Heart of the Message - A Journal of Trans-Ethnic Spirituality - click to return to main page




  • Heart of the Message is produced for the Church of All and of all churches at Pagosa Springs by Post-Dogmatist Publications, Rev. Hamid Cecil Touchon; Editor-in-Chief. This publication is a part of the larger site, A CHERAG'S LIBRARY. COPYRIGHT 1997

    To be an Empty Cup and the Process of Unlearning 
    Cherag Hamid Touchon

    The theme for this edition of the Heart of the Message is ‘Unlearning’ and is continued from, ‘Declaring Peace’ from a previous issue of Heart of the Message. 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 spiritual path, like all other pursuits in life, is matter of constant, disciplined effort. In worldly pursuing one attains mastery through learning, in the pursuit of the spiritual path one attains through unlearning as 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. For instance the knowledge of science, the knowledge of art, are outside knowledge. They give one a kind of strength, a kind of satisfaction, but this does not last. 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.” 
    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(Paul Reps) 
    A similar example is found in the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan; 
      ...The one who learns to tread the spiritual path must become as an empty cup in order that the wine of music and harmony may be poured down into his heart. You may ask: 'How can one become an empty cup?' I shall tell you how cups show themselves filled instead of being empty. Often a person comes to me and says: 'Here I am. Can you help me spiritually?', and I answer: 'Yes'. But then he says: 'I want to know first of all what you think about life and death, or about the beginning and the end'. And then I wonder what his attitude will be if his previously conceived opinion does not agree with mine. He wants to learn, yet he does not want to be empty. That means, going to the stream of water with one's cup covered up: wanting the water, and yet the cup is closed, filled with preconceived ideas. Where have the preconceived ideas come from? No idea can be called one's own! All ideas have been learned from one source or another, but in time one comes to think that they are one's own. For these ideas one will argue and dispute, although they do not satisfy fully. At the same time they are one's battleground, and all the time they will keep the cup covered up.  

      Mystics therefore have adopted a different way. They have learned a different course, and that course is self-effacement or, in other words, unlearning what one has learned. They say in the East that the first thing that is learned is to understand how to become a pupil. They do not first learn what God is, or what life is. The first thing to learn is how to become a pupil. One may think that in this way one loses one's individuality. But what is individuality? Is it not that which is collected? What are one's ideas and opinions? They are just collected knowledge. This should be unlearned. 

    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 uses the metaphor of a knot and one of farming on this subject to illustrate the process of unlearning; 

    The Field 

      “Now the question is, how does one unlearn? Learning is forming a knot in the mind. Whatever one learns from experience or from a person, one makes a knot of it in the mind; and there are as many knots found as there are things one has learned. Unlearning is unraveling the knot; and it is as hard to unlearn as it is to untie a knot. How much effort it requires, how much patience it requires, to unravel when one has made a knot and pulled it tight from both sides! So it requires patience and effort to unravel the knots in the mind. And what helps the process? The light of reason working with full power unravels the mental knots.  

      A knot is a limited reason. When one unravels it, its limitation is taken away, it is open. And when the mind becomes smooth by unlearning and by digging out all impressions, of good and bad, of right and wrong, then the ground of the heart becomes as cultivated ground, just as the land does after ploughing. All the old stumps and roots and pebbles and rocks are taken off, and it is made into ground which is now ready for the sowing of the seed. But if there are rocks and stones and bricks still scattered there, and still some of the old roots lying there, then it is difficult for the seed to be sown; the ground is not in the condition the farmer wishes it to be.” 

    Christian disciples will recall the well known parable of Jesus; 
      MAT 13:3-9 And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear... 
      MAT 13:18-23 Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side. But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 
    Unlearning is the preparation of the heart and the mind to receive spiritual guidance and then to accommodate that guidance by creating a place in one’s heart for the Divine wisdom to gain a footing in one’s life. ‘Bearing fruit’ means that this Divine wisdom gradually becomes expressed through the thoughts, words, and deeds of one’s daily life. 

