There’s a Zen story that goes something like this: a Buddhist scholar comes to a Zen master and asks him for teaching. The scholar then proceeds to establish his credentials, talking about how long he’s studied, the doctorate he’s received, the professors he’s associated with, the whole thing. The master listens while pouring the scholar some tea. He keeps pouring, and pouring, and pouring until the scholar’s cup runs over.
“Stop!” the scholar says. “The cup is spilling!”
The master nodded. “You are like this cup. You are so full of ideas about Buddhism that I cannot put anything else in. Before I can teach you, you will have to empty your cup.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that parable lately. What does it mean for me to empty my cup? In some contexts, it could mean that I am trying to stuff myself too full of activities — when I try to fill every moment of my life with meaningful effort, some stuff is bound to be spilled; I’ll miss a deadline or drop a project I had meant to run full steam ahead on. In others, it could mean that I have so many ideas about, well, everything — how we should treat each other, how stories should be told, how I should be telling stories — that it’s that much more difficult to be open to new experiences and experiments. Lately I’ve been feeling full, and while in many ways that’s very good, it also means that there is simply no room in my life for much else; for surprises, or new interests, or much of new anything.
I know I wrote a big long post last week on all the stuff that I was planning to do this month; taking advantage of National Novel Writing Month to make meaningful progress on a number of short stories and projects is still in the plan. But I’ve traditionally had problems finding the edges of my cup, and before I know it I’m spilling again; I have to empty it in order to figure out just what I can hold.
That’s the balance I’m trying to find right now. How many things can I do and be only…two-thirds full? What kinds of ideas can I loosen to make room for the new? It feels like so much of growing older is figuring out how not to calcify, how not to fill your life to the brim so that there’s no room for anything else. The world is changing around us, constantly, and in order to be a part of it we must adapt to those changes, accept them as they come, figure out how to shift ourselves to make room for them. It’s difficult work, and ceaseless; it’s Sisyphus and his rock up the hill. But it can happy work.
Last week, I didn’t get nearly as much writing done as I would have liked. I’m not sure if my time management wasn’t up to snuff, or if I was simply too full. Work is still demanding a lot of brain power, and there’s just not a whole lot of it left in the evenings when I get home. I don’t think that makes me lazy or deficient — it takes effort to roll with the changes, and these are big changes that will take me a long time to adapt to. There are some parts of myself that have calcified quite a bit (read: the thought that I AM NOT TECHNICAL), and softening them will require repeated and sustained effort. Is that all I have room for in my cup?
We’ll see. I also ran three times last week; caught up on reading comics that I’m getting into once again; started in on Kindred by Octavia Butler, which I’m sure will be kind of a difficult read; and I’m trying to keep up on housework and cooking a bit more than I have been. Life has a way of…piling these things on top of one another in ways you don’t notice until you sit back and take stock of what you’ve been doing.
These are formless thoughts. I suppose I’m talking through why I haven’t been writing or reading as much as I’d like. That’s what I’ve sat down here to think about; and when I think about it, I’ve been doing a lot. Growing into a role at work that requires more of my mental space than I realized; exercising; changing my diet; keeping the burrow a little neater. Writing and reading keep being pushed off a bit for more immediate concerns. Is that acceptable? Can I ease up on that in order to take care of what’s in front of me?
Hmm. We’re taught as writers that in order to be the writer you want to be, you must MAKE time to write AND to read; that anything else is unacceptable, that if you don’t do this you can’t really call yourself a writer because you simply don’t want it badly enough. But I don’t think that’s quite true. I would love to build a habit of writing, and in many ways I have. It’s not a daily habit, but it’s often enough that I start to get that itch when I haven’t done it in a little while. Maybe, for now, that’s often enough.