When people are like, “Well, he didn’t really create anything new,” it’s like, “No, he didn’t, but few people do.” Most of the time, it’s how you’re able to adapt something that has been done before, and in the process of adapting, it kind of becomes new.
Sonny: We talked about the difficulties of success and how that impacted him. It does seem somewhat counterintuitive to have a Daoist philosophy and be seeking that Hollywood movies, right? Is there room for that in there?
Daniele: I think it’s contradictory just the way his personality was, that if you want to conceive it in Daoist terms, his personality was purely yang. Drive, drive, drive harder, faster kind of thing. Daoism tends to emphasize the more subtle approach, the more flexible approach, the more yielding approach. His personality and Daoism, in some way, did not click at all, and Hollywood even less so, but he made it work in some way.
He did bring some of these ideas to public consciousness in a way that nobody had done at the time because nobody had been in that position to make it happen. He was able to apply them to the martial arts. Despite some of his limitations, he just did a phenomenal job with those things, and in many ways, I think made some of those concepts household names much more than they would’ve been otherwise.
Sonny: If we look then in terms of Daoism, is there part of what Bruce Lee was pushing forward that have perhaps been overlooked that could be more applicable in terms of the wider world and not just martial arts, or is there things that basically the generally public may be missing when they look at Bruce Lee that you think could be of value?
Daniele: I really think that that approach to look at something else. Really, you can point to anything, but use an example that’s easy because everybody’s bombarded with that stuff all the time. Think about politics. In politics, people almost unfailingly, you can tell what somebody’s going to feel over a whole list of issues based on any one issue. Like if I know how you feel about abortion, I know how you feel about global warming and how you feel about masks. I know how you feel about–
Why is that? Because you are not really thinking about each issue, you are embracing the party line of whichever side you follow and you are going to buy the whole playbook on this is what we believe about issue A, B, C, D, and E. What does that tell you? That as an individual, you’re not really making an individual decision. You’re just putting on some clothes and embracing that identity. Then you’re embodying that identity. That’s exactly what Bruce Lee would say is just damn stupid. It’s like, “Why would you trade your individuality? Why don’t you just look at what works?”
If you think that what works can be found in any one ideology, well, then you’re delusional because that’s not how life works. It’s like that you are never going to find– This is not to say that all ideologies are on the same playing field. Some are clearly better than others. They have a better track record historically, but the reality is that you’re going to find elements that are valuable in a bunch of different places. Rather than having this discussion between left-wing, right-wing, capitalist, socialist, or that thing, how about we figure out what’s the right balance to solve this one issue.
Not in the abstract, not in general because the thing is, tomorrow, with a different issue, we’re going to have to tweak that balance. Let’s say the capitalist, socialist balance, we went 80-20 on this issue and they worked, tomorrow may be 50-50 or maybe 80-20 the other way, or it may be– What’s the problem with that? It requires people to actually think on their feet, to not be yelling slogans, but instead to carefully weigh the evidence and tweak it and adapt it and magically do the work. That’s hard.
It’s so much easier to just yell the slogan off your side and automatically 50% of the people are going to waive the flag behind you and say, “Yes, you’re right. That’s the way to go.” Even though none of those things help solve any real problem or improve anybody’s life. Again, it’s an identity game rather than being something that leads to practical solutions. I’m interested in practical solutions.
I don’t give a crap where the solutions comes from. I don’t care what ideology belongs to or what anything is like. Is this problem getting solved? Is the lives of people touched by this problem improved as a result of what we do? Yes, I like it. I’m sold. Call it whatever you want. I don’t even feel the need to– Whether it’s politically, philosophically, religiously, however you want to conceive it, I don’t care for the labels.
I’m interested in the outcome. I feel that it’s … like who wouldn’t? If we’re talking about solving problems and improving people’s lives, the obvious solution is, “Let’s tweak the approach in a way that deliver those results.” Pretty straightforward. You’re not talking anything wilder and yet hardly anybody does it. There’s a line in the data sheet that’s actually pretty funny where it goes like, “My way is very easy to understand and very easy to practice, but nobody understand it and nobody practice it.” [laughs] I’m like, “It’s unfortunately applicable there because it’s so obvious and yet nobody does it. Maybe it’s not so obvious.” I think that’s what Lee did with martial arts.
When he did go out and say, “Screw your styles.” Styles are prisons. They are good if they are flexible. They are good if you can stick to a style, but also learn from other things, but not if you devote your individuality to one style. Screw the styles, just become the best martial artist you can be across from styles. He was able to push that just because the evidence has shown that crosstraining makes better fighters. That’s just how it is. With ideas, again, because nobody will admit defeat. Commune was actually a great idea is just the real communism hasn’t been tried. How many times do we have to go through the same thing before we say that maybe there are some problems with the ideas?
That’s the problem with ideas. Nobody ever admits defeat for their side. Rather than saying, “You know what? That didn’t work. There’s still a good idea on what I’m thinking, but maybe I need to lose 70% of it and just focus on that one nugget.” He’s like, “No, we were right. Forget the evidence. The evidence is lying. Reality is an illusion. It’s all in my head because I want to believe it.” That would make the world a much better place rather quickly if people stopped wearing ideological hats and wanting to stick to them at all cost and instead focus on the staff that actually works.
