Beginner's Mind

Empty your cup -- you know too much.

Posted Sep 30, 2008

There is a Zen parable about a young traveler who comes across a mountain hermit. As they talk, the young man begins to understand that he is talking to a realized master and starts telling him about his own studies - his mastery of Zen, his understanding of the scriptures, his martial arts and all his worldly knowledge.

As the young man is speaking, the old hermit hands him a cup in which he is going to pour tea. The young man continues speaking and the old man pours him his tea, but does not stop when the cup is full. Instead he gazes steadily at the young man and lets the tea spill over everywhere.

The young man pulls the cup away and yells, "What are you doing?" The old man smiles and says, "Zen this, martial arts that, travel here, travel there... You're cup is full! Empty your cup!"

The young man looks down at the cup in his hand and casts its contents down on the forest floor. The old man continues to gaze steadily at him and says, "Hopeless!"

Our cups are full. We are such dense repositories of knowledge and knowing that we have lost our capacity to see with a child's eyes, to start at the beginning. The Information Age has created an information addiction and Google has made us Stoopid.

And without the child's capacity to see with fresh eyes the world around us, we have also lost the capacity to feel the world around us, to engage in our lives in a way that is creative, productive and full of grace.

The beginner's mind is empty. What makes a cup useful is not the cup, but the space inside the cup. If your cup is always full, how is it then useful? It's not. It is, in point of fact, useless.

Our minds are the same way. To truly free the mind, and realize its/our full potential we must be open to all possibilities, rather than be trapped by the shackles of our own rationality and patterns of behavior. The rational mind is a prison, while the flexible mind, the adaptable mind is a universe of possibilities. We shouldn't be thinking outside the box; we should be flipping the box over.

How do we do this? Well, we go back to one of the ideas that we were discussing some weeks ago - core beliefs. If we can recognize a core belief and make a conscious decision to set that belief aside, we can then say, "So - what else?"

An example - I believe that I am unlovable. I have experienced a number of social, emotional and psychosocial instances where the validating support system that surrounds me has been taken away and I have been led to believe that it was because of something I did or didn't do or some lack in me as a person. I find myself, again and again, socially isolated, demeaned and with no system of intrinsic or extrinsic validation.

Two things are going to happen here. First, my self-worth is going to plummet, if it even develops at all. Secondly, I am going to seek out social relationships that validate and support the core belief that I have developed that I am not lovable, that I will be abandoned, that I am not worthy or deserving. In this, my life is going to be a repeated series of events and relationships that allow me to be right about my core belief. What to do?

If we just set aside the core belief, we will free fall because one of the primary elements of our identity will be lost. Not good. But if we gather evidence to countermand the core belief and figure out a way that we can buy into that evidence (that's the hard part), we can transform our whole belief system, changing our idea of ourselves and our place in the world.

How do you gather evidence? Well, first one identifies a point of psychic tension. Say, you anger easily, or you're always late, or you shut down when someone yells, or you can't confront your superiors, or you get taken advantage of consistently...whatever.

Then you figure out what core belief causes that particular behavior or situation to manifest. To whit, and referencing the above - you need to impose yourself through aggression, you need to assert evidence of your control, you're afraid of retribution, you don't want to get in trouble, you're an enabler, etc.

Then you sit down and figure out how you could change that manifestation - let go of your fear, embrace impermanence, make yourself heard because you deserve it, ask for what you need, be responsible to yourself first -- and then gather evidence to support the counterpoint.

If we go back to our primary example, I experience the feeling of, and sometimes the actual event of, rejection in relationships. The core belief that supports that is that I am unlovable. The active belief that supports that core belief is that I have no value to those around me and the destructive loop in that is that I don't deserve to be loved.

Having identified the primary elements of the core and active belief system, my task now is to gather evidence to the contrary - to establish concrete and demonstrable facts that say "You're OK." After that comes the work of owning that evidence and integrating it into our self-perception...the work.

Empty your cup...you might find it useful, and I'm not just talking about the cup.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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