Tao Living

Half Empty or
Half Full?

by Derek Lin

Different people look at thing differently. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. But when we start to argue who is right and who is wrong, a lot of precious time is wasted. Confucius says that; “When we meet, we should talk about Heaven, any other talk may endanger our lives.” Why is this so? How many times in life do we meet each other? Life is precious, take really good care of it. Be it health or wealth……. In a moment or just a sneeze, it could be gone.


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The study of Tao often leads to what I call eureka moments. "Eureka" is an expression of triumph upon discovering a startling truth. Archimedes, one of the greatest intellects of antiquity, used this expression (literally "I have found it!") when he figured out how to determine the purity of gold objects.

We get closer to this eureka moment when the study of Tao changes us and gives us a new way to examine the world. This transformed perspective lets us take something ordinary and familiar, and suddenly see in it all sorts of interesting new insights.

For example, let's take a glass and fill it with water to the halfway point. We then ask the customary, time-honored question, "Is the glass half empty or half full?"

Haven't we all seen this a zillion times? What new insights can we possibly squeeze out of this tired old platitude?

As we all know, the glass serves as a metaphor for life, and water represents the good things in it. So, seeing the glass as half empty means you're a pessimist, because you dwell on the lack in your life. Seeing it as half full means you're optimistic, because you focus on the good things in life. Most people choose the latter and describe themselves as optimists. In all likelihood, this means you, too.

Notice an interesting social phenomenon here. Most people want to be seen as optimists, even those who are usually morose and glum. Aren't we just a planet full of upbeat, sunny cheerleaders? How interesting! Why do we have such a social pressure to be relentlessly optimistic?

Let's look at it from a completely different angle and turn this paradigm upside down. Is it always a negative thing to see the glass as half empty? Suppose such a perception motivates you to fill the glass - so to speak - whereas seeing it as half full leads to complacency. Focusing on the lack in one's life can then be a driving force for success. Not so negative now, is it?

Look at the overachievers who accomplish great things in any field. They probably started out life with the idea that there wasn't enough water in their glass to suit them, so they worked to fill it up. On the other hand, at the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the underachievers who dawdle away their lives in torpid passivity. Perhaps they do so because their focus is on what they already possess, rather than the areas of life that can use some improvement.

Another similar idea is to recognize the inherent usefulness of emptiness. In chapter 11 of Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu makes the point that the emptiness of a cup gives it utility and function. The lower part of the glass that is already filled with water cannot accept another drop, and if we remind ourselves that this represents life, we quickly see that the empty portion is where all the action can take place.

The Tao concept of emptiness is not a vacuous state of nothingness; rather, it is a pregnant void bursting with potentialities. Now we can see how this makes perfect sense. The blank pages in the book of your life are where the continuing tale of your adventures will be written. These empty pages are the place where unlimited possibilities exist. It's where the excitement and the joie de vivre reside.

The emptiness is the part that can hold more water (good things). It is what makes the glass (life) useful and functional. So why wouldn't we want to focus on it? When you think of it this way, doesn't it seem a little odd that most people choose to see the glass as half full instead of half empty?

See what's going on here? Even though most of us have heard about the glass half filled with water many, many times, in all likelihood it has never occurred to us that we can switch the positive and negative perceptions around so easily. Evidently there's more to the glass than meets the eyes.

We also need to examine the unspoken assumptions and see how valid they really are. For instance, we start out with the unwritten, assumed rule that we have two choices, half full or half empty, and we must choose one of them. But must we really? Does it really have to be one or the other? Why can it not be both, or neither?

Indeed, a glass with water at the halfway point can be seen as both half empty and half full. Sometimes it is useful to think of it one way; other times it's better to see it the other way. This is a completely accurate description of reality, and probably a much better way to conceptualize it than to arbitrarily force it into one category or another. By recognizing that the glass can embody both descriptions simultaneously, we begin to deal with it from a holistic mindset, taking into account every aspect of the object.

In this mindset, we can see that asking about the glass being half full or half empty is just like asking about the nature of light. Is light composed of particles or waves? Well, the true answer is that light embodies properties of both particles and waves. Sometimes it is useful to think of it one way; other times it's better to see it the other way. This is a completely accurate description of reality, and probably a much better way to conceptualize it than to arbitrarily force it into one category or another.

Now let's look at the flip side. How can we say that the glass is neither half full nor half empty? First, we note that both descriptions can only be perfectly accurate in theory, and never in reality. When you pour water into the glass, no matter how careful you are and what precision tools you use, you will never hit the exact halfway mark. If you are very lucky, you can get to the point where you're only a few molecules off, over or under. Thus, the glass is never truly half full or half empty. Its state can only be described approximately.

The second factor is the Taoist concept of constant change. Nothing remains static. Nothing. As soon as any water gets into the glass, evaporation begins. At any given moment, the glass is releasing water molecules into the air. In fact, if we wait long enough, the glass won't just be half empty - it will be empty, period!

For some of us, the water goes away even more quickly, because we have imperfect glasses with hairline fractures, where water seeps out at an alarming rate. This means the good things in our lives never seem to last. You manage to get a great job, only to be downsized; you buy a new car, only to discover it's a lemon; and so on.

In the face of this dynamism, where the only question is how quickly water goes away, we need to take action. If we remain inactive, then it's a certainty that the good things in life will soon disappear, never to return. What we want is a constant stream of incoming water to replenish the water lost to evaporation and possible leakage.

Let's explore a little further. What does the glass look like from a Zen perspective?

Zen Buddhism recognizes the illusory nature of reality and the ultimate emptiness of the material world. Thus, when confronted with the choice of half empty or half full, the Zen Buddhist may answer "neither," because the water doesn't really exist, nor does the glass.

This may seem far out, but in at least two respects the Zen practitioner is right. First, both the glass and water are transient. We have already noted that the water will eventually be gone, either when the glass breaks (the end of your life) or before. The glass may last somewhat longer than the water, but we know it will eventually be shattered into pieces and no longer exist as a container. Like the ephemeral flame of a candle, life flickers into existence for a while, and then gets snuffed out without much fanfare. In truth, it can claim no more permanent reality than the candle flame.

The second factor affirming the Zen perspective is our understanding of the most fundamental level of reality, as revealed through quantum physics. At the sub-atomic level, we see that what we think of as solid matter is mostly empty space. The solidity of matter that we perceive is merely the macroscopic manifestation of energy and information patterns. In this perspective, the water is indeed illusory, and so is the glass.

Now that we have sampled the Zen perspective, we will naturally want to explore the Tao perspective as well. This is an interesting challenge in view of everything we have talked about so far. We seem to have left no stone unturned in discussing all the different ways we can approach the glass. What other insight can the Tao provide us that hasn't already been said? How can a true Tao sage answer the question in a way that transcends all other answers on the subject?

The sage does not answer. Instead, he takes the glass, drinks from it, and relishes the thirst-quenching and refreshing water. He puts the glass back down and remains quiet, perhaps with a smile on his face, as others scramble to revise their estimation from half full to quarter full, or half empty to three-quarters empty.

The sage knows that the essence of life is to be lived, not debated. The glass and water serve one purpose admirably well, and that is to slake thirst. Trying to decide if it is half full or half empty does absolutely nothing to further that purpose. If anything, it gets in the way and delays the ultimate objective of drinking fully and deeply.

The Tao is beyond mere words. Discussing the glass can never replace the experience of drinking from it; describing the various perspectives will never get you closer to the actual act of savoring the water. Thus, the sage wastes no effort on intellectualization; he cuts to the chase.