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