There is a parable often told to show that we need to be willing to learn and set aside our prejudices. (For example in the beautiful book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones).

The seeker approaches the wise one, seeking to be their disciple. The wise one takes on the humble role of serving tea to the seeker. He fills the seeker’s cup and keeps pouring until the seeker shouts out, “Stop it is already full”. The wise one says, “How can you learn from me if you won’t first empty your cup?”.

I find this a very beautiful and moving story. I love it for its wit and insight. It’s a great reminder of the need to remain learners and of how often we presume to understand.

There is one application of it that I particularly dislike – to education. I have unfortunately suffered through classes where I’ve been told that we should become like children and empty our cup.

I have several difficulties with this.

1. So often the teaching is just boring. But then this can be dismissed as ‘just your mind, you need to empty your cup’ and so forth. It is the “just” I have trouble with.
2. It presumes that the teacher is a master. Unfortunately, this is far from always the case.
3. It presumes that any critical faculty should be set aside. I think judging the truth of what someone says against my experience is very precious – and not to be dismissed (this is very different to pre-judging what someone says).
4. Our past experience may contain very useful resources. To dismiss the past totally seems silly.
5. I think it is better to become aware of our past, what resources we can bring to bear on the new experience, and so appreciate more and more keenly what is new in the new experience.

Adults are different to young children. The biggest difference being that they have had lots of experiences. These may lead to prejudices, but they can also contain many treasures: lessons learned painfully or joyfully.

How we stop our experience becoming prejudice. I think there are two basic approaches.
1. Be curious about what is new.
2. Be conscious of what in the past relates to what is new.

Here are some things to try to stop being imprisoned by prejudice.

  • Take a familiar object (say a piece of furniture) and examine it closely.

Find out how many parts it has, how they fit together, what it is made of, what the parts are that you don’t normally see. You can then, if you wish, move on to examining closely other familiar things (such as thoughts, feelings and relationships).

  • Find what naturally attracts your attention.

You can do this by just going for a walk and paying attention to what catches your eye (if you are somewhere that you can do this). You can do this by recalling the past day (or week or year or your lifetime). What are the things that stand out for you? What is it about these things or memories that are capturing your attention?

Using past experience.  You can do this with the past two things (furniture and experiences) or try something new.

  • With the piece of furniture, see if you can recall other pieces of furniture of the same type. How is this piece different? What does it have in common with other pieces of furniture you’ve had experience of? Which do you prefer – this one or other ones? In what way?
  • With what catches your attention on your walk or in your remembering, recall other similar things you have experience of. If a bird catches your attention, compare it with other birds you have known – e.g. size, shape, colour, way of flying . . . Is this bird different to other ones you have known? If so, in what way? You get the idea: with whatever catches your attention bring to attention how your past relates to it.
  • Likewise with the memories. Recall similar incidents from the past and compare them with the present. You will probably end up with a good sense of what makes the incident you are recalling unique.
  • If you are learning something new, write down as much as you can that you know about the subject. Some things that you ‘know’ may turn out to be wrong, but this will probably help you figure out what those things are.

I’m not sure that we can empty our mind in some senses. Perhaps immersing ourselves in the new is emptying our minds in some sense. I do think that being aware of our interests and our past will help us learn.

Have you had my problem with the ‘empty cup’ approach to teaching adults? Perhaps the ‘empty cup’ approach has been very valuable to you. I’d like to hear your experience in the comments to this post.

If you liked this post you might also like,

Life can be delightful, maps can be useful

Less Stress and More Energy from Finishing with the Past

Would you like to feel less stressed?
Could you do with more joy in your life?

The answer is living authentically. Buy the book or sign up for the course now from my Living Authentically website.

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8 Comments to “Learning and the Past”

  1. Evan, perhaps a better analogy to the ’empty the cup’ would be ‘take a bigger cup, pour the contents of the old into it, add the new content and stir’.

    I find the analogy (or is it a metaphor?) useful as a reminder to keep an open mind. Metaphors (or is it an analogy) can be taken too far sometimes.

  2. Evan says:

    Ian, I love that better analogy. It has the feeling of something that will become part of me. When I use it in the future I hope I will remember to acknowledge you as the source.

    I too use the metaphor/analogy as a reminder. I just feel that it is being freighted with some very unhelpful stuff. The empty cup is becoming a very full cup indeed.

    Thanks, as always, for you comment – you have added value to the discussion once again.

  3. sarah luczaj says:

    Hi Evan, and Ian,

    I think the original zen story is speaking on a spiritual level – and as such it should be taken literally.

    It doesn’t really work as a metaphor for teaching and learning, in which case all the ‘stuff’ we contain is of a lot of use, and our critical faculties are vital!

  4. Evan says:

    Sarah, I do agree re teaching. Unfortunately some teachers influenced by this tradition do not – their classes I don’t find enjoyable. Thanks for your comment.

  5. sarah luczaj says:

    aha – you talking about zen teachers?

  6. Evan says:

    Some teachers of music in the zen tradition are ones I’ve personally endured. In some ways standard western teaching does this too – but usually by the teacher assuming the student doesn’t know anything (in the mug and jug approach the mug is assumed to be empty).

  7. Thanks for this Evan. One point I’d add is that, if we’re hearing a teacher say something and we have some negative reaction — maybe we tighten up inside — we can also be curious about what’s having that reaction come up, so that both the teaching and our reactions are objects of our curiosity. An example would be asking a question like “why does this person’s political view seem like such a threat to me that my body is getting ready to fight?” I think that can produce some valuable self-awareness.

  8. Evan says:

    Thanks Chris, you make a valuable point, with which I entirely agree.

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