There is an old tale that tells of a woman who wanted to find the meaning of life. She set about discovering it by reading everything she thought would be relevant to this mission. She studied history, philosophy, psychology and religion. Dissatisfied that she had learned enough, the woman entered into a series of spiritual practices that were intended to help the inquirer’s quest. She practiced yoga, she did breathing exercises, she fasted, chanted, meditated, memorized scripture verses, drew mandalas and walked labyrinths.
But still, she felt she had not grasped life’s essential meaning. And so the woman placed all her possessions in storage and set off on a pilgrimage to far-off places. Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica and India were among her stops. Along the way she heard of a man who lived in Nepal who was renowned for his great wisdom and insight. “Surely this man will be able to tell me the meaning of life,” the woman thought.
So setting a new course, she trekked deep into the Himalayas until she reached the little hut where the man lived. She knocked excitedly at the door and when the door opened she blurted, “I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question. What is the meaning of life?”
“Please come in and have some tea,” the hut’s occupant responded. “But I don’t want tea,” she said, “I just want an answer. I want to know the meaning of life!” However, the woman agreed to enter the hut and share tea with the wise man. Slowly and methodically the man brewed the tea as all the while the woman told him of the lectures she had attended, the places she had traveled, and the books she had read in her quest to find meaning.
Finally the man placed a cup in her hand and started to pour the tea. The woman scarcely noticed what he was doing, as she was still talking. But when the cup was entirely full, the hot tea began to overflow onto the woman’s hand. “What are you doing?” she yelled. “Can’t you see the cup is full? There’s no more room!” “Just so,” the man said. “You’ve come here wanting something from me,” he continued, “but what am I to do? There’s no more room in your cup. Come back when you are empty, and then we’ll talk.”
That clever little tale is a favorite of ours. It stands as a helpful warning to us that when we get too full of ourselves – of all we think we know, of all our supposed achievements, of all our little triumphs – we may actually be in danger of missing the greatest opportunities just waiting to come our way.
Many Christian mystics and sages across the years have advocated a practice that may seem to those of us with full lives to be a very strange and foreign idea. They suggest that we empty ourselves. Only by running on empty, they say, do we remain open to receiving the goodness, the grace, the wisdom and the spirit of God.
So why not try it? Try letting a little of yourself drain away, and allowing something more meaningful and sustaining to pour in.