    The Rock  

    The goal of unlearning is to arrive through a reductive process, at the ontological bedrock of one’s being, in other words, at that point where we find our connectedness to the Divine Being. This connection is what provides us with a relationship with God and is the true entrance to the Kingdom of God as well as the unshakable foundation upon which our spiritual life must stand. Hazrat Inayat Khan said; 

      “The first thing that is necessary is the mastery of mind; and this is done by unlearning all that one has learned. The inner knowledge is not gained by adding to the knowledge one has already achieved in life, for it requires a rock foundation. One cannot build a house of rocks on a foundation of sand. In order to make the foundation on rocks, one has to dig into the sand and build the foundation on the rocks below. Very often therefore it becomes difficult for an intellectual person, who through life has learned things and understood them by the power of intellect, to attain to the inner life.” 
    which echoes the words of Jesus; 
      MAT 7:21-27 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. 
    Clearly, from the words of Jesus we see that the lack of this foundation, which is our relationship with God, is the cause of all troubles in one’s life and this is because we try over and over again to rely on our own knowledge and beliefs rather than seeking inwardly the will of God. 
      “There is no room for God in him who is full of himself.” 
        Hasidic Saying 
    To dispense with a reliance on our own personal knowledge and belief is much harder than one might think. The reason for this is that we have worked so hard to establish certain beliefs that to imagine letting go of them seems contrary to everything we have worked for but as Hazrat Inayat Khan taught; 
      “...People consider their belief to be their religion. In reality belief is a steppingstone to religion. Besides, if I were to picture belief, it is just like a staircase that leads on to higher realization. But instead of going up the staircase people stand on it. It is just like running water that does not flow any more. People have made their belief rigid, and therefore instead of being benefited by their belief they are going backwards. If it were not so one would have thought that all the believers in God, in truth, and the hereafter would be better than the unbelievers. But what happens is that they are worse, because they have nailed their own feet to their belief.  

      Very often I am in a position where I can say very little, especially when a person comes to me with his preconceived ideas and wants to take my direction, my guidance on the spiritual path; yet at the same time his first intention is to see if his thoughts fit in with mine and if my thoughts fit in with his thoughts. He cannot make himself empty for the direction given. He has not come to follow my thoughts, but wants to confirm to himself that his idea is right. Among a hundred persons who come for spiritual guidance, ninety come out of that tap. What does it show? That they do not want to give up their own idea, but they want to have it confirmed that the idea they have is right.  

      Spiritual attainment, from beginning to end, is unlearning what one has learnt. But how does one unlearn? What one has learned is in oneself. One can do it by becoming wiser. The more wise one becomes, the more one is able to contradict one's own ideas. The less wisdom one has, the more one holds to one's own ideas. In the wisest person there is willingness to submit to others. And the most foolish person is always ready to stand firm to support his own ideas. The reason is that the wise person can easily give up his thought; the foolish holds on to it. That is why he does not become wise because he sticks to his own ideas; that is why he does not progress.  

      Mental purification therefore is the only method by which one can reach the spiritual goal. In order to accomplish this one has to look at another person's point of view. For in reality every point of view is one's own point of view. The vaster one becomes, the greater the realization that comes to one, the more one sees that every point of view is all right. If one is able to expand oneself to the consciousness of another person, one's consciousness becomes as large as two persons'. And so it can be as large as a thousand persons' when one accustoms oneself to try and see what others think.” 

    This shows us that what the spiritual path calls for is that we open ourselves up to deeper possibilities rather than spend our time grooming and protecting our beliefs and ideas and battling against the beliefs of others. To do this is to waste one’s time splashing around on the surface of religion rather than diving down to its spiritual depths to find that ‘pearl of great price’. 

    While it seems more safe and secure to stay with what we know and avoid what we do not know, this desire for certainty in our beliefs is the very thing that holds us away from the Truth. The Truth is what we are after and if we are not willing to sacrifice our belief in order to find it then we will always remain outside of the gates of the Kingdom. 

