There is an ancient story that changed my perspective on life and living.
It took me some time to grasp the morale of the story. In fact, I had to read it four times, quit my corporate job and donate most of my belongings to charity before I understood its various meanings.
Don’t worry, you won’t have to go through the same challenges as I did if you just have a Iittle patience. (Insert Gary Barlow’s voice with the angelic unity of the Take That-choir)
The story is an ancient saying about a zen master, a wise man and a very important cup of tea.
You know it already? Ok, read it again.
I’ve found five different takeaways from it, and I bet that you can find even more.
THE EMPTY CUP
A wise man once went to visit a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen.
As the Zen teacher talked, the wise man frequently interrupted to express his own opinion about this or that.
Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the wise man. He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed. “Stop!,” said the wise man. “The cup is full, no more can be poured in.”
“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions,” replied the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”
[Excerpt from the book “Bruce Lee: Striking thoughts”]
The author of the Chinese saying is unknown and the people in the story vary dependent on who tells the story (I’ve seen the wise man described as a university professor, a learned man and as a student).
The beauty of the saying is that no one can claim to have the correct conclusion to its morale, but everyone can learn from it. The story has served as a vital conversation starter for me, and it opened a window of willingness to grow and to re-evaluate my habits.
Essentially, that’s how my journey with minimalism started.
5 steps to minimalism
There are five “empty-cup”principles I apply every day to make space for valuable and authentic inputs:
1. Silence virtual noise
Social media. Emails. Apps. Notifications.
Eight months ago, my morning routine was very different from my current one.
I would start my day by checking Instagram, Gmail and Facebook as soon as I opened my eyes. I remember that my phone would often have white, round stains on the screen due to the combined activities of Instagram-scrolling and toothbrushing.
Naturally, I began my day with a restless mindset as the heavily colorgraded pictures on Instagram would haunt me. I realised I was addicted to these apps when I tried to exclude them from my morning routine and I felt particularly anxious and jittery. It was a shocking realisation to find out that I was not in control of technology, but instead technology was controlling me.
And so, my digital de-cluttering began. Solely using technology that worked for me and supporting the things that I valued. I use technology when it’s necessary for our business or for connecting with my family and friends (one of my core values).
- I’ve disabled all notifications from my phone
- I’ve uninstalled Facebook, Instagram, email and Youtube from my phone. They exist on my desktop, but I don’t open them during working hours (8am-6pm)
- I’ve introduced Instagram “office hour”from 4-5pm where I check our business Instagram account, and I reply to comments
- I’ve created a technology mantra: use it, don’t be abused by it.
After I made these changes, I have found more time to produce deep work, have real-life experiences with my loved ones and read fantastic books.
“For nothing brings happiness unless it also brings calm; it is a bad sort of existence that is spent in apprehension”Seneca, letter 74
In the winter of 2019, Nico and I quit our jobs in sales.
We were planning the greatest adventure of our lives; exchanging our corporate/rental-apartment existence with a nomadic lifestyle and South East Asia as our new playground. One rainy evening, as we were counting down the final months before our departure, Nico introduced the topic I’d dreaded to hear: cleaning out our belongings.
I rejected his statement firmly with a: “but what if I need this [insert clothing piece] for a picnic in the forest!”. The question that followed my outburst was one of the most profound and uncomfortable questions I’ve ever gotten:
“Well, what if the things that we hold onto weigh us down so we cannot be free?”
Touché. K.O. End of conversation.
Thus, the decluttering began. We faced each and every piece of clothing with three questions:
- Did I make use of you in the last 30 days?
- (If not) why am I keeping you?
- (For furniture) which purpose do you serve?
If question 1 was replied with a “no”, we proceeded to question 2.
In order to stay with us, the item would to have a valid and useful reason for its being. For example, Nico had one suit that was helpful to keep for various festive events such as summer-weddings, round family-birthdays etc. I had one bikini that I felt very comfortable in and I knew it could serve me for another summer.
We practice the three-step model every six months to ensure that we don’t accumulate clutter and surround ourselves with things that don’t serve a purpose. I’ve found I need fewer things that I thought, as long as I have a few items that I love.
Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too littleEpicurus
3. Time should be spent on the people I love
I’ve made many excuses to myself as to why I did not have time for my friends and family.
Deadlines. Sales targets. Client calls.
Most of my excuses would start and end with work. Simply because I loved working towards a goal, and I still savour the feeling of winning, once I hit a goal.
But the goal always moves. Deadlines multiply, targets change, client calls triple.
During a workday, I would often look at my calendar and feel a drumming heartbeat when I was trying to squeeze in “family time” with Nico or calling my Mom. One day, while planning my seventh sales call for the forthcoming workday, a curious thought hit me:
“Wow, there is so much time we’re not spending together”
Naturally, I was thinking about my boyfriend (he made a joke that morning saying that we were slowly transitioning into becoming roommates).
The following evening, we decided to quit our jobs and start planning our travels.
Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except timeSeneca, letter 4
4. Hear other people out, listen to yourself
I’ve made slightly wild decisions in the last five years; I moved to New York City to study, I’ve quit my dream job, I’ve started a business with my boyfriend.
In moments of despair (which I’ve experienced hundreds of times during all three scenarios) I’ve sought advice from blogs, self-help books, experts, yogis etc.
But despite extensive research to find out “the truth” I’ve always found the answer to my questions and challenges in myself. Not in the light bulb-kind-of-way, but more likely during a brisk walk in nature or while maintaining a strenuous yoga pose. Indeed, these scenarios are my most creative moments.
Learning 1: I always listen to myself first before asking others
I’ve found it tempting and unbelievably easy to start following 200 different experts on different mediums but I always end up more confused than before I sought out the information. My process of looking for the right answer reminds me of a dog chasing its own tale – I think that I’m chasing a goal but I keep running in circles.
So I’ve stopped tail-chasing.
I’ve chosen 5 experts, all of whom are well-educated and they share my set of beliefs. These are people I look up to, and I would love to have these people as life-mentors.
Learning 2: I choose max 5 people as life-mentors
I can strongly recommend cleaning out your “expert-closet”. It’s such a relief to not having to listen to everyone but instead advancing your knowledge by focusing on a selected few.
There are more fake gurus and false teachers in this world than the number of stars in the visible universeElif Shafak, 40 rules of Love
5. Deep focus
We live in a society with companies and people that ask “howmuch?” and “howfast?”.
We value multi-tasking, quick execution and quantity-focused objectives so we can measure and compare what we do.
As a corporate employee these are crucial practices to learn. But when we leave the office and leave our co-workers behind for an evening with our loved ones, do we leave our ability to focus behind?
I’ve found 4 questions that helped me clarify that I could improve my ability focus:
- Can you keep your concentration for the full length of a movie? (1.5 hours)
- Can you sit still for a 5-minute meditation session?
- Do you have deep, honest, (long) conversations with your loved ones?
- Do you have meaningful relationships with your friends and with your partner?
Perhaps as a balance to the quantitative questions we pose during business hours, we should start focusing on qualitative measure in our spare time, such as: “howwell can I do this?” and “why I am doing this?”.
We’re wired to build meaningful relationships.
Sometimes, a long walk in the forest is the best way to connect with someone you love and care for. That’s where I started to regain my stillness and focus.
When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.Marcus Aurelius
My “empty-cup” principles can easily be distilled.
I’ve found that the two currencies I value most are mytime and myattention.
These two cannot grow or be manipulated with, but they can be used for your advantage if you map out your values and focus your priorities accordingly.
Less is better because it allows for more space to think, more love in your life and more memories to treasure.
Thank you for reading.
- Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee Striking Thoughts (2002). Tuttle Publishing. Kindle Edition
- Tim Ferris: Tao of Seneca vol. 1: https://fhww.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/taoofseneca_vol1-1.pdf
- Tim Ferris: Tao of Seneca vol. 2: https://fhww.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/taoofseneca_vol2.pdf
- Outliers (2011): Malcolm Gladwell
- Digital Minimalism (2018), Cal Newport
- Deep work (2016, Cal Newport
- The Power of Now (1997): Eckhart Tolle
- Carol Dweck (2017): the Growth Mindset
- Mother Theresa (2007): Come be my Ligh