I recently opened what I like to call my bedside book of inspiration, ‘The Book of Awakening’ by Mark Nepo, on the following parable by Canadian academic and writer Leroy Little Bear:
“Two scientists traveled halfway round the world to ask a Hindu sage what he thought about their theories. When they arrived, he kindly brought them into his garden and poured them a cup of tea. Though the two small cups were full, the sage kept pouring. Tea kept over-flowing and the scientists politely but awkwardly said, “Your holiness, the cups can hold no more.” The sage stopped pouring and said, “Your minds are like cups. You know too much. Empty your minds and come back. Then we’ll talk.”” – Leroy Little Bear
I am certainly not a master, nor a transcendental saint! However, I do have a fascination with subjects like theology, psychology, and metaphysics, and I wholeheartedly try to live by the inherently loving principles of these fields of knowledge. The metaphysical mystic in me humbly believes that we are all just trying to do the best we can from our own level of understanding (or misunderstanding). Every individual, albeit from differing levels of consciousness, is trying to make sense of this somewhat crazy, fast-paced, interconnected world we are living in. We are all just learning as we go, with phases of growth and phases of rest, and hopefully we are moving forwards and not backwards on the consciousness evolution!
I would like to point this out, as it is important to know, that I do not condemn scientists for finding themselves in the place they are in, and for their curiosity and interest. I am sure that the sage does not either. In fact, I admire people who have inquisitive minds and I am in no way disputing the importance of knowledge or learning. It is human nature to want to know more, to push ourselves- and therefore humanity- forward. Just like the scientists in Leroy Little Bear’s text we are continually pursuing knowledge, constructing and deconstructing information, searching for validation of our theories, over-thinking and sorting life in our heads, and travelling halfway across the world (or world-wide-web) for answers. And so often we are having our tea and drinking it – armored with our knowledge and preaching it!
However, just like a tea bag that has been drained of its goodness, there comes a point where we cannot offer more value by pursuing the same thoughts or by maintaining the same perspectives as before. Often, when we feel like we have stagnated or become caught up in problems that we cannot seem to overcome, all we really need to do is empty our minds, breathe and let go to gain greater clarity and further insight. And this is what the sage teaches us.
Now, have you got your cup of tea, or rather your empty teacup? Let me elaborate on why I think the sage’s message is so powerful and relevant in business today. Here is my take on knowing too much and the advantages of emptying the mind. Or in other words, here are my reasons to believe in meditation (or mindfulness) as a means to greater awareness, knowledge, and success in business.
Despite the esoteric nature of meditation: “It has been defined as a practice where an individual trains the mind or induces a mode of consciousness, either to realize some benefit or for the mind to simply acknowledge its content without becoming identified with that content, or as an end in itself”. Meditation is the awareness that we are not our thoughts, nor our feelings, but rather that we are the listener or the feeler beyond these passing states of mind. In other words, meditation is a way to empty the mind or reframe our point of reference.
Whether one is sitting down on a mat, crossed-legged with one’s eyes closed, or sitting down with a friend and a cup of tea, one can choose to become fully present in the moment and entirely aware of one’s thoughts as being just thoughts. Like passing clouds in the blue sky, our thoughts and feelings come and go. It is the awareness of the impermanence and transitory nature of our thinking, and our detachment to it, that frees the mind and allows space for innovative thought, and blue sky thinking.
Meditation- or mindfulness- is an active way of emptying the mind. The practice of meditation stems back to antiquity and is known to have been a component of numerous religious traditions and beliefs. Some of the earliest references to meditation are found in the Hindu Vedas of Nepal and India. Today, meditation has become a globally accepted practice. The Western world has come to realise the vast array of benefits to meditation. apart from creating headspace for innovation and blue-sky thinking, meditation is known to help alleviate stress and promote mental well-being and physical health. Many successful business people, including the likes of Shawn Anchor, Arianna Huffington, Marc Benioff, and Oprah Winfrey have come to use meditation as a daily practice.
Shawn Anchor, Harvard-trained happiness researcher and New York Times best-selling author of Before Happiness and The Happiness Advantage, says that stopping what you’re doing, just breathing, and feeling your breath move in and out for as little as two minutes a day, daily, allows the brain to focus on one thing at a time; and that this leads to better focus, raised accuracy rates, reduced stress levels, improved levels of happiness and overall better health and more energy.
Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post (ranked one of the most influential blogs in the world) spends 20 – 30 minutes in meditation as part of her daily morning routine. Arianna acknowledges meditation, yoga and a good night sleep as part of her recipe for success and well-being.
Marc Benioff, founder of salesforce.com and revolutionist of the cloud-based computing industry, in his interview with CEO Josh James of Domo, says that “one of the most important things that any of us can do when we’re getting ready to create something, and when we want to make the world better, is first and foremost to take a step back. The next step [he tries] to advise entrepreneurs to do is to clear [their] mind, make room for some new ideas, and get back to a beginner’s mind.” Emptying the mind and letting go of previous assumptions and paradigms, allows for blue-sky thinking or “thinking outside the box” – a term thought to be derived from management consultants in the 1970s and 1980s who challenged their clients to think laterally to solve a “nine dots” puzzle.
Oprah Winfrey, a woman who went from rural poverty to America’s most beloved TV personality, whilst founding her own media empire and becoming one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, spends 20 minutes in meditation once or twice a day. She uses meditation as a way to connect to the stillness, “where all creative expression, peace, light and love come to be.” Oprah says that “only from that space can you create your best work, and your best life.”
Another way to consider the message in the parable is to understand that emptying the mind means dropping into the heart. Information does not always translate into wisdom. Knowing all the principles and theories of business or marketing is not the same as feeling and empathizing with a real human need, and then meaningfully making someone’s day or life better for it. Mark Nepo puts it well when he says that “if at times you feel numb and distanced from the essence of what you know, perhaps your mind, like the sage’s teacup, is too full.”
This is when it is time to stop over-thinking, open up the mind, rest in the heart. And then have some tea.