Monday, October 26, 2009

Real Life Tao - An Empty Bowl

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu makes mention more than once about the importance of space and emptiness. A cup or a bowl has no utility nor definition if it simply is one solid mass. It is the void that we fill up with Corn Flakes, hot cocoa or water. Try doing the same thing with a block of wood or a lump of clay! There's no place for the new substance to go, so it spills on the floor.

While Lao Tzu may write about bowls and cups, he's really talking about our hearts and minds. When we fill ourselves to the brim with preconceived notions, self-inflated opinions and the pompous belief that we know it all, we are blocking our ability to learn and grow. We often end up behaving like children who clamp their hands over their ears and shout, "I'm not listening. I'm not listening."

I think I can well provide an apt illustration by telling you about an experience of mine which I've written about before.

As I think this blog will easily attest to, writing comes natural to me. While many people struggle mightily to put a few cogent thoughts on paper, mine come streaming out in torrents. In fact, I express myself far better in this written medium that I do when speaking!

By junior high school, I had two poems published in prestigious literary magazines. Throughout adolescence, I won speech writing contests, served as a reporter on several student newspapers and rather easily commanded top grades in English and writing classes. I was known by classmates and teachers alike as a top notch writer.

By the time I entered college, I was convinced several Pulitzer Prizes and other such awards lay in my bright future! I chose journalism as one of my undergraduate majors, both because I love writing and thought I could earn top grades with little effort.

The first class I enrolled in was Feature Writing (creative writing with a journalistic bent). The first assignment handed out was for students to write a 500-word humorous column. I chuckled. This was right up my alley! In less than one hour, I wrote my column on the often funny and confusing information on highway signs.

I perused my work once and signed my name. I knew in my heart of hearts that my paper would blow my professor away and he would fall all over himself telling me what an accomplished writer I was.

I'm sure you can imagine my utter dismay when my paper was given back to me with an initial grade of B-. He's giving me a B-?! Who in the hell does this guy think he is? Not only was a large B- on the top of the page 1, but he had scribbled several notes and questions throughout the paper. In class, he told us that we could each work to improve on our initials grades by turning in subsequent drafts.

So, I dutifully wrote a second draft which wasn't that different from the first draft. I thought, have can I improve on such genius?

When I received my paper back the second time, the B remained, only the "-" had been removed. What is this guy's problem? What does he want from me?

I went back and wrote a third draft. This time I incorporated one or two of his suggestions. OK, I thought, he can't have any problems with this one. I would finally receive the A I should have received in the first go around.

Well, my grade inched up to a B+, but no A. I asked for a conference. Because my long-term memory is fuzzy, at best, I don't remember any of the particulars of our meeting. However, I do remember the life long lessons received.

What Dr. Downs told me was that much is expected from people who have superior skills in a given area. Yes, we could skate by without much effort and perform better than the average person, but, if we don't apply ourselves, we're wasting our talents.

It was only when I emptied myself of my pomposity that I came to understand and be filled again with his message. In time, I completely rewrote my column two or three times and each time I scrutinized my writing even more. I received an A+ on my final draft.

This one episode represented a key turning point in my life as a writer. To this day, when I start to slide backwards and get a little too full of myself, I remember what Dr. Downs taught me. Even though writing comes easily to me, I put a lot of work into it because much is expected of any person with a special skill or aptitude.

I have become the writer than I am today because I allowed myself -- after a lot of resistance -- to be an empty bowl.

What about you?

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. I was sitting outside a cafe in Vientiane the capital of Laos and the city is quiet, unimpressive an quite tiny. The most bombed country in the history of man is mostly jungle and their capital is smaller than many towns I've been to. I was reading a lot about Buddha and wondering how you could truly reach this state of happiness. This was on the back of almost a year with the Tao Te Ching as my only book and "the quest for happiness" was a little bit of a mystery to me. I sat alone looking over the brown river and my mind became silent, I then heard my self saying "Seeking happiness is surely the definition of unhappiness" and I picked up my notepad and wrote "why seek happiness, when the quest only defines sadness, breathe deep and sit, for this is it!"

    I stood up and walked to the edge of the river with a deep smile that started somewhere at the small of my back and wrapped over my face.

  2. i love both your stories. :) i don't really have an "ah ha!" moment with my empty bowl lesson, but it is a very familiar concept to me.

    i remember vividly one art class where the teacher came up to me to give me some advice. like you're talented at writing, everyone else thinks i'm talented in art, so they usually don't give me any criticism, just praise. i love detail, and usually fill my page with it. however the teacher in this art class came up to me and gave me some great wisdom.- art is only half about what you draw or paint, and half about what you leave undrawn or unpainted. the space you leave blank draws attention to the space that is filled, and is just as important.

    i pondered on this bit of wisdom for a long time, in fact i'm still pondering on it, because it seems to have many applications in day to day life.

  3. Wonderful article,thanks for putting this together! "This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here. Keep it up!"
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