The Zen Master and the College Professor: Letting Go of What You ‘Know’

Topics: , ,
  • Transformation, self–realization, enlightenment – is not understandable through what you already know. In fact, what you already “know” is keeping you from discovering what is possible. There is a story that demonstrates this idea:

    There once was a college professor who was interested in learning about the study and practice of Zen. He decided that the best way to do this was to find a Zen master to interview. Being struck with an inspiration, the professor did his research and found one on the Internet by Googling, “Zen Master”. The professor shot off an email and made an appointment. On the day of the appointment at the designated time he shows up at the Zen Master’s home, notebooks in hand and his mini–recorder ready to capture the important points.

    The Zen master greets him at the door with a slight bow and invites him in. Once he is seated the college professor says, “I want you to tell me about Zen, everything about Zen. I want to understand Zen.” He places his recorder on the table and prepares to take notes.

    “Yes,” the Zen master replies. “Let’s have tea.”

    Slightly annoyed that they weren’t getting right to the point, the college professor quickly thinks that it is probably best to be gracious to his host since they were in his home and so he sits back and doing his best to hide his impatience he waits until it is time to begin.

    The Zen master brews the tea in a pot and brings out two cups and saucers. He then starts pouring tea into the first cup. He pours until the cup is half filled and continues until the cup is almost completely full. And then, to the college professor’s amazement, the Zen master continues pouring and the tea flows over the sides of the cup and into the saucer and still he keeps pouring. Just as the tea overflows the saucer and runs onto the table the professor shouts, “Stop! Can’t you see that the cup is full? It can’t hold any more!”

    “Yes,” says the Zen master. “It is just like your mind. It is so full that it can’t hold anymore. In order to learn about Zen, you must first empty your cup, your mind.”


    Your mind is full with ideas that you have learned from the culture you have grown up in, from the family you grew up in, from the schools that you attended. Your mind is full of information. Your mind will compare anything we say about enlightenment to what it already knows, to what you have read, seen, been exposed to, have already thought about. In fact, chances are that you have heard the Zen master/college professor story before, so as you read it you not only “heard” the story but very quickly compared the details to what you had heard before and even commented to yourself about the differences.

    In order to hear anything newly, you have to hold in abeyance your mind’s propensity to compare, to add information, to agree, or disagree. You need to let go of your point of view, including what you want to say when the speaker has finished what he or she is saying.

    There is a quote from Herman Hesse’s Demian, “In order to be born a world must first be destroyed.” The chick must destroy the egg in order to come into being. You have to be willing to let go of what you know and have held to be true in order to understand the moment. In reality, you can’t understand the moment. Again, the nature of understanding happens by comparing what is happening in the moment to what is already known. Anything that is outside of what you already know cannot even be imagined.

    We human beings have been so conditioned by the culture that we grew up in that we cannot imagine anything outside of that culture’s teachings and beliefs. Everything is relative to those beliefs. When Einstein initially postulated his theories of relativity prior to the advent of quantum physics, people said that it was goobledygook. It had no value. They couldn’t understand it because it was outside the paradigm or system that they knew and lived through.

    Enlightenment is experiential. Experience devolves into concepts. Concepts are a structure of words used to describe an experience. The words do not conjure up the experience. Our thoughts come to us as words. We live in words. Rather than experience our lives, we talk to ourselves about what has already happened. Enlightenment is living your life rather than talking to yourself about what has already happened.

    So to reiterate, in order to hear something newly, it is imperative that you let go of comparing what is being said to what you already know. At first it seems impossible to suspend random thoughts to listen with a receptive, open, available, accepting mind. It takes a bit of practice to give up your point of view and being right about your point of view to allow something new in.

    Recent studies at Dartmouth Collage have shown that our minds do not want to learn anything that challenges what we already know or think to be true. There are studies that show that you argue to be right about what you know to the exclusion of data that proves what you know incorrect. Parts of your brain activate to dismiss inconvenient or conflicting data to what you know or hold to be true. This being said, there are ways to bypass this automatic, reflexive dismissive system: awareness and engagement.

    Awareness is a nonjudgmental, neutral observation of something. If you don’t judge yourself and what you see, including your automatic dismissive, forward thinking nature, you will not stick it in place. Judgments are mind-based, thought-based, pulled from the past and the culture you have been dipped in, reinforcing what you “know” rather than supporting you in experiencing your life moment-to-moment.

