To Make a Change, First Empty Your Cup - Common Sense Living Newsletter
Common Sense Living India

To Make a Change, First Empty Your Cup

Mar 25, 2015

To Make a Change, First Empty Your Cup 

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?"

- A Cup of Tea, Zen Koans

I personally believe this is one of the most profound stories for all of mankind. It's simple, effective and its meaning can apply to almost every life situation.

We start new jobs or projects, we meet new people, we visit unseen places and through it all the biggest practice and the real challenge for most of us is, to keep the cup empty.

We are unfortunately the victims of our past - past experiences, past knowledge, past failures and past victories. The weight of the past shapes us, prepares us, but also destroys us.

We approach situations with what we know, rather than allowing them to unfold their own truths and solutions. We wait to give answers even before the questions come up. Maybe it's the restless enquiring nature of the mind that reacts rather than observes.

Our biggest folly really is to believe that we know it all. It's like surrounding ourselves with a fortress wall that prevents the entry of anything from the outside - a barrier that restricts learning and growing.

I've been a victim of the 'full cup' syndrome myself, and would often get the "keep an open mind" comment from friends and family. There was a 'know it all' air that I carried along with me. And very often this approach prevented me from seeing things as they were, from letting greater insights emerge. Because the truth is, as renowned author and professor Leo Buscaglia once said, "Those who think they know it all have no way of finding out they don't."

And thus, the only way you experience something completely different and new in your own personal and professional growth is by keeping your mind open, by removing all previous traces of knowing, by creating a state of emptiness.

What you know is the familiar. It's worked in the past, it's helped you deal with old situations but it may not be useful in the present or the future. Because each new moment brings with it its own set of dynamics. And nothing in your past can ever prepare you for it.

It becomes important then to start the process of unlearning before we gain any sort of mastery over a situation. This takes courage, it takes bold steps, it means facing the harsh truth about yourself, challenging your existing beliefs, and it may also mean becoming comfortable with the unknown - a scary thought for many of us.

But the state of being empty and receptive is a state of mind that can be achieved. It's a slow process that takes practice and discipline. Once realised, this state of mind can help us stay in the present, stay centred and open up amazing life experiences.

Here are three quick tips on how to achieve the 'empty cup' state.

  1. Adopt the mindset of a beginner: To develop this mindset, you have to go back to your first day of school, where everything was new - the faces, the place and the subjects being taught. Moreover, in school we don't worry about tenth standard results in the first standard, we allow each level to take its course. We don't hasten the pace, we don't expect to know everything on day one. When we approach any subject with a blank and unbiased mind, we get ready to experience and absorb anything new that it brings. We enter a state of readiness to learn and we naturally develop more alertness.

  2. Get into observation mode: I remember my mother used to say, "If you need to learn cooking, you need to stand by me and first observe." And this is actually the basis for any new learning - to watch and to imbibe before you start experimenting by yourself. Observation is especially important when you're part of a new workplace or when you're visiting new countries. Each place has its own cultural norms and expectations. So before you assimilate into it, you need to simply observe, test the mood and understand what others are doing before acting and taking any steps of your own.

  3. Find comfort in the unknown: One of life's biggest realities is that the real outcome of anything cannot be known right at the start. If you notice, the most important disclaimer even in scientific experiments is - "Keeping all factors constant." But are all factors ever really constant? There will always be margin for error. There will always be googlies and then some more. But if we come to an understanding with the uncertainties, if we decide to respond rather than react and if we understand that even failure is only a stepping stone in the learning process, we may not be that afraid of learning and keeping an open mind.

A Zen proverb sums up this idea aptly: Knowledge is learning something every day. Wisdom is letting something go every day.

And moving from knowledge to wisdom is the ultimate aim. So empty your cup, clean away what was and get ready to experience a whole new way of knowing.

Image Source: grass-lifeisgood / Shutterstock


We request your view! Post a comment on "To Make a Change, First Empty Your Cup". Click here!