Sonny: That really makes me think then, because one of the issues of speaking with someone who already has their mind made up and there’s no changing it no matter what, then it’s very difficult to persuade them with the idea of, “Hey, perhaps–” Just that notion of, “Hey, yes, maybe you’re right in some things, but perhaps not in others.” What could be seen as a reasonable idea doesn’t come across as very persuasive because it’s sitting on the fence or not having that strong way to convince them. Isn’t then part of that Bruce Lee’s legacy is how he was able to forcefully present that ideology to the world?
Daniele: 100%. I think that the unfortunate aspect that he was able to do it in one field. Well, it’s already huge. It’s more than most people will ever do in their life. He was able to apply to one field in a very clear, convincing way. It would be nice if it could be extended to a bunch of other fields of experience in life. Clearly easier said than done.
Sonny: Yes. Very much easier said than done. It is really part of the human condition that it’s dealing with and who knows where things will be going because it seems to be ramping up more and more as the years go on.
Daniele: I get it. I think I know where it comes from, his life is scary. The universe is a scary place. You can play all your cards well and horrible things happen anyway. We don’t know crap about where we come from, where we’re going. We are just being alive as human beings, involves so much existential anxiety and worry and concern and fear because you don’t control the outcome of major things happening around you all the time.
Of course, people are going to, when they find something that they think works, they’re going to cling to it to death, even when it stops working in real life because it’s their anchor. In their mind, it’s the thing that keeps them safe in an unsafe world. Of course, they’re going to like it. Of course, there’s stuff that people don’t want to give up because it’s the one thing that allowed them to make sense of the world and feel safe in it.
Sonny: Yes. I hear that because that ambiguity in the world is very scary at times, especially with the ability to, in an instant, see what’s all the bad things that are going on all around the world just delivered to you as soon as you wake up in the morning. It can be intimidating. It’s sometimes best to try and block some of that stuff out, but that has made me think then of your book, which was the basis of choosing your own religion, taking the parts from what you wanted to put together. I guess that is based then on the same way of thinking and mindset, yes?
Daniele: To me, that’s life. While I understand why people will cling to an ideology at all costs to the one thing that informs their identity, I think that if you manage not to be 100% ruled by fear, people sometimes feel that unless you take this very strong, hard stance going one way, you are wishy-washy, and you are not, the reality is that while you’re a 100% right, that’s the perception, the reality is the exact opposite.
That’s the coward way out to just take this stance because it makes you feel good, despite the fact it only works 20% of the time and you’re going to automatically apply it 100% of the time because you’re afraid to look. You’re afraid to find out that your ideas yesterday don’t work so well today, because you’re afraid– Real courage to me is found in to putting all your beliefs to the test every single day and being ready to change them at the drop of a dime. That to me takes serious strength. That ability to be flexible, paradoxically, is what real strength is.
Sonny: Yes. That’s a hard one to get the head around sometimes because it’s certainly not the perception as such. One thing Bruce Lee was able to do it with his art, I think, if you look at it as martial arts, as an art form, it gives a pathway of being able to do that because art is supposed to make people think, entice them, perhaps cause confusion or just– It’s supposed to elicit a range of emotions that can then perhaps change the logical side of how people are thinking. I think he really used martial arts as an art form for a catalyst for change really.
Daniele: 100%. That’s why he embodied those ideas and those principles applying them to the martial arts, but the martial arts are just one vehicle. You could do it with anything else. That’s the Zen idea, which in some ways, Zen Buddhism always are extremely similar. There are plenty of similarities there. The Zen idea there is that all forms of art are vehicles to embody certain ideas, certain teachings that then can be applied to that one particular field. It goes back to the Miyamoto Musashi idea. You learn how to master the sword and you learn how to master everything else. On the surface, it looks like a weird statement. It’s like, no, you just learn how to master the sword. There’s nothing to do with everything else.
It’s like, yes, maybe if you only learn the technique, yes, you only learn how to master the sword, but if you learn the principles behind it. guess what? The principle that can make you a great swordman are the same one that can make you great at anything else in life because that’s just the language of life as a whole. The specific field may be different, but the principles behind it are not. I think that’s kind of where it’s at with this concept that all art forms are nothing but particular forms to embody more universal principles.
Sonny: That does then make me think of how in the modern world where martial arts sees itself placed in terms of we look very strongly to the prizefighting aspect and that kind of promotional side, which has driven martial arts so far yet when we think of Bruce Lee, when we talk about it a lot, it’s really the traditional martial arts still harken back and in some ways, I guess, even though he was against traditional martial arts at the time, it’s come around full circle, perhaps?
Daniele: Precisely because the shape it takes doesn’t really matter in some way. I think you can do the same thing with MMA. You can do the same thing with combat sports. Sometime the facade or spirituality and teaching that you got. In some, traditional martial arts is real. In some, traditional martial arts is purely a facade. It’s like some guy who never really trained a harder in his life, spouting philosophical Maxis, pretending that he’s teaching about life, where he’s not really teaching about life or an effective martial arts either.
