"An aging Hindu master grew tired of his apprentice complaining, and so, one morning, sent him for some salt. When the apprentice returned, the master instructed the unhappy young man to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and then to drink it.
"How does it taste?" the master asked.
"Bitter," spit the apprentice.
The master chuckled and then asked the young man to take the same handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to the nearby lake, and once the apprentice swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man said, "Now drink from the lake."
As the water dripped down the young man's chin, the master asked, "How does it taste?"
"Fresh," remarked the apprentice.
"Do you taste the salt?" asked the master.
"No," said the young man.
At this, the master sat beside this serious young man who so reminded him of himself and took his hands, offering, "The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains the same, exactly the same. But the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So, when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things...Stop being a glass. Become a lake" (Nepo, Mark. The Book of Awakening, "How Does it Taste," Jan. 15th).
I first read this koan as part of my daily meditation on January 15th. As soon as I read it, I had to email it to several friends because it struck a deep chord in me. I then used it in my newsletter as the foundation for a message to my congregation. Since then, I have talked about this writing to a number of people, always with greater insight.
At first glance, this koan tapped into that part of me that enjoys a good “complain about the world” session with friends. Who doesn’t like to complain about the state of things. But as I sat with this koan, I realized that the Hindu teacher, while focused on his dislike for his students complaining, was really asking the student to see the world differently—to love himself enough to be in the world differently.
This koan could not have come at a better time in my life. No matter how enlightened we think we might be, our sense of things can become more and more narrow if we don’t actively work at making our sense of things larger. At the very least, we must acknowledge that complaining is a very passive activity, but enlarging our sense of things requires full-on engagement. I can complain about everything and never do anything to make my circumstances different than what they are. If my goal is to be a passive observer with a barbed opinion, then being a complainer achieves that goal. Real change, however, requires doing something; and usually something different so as not to fall into the trap of doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.
For this student, he had developed one way of seeing the world. He had effectively become the glass; narrow in size and scope, intractable, and unable to recognize the expanse with which we are given to work with. For the complainer, the world always seems like a frightening place. Those who complain tend to live from a place of fear and lack. What they currently have is never enough and they are certain someone will come and take the little bit that they do have, leaving them with nothing. This scarcity mentality deprives our spirit of the necessary nurturance it needs in order to grow and expand beyond what we can physically see and know.
Self-love, on the other hand, teaches us that we are the only ones who can create greater capacity for ourselves. When we truly love ourselves, we are able to embrace change as it comes. Yes, it may be uncomfortable, but we know that the discomfort is temporary, lasting only as long as it takes for us to become used to our new way of being. More than this, though, self-love allows us the internal space we need to cope with all the things that life throws at us. For those of us who struggle to love ourselves, that internal space can begin to shrink until our worldview is so small we cannot imagine what it would be like to enlarge our sense of things.
When the Hindu teacher in this story asks his student to drink from the glass, he knows how that water is going to taste. Notice that the student didn’t protest ahead of drinking the salt water. We know that when our internal capacities have diminished, things are always going to taste bitter. It is as if our brains, quite on cue, tell us that everything about our world is wrong. We do begin to complain because there is literally nothing left for us to do. However, when the student drank from the lake, the bitterness was no longer there. Obviously, from a scientific perspective the water wasn’t salty because the ratio of water to salt had increased. The student, however, still did not initially perceive the metaphorical point. The teacher had to explain to the student that his view of things was just too small.
When we fail to love ourselves, to have genuine compassion for ourselves, it is easy to become petty and small. For starters, we don’t believe we are worthy enough to have a larger view of life. All of our experiences show us that our self-worth is as small as our self-love. And if you were raised in the kind of household I was raised in, I was taught that self-love is selfish and prideful, neither of which is true.
We are quick to portray self-love as being selfish and self-centered. Oddly enough, in the world of religion, I’ve even heard this spoken from various pulpits and there is absolutely no biblical or psychological foundation for believing that self-love is selfish and self-centered. In fact, I would argue that not loving yourself is more selfish and self-centered. When we choose to not love ourselves, we often fall into the habit of looking for others to take care of us in ways that we need to be taking care of ourselves. We are also more likely to blame others for our failings and there is little accountability on our part for the ways in which we behave.
Self-love, however, calls us to see into the depths of our soul, own our own stuff, clean up our own messes, and as the koan says, “enlarge our sense of things.” Self-love is kind and compassion, provides a platform for nurturance, opens us to new ideas and help from others without expecting them to “fix” whatever is going on; and most importantly, it changes how we see ourselves. We no longer see ourselves as the glass, but instead, can embrace all the parts of ourselves and expand to see ourselves as the lake.
If you are asking, “I love myself, when is this going to happen to me?” Patience is the answer to your question. To steal a line from a great song from Yentl, “The more I live, the more I learn, the more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.” There is always more to learn about ourselves. There is always an opportunity to expand our view of things, to create greater internal capacity, and to begin seeing life as full of possibilities rather than dead-end streets. This is actually something that I continue to work on; it is never finished.
The older I get the more I realize there are parts of my life that still need tending. I am constantly having to expand my sense of things. Now, when I say I want to be a lake, I think of Lake Michigan or Lake Superior; lakes that actually have the capacity to hold all of my stuff, unlike Cherry Creek Lake down the street from my childhood home, which next to either of the Great Lakes looks like a puddle. See, it is all about perspective. Enlarging our sense of things happens when we are open enough to the world of possibilities that we can see everything from a different perspective.
It is always my hope and my prayer, words that I whisper to the universe on the tail of the wind, that I remain willing to do the work, honest about what I need and who I am, and open-minded enough to see what is already present in my life and what is absent. May it be so for you as well.