The Coach’s Alphabet: D = Discovery

Are you a cup half-empty or half-full kind of person?

I am not a big fan of being asked that question nor the psychological judgment the asker feels qualified to make about my general outlook on the world based on my answer. The assumption being that if you see the cup half-full you are an optimist and if you see it half-empty you have pessimistic leanings. Yet, like with everything, context matters. If you imagine that it started full and in the process of serving its purpose the cup has been depleted by half, then the optimistic view would be to see it as half-empty. Or, might you project that the empty cup was only filled half-full, which a pessimist could interpret as the cup not fulfilling its maximum potential.

Yes, at times a half-empty cup represents not enough, a sense of lack and disappointment. But at other times, when we focus on empty space it is an opportunity to fill it with something new.

There’s a story of a highly educated professor going to a Buddhist Master wanting to learn everything there is to know about Zen. But it seemed that this erudite professor was more interested in talking about his own storehouse of knowledge than actually learning about Zen from the Buddhist Master as he kept interrupting to insert his own thoughts, opinions and associations. During the conversation, the Buddhist Master stopped talking and began to serve tea. He poured until the cup was full… and then kept pouring until it overflowed. “Enough!” the professor once more interrupted. “The cup is overfull, there is no room for more!” “Indeed, I see,” answered the Buddhist Master. “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. If you do not first empty your cup, how will you be able to taste my tea?”

Doodle DIn this installment of THE ABC’s OF LIFE COACHING we explore the value of DISCOVERY. (Please refer to previous blogs for discussions on the values Accountability, Balance and Choice –

DISCOVERY is the act of learning or realizing something completely new or relearning something old that has been ignored, repressed or forgotten. In addition to involving  new observations, new knowledge and/or a new understanding, the process of DISCOVERY also includes the assimilation and integration of that information and those awareness. Whether a discovery comes in the form of a revolutionary breakthrough or an evolutionary shift of perspective, there must be room left in one’s cup for more and the willingness to make room for more by modifying or transforming an existing belief or behavior.

For clients who are embarking on a new venture or feel stuck in old patterns, I encourage them to approach their current circumstances with a BEGINNER’S MIND or what Zen Buddhism refers to as SHOSHIN – an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions. In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), the Zen Monk who founded the first Buddhist monastery outside of Asia, wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” But this concept of beginner’s mind extends far beyond Buddhist Enlightenment. It is a theory common to many cultures, practices and fields of study.

In the Journal of Cell Science, Martin Schwartz wrote an article titled The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research (April 2008, Journal of Cell Science 121, 1771.) Schwartz  proposes that in the process of teaching PhD level research students to become experts in their fields, they should be taught PRODUCTIVE STUPIDITY, which in essence means choosing to be ignorant so that your prior knowledge, beliefs and assumptions don’t limit innovation.

Like scientific research, day-to-day living often thrusts us into the unknown. The more comfortable we are with not knowing (aka: being stupid), the deeper we are willing to explore unchartered territory and the more likely we are to make significant discoveries. Like scientists we should not only be allowed but encouraged to “bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine” (Schwartz, 2008) as long as we learn something in the process. By adopting the attitude of a researcher or explorer, tolerating the awkwardness of ignorance, and consciously remaining open to possibilities, we just might stumble upon the right answer, even if when we don’t know the exact question.

Although bumbling into something new sounds like fun, letting go of something old often causes fear and anxiety. As human beings in Western society, we crave factual knowledge and absolute answers. We take pride in figuring out the relationship between cause and effect, because once we recognize the predictable patterns, we think we can control them. This control makes us feel intelligent, powerful and safe. But as Pema Chödrön, a renowned teacher and author born in New York City, who is also an ordained Buddhist nun, acknowledges “that we cannot avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure. It is also what makes us afraid.”

The English poet John Keats (1795-1825), recognized the challenge of life’s mysteries and uncertainties and conceived the term “NEGATIVE CAPABILITY” to describe the ability to be in doubt without the desperate need to grasp for fact or reason. (Keats, J. (1973). The Complete Poems. (John Barnard, Ed.) New York: Penguin Books.)

In the world of fiction, be it novels, theatre, film, etc… there is a willingness of the reader/audience to SUSPEND DISBELIEF. A term coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. This is just another example of selective ignorance that helps reveal new discoveries and deeper meanings.

In philosophy the concept of bracketing, derived from the work of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), is related to this suspension of facts and questions so that we can connect to the physical world through our personal experience, thus our reality is filtered through our subjective perception rather than through our intellectual understanding.

Sometimes it isn’t conducive for one idea to replace or override another, and we are requited to actually hold two competing ideas or image in your mind at once. This is called JANUSIAN THINKING and is based on Janus, the two-faced Roman God of beginnings and transitions. It is the process of balancing these TENSIONS OF THE OPPOSITES which is so vital to the Depth Psychological work of Carl Jung (1875-1961). It is the process of holding then transcending this tension that leads to many scientific breakthroughs, artistic masterpieces and personal epiphanies.

Although we can never get our mind to be a complete TABULA RASA or blank slate, there is value in not only admitting that we don’t know everything, but acknowledging that what we do know, might not be the absolute, final and impermeable truth.

So regardless of what you call it, Beginner’s Mind, Shoshin, Productive Stupidity, Negative Capability, Janusian Thinking, Tension of the Opposites, Suspension of Disbelief, Selective Ignorance or starting from a Blank Slate – know that a cup half-full is an opportunity for… who knows what???

ACTION ITEMS: Here are some reflective questions for you consider focused on self-discoveries. Who knows where they will lead you and what you will bumble upon during the journey?

  1. Name three wonderful discoveries about yourself?
  2. What are you curious to discover next?
  3. How does a sense of discovery show up on a day-to-day basis?
  4. What do you want others to discover about you?
  5. If you had the opportunity to present a new discovery- what would it be and whom would you present it to?
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3 Responses to The Coach’s Alphabet: D = Discovery

  1. Pingback: F = Fun | theCoach4you

  2. Pingback: Q is for Quality | theCoach4you

  3. Pingback: The Coach’s Alphabet: Z = Zeal | theCoach4you

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