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My Cup Runneth Over

We have two blue teacups, gifts which Jishu and Bernie brought back from a trip to Japan. Jishu is gone now almost 25 years, gone much too young. Bernie is gone 4 years, gone at 79.

Last week we celebrated my 80th birthday.

“My cup runneth over.”

A line from the twenty-third Psalm which we probably all heard, an expression of gratitude, a teaching to appreciate all that we have, all that we are given.

My cup runneth over. Zen offers a different spin.

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’[1]

This has been an important teaching for so many of us because it helped to turn us toward not knowing and away from the clinging to all the ideas which we have clung to, many since childhood. Bernie taught us over and over again to approach each new situation with an empty cup. Shunryu Suzuki called it “beginners’ mind”.

Creating Space, Maintaining Space

It has been important to me to see that it is not just my mind which needs to be emptied. My life can be as overflowing as the professor’s cup.

As a therapist, I worked with this for years with so many patients who complained of unhappy relationships but who would not leave, too afraid of the loneliness or embarrassment that they would experience if they were without a partner. And yet they kept hoping that new love would miraculously appear in their lives, whether through the power of prayer or psychotherapy.

I had not yet heard of Nan-in, but I knew in my bones, in my marrow as we say in Zen, that if you stay living in an unhappy relationship you are not allowing space for anyone new to enter your life. You have to empty your cup if you want to create the space for a new relationship.

It’s a hard lesson.

Giving Something Up, Gaining Something New

Over the last ten years, I have worked with a lot of talented people, young, ambitious rising managers eager to take on new challenges.

What’s the problem? Most of them didn’t want to give up any of the things that they had been doing. These things that they had been doing so successfully had given them a lot of satisfaction and had led to their success. They work hard. Their plates, as they say, are full.

For years I said, “If you want to grow, you need to create space for growth.” I suggested a 20% rule: Every year, stop doing 20% of the stuff that you did last year. Delegate. Let someone else learn to do it. Create the space in which you can learn to do something new.

So much resistance arises. “No one can do it as well as I can.”

Probably true.

It was hard for me to learn this too. When we began building our schools, I took pride in being our chief writer. I wrote all the charter applications and the renewal applications and the grant applications. A few years ago, when I finally delegated “chief writer” to Erin Celletti, I was nervous. But I did it. When Erin wrote her first renewal application. I couldn’t stop myself. I read it after it had been submitted, and I thought to myself, flattered myself, “I could have done it better.” Maybe, but we got the full five-year renewal. There was no better outcome. I had to admit to myself that even if I had done it “better”, it wouldn’t have made any difference.

“It will be more work, take more time for me to teach someone than to do it myself,” is another favorite excuse for not beginning to empty your cup.

Possibly true in the beginning, but it will eventually create some space for new learning, for growth, for something new.

There are always excuses not to empty the cup, even 20%.

Approaching Retirement

Approaching retirement, I faced a different version of this koan. In retirement, I would empty my work cup 100%, not just 20%.

All the popular wisdom, all the advice from my friends, seemed to point to the great dangers inherent here.

“Those who do best in retirement are those who have hobbies or projects which will keep them busy.”

The message is clear: an empty cup is an invitation to depression.

The warnings frightened me. I took precautions. I made a daily schedule to begin July 1, the first official day of retirement. From 6:30 AM until 5:30 PM, I had my day planned: two periods of meditation, two periods of walking, journaling, two periods of writing, a reading period, lunch, and breakfast. It’s all laid out in the calendar on my computer. The schedule repeats daily. Forever.

Fear of the empty cup.

Thankfully beyond the beginning of each day, -- wake up, clean up, meditation, breakfast, morning pages, walking, -- my days have been busy. I never needed the calendar, although the reminders popped up on my phone throughout the day.

But I hadn’t quite emptied my cup. I had jumped on the opportunity to continue working two days a week at ICS, to help with the transition. The problem wasn’t that this took up so much time. I still had much more time, much more space, much less pressure. The problem was that my mind remained preoccupied with old relationships, old challenges. I woke up with the old worries. It was old wine in new bottles, but where was the space for the new wine.

Empty now, or runneth over?

Now without those two days, with the transition period behind me, there really is space. And I am finding the courage to leave that space empty, to allow new things to flow in. Yes, my schedule is still on the computer, and maybe it is comforting in a humorous way that throughout the day I receive calendar reminders of commitments that I most often ignore. But I am writing more and relaxing more with Dee and Morri, and we are going to take some time away from Staten Island.

While I still sometimes wake up with anxiety, it is no longer the old anxieties kept alive by continuing to go into our schools two days a week. Now I can wake up worrying about the blog or with an idea on how to solve a narrative challenge.

My cup runneth over.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, the most wonderful thing is that the empty cup allows more space for gratitude.


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Such a good reminder that you often tried to give me at ICS! Trying to empty at least 10% for now :)

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