Learning mind – Rivers of Tea and Psychic Denial

A Zen master was sitting down to tea and quiet reflection as the sun started its decent over the horizon, when a stranger arrived.
“Excuse me” the stranger asked with polite urgency, “I have been told that a Zen master of the highest order lives on this slope”. The master looked at the stranger with kind eyes which the stranger took as a cue to continue; “I am from the new philosophy department at the university”, he stood a little straighter, catching his breath, “and I am here to see what you can teach me”.
The master unfurled aged fingers to indicate a place on the other side of the small, low table “Would you like some tea?”cupsmall
The stranger nodded and continued “I have studied with masters of more than a dozen philosophical and religious disciplines and have written many books on Buddhism”. The master, having poured his own tea, turned his attention to the stranger’s cup whilst continuing to give audience. “And I have heard that you are one of the wisest men in these parts and so have come to hear what you have to …” the stranger leapt up narrowly avoiding a small river of boiling liquid cascading over his already full cup, the master kept pouring with a slight sigh. “My cup is already full!” the stranger spat his words as though they still contained his unfinished sentence.
The master stopped pouring and spoke with the gentle smile he had never lost; “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Whilst this story has many versions, one of which was a Brice Lee favourite (no doubt he encountered many of his own cup-full students) it exemplifies something that I am coming across more and more in the modern age.

I have, for most of my professional life, been a trainer. Sometimes management training, sometimes personal effectiveness, sometimes team and culture change programmes, and whether explicitly or implicitly the only thing I have ever asked for, and required to be successful, is empty cups. Or at least half-empty. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t about not being able to convince, I have also made successes of sessions where people have turned up arms folded with a firm belief that they have more knowledge than anyone in the room. But in an ideal world you don’t want a battle of knowledge and will and it is the capacity to accept incoming information without a significant ‘filter’ (so less gets through) that I value the most. Once you have ‘received’ the information you can do what you like with it.

So a subtler, and perhaps more pervasive version of ‘full cups’ is ‘Already always listening’ (AAL) derived from the ideas of Werner Erhard and the EST programme. AAL is the sum total of all of your experiences and the things you ‘know’ to be ‘true’ – which my experience are a heuristics your brain uses for things you ‘think’ are ‘likely’ as they may rarely stand up to even self-originated scrutiny.

Whilst your particular filter is unique to you it is sometimes selective in its application for example:
“What can someone younger than me teach me”
“This person always talks non-sense”
“Urgh its one of those feminists/macho men”
“I’m too busy and this isn’t worthy of my time”

As judgemental as the above might sound they may well be running all the time. That’s why I call them subtle. They may well be things you don’t wish to admit to, but they may well kick in before you have time to really observe them. Another argument for mindful listening, which goes far beyond the ‘active listening’ training that featured heavily in my early training career.

We shouldn’t be too tough on our AALs though. They protect us from ‘wasted’ time, ‘toxic’ experiences and situations that could deplete our daily decision making capacity. However, like all habits they need reviewing on a regular basis to determine their usefulness. This is easier said than done since they may not always be entirely compatible with our self-image.

One of my least palatable AALs, as someone who prides themselves on being an ‘open-minded critic’, relates to my mum. She is an advocate of spiritual healing and all things psychic, concepts which I am open to. But on the basis of current scientific enquiry I have formed the belief that there is a lot more opportunity for exploitation than there is for life enhancing experiences (for which there are plenty of non-psychic interventions). The initial feeling is laudable – I want to protect my family. Out outcome is less so – a sort of internal call screening which says ‘Press 1 for psychic evangelism’ and promptly cuts the caller off. I’m winning the war against this defence mechanism, but not all the battles …

What are your AALs? When do they serve you and when do they remove an opportunity to be pleasantly surprised?


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