A very brilliant professor was invited to see Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) to inquire about zen. The professor bubbled with enthusiasm sharing his research and knowledge, the doctrines he had extensively studied, the sutras he knew by heart.
Nan-in poured tea while the professor spoke. The master kept pouring, pouring until the glass overflowed.
“Can't you see it's already full!? It's spilling all over the floor!”
“Like this cup” said Nan-in, “you are full of ideas and opinions. How can you learn the way if your cup is not empty?”
Crippled by knowledge and information, we too often live in a tomb of disenchantment. Too serious to dance in the rain, too cautious to build sandcastles by the sea, we are frozen by our own experience, expertise and fear.
The art of innovation and of staying beginners is to empty our cups again and again, to remain childlike and playful with eyes always open and fresh.
The Beginner's Mind
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki
When we learn something new, we give our whole attention to it. It is an adventure where the mind listens completely and the senses are alive. But as it gradually becomes familiar, we lose that sense of wonder. The more knowledge and memories we store about a subject, the more our awareness dims; our thoughts conform to a pattern and we think in trenches, unable to see something in an entirely new light.
As we collect the dust of experience, we cover life's opportunities. A child sees a rose as a rose without saying what it is. An adult sees an ornament of romance and hangups and is wary of its thorns. The latter's experience blocks their ability to see beauty as beauty, whereas the former sees without the need to name, label, or impart meaning.
What happens when our eyes can no longer see our work with the same excitement, the same freshness and joy? The security of our careers, our titles and degrees requires us to trade our freedom for the convenience of labels and the comforts of routine. But when we physically and mentally roam in only the space we know, we stunt our growth, dwarf our opportunities, and clip our roots like bonsai trees.
The Fear of Not Knowing
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H. P. Lovecraft
Fear is a life-protective measure and a form of intelligence. If a snake crosses your path, you move out of the way; if a building is on fire, you get out. But fear can become pathological, making you afraid of things which have no cause for fear: the fear of losing your job, the fear of public speaking, the fear of failing or making mistakes. This kind of fear is abnormal. It creates indecisiveness and stagnation. Rather than take action, we fear failure and lose opportunities for innovation and joy.
Courage, on the other hand, is not the absence of fear, but rather the acceptance of fear. The risks are still there, but you act in spite of them, pushing new boundaries and opening new doors. When most of us begin something such as a new task or skill, we have nothing to lose so we have nothing to fear. In fact, fear is about losing what we possess, of losing the comfort of certainty and what we know
It was Socrates, one of the most beloved founding fathers of Western civilization, who said “I know that I know nothing,” courageously defending his views or the right to question them even when they led to his death. But we don't need to be martyrs in order to live courageously and question everything we know. We simply must become beginners who see each day full of new possibilities.
The Shattered Cup
Zen master Ikkyu was very clever, even as a young boy. When he got into trouble, which was often, his quick wits always found a way to get him out. But one day he dropped his master’s beloved teacup, a precious gift and rare antique, which shattered the moment it hit the ground.
The young monk knew he was in trouble. But before he could think or formulate a plan, he heard footsteps approaching! He quickly swept up the pieces, hid them in his robe, only to turn around and see his master eyeing him.
“Is something the matter, Ikkyu?” the old man asked.
“No master…I was just wondering why…why must people die?”
“It’s natural” said the master “everything must experience both life and death. When it’s time, even you will die”.
“Should we be upset about it?”
“Nonsense. It’s a fact we must accept.”
“Master” said Ikkyu as he revealed the shattered cup “it was time for your tea cup to die!”
It's time to play like children and see through fresh eyes. To once again be beginners and restore our passion and excitement for new possibilities.
Its time to break our cups so that we can fill them again.
Listen to this episode of the Killer Innovations Podcast: To Innovate You Must Have A Beginners Mind
- Image Credit: iStock
- Music by Bensound