What’s in Your Cup?
Imagine you are holding a cup of coffee. Someone bumps into you and you spill the coffee everywhere. Why did you spill the coffee? Because there was coffee in your cup. If you had been holding a cup of tea, you would have spilled tea. If you had been holding a cup of milk, you would have spilled milk. The point is that whatever is inside your cup is what will spill out. Similarly, when life shakes you – and at some point, life will definitely shake you – whatever is inside you will spill out. So the question is, what will spill out when something disturbs your balance? What is inside your cup?
Let’s say you want to get to an appointment or a class or a meeting. You leave early enough to allow you to arrive promptly. You venture out into the world with a smile on your face and a calm demeanour, but as you step outside, you realize you may soon need an umbrella, so you head back in to get it. But it’s not where you remember leaving it, and it takes a few minutes for you to find it. Stepping out the door again, you realize that you’ll have to hurry if you want to make the bus. Then you trip as you step off the curb, causing you to drop your keys, so you spend another minute gathering them. Then, as you are about 20 steps from the bus stop, you see it pulling away, leaving you behind. You stop in your tracks, just as someone nearby, also rushing for the bus, bumps into you.
What spills out of your cup? Is it a harsh word or reaction to the frustration of missing the bus? Is it a shrug that despite your best intentions, you just weren’t destined to get to the bus in time? Is it laughter at this quirk of fate?
We have to go through our destiny – there’s no avoiding it. We created it; we can’t change it, so we should make our best efforts and then accept the results. That’s living in the will of the Lord. We can’t control the events or people in our life, but we can control our responses to them. Baba Ji suggests that our responses to things that happen in life should not be reactive but should reflect our acceptance of whatever the Lord gives us. After all, it is our actions in previous lives that have created our destiny in this one, so there’s really no one to blame for anything that happens to us. And we should also keep in mind that the Lord will provide us with what we need to get through anything in this life – we just need to have the courage to persist. Whether things work out as we want is not in our hands, yet we must make the effort to get what we want.
Similarly, the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, conveyed orally and passed down through notes taken by his devoted students, can give us helpful guidance today – even after more than two thousand years. He stressed clear thinking and awareness of the divine within oneself. As we learn in The Enchiridion, a short manual of ethical advice compiled by one of his disciples, Epictetus taught that some things are up to us, but most things in life are not up to us. We control our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions, but things that are external to us are not up to us. And so much of this life is external to us, including possessions, power, health, and what others think of us.
For example, we may do our best to get the most luxurious house, the most prestigious position, the healthiest body, or a strong influence over others, but the results of our efforts are not up to us. Someone may outbid us on that house; another may have better connections to that job; our genes may make us prone to conditions that weaken our immune system; or we may not have the charisma to influence others. We can choose to be bitter or angry at not getting what we want, or we can choose to accept what happens and persist in our efforts to move forward.
As a matter of clear thinking, we can reflect on whether we are holding on to resentment or anger at some situation or person in our life that we cannot control. If we think clearly about what is up to us – our attitude, daily remembrance of the divine within us (our meditation), gratitude for what we have been given and for whatever events the Lord places in our life, knowing he will also provide the strength to go through them – then we will have peace, love, and joy spilling out of our cup when something shakes or bumps us.
Epictetus taught that it is important to develop indifference to what we cannot change; take positive action to change what we can; and be attentive to discern how the first scenario differs from the second. We may be familiar with these points through the Serenity Prayer, which asks God to grant us the serenity to accept the things that we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Daily remembrance of our divine nature, through meditation, and the understanding that we have a choice about how we respond to what happens to us will help keep our cup filled with awareness, serenity, and wisdom. Epictetus also taught that it is human nature to perform acts of kindness, cooperate with others, and be grateful. Being a good human will fill our cup with contentment; otherwise our cup will be filled with unhappiness, restlessness, and frustration.
We can choose how we respond to events in life, most of which are not in our control. If we keep filling our cup with gratitude, kindness, serenity, and love, any negative emotions we harbour will be diluted, little by little. If we don’t rush to judgment about whether events in our life are good or bad, but accept them as they come, then we may see what appear to be obstacles or results that we weren’t hoping for simply as events in life’s drama. We can also keep our cup turned upward to catch the love and grace of the Lord that is always raining down on us. Regular meditation and simran during the day will facilitate clear thinking, which can help us avoid rushing to judgment about others and situations as well as choose appropriate actions.
As Epictetus advises in his Discourses and Selected Writings: “Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.”
Imagine you are holding a cup of yourself. When life shakes you, when the ups and downs of life bump you, what will spill out of your cup?