Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Emptying Our Cups

One of my favorite zen stories goes something like this:

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor pontificated about Zen, holding himself forth as an expert on the topic. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The tea spilled onto the table and then to the floor. The master kept pouring. The professor watched until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop! It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Two years ago, I took this story to heart. I stopped writing my first blog, I dropped all the commitments I possibly could, and I cleared everything off my meditation altar except for the cup that you see in the photo above. And while not completely embracing the simplicity movement, I did clean out a lot of drawers and closets. 

And it was all good.

After two years of sitting in front of this cup every morning, though, I’ve come to understand the story at a different level, one perhaps more in keeping with the teaching of the zen master in the story. 

My cup can easily fill up and overflow with judgments, stories, expectations, opinions, worries, and all other manner of thoughts. However, when I become aware of the various thoughts, I find that very few of them are worth keeping. 

I can’t completely stop all these thoughts from occurring; after all, thinking is what brains do. Even the zen master didn’t say not to put anything in the cup at all; he just said to empty it. 

How do we do that? 

First, by becoming aware. Studies show that we think tens of thousands of thoughts a day, most of them habitual and below our level of conscious awareness. Pausing to see what’s going on in our busy brains can lead to some interesting discoveries. 

Second, by gentle questioning. It’s easy to start thinking about our thinking! Once we become aware of some of our thoughts, we can pile on more judgment, expectations, and worries. We criticize ourselves for holding certain judgments, or feel frustration at our lack of control over worries. Instead, we can begin to loosen them by being softly curious, by gently questioning. For example:

That judgment that is so entrenched–on what is it based? What does it cost me in terms of harmony with others to keep it?

The story I tell myself about a situation–do I know for a fact that it is true? What impact does it have on my response? 

That worry that keeps me up at night–how likely is it to become reality? Will my worrying prevent something or help me deal with it?

Finally, we empty our cups by openly releasing. We’ll find that most of these thoughts, when compassionately investigated, will naturally fall away. All we have to do is not hold on to them. 

With practice, this process becomes more natural and automatic. We become instinctively aware when we have attached to a particular thought, and without much effort, the thought is emptied from our cup. What flows in naturally flows out.

And meanwhile, we can relax and savor a cup of delicious tea!

In pursuing learning every day something is added. In pursuing Tao every day something is dropped. ~Tao Te Ching

14 thoughts on “Emptying Our Cups”

  1. So much truth in this, Galen. Our thoughts can too easily become our masters instead of we becoming the masters of out thoughts. It sounds so simple to "not hold on to them," but I know from experience that it is conscious effort and work on my part to simply release them.
    We are all works in progress, learning to live in and savor the moment, giving thanks for every breath we breathe, and letting go of anything in our past that holds us back from the path God has set before us.
    Blessings to you!

  2. I agree, Martha, that letting go of these thoughts is not so simple. That's why I think the gentle questioning step is so helpful. As long as I believe that the thought is important or justified, it is hard to let go. But if through curiosity and inquiry I can see that it has no basis, or is harming me in some way, then loosening its grip comes naturally, and it will fall away.

    "Giving thanks for every breath we breathe" is such a powerful practice and also focuses our attention away from thoughts that hold us back. Without attention, they dry up and blow away. Gratitude, I think, is the single most effective way to align ourselves with the divine.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. I guess one thing is controlling those thoughts- not jumping into auto mode every time a flag pops up. Deal with each moment on its own, and don't hang on to the crap you can't control.

  4. CW, well said! We might not be able to control the thoughts occurring in the first place, but we can control whether we latch onto them or let them float on by. And, as you said, we can pause before going on auto pilot. That space allows us to see what is really happening rather than have an automatic response. Thanks for commenting.

  5. When we experience the subtractions as loss, there is sadness. That's okay. Even when the subtractions are making room for something else, it doesn't change our feeling about what we have lost. We can honor our feelings and our experience without trying to make them any different.

    I used to have a word of the year. In 2013 my word was "wait." Sometimes, especially when things seem difficult, just being with that, just waiting gently in the midst of our feelings and experience, is hard.

    I don't know what your situation is, so I'm speaking in generalities, but I'm sensing that you feel sad, and perhaps tired. I don't know if this is relevant to your life right now, so pardon me if it isn't, but this Bible verse just came to mind. "They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint." Isaiah 40:31. Regardless of your faith orientation, I think this verse is comforting. I hope it is for you.

  6. Thank you, I really appreciate the thought. I haven't been well for quite some time, and life is very limited, so that's the frustrating part. I am trying to stay hopeful and keep moving forward, though. That's all I can really do at this point.

  7. I love this post Galen. It reminds me of Osho and Mooji and many great spiritual teachers who have spoken on this topic of thoughts. I wrote "Ashes" which is about the ebb and flow of our thoughts we should not confuse with our inner being.


    'These days my thoughts are like ashes

    So light, they crumble and dissolve with the slightest move

    The more they gather, the more I ignore

    Seconds pass, minutes, days and lifetimes

    They grow lighter

    They build up, and then dissipate without rhyme or reason

    I do everything I can to not associate

    This is me

    The one who was born way before them

    Those are them

    Tiny creatures, they come then go

    Through it all, I remain

    How they aspire to sink in their roots and possess

    Great impersonators, commentators and confusers

    The sand picks up and I sit in the middle of it all

    Then they are gone with the wind

    Once more, I am alone again

    With everything to gain'

    Have a beautiful day!

  8. Thanks so much, Serene. That is a lovely poem. I read it several times. The poem itself seems to loosen our hold on thoughts. By the end of it, I felt the thoughts just floating away on the breeze! Thank you so much for sharing it.

  9. I now know why I have always loved your writings. This was an exceptional post and I can relate to it all. I really loved the Zen story and I see it's relevance in ones life. Thanks for your wisdom and thoughts; I am going to work on my own thoughts. I can improve in this area for sure. Blessings and hugs and I am very happy you are back.

  10. Thanks, LeAnn. Sorry for the delay in posting your comment–I was up at my cabin until just now. At the cabin, I got "hooked" on a situation and overfilled my cup with all kinds of thoughts! It took me quite a while this time to let go and empty my cup. A daily practice for sure! And thanks for your sweet words.

Comments are closed.