Emptying Our Cup


Remember the Zen story of the Buddhist scholar eager to learn from a famous Master? He travels far and finally arrives, breathless, to sit at the wise man’s feet. When the Master offers him some tea, pouring it into the cup until it overflows, the new disciple begins to wonder if the old man is a bit gaga. Nevertheless, he politely points out what’s happening. The Master replies, “You come to ask for my teaching, but your cup is already full. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

What is our cup full of? A good guess would be reactions, complaints, longings, and tons of information, both useful and unnecessary. So what happens when we look for help like the Buddhist scholar, hoping to contact a deeper level in ourselves? We sit down, determined to find nirvana or satori. We look for a replay of yesterday’s successful meditation or tomorrow’s ardent desire. Or whatever is our idea of the perfect place to refresh ourselves. But we’ll never succeed until we make more space in ourselves, rather than searching for some ideal place.

So how to empty our cup? Our most powerful instrument of change is our attention. Whether we focus on listening to the inner or outer world, on observing the sensations in our body, or following the movement of our breathing, we are harnessing heavy-duty help. Attention is more powerful than any of us can imagine. It is the force that creates miracles.

But first it must be gathered, and unfortunately it has been spread out all over our world. In spite of our illusion that we are in control of it, our attention is caught like a butterfly in a net by every stimulus we meet. The power that could serve our aims and intentions is attracted by any and everything we see or hear or think or feel.

If you want to test the premise that it is hard to keep your attention anywhere for long, try P. D. Ouspensky’s exercise: Take out your watch and focus all your attention on the second hand. How long can you keep all your attention on it? Not so easy! But if you write down how long you can be completely focused on that second hand  each time you try, you may discover that with practice you can learn to extend the time.

In other words, we can train our attention if we take the trouble. In fact, Simone Weil says that the whole purpose of children’s schooling should be to teach them how to gather their attention and put it to good use. But, in Gurdjieff’s parlance, our grandmothers forgot to teach us. Nevertheless, we can start right now, learning to gather our attention and focus it in many ways. And the task is simple (though never easy) because, as Gurdjieff also says, “you are where your attention is.” There’s a huge clue! We can try to be here, where we are.

So if you want to explore what interferes with your intention to develop attention, here are a few experiments you could try:

A first major roadblock is that we are always too busy, with never time enough to be still, to be silent. Our life is like the Zen Master’s cup, always running over with our demands on it or its demands on us. So you could start by seeing if you can empty your cup a little from time to time, to leave room for intentional communication with yourself. You are focusing your attention on your intention. They go together for maximal results.

Here’s another barrier: When you seek that inner haven of R & R from the world’s demands, do you think of it as going somewhere else? As moving away from wherever you are? Try the opposite approach. Think of it as staying right where you are and making more room in yourself. To do this, you might even set an alarm the first few times in order to come to a complete stop in the middle of your busy day. Then you can acknowledge how full you are of whatever’s going on at that moment—worries, duties, reactions, longings, and begin to clear some of that debris out of your cup to give yourself a little space. Or you could turn your attention to listening carefully to all the conflicting voices in yourself. Or assess your body’s needs. Or reconnect with your heart’s desire.

Any time you stop for a break, have a cup of coffee or tea, go to the restroom, you move away from the duties and pursuits that have engaged your attention. Try to release them consciously as you turn away. Begin to connect away moments to your wish to be present to your life. Each time you turn away, take a momentary impression of yourself with all three of your perceiving organs at the same time—mind, body and feeling. Gurdjieff calls this “taking snapshots.” As your thought reminds you to take the photo of what’s going on with all three functions at this very moment, your body and feelings must respond instantly and honestly. Collect snapshots of yourself for a future album.

Nobody said it would be easy to connect with your deeper self in the midst of a busy day, but don’t get discouraged. Sometimes we feel very far from home base, lost in the desert without an oasis in view, or slogging through an endless jungle of demands on our time and energy. At those times it’s important to remember that there is help. Jungian analyst Marion Woodman offers a beautiful analogy for our situation: imagine that you are cutting through the jungle with a machete, trudging along day after day after day, trying to find your way out. At last you perceive an open space ahead. You perk up. Suddenly you have come out of the jungle and onto the bank of a huge river. You are filled with joy for a moment, thinking you’ve arrived. Then your head and heart droop as you see that there’s nothing on the opposite bank but more jungle. All this effort for nothing. But wait a moment! You take a more careful look, your heart in your mouth. There, through the jungle on the other side of the river, you see that someone has been cutting a path towards you. When we make an effort, we are always met. There is always help. We are never alone.

2 Responses to “Emptying Our Cup”

  1. Ramesh Narayan

    Being attentive is being in the present, concentrating of what is happening NOW. This NOW is so important that it doesn’t stay in the present if we do not empty our cup.



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