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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.
Blogs about inhabiting this present moment

My Cup Overflows: A Zen Tale Adapted

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 26th 2013

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.

tea being poured in teacupHe 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.

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.


Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician in private practice in Pleasanton, CA in the East San Francisco Bay area. Licensed as a psychologist in California since 1987 and in the field since 1976, he specializes in Presence-centered therapy principally with adults and couples. Presence-centered therapy is a conscious attuning to the richness of this present moment (sometimes called mindfulness or wakefulness) along with witnessing, that is, observing what the mind is up to now by looking from outside of it. His practice is centered upon inhabiting this present moment, witnessing and "buying out" of the ego-mind's unworkable patterns, desensitizing root emotional charges, and gaining effective tools to thrive in the world. He specializes in providing therapy for adults facing anxiety, significant stress, work issues, relationship challenges and depression as well as couples with marital issues, communication issues, self-defeating behavior, divorce mediation, co-parenting and pre-marital counseling. Core to his approach is installing, building and developing strong internal resources, an enhanced capacity to hold, bear and tolerate strong emotions, and highly adaptive tools to better thrive in the world.He can be reached directly through his website (featuring over 215 articles, 27 YouTube videos and pages upon pages of highly practical annotated resource links) or by email at . Dr. Friedman is available for business consulting, business training and executive coaching (detail on his home page).

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