There is a well known Zen Buddhist teaching story in which a very educated, but somewhat arrogant professor comes to an old Zen master to study under him. The Zen master offers him tea and then begins to pour the tea into the professor’s cup until it overflows. The professor jumps to his feet and shouts “Master, the tea is overflowing the cup and running onto the floor.”
Ignoring him, the Master continues pouring the tea and calmly replies “ a mind that is already full, cannot take in anything new. Like this cup, you are full of opinions and preconceptions. In order to achieve the wisdom & happiness you seek, you must first learn to empty your mind.”
This Buddhist teaching story, which goes back many centuries, contains great wisdom because it is talking about the primitive ego that resides in each of us. The ego of our very young inner-child that always needs to be “right”. Until we acknowledge the presence of our primitive ego and learn the skills required to tame it, achieving wisdom or happiness will be very difficult. Some say impossible.
We must learn to embrace “not knowing” so we can begin to “empty” the unconscious narcissism and arrogance of our primitive ego. Becoming wise and creating happy relationships with others is very difficult to achieve when others see us as narcissistic and arrogant. So let’s take a look at the skills we need to learn and how best to learn them.
Step one: Our primitive ego is not bad.
The primitive ego of our inner-child is simply young and immature. It is not a bad part of us that needs to be eliminated. Not only would that be impossible without a lobotomy, it would mean losing much of what we know about the world. But unconsciously allowing a six to seven-year-old child run our adult lives doesn’t make sense either. Which leads us to step two on our journey toward wisdom and happiness.
Step two: Understanding that our primitive ego can make us ignorant.
Like most very young children, the primitive ego of our unconscious inner-child tends to be rather “me” focused. It also needs to be “right”. Those traits do not necessarily make us a bad person, but the unconscious arrogance of our primitive ego does indeed have the power to make us very difficult to live with, and even more importantly, it can make us ignorant.
Step three: Understanding that ignorance is normal.
But before we put ourselves down, we need to remind ourselves that ignorance does not mean that we are stupid. It simply means that we have not yet learned something. We start out life as a blank slate, ignorant about everything. We remain ignorant until another person or life experience give us the opportunity to replace ignorance with wisdom.
When we are unwilling or stubbornly refuse to learn and grow, that’s when we are in danger of being labeled as ignorant. Ignorance is not a bad thing, but it is never helpful.
Step four: Understanding the danger of black-and-white thinking.
As young children, we learn to keep the world simple and manageable by using the skill of “either / or” thinking. Some call this dualistic thinking. Others refer to it as black-and-white thinking. We learned very early in life that things are either safe or unsafe, good or bad, pleasurable or painful, right or wrong. The world was safer and more pleasurable when we were good and right.
Because wrong meant that we could be criticized or ridiculed, we defended our beliefs, opinions, certainties, assumptions and conclusions about life as inflexible “truths” that were “right”.
When the primitive ego of our unconscious inner-child interacts with the unconscious primitive ego of another person, and both primitive ego’s need to be right, we quickly have two upset, defensive, angry people attempting to communicate with one another.
Beginning to see the problem?
When we unconsciously attempt to manage our adult lives using the black and white survival skills of our inner-child, we are almost certain to journey through life with a very full tea cup. Not only will it be difficult to grow and incorporate new information, we will find ourselves shooting ourselves in the foot by arrogantly and aggressively defending our beliefs as “absolute truths”, and openly criticizing the beliefs and behaviors of others.
So much for happy relationships with those around us.
Our primitive ego is indeed young and immature, and it is part of our unconscious, so until we learn to become more conscious and self-aware, our primitive ego will continue to unconsciously control our adult life.
Step five: Learning To Pay Attention
We have now arrived at what I believe is the single most important skill needed to achieve wisdom and happiness. The skill of learning to pay attention. No other skill is more important than learning to pay attention to the energy that we are sending into the universe.
When we learn to live in the moment and “intentionally” pay attention to the energy of our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings, it’s easy to see our inner-child in action. If our energy tends to be defensive and angry, there is a high probability the primitive ego of our inner-child is unconsciously controlling our life.
The primitive ego of our inner-child has the power to control our day-to-day lives only when it is functioning outside of our awareness.
As we grow in self-awareness our ability to embrace “not-knowing” or emptiness of ego will begin to increase. “Not knowing” allows us to be more open, less defensive, and more able to listen. More able to take in new information.
When we can empty our mind and sit comfortably with “not knowing”, the path toward wisdom and happier relationships with others will become clear. We will recognize every new learning in life is a gift that has come to us from another person or experience.
The universe is a very large and complex place. As we learn to tame our primitive ego though growth in self-awareness, and learn to embrace new information and ideas, we soon realize just how ignorant we are. Wisdom understands the more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know.