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Lesson of the Sake Cup

If someone had suggested to me 20 years ago that the future of my career might turn on the pouring of a single cup of sake, I would have suggested they needed psychiatric help. And yet this is the story of just such a cup of sake, a story to celebrate both a dream manifested and the power of seeing meaningful teachings in the simplest of experiences.

Sake CupFor 30 years I have studied engineering, worked in engineering and considered myself an engineer. However, during those years I tried several times to free myself of my engineering identity to pursue more heartfelt passions. Each time I’d march right up to the brink of commitment to some new vocation only to retreat to the safety of engineering with “What were you thinking?” playing inside my head. I turned down a job offer in biological modeling, almost went pro in outdoor education, walked away from corporate training, and sabotaged my offer to teach as an Assistant Professor. Engineering opportunities came easily. The money was good. My insecurities were sated. But my heart was not.

A synchronistic layoff or two, a dash of financial disaster and a soul quenching marriage to my supportive soulmate later, and I found myself struggling to start my new life as teacher and writer. Although certain that this was the path I wanted, I was concerned about my ability, I was concerned about my age, and most of all, I was concerned about money. So the universe sent me the lesson of the sake cup.

My wife and I like to eat sushi and drink sake from time to time. We like to drink it cold. Tonight we splurge on a pricey order of “Nothingness” because we like the name and, as it turns out, the sake.

The waitress brings two little, square wooden sake cups, called masu. She places the masu on a small, shallow dish and pours the sake into the masu until the sake overflows a bit into the dish. My wife explains to me this is a Japanese ritual of abundance. Sake is abundant enough to let it pour over the top. For mine the waitress lets fly with abundance until we almost abundantly pour over the sides of the little dish. My sake masu sits in a moat of sake abundance.

Sushi arrives … tuna, yellowtail, salmon … we’re not adventurous sushi eaters. We talk. We eat. We drink sake.

As I drink my sake and my little wooden masu empties itself, a curious thing develops. I start to take note of the abundance of sake in the little dish. There sure is a lot of sake in that dish. Did the waitress really pour that much into the dish? I stare at the generous moat surrounding my progressively emptying masu. And the more the masu empties, the more abundant the abundance looks.

Perhaps, I think to myself, my masu is leaking? After all, the rectangular masu has seams from the assemblage of its wooden components and those seams could leak. I pick up the masu. It drips! It’s leaking, I think in silent outrage. My $12-a-cup sake is leaking into my dish of abundance, and I’m losing my sake. I do not feel anything remotely close to abundant. My cup is leaking.

Or is it? I pick up the masu again. It drips. But maybe it’s dripping because the little wooden cup has been soaking in the moat of sake abundance. Maybe it’s just wet. If that’s the case, the dripping should eventually stop. I hold the masu in the air above the dish a little longer, as the dripping slows down.

But now I’m starting to feel self-conscious. I’m sitting in a lively restaurant across the table from my wife, silently staring at a little half-filled cup of sake held above a little white dish. This is silly. I put it down.

We eat. We talk. I take a sip of sake. And I look at the dish. I’m still talking to my wife, but my eyes struggle to make contact with hers. I think that moat of sake in the dish might be getting deeper. My brain won’t stop sending me the message, “That cup is leaking!”. I have to test this.

By this time my wife is amused with me. “You see what you’re doing, don’t you? The issue here is your concerns about abundance, not the cup.” I hear the words, but I’m a man obsessed.

I pick the masu up and hold it above the plate. To hell with the consequences, I’m going to get to the bottom of this. I hold the cup. It drips. I hold it more. Holding. Dripping. Holding. Drip ... ping. Hold. Hold. Hold. Drip. And the dripping stops. There’s no more dripping. I tip the cup around, thinking maybe the leak is on one side or the other. Holding. Silence. The cup does not leak. By now I really want it to be leaking because, well, I could probably get more sake for free, but more importantly, I wouldn’t have to deal with the fact that what my wife says is true.

But the issue is mine. The universe gives me a symbol swimming in abundance and I manufacture an experience of lack. My focus merges with the half-empty perspective of the cup, not with the half-full viewpoint and certainly not with abundance.

At least I have proven to my satisfaction that the masu cup is not leaking. Justice is in place. However, even this brings no peace. I still find myself staring at the cup and its surrounding pool of sake. An indomitable voice inside my head is screaming, “That pool is growing!”. “No it’s not,” I reply to myself. But it does look like it’s growing. We’re into some full-on optical illusion, or perhaps delusion. I find it thoroughly disturbing that even the now proven integrity of the masu does little to abate my growing obsession with a dwindling resource of sake.

I drink the last of my sake. My cup is now empty. Maybe I could pour the contents of the little dish into my masu? “No, you don’t need to do that”, suggests my wife with characteristically spacious wording but firm intent. “That’s not yours. It belongs to the universe. You had your cup of sake.”

The truth was, I had drunk enough sake. If the waitress had placed a nearly full masu on the table, minus the abundance ritual, there would have been no illusion of leaking, no upset, and no perception of lack. If one thinks about it metaphorically, I’m happiest when the world around me is lacking, dry, and provably less abundant than whatever sake remains in my personal cup. When the world around me is swimming in abundance, I start to obsess on whether or not I’m getting my fare share, suspect a leak, and look for ways of getting more.

Later on I meditated on the lesson of the sake cup. It became clear to me that my fears about ability, age and money are just that … my fears. And that I have enough, that I am enough, and that maybe that voice in my head needs a vacation. And that following my heart and moving to a new career while closing off backward looking options means crossing a new threshold. So I said silent thanks to the worldly synchronicity that helps guide a person with clear and unambiguous messages, and knowing that I will be ok, stepped into the unknown.

Cheers. Enjoy your cup of sake.