A Glass Half Full:  Introduction to the Beginner's Mind


    Whether a glass is half empty or half full has been debated for quite some time, but I am going to use the analogy for the purpose of introducing and exploring a different concept, the beginners mind.  The story of Zen master Nan-in was first introduced to me by participation in the professional training program by the Centers for Mind Body Medicine. The story highlights the importance of keeping an open mind or beginners mind.  Whenever we feel that we have become an expert, we arrest the process of growth, learning, and expansion of awareness.  I wanted to explore the concept further while taking into account the relationship between confidence in knowledge, wisdom, and expansion of awareness.  

    The concept of the beginners mind is not something new, and can trace its roots back to an ancient Asian story.  In the tale, a professor of philosophy travels to the Zen master Nan-in to debate with the Zen master. The professor arrives with the intention to prove his superiority as the foremost expert in dharma, the Zen concept of spirituality.  When the professor arrives, he begins to argue and talk about Zen to Nan-in. As the professor speaks, Nan-in quietly begins serving tea.  Nan-in fills the professor’s cup to the brim and continues to pour even as tea runs over the sides of the cup.  The shower of tea catches the professors attention. “It’s Full! No more will go in,”  he began to shout.  

    Nan-in replies, “This is you, how can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?”

    In some versions of the legend, after he sees the wisdom behind Nan-in’s actions, the professor pledges to learn under Nan-in and becomes his disciple. What does this old tale have to do with the idea of a cup half full?  In contrast to an empty cup, a cup half full, adds an additional layer of complexity by addressing the idea of balance.  

    As we grow up as children, we are taught the particular traditions, rules, ideas, and philosophies of our culture and civilizations.  Many of these ideas, traditions, and rules are becoming rigid, outdated, and no longer seem to fit who and what we are in this moment and who and what we wish to become.  Sometimes these ideas can be so ingrained in our thought and behavior patterns, that indeed our cup becomes quite full and does not allow for change.  A cup flowing over with tea does not allow for the natural flows of consciousness.  So do we empty our cup completely and start anew, this could be quite psychologically jarring, or is there a gentler, more natural path?

    When we find our cup full and stagnant with the ideas of the past that no longer suit us, what do we do?  This requires a good bit of honest self reflection.  If hoping to get past a state of stagnation, the individual must take a look under many of the psychological, emotional, and physical stones that dot the landscape of the mind.  This allows an examination of which elements we find in this landscape that are no longer wanted or needed.  Do the notions of what we have been told we are, what our roles are, what reality is, still fit within our own current state of mind or the state of mind in which we wish to foster? 

    The balanced state of mind belongs to a person who periodically engages in self reflection.  Through this act of self reflection, our glass can be maintained at half full.  In the story of Nan-in, If the cup represents the contents of our mind, can we really ever empty the cup?  To me, the idea of emptying the cup to allow more in, implies that our experience can be lost.  Experience is never lost.  It can be pushed to the background of the subconscious but never is it lost.  This is necessary, because, if all our experiences were right in the forefront of awareness, we would be utterly overwhelmed.   We may have been at this game of life for quite some time, and the contents of the subconscious would be staggering if presented in full to our conscious awareness.  Having all of our conscious experience in front of us would even threaten our physical survival. This process and interchange of information from the conscious mind to the subconscious mind occurs quite naturally, we do at times tap into the vastness of the subconscious contents stowed away, such as experienced in the nocturnal dream time.  

    When they are treated not as unwelcome guests but an opportunity for growth, emotional reactions can act as a roadmap for self reflection.  They can they be used to point to areas were we might want to take out some of the contents of the our cup and empty it into the subconscious.   The emotions can indeed become overwhelming, but can be accepted and neutralized using techniques such as meditation and diaphragmatic breathing that allow an individual to maintain a grounded state.  When practiced and that grounded state is maintained, if strong emotions arrive to teach us, each will come in a way that is tolerable and gentle.  Accepting the often uncomfortable emotions of fear, sadness, anger, and paranoia can transform them from demons plaguing our existence, to great teachers pointing out areas for growth.  

    Fear is one of the strongest roadblocks to self-examination and emptying the contents of our cup.  Fear of losing some aspect of the personality structure through the process of change can be particularly strong.  These fear responses are primarily driven by the imagination.  When fear is accepted and consciously recognized, it can often point to growth opportunities through the development of new personality aspects.  

    In my mind, the idea of the empty cup nicely highlights the importance of maintaining an openness to new ideas.  Being completely empty would imply that we have no knowledge.  An empty cup would represent a mind that was open to new ideas but lacked confidence in what it did know.  The mind with a completely empty cup might be afraid to display its wisdom out of a lack of confidence.   A cup completely full would be just as problematic as there was no room for anything new and it could grow stagnant.  A cup or glass half full accounts both for the importance of recognizing our own wisdom while simultaneously having room to learn new things.  A cup half full allows us to maintain the beginners mind, but also recognize the importance of our own acquired inner wisdom and knowledge.

    If we are constantly acquiring new knowledge and experience, new liquid inside our cup, then how do we stop the cup from constantly filling up and running over?  I believe the primary process is driven by expansion of awareness.  As we expand our ideas of who and what we are we can increase the size of our cup.  This allows simultaneously an expansion of knowledge, experience, and wisdom, while still maintaining room for new knowledge. This can occur because we have expanded our conscious awareness of who and what we are, the size of the cup itself.  When we attempt to arrest the expansion of conscious awareness by doubling down on outdated ideas, judgment to self and others, unhealthy competition, disconnection, violence, division, than our cups/awareness stop growing and the cup begins to run over just like in the story of Nan-in.  

    When our cups run over we often receive a call to change.  This can arrive in the form of an illness, stuck or extreme emotional responses, or a variety of different forms.   We may have friends, family, or a great teacher help us bail out a few buckets from our overflowing cups, but ultimately we must do our own work of self reflection to carry out the often difficult task of expanding awareness.  When approached with the light heart of compassion both to self and others this expansion can flow naturally.  The appearance of the external world around us evolving is simply an illusion for the real evolution occurs in the hearts, mind, and souls of each and every one of us and is simply reflected back to us as what we see as an external reality.  A cup half full helps maintain the balance between knowledge, wisdom and the ever expanding sense of awareness.