Empty Your Cup to Fill Your Mind

overflowing_glassThere is a common story in Buddhism about a scholar who went to talk to a zen master. The scholar spends most of the time talking over the master, basically showing off. The master eventually starts pouring tea for the scholar, but doesn’t stop pouring. When the tea fills the cup and starts to overflow the scholar shouts, “stop, no more tea will fit”. The master responds, “You are like this cup. You ask for teaching but your cup is full. Before I can teach you, you must empty your cup.”

Many are familiar with this from Bruce Lee’s quote:

“Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality.”

It’s a common thought; maybe it even seems obvious, but how many people can look at themselves honestly enough to realize when they are doing it? Our preconceptions guide our thoughts and unless we are mindfully aware enough to guard against it those preconceptions will rule us. Let’s take a person who walks up to a Crossfitter and tells them they don’t think Crossfit is safe or will get them fit. Try it yourself if you like – just make sure you bring some earplugs and possibly body armor.


The problem here is that the Crossfitter in question is making assumptions: 

  • Of course my coach is well trained
  • Of course there’s a great program – this isn’t random
  • I love my gym, it has all the best equipment
  • I’m being coached properly so I am safe

How true is any of this? It depends entirely on the gym, the coaches in question, and the knowledge of the Crossfitter. As much as I love Crossfit, every gym and coach is different.

Maybe that’s not the only problem though. Maybe the person walking up and making the statement is the real problem. What assumptions are they making?

  • I know more about fitness than they do
  • I know more about the body than they do
  • I’ve been to more gyms than they have
  • I know the right way to coach these lifts

I once worked with a Christian scholar with whom I’d occasionally do Bible studies. One of my first questions to him was which church he went to. The answer was a rather lengthy “I don’t”. He had been to service after service, church after church and none of them were any good. The pastors had the wrong or incomplete knowledge at every church, but they wouldn’t immediately change their beliefs when he went to them and pointed out how wrong they were. This happened over and over to the point where he just stopped going – but he never thought that maybe he was too certain of his own perfect understanding and authority.

This is not a person who can ever learn anything. In order to learn and grow one must be open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new understandings. People you talk to or books you read won’t always be right or perfect, but there is almost always something to learn from them.

I’ll offer up another quote that I first heard from Master James Tuten:

“Eat the whole chicken, but spit out the bones.”

Or maybe you would prefer Bruce Lee’s version:

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

These things get repeated or show up in different ways because the message is sound and true. However, this concept doesn’t help if you get in your own way. If a teacher asks a question in a way that seems odd, a gym rat lifts with odd equipment or in odd ways, or an executive asks for that report from an angle you aren’t used to what is your first thought? Is it ridicule, snide remarks, commentary on their intelligence? Or do  you pause, carefully consider, and occasionally learn something? 

So how do we break this chain? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Put away the pride. 
  2. Be realistic about your own knowledge



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