Taming Your Ego and Open Your Mind
One of the first things a mentor told me when I began my journey in entrepreneurship was that I needed to empty my cup. To help me understand he told me the story of Master Suzuki, who was a master of the Art of Zen. People came to him from all over the world in search of counsel and guidance. Students came from far and wide hoping to be trained by him. To be a student of Master Suzuki was considered an honor and privilege since his training programs were tough and students took years to get through each level of training.
One fine morning, a student showed up at his doorstep wanting to learn from him.
“I have spent the last 7 years studying the mystical arts of the orient; Tai Chi, Wushu, Shaolin, Taekwondo and Hapkido. I am now ready to master the art of Zen,” he proudly stated.
Master Suzuki told him he could not accept him as a student. The young aspirant was taken aback and couldn’t understand why he was being turned away. He tried to explain that he was not a newbie, and his earlier training had prepared him well to learn the art of Zen.
Finally, Master Suzuki invited him in for a cup of tea. He placed two empty cups between them and asked the young aspirant to pour him a cup of tea. The young man picked up the teapot and started pouring. As the tea began to rise to the brim, he stopped. But Master Suzuki said, “I didn’t ask you to stop. Please continue pouring.”
Puzzled, the young man continued to pour and soon the cup was full. Master Suzuki motioned for him to continue pouring and the tea now began to overflow on to the tatami mat below. The master pointed to the now overflowing tea cup and said, “This is you. And that teapot is filled with the knowledge awaiting you. But you are already so full of your own opinions that nothing more can be added. How can I teach you anything else unless you first empty your cup?”
Since that first time I have heard many different variations of this story. And each time, the lessons from it remain unchanged, though my own understanding of the lessons has evolved over time.
In this story, the tea represents knowledge. That which already exists in the cup is our ego. The fuller our cup the bigger our ego.
If you have a full cup, it means you think you already know everything and that prevents you from learning anything new. To empty the cup is to empty yourself of the ego. To learn is to open your eyes to the wonders of the world and everything it has to offer. The more you learn, the more you know. And yet, you can never know it all.
I have realized that emptying the cup is not about forgetting what you already know. It is about suppressing the ego. The ego does not dissipate so easily. The ego fundamentally resents change. It will not allow the ingestion of new knowledge, for its purpose is always to retain the status quo. Our true battle has always been and will probably always be the one with the ego.
This parable is also an attempt to show how much of a role the ego plays in our social interactions. Even when we go to someone for advice, our self-perceptions and desires cannot help but show up. How often do we tune out the words of others, listening not with the intent to understand but thinking instead of how we are going to respond or what we are going to say next?
The process of emptying your cup is not a one-time act. It is a continuous process, and one we need to practice on a daily basis. I practice an hour of silent introspection each day as my way of emptying my cup. During my hour of silence, I see my ego for what it is and my conscience steps forward in all of its clarity.
The ego has full access to your intellect, which means it knows all of your weaknesses. There is nothing you can hide from it. Its greatest opponent and sparring partner is your conscience. Like your conscience, your ego knows all. Hence, it can be as sly and crafty as you are. It is the worst embodiment of all your weaknesses rolled into one. To defeat it, your conscience needs to be louder, clearer, and bolder. An emboldened conscience is your best defense.
Emptying the cup is not just important it’s critical to preserving your sanity, your clarity, and your ability to grow. Empty your cup before your life is emptied of its purpose.