“A university professor goes to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly serves tea, the professor talks about Zen. The master pours the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then keeps pouring. The professor watches the overflowing cup until he can no longer restrain himself. ‘It’s full! No more will go in!’ the professor blurts. ‘This is you,’ the master replies, ‘How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.‘”

Zen Proverb

I am definitely in favor of practicing a “beginner’s mind,” which this Zen proverb is implying. However, I wonder if an important nuance may be missing, which is that, most of the time, we are never entirely beginners.

We have a variety of domain related knowledge and experience that can be of use. In fact, educators, trainers and coaches will have more success in helping their students remember, apply, and embody their teachings if they can connect it to their students’ pre-existing worldviews, relevant contexts, and other skills with which they are familiar.

If you are already familiar with learning a second language, you may have direct or indirect skills that can be leveraged. An example of direct would be learning another language that has a shared lineage like the relationships between French and Spanish, Latin and Greek, or Chinese and Japanese. An example of indirect would be knowing what to expect in terms of progress and how to study effectively when learning a new language. Similarly, if you are learning Judo for the first time, you may have direct experience with wrestling, or indirect experience by way of ballroom dancing–both are physical arts that include movement choreography that depend on syncing up your timing with another individual.

Metaphors are linguistic tools that we use to cognitively leap from familiarity to learning something new.

The word metaphor comes from the ancient Greek word metapherō, which means “to carry across.” In parallel, meta skills are higher order skills that carry across a wide variety of domains to “magnify and activate other skills” (Gustavo Razzetti).

It is the reusing of teapots and iron skillets without ever washing them with soap that magnifies and activates their ability to enrich the flavor profile of all future servings.

Therefore, I recommend that you do not get too carried away with the “empty your cup” mentality and end up treating new learning endeavors like a completely blank slate. One, this is neurologically impossible, and, two, not supportive of your intention to learn. Definitely be curious, open, and flexible, but do so as someone that values the integration of knowledge, expertise, and application. It is this integrative mindset that leads to creativity, innovation, and the discernment necessary for you to:

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and add what is uniquely your own.”

Bruce Lee

So, yes, make sure there is enough room in your cup in order to quench your thirst for new knowledge, AND reuse your cup. Because, not only is that the environmentally friendly thing to do, but, your cup has useful information about you and the sum total of your experiences that will be valuable in your ability to absorb that new liquid of knowledge.

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