Thursday, April 27, 2017

Empty your cup

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There's a story in Zen literature about a scholar who asks a master to teach him.  The scholar tells the master about all he knows, about his opinions on things.  The master, while listening and pouring tea for the scholar, keeps pouring until the scholar's cup was overflowing.  When the scholar remarked how the master was spilling tea everywhere, the master told him that like the cup, the scholar was full (of ideas).  The only way the scholar then could take any more information in was to empty the cup.

An empty cup is ready to receive.

One of our brown belts at the dojo was talking to one of the black belts the other night.  The brown belt has a head full of assumptions about karate and there is no more room in his cup.  I was able to observe what happens when tea is poured in a full cup from this interaction.

When the black belt asked the brown belt what a certain technique was supposed to be about, it took a good 20 seconds for the brown belt to give a straight-forward answer:

"It's a block."
"Ok, what is the block defending against?"
"Well, it's a scooping block."
"A scooping block against what?"
"An attack."
"What kind of attack?"
"Someone punching me."
"Ok, but what kind of punch?"

Once the type of attack was established, it was clear that the punch was unrealistic and never going to ever occur in real-life.  But instead of once acknowledging that this was new, useful information (which myself and almost every experienced martial artist I know has their mind blown with at least once), the brown belt moved quickly to a different aspect:

"So that punch is never, ever going to be used.  Most common punch thrown is a right hook."
"Right, so I was thinking I was blocking it."

Because there was no room to take in new information, the response was to essentially ignore it - without confronting it or dismissing it.  This was mental over-spill, happening in real-time.  And it went on for a couple of minutes, with each new idea, each lesson given having no real effect.  Any sort of conflicting information to what was already in his head created dissonance that made him look at something else or justify what he was doing already was an equal equivalent.  Which, unfortunately, it never was.  His assumptions were filling his head and had been for so long, that it became a habit to mentally zip and dodge information that was being made available.

So think about your own learning, your own understanding of things.  How much can you really take in when presented with new information?  I'm not even talking about information you disagree with, stylistic differences, and the like.  I'm talking about learning things that might help you move better, play faster, teach more efficiently, etc.  Information that had you been a beginner, you would have absorbed with enthusiasm.

Emptying the cup doesn't mean you forget the lessons you've learned, only that you don't assume that's all there is to know.  It means putting your ego aside for a little while (which is hard, really hard at times!) and having a beginner's mind with the material presented to you.  Eventually your cup will fill again, and you'll have to keep emptying it, but as difficult as this process might be, what's the alternative?  Never learning anything new, and never understanding new ideas and concepts that make things you do now even easier?  I think it's worth the effort, yes?

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