The Wisdom of a Glass Half Full


You will say, “Alright already, fill the glass up.  Who wants to be cheated with half a glass?”

The more moderate of you will say, “Of course half full is good.  That is the middle way.”

This post is not about the crazy wisdom of over doing it, or the middle way, but something else.

Bring your ear closer and I will tell you a story:

There was this university professor who knew everything about Zen.  And now some of you may be thinking why is she talking about Zen again?  Because Zen is like that magical trout slippery fish that always gets away.

Bear with me awhile…

So this university professor was well learned about all things Zen and went and saw this Zen monk to tell him what he knew. The monk listened politely as this professor went on and on about all of these things.  And as is custom, the monk was serving tea.  The professor held out his cup, all the while talking, expounding his great knowledge.  All of a sudden the professor noticed that his hand was getting wet from the monk overflowing his tea cup.

“Ah! Stop!” He said.

The monk put down the teapot.

“Why did you do that?” the professor asked.

“How can I give you any more knowledge when you already know everything?” the monk replied; wiping his hand on a clean, linen cloth.

This idea is really about what we think we know versus what we don’t.  Do we think we know everthing?  Of course not. But we do have our ideas about things. And they get in the way.  We assume things.  Because of our conditioning.

Karen Swim developed a beautiful post about assumptions.  Please read it to understand how you mind can actually act as a roadblock instead of a tool to help you move forward.

If you do not operate with an open mind, with a mind as open and vast as space, you will cling to the things that bind you.

And these attachments will hold you down and hinder your thought processes, and so of course, your writing – or your photography, or whatever art form you practice.

I think that operating with a full mind with hamper you in all types of art forms, but I have most noticed it in the realm of fiction.  If you try to force yourself on your characters they balk and become flat.

And a full mind will flatten things until they are lifeless.

If you can bring yourself to the place that says “I don’t know,” you will enjoy the wisdom of a glass half full.  You will be set free of everything you think you know and how it should go.

Thank you very much.

Photocredit: © Ellen Wilson

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27 thoughts on “The Wisdom of a Glass Half Full”

  1. Ellen,

    That is so, so true! In starting any project, the most important thing after I fill up with loads of research is to take really quiet (zen ?) time, and empty my head of everything I’ve just learned. It’s in there, informing me, but I want it to be really distant so I can listen to the associations that float in my head freely. I stare at blank paper, emptied of assumptions, and wait until the paper tells me what words to write or designs to sketch. Then things just start to flow.

    The tea story is a favorite of mine, and you used it so well!

    Strangely, right before I came over here I was swirling a glass of cognac and taking photos, trying to capture how incredibly long the liquor takes to slide down the side of the glass, and how lovely it is as it cascades down. Then I came over here and saw your photo—it’s the chardonnay version of what I wanted to show. (Mine stink. The lighting’s not right. Excuse to drink cognac during the day tomorrow?)

    A wine tastes much better if you give it lots of headroom in the glass to breathe. So does an idea. 🙂



    Kelly’s last blog post..Building an Empire on Resentment

  2. It’s interesting that the Internet, with its potential to provide broad access to a wide range of views, is actually being used in an opposite manner by so many. Instead of pursuing a wide variety of topics, people tend to focus only on small areas of interest and subscribe to blogs and websites that simply reinforce what they already “know”. It’s okay to be out there on the Long Tail, but move around it a little bit. Sad.

    Not that I’m entirely guiltless here myself.

    Matt Tuley’s last blog post..Graph geekery and an amazing baseball clip on Casual Friday!

  3. I love this post. One of my mentors said to always go toward what you don’t know in the studio. And then he would smile with a glimmer in his eye, knowing there is where the adventure is. Course, I love to explore.
    I work like Kelly too. Lots of research. Then the sift, sort and filter pause. In to empty. Then fill again.
    Good fun this week guys.

    Janice Cartier’s last blog post..Sweet Spots and Vibrations

  4. @Kelly – Your comments are always so excellent they could be posts. You’re right, photography is all about the lighting. The trick is not to use flash. I try to use flash only for filler (if the subject is in the dark but surrounded by light) Ambient, or tungsten, light looks more natural. Maybe I’ll write a post about it. Waste not, want not, drink up!

    @Matt – Good point. I like your spin on this. I think we operate in the areas we are comfortable in. But I know next to nothing about techie stuff, but you do, so I like to come to your blog and see what’s up with that. This is why I think we are having a blog Renaissance. It is a rebirth of science and art in different forms.

    @Janice – Hey! I’ll get some fish up sooner or later, too. But no butt cracks. hehe. I just flashed on the movie Amadeus reading your words about your mentor. Remember the jealous rival? He was always doing the “right” thing, the thing he “knew.” Salieri. That was his name.

    I work like you and Kelly, too.

    @Friar – We will have to get you your favorite beverage. Prune juice? That would not look as nice in my wine glass. It would absorb all the light.

  5. Oh, and thanks for all these comments. They really helped me see things in a new way. Very inspiring.

    I learn a lot from you guys.

  6. @Kelly – They have a pretty good selection of wine at the liquor store. If they have a liquor store in Splat Creek. Otherwise, they only have a big Orange BEER STORE, where they can only sell beer. Don’t understand why they do it this way? Why don’t they sell it all together?

  7. Salieri…cool analogy, Ellen.

    I think it is really more fun to look across disciplines, Matt. Lucas Turin, he of perfume fame, said we need better metaphors. Better speaking across multiple jargons. Well, that is me highly paraphrasing. But it is true… and a lot more interesting. Says the curious cat here.

