January 10

The Secret Sauce In The Empty Cup


 January 10

It’s 2 AM and I’m wide-awake. Thanks, jet lag, for this opportunity to sit quietly in the dark of night, sipping water. 2020 is here. How fast the years seem to fly by. If you’re a parent like me, you probably count the years in terms of your children’s age and their milestones. I can hardly remember how old I am, but foremost in my consciousness is the acute awareness of my children growing up. I take the last sip of water and stare into the empty cup. What is the secret sauce in here? The cup stares back, defiant.

The inquiry begins. Whether it is motherhood, career, or my sādhanā (spiritual practice), what is it that leads to growth and harmony? My life flashes before my eyes. The years of searching, seeking, acquiring, rebelling… through it all, the most significant leaps in my ability to connect previously unnoticed dots occurred when I gave in. To what, you might ask.

To the process.

The word “surrender” brings up all kinds of connotations for most of us – especially in this day and age of being swindled by those we hold in high authority – the teachers, the institutions of learning, the corporations we work for, and the politicians who decide our fate. To be fair, it is also the age of misguided empowerment, where we have come to equate mental/emotional rigidity and rebellion to power.

However, the surrender I’m talking about here is not to a person or an institution or a political party (to surrender or not to each of these is an entirely different matter). Here, I’m talking about the attitude of softness and humility – to receive from Life, and from what She is trying to teach us.

After all, what is Life except for one long school? She’s constantly teaching us, growing us, pushing us beyond our boundaries, challenging us to look Her in the eye, and take the leap off the cliff into Her loving arms. And yet, we remain the obstinate students, wanting to direct Her according to our whim and fancy – and totally ignorant of the fact that She always wins.

The Process; It’s All About the Process

Take for instance the business of studying for an exam. Having studied for a few in my life, I’ve found that the process is most enjoyable and beneficial when I give in to the fact that I don’t know. When I come to the subject empty of my pre-conceived notions, I find that a whole new perspective opens up. Oh goodness, I didn’t know the mitral valve does that! How very cool! Instead, when I come to it with the feeling that I already know all there is to know about the mitral valve, she shuts off and her secrets remain safe with her – my cup is full and can’t be filled any further. And so it is said, “Empty thyself and I shall fill thee” (I may be paraphrasing here, but you get the idea).

Emptying is the attitude of humility, of always being willing to be filled by what Life has to offer.

When I became a mother, I had many wonderful ideas of how my children were going to turn out, of course, because I had all the answers. Life had a good laugh (and She continues to laugh) at my presumptions. My children have minds of their own – who knew. Every single day, I’m forced to empty myself of my pre-conceived ideas of what motherhood, children, the relationship between the two, and their lives “should” be. I’ve struggled to get Life to go my way, and boy, have I been in for a wild ride! Through “hard knocks,” I’ve come to submit to Life. Please show me the way, I now ask Her. Show me the way to surrender to You. Never mind my kids – they’ll be fine since You’re their mother too.

My only business in mothering is to surrender to the process.

The Paradox

And with this seemingly simple (ha!) move, everything is so much simpler, and harmony abounds. My children startle me with their wisdom and choices, not because I “said so,” but because I get out of the way (albeit sometimes kicking and screaming).

What a paradox!

In the current era of physician burnout and corporations out to reduce patients to numbers (with dollar [insert your currency] signs attached, thank you very much!), it’s quite natural to feel like surrendering is the last thing we should be doing. Surrender to greedy corporations, and do their bidding? Well, no. That’s not what surrender is about in this case.

What is the teaching here? This is what I strive to find in any situation. Corporations and institutions will come and go. My craft as a physician and importantly, as a human being, is what I’m interested in refining. In this refinement, I benefit, of course, but everyone around me does too. My rebellion is to continue to provide well for my patients despite the corporate pressure to do less than my optimal. The more I’m pressured and the greater my willingness to surrender to the process, the more miraculous the results – I find new ways to heal, to relate, to laugh.My resilience is my rebellion, and it comes from surrendering to Life – She is the only one I’ll submit to.

