I am late today because I had to empty the cup before I wrote this post.
There’s this charming Zen story about Nan-in, the Zen master. People visited him from far and near to receive his wisdom. One day, a rather pompous professor came to him to learn about Zen. He bombarded the Zen master with questions. After a few minutes, the master suggested that they continue the conversation over a cup of tea. He laid out the cups and began pouring into the professor’s cup from the teapot. He continued to pour even as the tea rose to the rim of the cup and spilled over. The professor watched this and unable to contain himself, burst out saying, “The cup is overfull. Can’t you see? You can’t add to a cup that is already full.”
The Zen master responded, “You are right. Like this cup, you are full of your own thoughts and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you empty your cup?”
However, you interpret this story, the deeper meaning is—we all need space before we can add to anything, especially to our mind, our schedules, our closets, or our bags…depending on the context.
In today’s hectic world, we have developed the habit of hanging on to so much: our schedules, our assumptions, our things, our needs. There is a tendency to lay more importance on material stuff and to what others think. We pay more attention to what others have accomplished.
What about ourselves?
We too need to open our minds and make room to do all the things we would like to do. However, we simply stuff more and more into whatever space is available—in our minds, in our schedules and in our relationships. And in our closets. Guilty as charged.
Then suddenly, we read something and realize the need to relax and recharge–as if it is a novel concept.
For most, this is simply a concept and actually happens only in an medical emergency, where rest is forced. And then, it becomes painfully clear, on reflection, how we cram our minds and our lives.
We always have an overfull to-do list; we always have pending work; we always run after the next opportunity. A million things fight for our attention and we try to be everywhere at the same time. And all along, we complain about the lack of time, the lack of energy.
Spending time with those we love, hanging out with them, enjoying conversation—all of these go on a “wish list” and when they do happen, become grist for the social media mill.
Coming back to the cup—which us our mind—its value is the space and its emptiness that receives and holds.
How can we empty the cup?
Pay attention to the space in your life. This is pretty much like space in your closet, your friend’s open-mindedness and non-judgmental attitude, or the reduced traffic that allows you to move forward more easily.
- Appreciate the gift of nothingness.
- Reflect on what your mind is filled with—worry? Work issues? Regrets? Anger?
- Be conscious of these and when you feel them invade your space and let go.
- Focus on something that is positive and makes you happy, and spend more time on this.
So yes, you still have that massive to-do list that continues to grow. But do bear in mind that unless you empty the list, you can’t add new things. If you do, it will turn out to be the proverbial last straw.
While you tackle your full list, try to make space between two tasks.
Let’s say you’re managing your email. It can be as simple as taking a deep breath before you move to the next one.
And so with every task you tackle—doing the laundry, talking to someone, cooking—remember to pause occasionally to mentally recharge.
If there are things too heavy, too energy-draining that just don’t deserve your attention, identify them and drop them from your list. Now’s the time to go on a clutter diet. You know how it feels when you have to drag your luggage uphill—painful and heavy. You must simply let go of the extra baggage and only carry what you can.
And now that we’re talking about extra baggage, how about taking a look at habits, grudges and some of those notions you are holding on to—that seemed fine earlier, but no longer serve you at this moment? Let go before they wear you down completely. Think of the lightness you’ll feel and the space you’ll create for pleasanter stuff.
You may also want to think about not adding stuff to the pile you’re trying to lighten. This may be as easy as not participating in an argument, not making assumptions, not committing to something, not encouraging your inner critic … you get the idea.
Enjoy the space, the peace that comes with emptying your cup. When you lay in bed at night, before you drift off to sleep, how about some Dayenu?
Think of a blank page waiting for you to fill it.
Think of that time you’ve freed up on your schedule.
As your mind calms down and your body relaxes, think of that cup, waiting for you to pour the tea. Or in my case, coffee.
Empty the cup.