Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Never confuse memory for thinking

Empty your cup...

The Japanese master Nan-in gave audience to a professor of philosophy. Serving tea, Nan-in filled his visitor's cup, and kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could restrain himself no longer: "Stop! The cup is over full, no more will go in." Nan-in said: "Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."
Experience is a wonderful teacher. It guides our decisions and helps keep us out of trouble. However, experience tends to be more relevant for simple situations such as stepping over that crack in the sidewalk as we walk out to get the mail or avoiding that particular drink that gives us the killer hangover the next day. Most of life's activities and interactions are much more complicated and simple experience may not be enough to make good decisions. Its important to remember that prejudice, fear, and hate come from experience too.

This is a lesson I seem to have to learn repeatedly. It appears to be human nature to find patterns - things that we can rely on to give structure to the world around us - and as such we use experience as the building blocks for our belief system. As we all know, beliefs can be wrong. Take prejudice as an example. A few limited encounters with a certain race, gender, or age group can wrongly affect all our future interactions with that particular group of people.

The same is true with our activities. I managed a lot of people in my life and it always amazed me how people fell into working patterns that consistently resulted in failure, but because it was based on their experience of having worked successfully in the past, they refused to change their strategy. As a result, I spent a great deal of my time teaching people to "never confuse memory for thinking." I was reminded of this recently as I began a new portrait and reached for the same colors to mix for a flesh tone that worked successfully in my last painting instead of really looking at the model and deciding what color I needed based on her complexion and the effects of the lighting. Painting is too complicated of an activity to rely solely on memory.

We need to remember experience is only a guide, not a set of rules. The challenge is being able to view each new situation with a fresh set of eyes while remembering the lessons of the past. That is living in the present. Otherwise, even though life progresses along, we remain stuck in the past, unable to adapt to the changing situations around us. Our ability to survive and prosper boils down to nothing more than our ability to solve problems. Problem solving is a thinking activity and not merely the ability to recall the past. It doesn't mean we should dismiss the past. It means we should remember the past for what it is - an outcome that was the result of a certain set of circumstances and decisions. Just because the situation we face tomorrow has similarities to what may have happened to us yesterday, does not make it the same situation. It most definitely is not (at the very least its a different day).

So, I challenge you - the next time you find yourself in a situation where you make a snap judgement based on a past experience - whether it be about a relationship, a work decision, or a new purchase - stop to ask yourself if you are making your decision based on a memory or on the merits of the situation before you. Its normal for us to fall into patterns. Sometimes those patterns are self-destructive. It's not always easy to find our way out of those destructive patterns, but at least for me, I find it helpful to begin by saying to myself, "empty your cup."

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