    Kelly…excellent advice. I would send Ellen some virtual Conundrum ( It’s a wine Ellen) I think for a nice white.

    Janice Cartier’s last blog post..Sweet Spots and Vibrations

  8. When I took my Psych 101 course, they talked about small children not being able to grasp the concept of conservation of volume. It’s all about their mental development.

    In one well-known experiment, identical ammounts of juice were poured into two different glasses, in front of the kids. One skinny glass, one fat glass.

    When asked, the kids thought the skinnier glass held “more” juice, because the liquid level was “higher” . It’s not until they reach age ~7-8 that they’ll realize its’ the same ammount.

    So is the glass half-full, or half-empty? I guess it depends on perception.

    Friar’s last blog post..If these aren’t names of garden flowers, they should be…

  9. Ellen, thanks for the link love! I had never heard this story but now I believe I will never forget it. What a powerful image to remind us to keep our glasses half full. I find a daily need to empty myself of what I think I know to really “hear” the wisdom that is in front of me. It is not always easy as you often subconsciously get in your own way. Another reason to take time to be still everyday and quiet your mind so that you are open to being the student and not the master. Hope you’re having a great time in E. Lansing! Go Trojans! 🙂

    Karen Swim’s last blog post..The Bigger Picture

  10. @Janice – Yeah, I believe metaphors should cross all disciplines, so I agree with Lucas Turin.

    @Stephen – I suppose I could have used a dinky wine glass. But, 1. it wouldn’t have looked as nice, and 2. I would have had to fill it up more frequently. So for me, this is just he right size.

    @Friar – Prune juice is tasty. I used to drink it at my grandparents.

    I’ve heard of that psyche experiment. I think we lose a lot of things when we grow up, and one of them is magical thinking. That link is pessimistic for sure! Did you check out the t-shirt section? “more people have read this shirt than your blog.” Ha!

    @nouveau fauves – Thanks Sandra!

    @Karen – I thought your thoughts fit well with this post, so I filed it away until the right moment. MSU students are Spartans. East Lansing High School Students are Trojans. I used to be a Trojan…

    Sounds rather bizarre now that I think of it.

  11. Everyone’s always trying to get a full glass but the truth is with half a glass, you always have room for more (and that’s a good thing). I can’t think about this analogy too much because I’ll get caught up in a vicious cycle of philosophical thought. Best to look on the bright side and say “well, at least the glass isn’t fully empty.” 😉

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Metaphor Creativity

  12. If you completely fill up your glass, you have no more room to add additional ingredients. I have never looked at the “Is the glass half full or half empty?” question quite the same as I am now.

    I now have a new answer for that question, the answer is yes. It could be both, the glass, if it were your brain could be compressing files to make room for new information (half empty) or it could be ready to gain new knowledge (half full) from a wise person.

    Either way I definitely have a new way of thinking! Great Post!

    Jenny’s last blog post..Snow Covered Mountains

  13. Jenny,

    I like your ideas of half empty and half full. It really depends on your perspective; well, which one you choose to use when you try to figure something out.

    Either way, having room for new knowledge keeps one a perpetual student.

  14. @Melissa – So true about getting caught up in a vicious cycle of philosophical thought. I do it all the time! Like the snake biting it’s tail, it just goes round and round.

    “At least it isn’t fully empty.” I like that.

  15. You have missed the point. The glass metaphor suggests that the glass was originally full, and is either now half empty, or still half full. Its a question of optimism, or pessimism. Get that right and the rest should fall into place.

  16. Hi eggnostriva,

    The half/full glass could relate to optimism/pessimism. Or it could related to having a beginner’s mind, or open mind, always ready to contain knew knowledge without prejudice.

    It is a metaphor used in Zen to conceptualize dualism. We can’t have a back without a front, dark without light, birth without death. The object in Zen is too get beyond dualism and recognize there is no such thing. But even striving towards this goal is too much.

    Thanks for disagreeing with me. I enjoy debate and philosophical discourse.

  17. Ok. the zen concept to the this age old conundrum is fine. The situation is still being hijacked from a simple philosophical conundrum. Am I sad half my life is gone, or am I happy that half my life is still to come. Pessimism versus optimism. It is pointless to speculate as to the substance in the glass, as it is to discuss the quality of a single life. the idea is that given the status quo, do we lament the passing of a good thing or do we embrace the good things that remain.
    ( feel free to remove “good” from the last sentence).

  18. Yes, I agree, “it is pointless to discuss the quality of a single life.” How do we “measure” that anyway? We have yardsticks for achievement and what not. But they are just what society says is important.

    I don’t know what else to say about pessimism or optimism. It still seems like dualism to me. I will say that I enjoy being around optimistic people more than pessimistic people because pessimistic people seem heavy, like their energy is dragging them around like a stone. Both states are contagious, I think.

    We want the good things to last because they are pleasant and they make us happy. We move away from things that make us unhappy. Of course, unless you are stuck in pessimism and we would call that depression.

    How can we embrace the good things that remain if they aren’t even here yet? And what if they’re aren’t any more good things? Ha! But this is pessimistic thinking, isn’t it? I guess I’m stuck, eggnostriva.

  19. Ellen. all experience is good experience. some fear change, while others seize opportunity. We try to learn from bad experiences, and consolidate good ones. Pessimism is a state of mind. Some consider that the darkest hour is before the dawn (optimist). Some think the darkest hour is just before it goes pitch black (pessimist). The day starts the same for both. I hope yours is a good one.

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