My Empty Cup


“Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality.”

― Bruce Lee

I hear the groans and see the eyes rolling.  Yes, you.  You’ve read and heard this quote so often that now you just want to stun me with a kick to my jaw, follow up with a sweep and punch me a couple of times for good measure as I fall to the mats.  Well that’s already happened to me, so too bad – you missed your chance to be the first to wipe that smile off my face 🙂

So now you’re sitting back and thinking you’ll waste a few minutes of your life reading yet another trite and sugary analysis of a cliché.  I hope not to waste your time because I have stories to tell and connections to make.  I freely acknowledge some elements of this post won’t be unique.  But I promise some elements will be.

Probably around the same time the man who would later become the head of the Karate organization I now belong to was exchanging teaching Karate for English lessons, I was about three hundred yards away attending preschool.  I haven’t verified this but it’s quite possible there was at least a few months of overlap between my time at the community college’s preschool and when he got started there.

One day the preschool teachers and interns took us wee ones on a field trip to the ceramics class.  We watched some of the ceramics students mold and shape clay.  I was particularly fascinated with the pottery wheel.  Imagine my joy when I was handed a lump of clay!  I was appalled when my classmates hurled theirs to the floor as hard as they could.  I had somehow missed my teacher’s instruction to do so and didn’t know that was part of the plan.  I had already turned away by the time the other kids put their hand-prints in the flattened clay.  I took my little lump of clay and quietly asked the nearest adult if she could teach me to use the wheel.

She sat me down at the stool and put her hands over mine.  As the clay spun in my hands I watched my little lump change shape.  Then I bent my thumbs in response to my tutor’s pressure, and a dimple appeared.  The dimple grew to a hole.  I was satisfied when the lump became something that resembled a volcano and I asked to stop.  My tutor asked if I was sure – she thought I could do more, but my four year old child’s soul said the work was good just the way it was.  My tutor had enough artistic sensibility to recognize that any more shaping and it would be her work, not mine.

I have a hunch both from home schooling my children and from teaching brand new beginners their earliest lessons that there are many times in which a Sensei will have to say, “This student is good for their level – s/he is not ready for more guidance.  Any more input from me at this point will mean this person will not learn how to push him/herself or recognize when to ask for help.  At some point in the future, I can give more input.”

Unfortunately my little clay volcano was never fired and so it did not survive the ravages of time.  If I remember correctly it lasted only about ten years.  So fast forward roughly 42 years to an adult me working at that very same community college.  The college is a very lively place so I get tons of emails about campus events.  Imagine my joy when I read that some of the ceramics students would be selling their work!

I knew what I wanted to purchase.  An Asian-style cup.  Yes, because of Bruce Lee’s quote.  I knew I had a good chance of getting one given the 500 some-odd International students who  I serve in the International Student Programs office and given the many more American-citizen students who have ethnic backgrounds from around the world.  I found the “perfect” cup.

160101_EmptyCupI deliberately chose an imperfect cup.  There are places where the glazes are patchy or where they dripped and ran.  I like that.  It shows a real human being made it, not just some machine that chugs out thousands of look-alikes.  This cup reminds me nobody’s perfect.  Of course a master potter could’ve done a better job.  But the whole idea behind Bruce Lee’s “empty cup” is for us to always be students. This cup is obviously the work of a student, and so is a perfect reminder for me to keep on learning – not just in Karate, but also in life.

So now at least five days a week, my Karate is being molded and shaped by Senseis who learned from Yoshida Sensei, the man who, while I was shaping my little lump of clay, might have been a couple hundred yards away teaching Karate or learning English.  Certainly my little preschool self would never imagine the things I think about when I look at my cup every morning when I get up.

When I look at my empty cup I remember the kindness of the Ceramics teacher or student who sat me down at the potter’s wheel.  I remember that she recognized when to stop.  I remember telling the story to the people who took my money and wrapped my cup in newspaper, and how one of them said I could always pick right up right where I left off 🙂  Maybe some day I will.  I do know someone who has time for both pottery and Karate 🙂  When I look at the cup I purchased from the college I remember that once upon a time there was a young man with a dream about coming to America, a man whose Karate students are now teaching me, a man whose story inspired me to apply for the job I now have helping the college’s International students.  And yes, of course, I remember what good ol’ Bruce Lee said and I try to approach every single day with an “empty cup” mindset – being open to whatever lessons the day has to offer.

Because one never knows what connections are being shaped and how even the simplest acts of kindness and generosity can affect others.

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

6 thoughts on “My Empty Cup”

  1. this is very beautiful Joelle – I love the way you weave together the past, present and future into a single narrative, around the simple image of the empty, imperfect cup 🙂

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