Empty Your Cup

There is a Zen parable about a scholar who approaches a Zen master to learn about zen, but he rambles on about what he thinks Zen is rather than listening to what the master has to say. In order for the master to make his point, he serves them both a cup of tea. Only with the scholar, he keeps pouring the tea even after the cup is full. The scholar, much to his dismay, asks the master to stop pouring. The master then tells him that just like the cup needed to be empty for it to be filled, the scholar needed to empty his mind (or unlearn) before the master could teach him anything.

Here’s the thing. More often than not, when we ask others for help, we don’t really listen to what they have to say. We pretend to listen to them or we don’t listen with an open mind. We have already made up our mind as to what they are going to tell us about whatever we ask them, and we make excuses in our head in advance for not being able to do those things for one reason or another as if that’s helping our cause.

Many times, people form opinions about you only to be disproven later. For instance, every now and then, I would come across clients who would give me reasons for why something I told them wouldn’t work (without trying of course), only to be disproven later on.

I am sure you all have people in your lives who insist on explaining things to others, when they are not willing to listen, let alone understand others first. They just want to make their point and leave it at that. Of course, there is no point in even having the conversation when others are simply unwilling to listen and understand your point of view.

Another example: I have had mentees who insisted on figuring out ways to do things before they made a decision, but the inverse couldn’t be more true. There was no commitment or accountability involved. Unless you’re committed to something, you’ll be distracted by everything. Oftentimes, what happens in these situations is we don’t make decisions first, but rather we try to figure out all the ways in our mind why those things won’t work, which is akin to running a fool’s errand. But, guess what? Either way, you’re right. If you don’t think you can, you’re right. It’s common in these situations to hear something like, “I agree with you, but“, which basically means they disagree with you. Not just that, it subconsciously communicates that they are right and you’re wrong. Here’s the thing: You have to decide first what you want to do, then figure out ways to do that thing. You can’t start out by figuring out reasons why something won’t work without even making a decision. That’s just pointless. As they say, decide first, and then the universe will conspire to help you achieve that thing. One thing is for sure — it all starts with you.

Here are some ideas for emptying your cup, so to speak.

Listen with an open mind. Pay attention to the everyday situations that may seem ordinary or obvious. That includes not just listening to others, but also to yourself. When was the last time you spent 30 minutes in a room doing nothing? Spend some time every morning to practice mindfulness so you can be in the present moment.

We need to listen more than we talk. It’s easy for us to passionately ramble about things, but this only reinforces what we already know instead of learning anything new.

When seeking advice or feedback (from those you trust), such as a mentor or an expert, listen with the intent to understand. Then, look for reasons to make that feedback work for you rather than looking for excuses for why it won’t work. Then, go do those things and gather further feedback.

Here’s the thing. True learning never stops. You will often find those who know more than most to be students of a discipline, while those who claim to know it all are nowhere close to knowing things, if any.

We might think of ourselves as being open-minded, but we filter everything we see and hear in the world through our assumptions, beliefs, and worldviews. We fill our mind with ideas, opinions, and judgements, so much that it’s hard to see things for what they really are. It’s difficult to be truly objective in that sense. We might even fall prey to confirmation bias without having any awareness of it.

It’s hard to learn things from others when we feel we already know it all. You have to be open to others’ views and see how it contrasts with your own. That’s the only way you’ll learn about the world. By repeating what you already know, you aren’t learning anything new.

As noted American fiction writer F. Scott Fitzgerald aptly put:

The number-one test of a first-rate mind is its ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time while continuing to function.

It’s easier to want reality to conform to our ideas than it is to conform ourselves to it. It’s easy to say we want to learn things, but truly learning something requires emptying your cup. Unless you’re ready to unlearn things, you can never truly learn.

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