      “I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth; and truth rewarded me.”  
        Simone de Beauvoir 
    The Kingdom of Heaven is not attained by intellectual understanding. All of the study in the world will not lead to the kingdom nor can having water tight arguments over points of doctrine and dogma lead to the goal. Scripture means very little if we do not understand the essential message of the scriptures in our hearts and then practice this message in our spiritual life until we become a living expression of scripture. 
      “Those who seek the Truth by means of intellect and learning only get further and further away from it. Not till your thoughts cease all their branching here and there, not till you abandon all thoughts of seeking something, not till your mind is motionless as wood or stone, will you be on the right road to the Gate.”  
        Huang Po 
    This quote suggests that we must empty our minds of selfish desires and speculations including our desire for spiritual salvation when it is based on our self interest. It is a quicker path to the gates of heaven when we place our attention on selfless service toward others without thought of recognition or reward as well as our relationship with God. But this service needs to be toward all people without discrimination. 

    I recall someone recently telling me of one religious group that does not seek new members to their church. When asked why, a member said that there were only so many slots in heaven and since their church was the chosen group for heaven, they didn’t seek more members so that no one already in the church would lose their spot in heaven. This is selfishness transformed into a religious policy! This kind of thinking makes the heart small. To make the heart expansive is the goal and this means to think of the welfare of others before our own. 

      “ It means a greater stretching of the heart and sometimes the heart feels pain when you stretch it. But by stretching the heart and by making it larger and larger, you turn your heart into the Sacred Book”. 
        Hazrat Inayat Khan 
    Of course, this is a slow progressive process which becomes more subtle as we reach to deeper and deeper levels of spiritual unfoldment. As we begin to establish ourselves in the spiritual life through the process of unlearning there is a progressive movement toward simplicity; simplicity of thought, simplicity of lifestyle until we return to a childlike state of purity. The heart then longs for the simple life, a life which is not encumbered by worry and excessive baggage, a life that is direct, joyful, and clear to reflect the inner clarity that one experiences from putting an end to the endless desiring and inner chatter that most live with. 
      “Very often what we call knowledge keeps our soul away from the knowledge of itself, a knowledge which is most essential because the knowledge acquired by learning is very complex. People think that if it is simple it cannot be truth, they value what is complex. But in this way by one's own tendency one covers over the truth in oneself which is one's own being.”  
        Hazrat Inayat Khan 
    To lead a life which is simple and spiritually fulfilling is, very often, the result of the unlearning process. To desire and live such a life is an important element in waging peace because one does not weigh heavily on the world or on others. The more that people live in this manor, the less oppression there will be in the world. Oppression doesn’t start at the top of the political chain and trickle down. It starts at the bottom, with each one of us and migrates upward. 

    We will find that, when we have begun moving toward this simpler way of life we will be more available to hear and follow the Will of God and respond to the divine harmony which, down through the ages and around the world, has been understood by the mystics and sages to be the ultimate art of peace. 

    And when we come to move so lightly in the world that we become a living expression of the divine harmony then we will not actually be doing anything ourselves but rather the Divine Harmony will be acting through us as the following scripture suggests; 

      ‘To pursue learning one increases daily. To pursue Tao(Divine Harmony) one decreases daily. To decrease and again to decrease, Until one arrives at ‘not-doing’ ‘Not-doing and yet nothing is not done.’  
        Tao Te Ching, #48, verse 1 
    Unlearning is a practice that we can continually engage ourselves in through being open minded and open hearted. These are the elements of good discipleship. Also, if you practice some form of meditation, this will speed up the process by helping to discipline the mind in peacefulness and clarity. 

    Try unlearning something like how you tie your shoes. Figure out an alternate way to do it and then remember to always tie your shoes in this alternate manor. Watch what happens as you attempt to unlearn an old pattern and as you master a new one. This unravelling the ‘knot’ of unconscious patterned behavior is ‘Unlearning 101’. 

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