Whereas some guy you go to a boxing gym and some dude who may have never read a book in his life, but is really smart, really sensitive and he’s able to use his boxing stuff to teach people something that’s more than just boxing. Actually, there’s a way of life behind it and there’s principles behind it. To me, the art itself doesn’t matter, is the spirit of the person teaching, the intention behind it, the energy that they bring to the table can change everything. You can do that with MMA. You can do that with boxing. You can do that with any combat sport.
Sonny: I guess that way of thinking can be done through anything just with the intention, the energy, and the mindset that you bring behind it. It doesn’t even need to be spelled out logically. It is an emotional way of operating in the world that then influences others?
Daniele: Yes, you can teach the stuff that people talk about traditional martial arts. Respect and discipline, and you can teach that through the wildest combat sport. You can still do that if that’s how you decide to approach it and that’s how you decide to teach it, but of course, usually does not tend to attract that kind of crowd, so that’s why it becomes the stereotype of why it’s not that way typically, but it doesn’t have to be.
You hear all the time, this thing, martial arts, make you better people. No, of course, they don’t. However, some particular teacher in that particular school can teach things in a way that apply to more than martial arts and can be more about life. Then you’re going to have 10 more people who try to do the same thing and fail miserably and it’s like, [laughs] “You should have just taught me martial arts because it would’ve been better off.” The goal is there, the intention is good, some people will pull it off, some people won’t. That’s how it works.
Sonny: I guess that way of thinking it’s not just martial arts, someone teaching martial arts that could do that or practicing, it is someone who you’re working with as a bricklayer or a laborer or any profession could have that same way?
Daniele: 100%. It’s really the individual behind it and what they belief. There are some people that you hang around with them and you listen to them read the phone book because they just have that energy that everything they touch, they bring something good that’s valuable about life.
Sonny: Yes, although I think that in professional jobs with KPI reports or some administration managerial positions may not be able to. [laughs]
Daniele: Some fields is 100% easier than others. While theoretically, you can apply it in everything, it’s a lot easier in some contexts than others for sure.
Sonny: Actually, I just thought, have you seen the movie Office Space?
Daniele: No, I haven’t.
Sonny: I won’t go into it then, but it really does seem fitting in that regard where there is a guy working in the office who perhaps is dealing with that. Then I guess to finish up for people wanting to look into then the works of Bruce Lee and what would be the best way to take his teachings. Obviously, you’ve got the great two-part series out, but should they go into Bruce Lee or just jump into Daoism, what’s your thoughts on that?
Sonny: I think the great start is, you can probably google it and I’m sure it’s going to pop up on some site. Just even read one article. I don’t even know, it’s like 4, 5, 6 pages, something really short. Just liberate yourself from classical karate. There was really a perfect summary of his approach to the whole thing that he wrote for Black Belt Magazine. You don’t even have to read a full book. You read a few pages and you really capture a lot of his ideas and then you see if it resonates with you. It’s like, “Okay, I want to hear more about it.”
Then you look at Bruce Lee’s other writings. Then maybe you start looking at these things that Bruce Lee was reading that was informing him. A huge thing was listening to Alan Watts. Alan Watts was huge for Bruce Lee. He read his books and clearly, they influenced tremendously the way he presents his ideas. There were some ideas he borrow from Krishnamurti who was very about refusing to follow a guru, refusing to follow a single methodology and is very anti-authoritarian band or you look at different Daoist writings what’s out there that catches your eye. I think that’s probably a safe way to start.
Sonny: I love it. Alan Watts, I’ve listened to fair few of his lectures on YouTube and it’s good stuff I’ll say that. It’s stuff that make you think. If people are listening to that, the applications in the world say someone wants to start tomorrow, take parts of those philosophies. What’s like one simple thing that perhaps someone could do?
Daniele: A real simple one, take all your beliefs and throw them in the trash.
Sonny: I love it.
Daniele: Real simple.
Sonny: See what happens, I guess?
Daniele: Yes. That approach life without all these preconceived ideas.
Sonny: That’s beautiful. That’s a good spot to finish up, Daniele. I really appreciate you giving me your time today. I’m very thankful and grateful for the opportunity to talk to you. If people want to get in touch, what’s the best way to do it. I know you’ve got the books and the podcast.
Daniele: Yes, I think that’s probably the easy stuff. I have a couple of podcasts out, History On Fire, even to some History On Fire episodes are behind the paywall. The majority can still be found all over the place for free, do a more chatty podcast , The Drunken Daoist s ome times and that one is like. I range all over the place in terms of topics, I have a few books out, so whatever strikes your fancy.
Sonny: Awesome. Well, I really appreciate it and you have a great day.
Daniele: Cool. Thank you so much.
Sonny: Thank you.
Daniele Bolelli Resources
- I Am Bruce Lee Trailer
- Daniele Bolelli Instagram
- Daniele Bolelli Facebook
- Daniele Bolelli Website
- Daniele Bolelli Twitter
- History On Fire Episode: Bruce Lee (Part 1)
- History On Fire Episode: Bruce Lee (Part 2)
- Daniele Bolelli on The Mythology & Meaning of Teaching Martial Arts
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