14 Responses to "To Make a Change, First Empty Your Cup"

Srinivasan Hariharan

27 May, 2016

Very true Ritika Fantastic Truth revealed.  This is what every individual in this country needs to do. We go on adding more and more into the bag which is already full resulting in wastage of intellectual resources.  Our egoes  are not ready to unload lest we feel that this will belittle us but we are ready to fail and face dishonor nor are we ready to accept instant changes into our microcosm of thought process and remain trapped in our cage of own karma of baggage carried with us unknowingly for the past N generations.  Our previous vasanas are the real culprits that make or break materialistic and spiritual ascent in this present life. This thought may have been revealed by the Zen Buddhism but this was propounded by our own ancient seers and vedic intellectual stalwarts but unfortunately in the present state of cosmopolitan culture where only B Schools and Foreign Grads rule the roost we have lost the link and the sense to co relate to realise that spiritual pursuits and thoughts begin where scientific explanations and arguments end. 

Like (1)


30 Oct, 2015

It is truly required, otherwise, old belief and experiences will effect: 1) Opposes inflow 2) If cup is empty, i.e more volume/ space may be found to comply 3) Contaminations may be avoided. Thank you, it enriched me.

Like (1)

Ashok V.Mathrani

09 Apr, 2015

Beautiful article Ritika madam. Even if put to practice a little, Will make a lot of difference.

Tanmoy Sabud

29 Mar, 2015

Article is excellent however it is more theoretical,we need practical wisdom like Hollow and Empty meditation to erase our past impression and pattern. Erasing old impression/pattern and emptying our cup is the step towards evolution.

Like (1)


26 Mar, 2015

Dear Madam, It is easy to understand but need lot of self discipline to empty the cup and adopt the patience to observe and listen for the new idea to evolve and to act upon. Thank you.

Like (1)


26 Mar, 2015

Hello! Great article and what is put out is perfect. We all approach every aspect in life prejudiced (full cup) and then crib about it cos the situation was a square hole and trying to close it with a round plug. Well said and thanks for the insight.

Like (1)

Venkateshwarlu bairi

26 Mar, 2015

Dear madam, The article is excellent. Change is necessary to grow in life and how it would be followed is an important thing irrespective about the thinking of failure. Thank you.

Like (1)

Om Khullar

26 Mar, 2015

How apt you are. Change is necessary to make change in our life. And for making change, we have to find a place for new ideas and that is possible by making space for same.

Like (1)


26 Mar, 2015

Namaskar, God Bless you. The matter is very simple but today understanding this simple is not easy because most of the cups is over flow, without their own quality, quantity we fill fill so its go waste. This is present life style. your article gives very simple methods to keep empty. Life is full of energy need to fill with proper & perfect way then peace always with in us. Thank you.


25 Mar, 2015

An excellent article.Most of your articles are inspiring,educative and useful.l like reading them again and agin. Thanks

Like (1)

Prakash C Barua

25 Mar, 2015

A wonderful piece of thought. We are born as a child and let God bless us with the humility to remain so through our lives.

Ananda Rao

25 Mar, 2015

From mythology whether puranas or fables there remains exception to principles That's why Prahlad defied father's diktat so also Gautam father's request to bequeath the Kingdom result Budha is ever living King of Kings.History that enlarges today's GK - No degree necessary Viswakavi Tagore, family background - Dr Ambedkar, Time - Vivekananda, Money 4 charity - Mother Theres. Yet we clamour for all these and attribute failure due to any one more of these. Your wrteup messages the systematic approach to success with or without any source -- time money or influence.


25 Mar, 2015

Hats off to Ms. Ritika Bajaj. Very good article and really useful. I have also suffered on so many occassions due to this cup overfull factor. Learned something good today. Thanks.

Like (1)

Raghavendra Keshav

25 Mar, 2015

A simple guide to make a change mindset. It says that everybody can change at their level. But we should have a child mindset and open to new thought. Good article.

Like (1)

Sign up for a wealth of Common Sense Living ideas delivered to your Inbox for free every week.