    As you keep engaging in what is actually happening in your life rather than talking to yourself about your preferences, you are actually stimulating and growing new neural pathways rather than running over old well-worn tracks in your mind. By being aware and engaging in your environment, you strengthen your ability to experience your life rather than to simply talk to yourself about it.

    Ariel and Shya Kane

    PE_BrightHiResCoverSince 1987, Ariel and Shya Kane have touched the lives of millions through their transformational seminars and top-rated Internet radio show Being Here. Their approach allows people to be productive, effective and satisfied in all areas of their lives without working on their “problems.”  From their ground-breaking books Working on Yourself Doesn't WorkHow to Have A Match Made in Heaven, A Transformational Approach to Dating, Relating and Marriage, winner of the Mom's Choice Book Award (and now available in Spanish and in German), How to Create a Magical Relationship, gold medal winner of the Nautilus Book Award, and Being Here: Modern Day Tales of Enlightenment, to their speaking engagements at the United Nations Society for Enlightenment and Transformation and Alternatives - the UK's premier venue for some of the biggest names in the mind, body, spirit world - Ariel & Shya continue to reach audiences hungry for the possibility of a life filled with ease, well being and satisfaction. Their acclaimed seminars in New York City, The United Kingdom, Europe and Costa Rica open up previously unseen possibilities in people's lives, allowing them to live the life of their dreams. The next weekend seminars they are offering are Transformation in the Workplace, September 19-20 in NYC and The Freedom to Breathe on October 1 and Money, Success and Happiness: Wealth as a Lifestyle, October 2-4 in Hamburg, Germany. You can learn more about their seminars, Internet radio show Being Here, and their latest book Practical Enlightenment, available now on, as well as their Excellence Club online community at

    For more information, please visit

    Recent Releases


    View all posts by Ariel and Shya Kane.

    1. Michael Hanko
      Michael Hanko says:

      I was halfway through the tea story before realizing it wasn’t the tea story I had expected! What a lovely, gentle reminder as to how my mind works…and an invitation to experience a different way.

    2. fernandafranco
      fernandafranco says:

      Great and inspiring article…Love the tea analogy, how expectations of how things ought and agendas to be prevent from experience the perfection of the moment, and being born anew in each moment. Thanks for the sweet (and practical!) wisdom.

    3. Katharina Hänggi
      Katharina Hänggi says:

      Thank you for this great story ! I guess that for me it takes a LOT (not only a BIT) of practice to give up my point of view and beeing right about my point of view to allow something new in. . .

      • ArielandShya (@ArielandShya)
        ArielandShya (@ArielandShya) says:

        If you treat the practice as a simple part of the lifestyle of being YOU, it will be easier. The point of view “you” are being right about is not you, it is simply the voice you listen to and you think is you. It is the mind… and the mind is tricky that way 🙂

    4. Corinne
      Corinne says:

      Not to know is a gift. I didn’t know that 🙂 These are great news! Thank you so much!
      I love to learn new causalities and every time I read an article of Ariel & Shya Kanes I do and a new world opens up!

    5. ArielandShya (@ArielandShya)
      ArielandShya (@ArielandShya) says:

      Thanks for the feedback Corinne. Happy to hear that you can enjoy “not knowing” and see it for the gift that it is. Because anytime you are being yourself – including not knowing something when you don’t know it – you are powerful indeed.

    6. Lenore Pemberton Cilmi
      Lenore Pemberton Cilmi says:

      I love this article. This was a surprise. I discovered that I there is a lot I don’t know. Whew, what a relief to know that I don’t know everything and I don’t have to know everything. Much appreciation Ariel and Shya!

      • ArielandShya (@ArielandShya)
        ArielandShya (@ArielandShya) says:

        Sweet that you see not knowing as a “relief”. What a pressure people put on themselves to “know” as if knowing somehow makes you smarter and not knowing is a sign of something negative – such as stupidity. If you allow yourself to “not know” then you open the door for a resurgence of your innate curiosity about life – something that is often only associated with being a young child when the world is full of wonder. Wishing you a Wonder-full day!


    Links to This Post

    What Do You Think?

    What Do You Think?