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To be an Empty Cup and the Process of Unlearning

excerpts from Cherag Hamid Touchon's article, published in Heart of the Message - a journal of trans-ethnic spirituality.

Unlearning is an important aspect in pursuing excellence on the spiritual path and is a discipline that one must continually apply to one’s life and refine one’s self in.

The Cup | The process of unlearning is a common thread that runs through all spiritual traditions world wide and thus constitutes an essential and universal component of the process of spiritual unfoldment. This is the key element in being a disciple or a pupil of any tradition and is often referred to as being empty or, in other words, receptive. As an illustration, there is a story from the Zen tradition;

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” Source: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

And from the words of Jesus;

MAT 23:25-26 / "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup, but the inside it is full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, that the outside of it may be clean also."

The purpose of unlearning is to divest oneself of attachment to those beliefs and and presumptions which we have come to identify with as a part of who we think we are. These tightly held beliefs are the very strands of the fabric which make up what is called the nafs among the Sufis and in the West is called the ego. The ego is a complex character that we assume which is constructed from all that we have experienced and learned over the years both in terms of who we have come to think of ourselves as and who we seem to be in the eyes of others.

This ego identity though, is a fabrication of our deeper spiritual being and may be seen as barnacles that collect on a ship during its voyage. Unlearning is the cleaning off of these barnacles to expose the ship’s hull so to speak.

Hazrat Inayat Khan says: “Every soul yearns for knowledge, that knowledge which will give exaltation. But the soul cannot be satisfied by the knowledge one gathers from books, by learning, or by the study of outside things. ... It is another knowledge that the soul is really seeking. The soul cannot be satisfied unless it finds that knowledge, but that knowledge does not come by learning names and forms. On the contrary it comes from unlearning.

:: Heart of the Message Journal
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