Have you ever heard that empty cup metaphor before?
You have to empty your cup, before you can fill it up.
Or, maybe you’ve heard one of the container metaphors.
Meditation is about widening or expanding your container.
I don’t like either of these.
The emptying your cup metaphor carries this implicit judgement that you must first let go of everything you’ve learned up to this point, if you’re ever going to really grasp whatever it is that’s being taught.
The container metaphor sounds great; whilst I’m ever suspicious of any lesson about a spiritual practice that will, in essence, allow you to do things better than you once could.
Ah! But here comes this or that practice! Let’s use Buddhist teachings as an example for the emptying-cup metaphor.
One teaching within Buddhism is that of egolessness, or this idea that the us we may have believed to be quite static, is in fact rather turbulent. So empty this cup of our past beliefs, in order that we may now fill it with concepts that feel more pleasing; like oneness, or maybe that all is love, and so on.
we also could look at this cup, however, as that which holds everything we’ve learnt; everything we hold onto that has helped shape us as people.
Now, with the container metaphor, let’s use meditation as an example.
We could look at this metaphoric container from a perspective of how we deal with life’s difficulties. As those things we struggle with continue to fill our containers, eventually they overflow. Our container is just too full. We feel overwhelmed, burnt-out, or distressed. Luckily, we might come into such a practice as meditation, where all of a sudden it would seem, as we sit with ourselves, that we gain a greater capacity to hold our feelings. All of a sudden, those things that seemed so overwhelming now feel less so, and we begin to feel as if we can work with them with greater ease.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for meditation, or yogasana, or whatever else you find that helps you; life is hard, and it can be useful to find ways that make everything feel a little easier.
To keep with the cup and container metaphors (because I do like them), I prefer to think about these practices as a kind of drill (bear with me) we’ve newly discovered, and have found we can poke a hole in the bottom of our cups with. As our cups fill, often always to the brim, we start to find that – hopefully – just enough is dripping out the bottom. Our cups are still quite full, mind; we’ve only begun trusting that it is never too much for us. We can actually hold all of that and keep walking, and slowly, maybe even begin learning how to run with it.
I just don’t think our containers get bigger. In fact, I tend to think that this line of thinking holds some subtle judgement that something was wrong with our containers to begin with. Maybe our containers have always been just right.
Nor do I think we ought to try and empty them. This pop-spiritual idea that enlightenment is the state in which we have dropped our egos and are completely one with all things feels rather more problematic than anything. First of all, there is again this judgement that something was wrong with ourselves up to this point; that there is a better place to get to. Secondly, and unless you plan to go find a cave somewhere and exit the world entirely, all of life’s shit is going to continue piling up for you; that cup is going to keep getting filled. Thirdly, to what extent are we trying to white-wash over the things that make us uncomfortable? Is there some flavour of resistance to taking responsibility in the culture and society we’ve found ourselves in?
As we continually attempt to empty our cups, we are – on some level – telling ourselves that all of it ought to go. That it would be better not to have it at all. How self-aggressive is that, really, when we think about it? This anxiety, this anger, this grief, this overwhelm and distress I am feeling, it’s not okay. It needs to go.
I actually think it is far more friendly to ourselves if we, rather than pushing all of these hardships away – and try to empty our containers – we instead let them be there. They’ll probably keep coming, is the thing.
This is basically the goal of vajrayana Buddhism, or tantra; learning to hold our extremes more lightly, whilst continuing to keep exploring them. We don’t exit the world at this stage; we play deeply in it. We love, and we hate, and we grieve, and we praise. We do all of this with the spaciousness of knowing that it’s all okay to feel. It can be overwhelming, and yet it will probably be alright.
This is all akin to the four immeasurables we find taught within Buddhism. We start with ourselves; we continue on with others (or, the Buddhist concept of the bodhisattva ideal).
So yeah. Don’t empty your cup. Don’t try to change your container.