Middleway Medicine

A Bucket Full

The other day I made a cup of coffee that was a little too full. Rather than simply pouring some out before I carried it to my kitchen table, I tried to walk very carefully without spilling it. My attempt was a little comical, and a bit messy. It is an interesting exercise in mindfulness to carry a cup full of liquid. The fuller the cup, the more difficult it is to carry without spilling. It is even more difficult to carry a bucket full of water. Not only does it weigh more, but the more liquid there is in a container, the more the water moves around. Even with great focus, sometimes the water begins splashing around and spills as it is carried.

I am amazed at how much we carry. We live in a culture that prizes speed and plenty. We are encouraged by the marketing departments and popular culture to strive for more. We collect more things and experiences with the expectation that having more will somehow make us suffer less. But, like a bucket full of water, it is a hard load to tote around. The more that we carry, the more things tend to splash around, until all of the tasks and possessions begin to influence each step we take. It is more like carrying a bucket of water than a bag of rocks: It is not just heavy, it is unsteady. We clench our bodies and our minds trying to control the load, but the load seems to have a mind of its own. Oftentimes, the larger the load, the more potential to make a mess.

The first step in Chinese medicine is to clear stagnation, or to lessen the load. You can think of this as having a bucket with too much water in it. If you pour some of the water out, it becomes easier to carry, and less likely to become messy. This can involve lessening our commitments, or streamlining our possessions. It also involves looking at and questioning our core beliefs. Three questions that I encourage patients to ask themselves are:

Who am I? Why am I here? How shall I live?

When the load that we carry is too great, it is more difficult to find the space and the inclination to ask ourselves these questions. Or perhaps we ask the questions, but without allowing for enough room to let the answers find us, we go on endlessly performing tasks without a clear idea of what we are really here to do. Many spiritual paths speak of the purpose of a human birth is to get to know one’s true self, free from the stories and the clutter of the mind. This is why an essential part of being human is to carry a smaller cup, and to not try to fill it to the brim. This is also why it is so helpful to identify and resolve the things that weigh us down. Real health comes from authentically orienting ourselves towards these questions, and continuing to find ways to lighten our load.

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