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Life & Art

Learning to Drink from An Empty Cup

Today marks one month without alcohol. I have been going through a cycle over the last few years where I give up alcohol for varying periods of time, only to begin again. I didn't drink through nearly all of the COVID closures. At the time I remember thinking, "I couldn't have gotten through this if I had been drinking." But then sometime in late 2021 I began again, slowly at first, but a few drinks crept into more until I would notice I was really feeling weighed down by the habit of it. The after-effects would get progressively worse and more pronounced (headache, laziness, recovery days) until finally I would say "time for a break," only to repeat the cycle.

As a friend described it, that first moment of weightlessness as the feel of a drink sets in can be both thrilling and a comfort, and makes the habit of seeking out a drink — particularly after long, hard days — easy to form. Yet every time I would take a break, I would remark on the near immediate benefits: better sleep, higher productivity, clearer thinking, easier to engage with my family. I could see myself cycling between these states, yet getting out of the loop has felt difficult. I like the idea of enjoying a drink here and there; the reality is that it always turns into more.

As I wrestled with what to do about the cycle I kept finding myself repeating, I kept coming back to a passage from the book Shogun by James Clavell about the Zen practice of learning to drink tea (cha) from an empty cup. The scene takes place between the central protagonist, Anjin, who navigated his way to Japan in the early 1600s from England, and a noble woman, Mariko, who is trying to teach him the local culture:

"Don't think about that home, Anjin-san," Mariko had once said when the dark mists were on him. "Real home is here—the other's ten million times ten million sticks away. Here is reality. You'll send yourself mad if you try to get wa[1] out of such impossibilities. Listen, if you want peace you must learn to drink cha from an empty cup."

She had shown him how. "You think reality into the cup, you think the cha there—the warm, pale-green drink of the gods. If you concentrate hard.... Oh, a Zen teacher could show you, Anjin-san. It is most difficult but so easy. How I wish I was clever enough to show it to you, for then all things in the world can be yours for the asking ... even the most unobtainable gift—perfect tranquility."

He had tried many times, but he could never sip the drink when it was there. "Never mind, Anjin-san. It takes such a long time to learn but you will, sometime."

"Can you?"

"Rarely. Only in moments of great sadness or loneliness. But the taste of the unreal cha seems to give a meaning to life. It is hard to explain. I've done it once or twice. Sometimes you gain wa just by trying."

This phrase — learning to drink from an empty cup — has become a rather profound metaphor for me as I've gotten older and the tension between my time, interests, and capacity to pursue them has come to a head. But specific to today, it has taken on a more literal meaning. How can I find the joy, the initial weightlessness, that comes from alcohol, without actually having it?

The farther away I move from having a drink here or there, the more I can experience that feeling of weightlessness in a variety of other areas of my life. It exists in the flow state of focus as I work on writing. It exists in those moments where I recognize how much more energy I have throughout the day. It exists in a playfulness with my wife that rekindles the warmth of our marriage. It exists in the longer conversations I'm able to have and focus on with my children. It even exists, quite literally, in the empty hand in the evening that would hold the glass or bottle.

There is a part of me that wishes I could be the type of person that does not seem to get on a slide with that first drink, which always seems to lead to more—either in the evening itself, or in the ones that follow. I wish it could just be a here and there thing, as it seems to be for some people. But as I have now seen this cycle play out in myself many times, I have to recognize that it just cannot be that for me. And that is okay.

So, today, I celebrate learning to drink from an empty cup.


[1] Wa as used here means harmony or balance, both internally but also in one's interactions with the world.

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