No Room at the Inn

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“He must be very ignorant for he answers every question he is asked.”–Voltaire

A Vacant Thought
On a recent road trip, I passed a hotel that had a huge ‘NO VACANCY’ sign mounted on its front lawn, most likely an indicator of college graduation season. I would not have thought twice about it, except for the fact that I had just finished a conversation with my son opposite me in the passenger seat about the opportunities and challenges of a leadership role he had recently accepted.

It is said that stories are a powerful teaching tool, and the ‘No Vacancy’ sign reminded me of a story I once read from the book, “The Story Factor,” by Annette Simmons. Though I was not able to convey the story word-for-word to my son, I did impart to him its important message that only with a clear mind, free of the clutter that accumulates from the interpretations we repeatedly create about ourselves, others, and events from looking at life through a rear-view mirror, can we be our most effective self in leading others. I went back to the book upon arriving home to reread the story, from my newly-gained perspective of ‘No Vacancy’. Here’s what I read:

Long ago, a monk, devoted to the search for meaning and understanding, sought a teacher who could help him discover the great truths of the truly wise. When he heard about a guru who lived in the next country, he set out to find him. He walked for days, weeks, and then months, until finally, across a clearing, he saw a tiny hut. As he got closer he could see the door was open. After waiting a very long time, he decided to venture in. Inside was a small table with a pot of tea and two cups. Because he was very thirsty and he knew this guru was a generous man, he poured himself a cup of tea. Almost immediately, the guru appeared at the door. The guru looked at the monk, looked at the cup of tea, and shook his head and left. Stunned, the monk waited another hour but finally gave up, left the hut, and found a place to sleep in the woods. The next morning, he arrived early but found only the hut, table, teapot, and cups. He waited. Pouring himself a cup of tea, he looked up and saw the guru, who again looked at the monk, looked at the cup of tea, shook his head and left. This went on for days until finally the monk begged the guru, “Please, I have traveled a long way to learn from you. Don’t walk away again today. Teach me.” The guru stopped, turned around, and walked to the table. He picked up the pot of tea and began pouring tea into the monk’s already full cup. The monk jumped back as the tea cascaded over the lip of the cup, onto the table and the floor. The guru said, “Your mind is like this cup of tea. It is already full. You must first empty your mind, before anything new can enter.”

A Glass Not Full
Imagine approaching each day with a mind that resembles an empty cup, eager to be filled by the content of whatever the day has to offer. No simple task. I’ve tried and have found myself easily falling back into the reflexive mode, i.e., safe state, of having the answers to what lies ahead, replete with built-in stories about the people and events on my calendar that day, what will transpire, the impact on me, and predicted outcomes. My cup runneth over, before the day has begun! As I continue to practice no-mindedness, referred to by the Zen expression, ‘mushin’, I am discovering a sense of freedom and power that comes with clearing my mind each day, as if the start of a summer vacation that offers an escape from devotion to patterned thoughts and behaviors.

After sharing the story with my son, I suggested to him that his effectiveness as a leader will be evident to him and others when his questions outnumber his answers. Start with a simple question, and rejoice in not knowing the answer: “What will this day bring?”

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