It is indeed true that when a door closes, a window opens – if we allow for such a thing to take place.

Sevā: What It Really Is

This attitude of giving in to every aspect of Life is something I’ve learned (and continue to learn) in my sādhanā. I’m quite aware of the guruphilia that is prevalent in many circles, which isn’t entirely unjustified. My own journey is marked by a love-hate relationship with the idea of a guru. Earlier on, when I thought I knew everything, I succumbed to the idea that there is no need for a guru. I’d come to associate the word with a certain type – you know, the one that sits on a pedestal and talks down to his/her students. I rebelled against the idea, which was fortified by my interactions with a few that did exactly that. My skeptical, scientific mind saved me many a time from self-proclaimed teachers who hadn’t worked out their own stuff, much less be in a position to teach others. Unceremoniously, I quit several organizations and sanghas that didn’t fit my (extremely high) expectations.

And yet, my yearning for a true guru continued, especially after I read Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master by Sri M. I desperately longed for a guru like Babaji in the book – a one-to-one intimacy where the guru could look into my soul and show me the way (at this point, I’ll say that it hardly matters whether it’s a true story or not, because it led the way to spectacular things – keep reading!). I had no patience for “mass” teachers and hierarchical institutions where the guru could not be approached personally.

Importantly, my mind had shifted from one of knowing to unknowing – I was finally ready to learn.

As if lit by this fire and shift of attitude, my sādhanā took many unexpected turns. Teachers from all planes (yes, there is such a thing!) began to show up, and they were exactly the kind I had longed for – teachers that fostered the one-to-one intimacy, holding up much-needed mirrors that forced me to look at my own stuff. Importantly, they were loving, respectful, and considered me their equal. They encouraged me to ask questions and expected nothing in return. They couldn’t be lured by money or loyalty and remained joyfully rooted in Self-knowledge.

I finally began to understand the purport of the Upaniṣads.

Upaniṣad is made up of two words – upa (by) and niṣad (sit down). The Upanishads are the end segments of the Vedas, known as jñāna kānda or Vedānta. Quite literally, Vedānta means the “end of the Vedas,” with a dual meaning – not only is it the end portion of the Vedas, but it signifies the end of transactional knowledge of the earlier portions of the Vedas in favor of Self-knowledge. The Upaniṣads are in the form of dialogues, where knowledge flows from the teacher to the student. However, there are several caveats to this, the most important being the readiness of the student. As in, whether the student is a worthy receptacle for the knowledge.

In other words, is the cup full or empty?

The greatest leaps in my growth occurred when I approached the teacher with the attitude of not knowing, and the willingness to do anything for the knowledge they embodied.

And this is where the concept of sevā comes in.

Sevā is translated quite simply as service. In spiritual circles, it can mean service to the teacher or to the organization as a way of lessening our own arrogance. Of course, it is misused by many teachers and organizations. The point here is of sevā as an attitude of service to Life. To be in constant service to Her, not to get anything out of anyone, but to keep the cup empty. True to Her nature, Life then keeps filling it to the brim – with knowledge and abundance. Teachers, circumstances, and opportunities manifest out of thin air to fill this cup. It never runneth dry, as they say. The attitude of sevā isn’t for the betterment of the teacher or sangha. At all.

Sevā is for us to keep emptying our cup so that it can be filled.

Paradox again!

I’ll do anything for my teachers who shimmer with the highest possibility of human existence. They need only to hint at how high I need to jump. What I get in return is immeasurable – the ability to mother, doctor, learn, teach, and savor in ways that I’d never imagined. Life gives through them and receives as me. Ultimately, She is the source of giving and the receptacle for receiving.

I stare into the cup again. Ah, now I see it – the secret sauce that fills it.

The empty cup holds the secret sauce. The empty cup IS the secret sauce.

Pic: Simi Jois Photography.

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