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How Spiritual Poverty Makes Room for Our Hearts

tea set pot Eduardo Mueses

How Spiritual Poverty Makes Room for Our Hearts

Dear hearts –

In the middle of last week, I was in a small group, and we were talking about the concept of spiritual emptiness, or poverty.

Many of you may have heard the fable, often attributed to a Buddhist tradition, of the student who comes to the teacher. And the student is full of all the things they want to learn about, all the things they are curious about, all the things they want to know after speaking with the teacher. While the student is speaking, the teacher is simply pouring a cup of tea. Eventually, the student notices that the cup has gotten full and there is tea all over the tray. Not only that, but the teacher is just continuing to pour, until tea has spilled over onto the floor, meanwhile saying nothing.

The moral of the story is clear, eh? If you come to learn and your cup is already full, how is there room for anything else? If you come believing that you already know the right questions to ask, much less their answers, then why bring yourself to the table of learning?

Over the course of our small group, I kept thinking about emptiness, and it was clear that my comrades were too. Here are some of the nuggets that came out of our conversation:

Trust is necessary to allow anything to come into us.
Indigo Girls: “But our poverty is our greatest gift”
“It is in our weakness that God’s strength in us is made perfect.”
The vacare Deo — the emptiness of God — is where the Divine comes in and makes something new.

And then finally, one of our dear comrades said, “I don’t have to manufacture anything.”

For some reason, that last statement, “I don’t have to manufacture anything,” especially in the context of the previous statements, slid right into home plate for me. If I am doing all the manufacturing, all the judging, all the quality control in my work — trying to control EVERYTHING, which is what I tend to lean toward — then I am leaving no room for the tea of learning.

But leaving my teacup empty is uncomfortable. Saying, I don’t think there is anything that can fill my cup, I feel as though I must fill my cup alone, and clearly something must be manufactured to put into my cup…Well when we get down to brass tacks, what I am saying is that I feel alone and afraid. After all,


At times like this, when I become afraid and feel as though I should push, should tough it out, should muscle through, almost always, the answer is the opposite of that approach.

I need to rest. Resting gives me integration. I need to wait. When I can’t see a way forward, most of that time that’s a clue that I should stay put. When I’ve got a lot on my mind and am feeling stuck, just allowing myself to do some freewriting — just writing whatever comes to mind without regard for its quality or even its content. Just let it come out and live on the page for a while. I may even use free dancing, either a contact improv class or rock out in my chair in the living room. I use my body, whether through dancing or singing, to let go of my blocks when I can. Singing, especially, I find helpful because when I do it it is devotional. It is a kind of prayer. And prayer + rest tends to = integration and inspiration for me.

Essentially, I can ask, “Is there love even here? Is there inspiration, even here? Can tea be poured into my empty, dry, bone china cup even here?”

All these exercises, these practices, are ways of putting ourselves near the Divine Source of Love and Life. They are all ways of expressing trust that it is not we ourselves who produce anything — and our worth is certainly not based on what we produce — but that it is the Divine, working through us, Who gives us gifts in order to share, inspiration in order to create, love in order to give.

“I don’t have to manufacture anything.”

That doesn’t mean I don’t show up. It doesn’t mean I just blow off all my responsibilities. It means, I show up, I do the work, I do my best, and I let it go.

As Julia Cameron says to the Divine, speaking of writing and the other arts, “I’ll take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality.” That is to say, I’ll keep showing up. I’ll keep coming to the page. I’ll keep stretching. I’ll keep practicing.

Remember, too, that practicing is not just about art or athletics or science.

It’s about our spiritual practice. “Forgive yourself for everything every day.” Start anew. Don’t let the absurdities, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the previous day, come in and wreck the practice you’re trying to build today. “Every breath is a new beginning,” Belleruth Naperstek reminds us. Every single breath. I find myself taking an extra breath with each typo. (I think it might be making me have more typos, just because my body wants more breath!)

Finally — wow, I’m quoting a lot of wise people today — never forget Martha Graham’s words:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Note especially that last bit — “to keep the channel open.” If the channel is already full, then it cannot be open. It will be, if you will, stopped up. The channel, the reed, the way must be open in order for the awen, the Divine inspiration of the Celtic bards, to be given, used, and brought to other people.

So today, let us avoid judging what we bring into the world. Today let us just be that reed that sings when the wind of the Spirit blows over us. Let us be the empty cup. Let our hearts be empty and filled and emptied and filled again.

Blessings on all the lessons of the day –


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