My Cup Overflows: A Zen Tale Adapted

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

A widely admired and learned professor, in his mature years, developed a profound interest in the spiritual dimension. After much intensive study, combining logical research with a growing sense of intuitive direction, he chose a holy person to be his personal teacher.

He began a yearlong sabbatical by visiting his teacher. The journey took him halfway around the world to a remote village high in the Himalayan Mountains. To reach it, he had to hire a skilled guide and small support party for the arduous trek. At last the professor arrived at his guru’s spiritual retreat.


His host greeted him with a smile, his face radiating love and affection. At once the professor began talking about all he had heard and read about the holy man, what he hoped to learn and his own background.

After a few minutes, the holy man gently interrupted. “Please, excuse me. Shall we have some tea?” The professor nodded but went on talking about what was important to him to learn and how he wanted the holy man to instruct him.

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He was interrupted again when a devotee of the spiritual leader brought in a tray with a simple earthen pot, two cups and a beautiful flower in a vase. The holy man picked up the pot and began to pour the tea. As his guest continued to talk, the holy man filled the professor’s cup to the rim, and went on pouring.

The professor cried out in surprise. “Stop! Stop! What are you doing? Don’t you see that my cup is already full?”

The holy man put down the teapot and looked directly into his guest’s eyes. “I can teach you nothing.”

At first the professor was angry and upset. Gradually this yielded to real confusion. “How come?” he asked. “I don’t understand.”

The holy man replied, “Your mind is filled with all your ideas about me, my teachings, what you will learn, and what you think you already know. There is no room for anything else. For me to teach you anything would be like pouring tea into a cup already full.” After a moment’s pause he added, “For you to learn anything, you must first begin by emptying your cup.”

The ancient version of this story ends here. Thereafter I like to imagine what might have happened next. Perhaps the holy man invited this professor to visit him again, if and when he desired. Perhaps days, weeks, months, or years later the professor did greet the holy man once again. And perhaps at this second encounter, the professor was quiet, demonstrating respect for what was beyond words. His attitude would now be one of genuine humility, gratitude, and reverence for living and learning.

It was clear to all that the professor might have learned that there was much he did not know. He had to empty his cup so that there was space inside himself to receive something new. The re-born professor humbly observed, “There’s nothing quite like releasing what is unnecessary to allow an acceptance of what is essential.”

As the holy man then would naturally welcome the transformed professor to study with him, I can imagine the holy man’s eyes twinkling as he declares to the professor, “Sometimes it takes losing your mind to come to your senses.”


This timeless Zen tale portrays the need to wake up to our assumptions, prejudices and past learning’s in order to make room within us for new information and understanding. Open minds are receptive, not resistant, to adaptive changes. Paradoxically, what we hold tightest to blocks exactly what we most desire, while gradual release of our attachments actually sparks our growth in realizing our dreams.

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