Preparing to Learn: Emptying Your Cup

There was a foreigner who visited a Zen Master to study with the master. The foreigner was a scholar with an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and came prepared to have big debates regarding Zen. After making the customary bows, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.

The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, the master poured the tea into the scholar’s cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, “Stop! Stop! The cup is full; you can’t get anymore in.”

The master stopped pouring and said: “You are like this cup, you are full of ideas about the Buddha’s Way. How can you ask for a taste of my tea if your cup is already full? I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

While this story shares a simple message, I feel that many of us get too caught up with arguing and being correct rather than having humility and being ready to learn. The quintessential image of a college classroom that comes to mind is centered on politically and intellectually charged individuals arguing left and right about what is true and what is not. However, while engaging in such a dialectic is certainly beneficial, it is hard to believe that we know everything, especially as young first years in college. We should consider our education in such a way, whenever we walk into a classroom or engage in conversations seeking for advice.

Sticking to what we already know is easy, but growing and cultivating knowledge requires emptying our cup of ego.

Pass Fail Never Ends

Back in high school, all I cared about was boosting my GPA. I never thought I could learn so much from failing.
I didn’t come to Swarthmore to continue doing the things I excelled at – then college would just be an expensive summer camp. Pass/Fail meant that I could spend time on myself, I could take that seminar on Philosophy, a topic I thought I’d never study. I could spend my time with new friends, maybe get into a relationship, exercise to maintain my health, all without these dreaded grades pressuring me, right? Most people I know failed at certain subjects in school (maybe not getting F’s, but by struggling) and now have simply decided “I’m not a ____ person” or “I just don’t get _____” e.g. “I’m not a Math person.” That absolves them from trying, which keeps them from failing, which keeps them from learning.
At a place like Swarthmore, too many people are killing themselves working to get that perfect GPA. Make sure you get a B, and do it early. Once you do you’ll stop worrying about having to get a perfect GPA because it’s no longer attainable. Only then will you be free to actually get an education. College is the time to take risky courses in topics you don’t understand, in topics you aren’t sure you like, and in topics that appear beyond your grasp.
Successful students have been taught to rely on talent, which makes them unable to fail gracefully.
But I challenge you to go out there – challenge yourself and fail.
 
Fail to make your time worth it. 

Collecting life experiences

What’s the point of trying new things?

When I came back home from college, I realized that I was able to more accurately represent and describe what was happening in the present. The things I’ve done so far have given me the context and the language to understand what I was doing. For example, I’ve never been as thorough in studying something before except in my computer science class this past semester. I would go over every lecture, ask my professor questions, and look for further readings to make my knowledge fullproof. I got into the habit of finding people to teach what I was learning to make sure that what I knew wasn’t based of rote memorization, but that I could prove everything. I approached my learning in a way similar to what I read on Quora.

Here’s my short summary of it: The way you should approach learning is to throw out all previous biases and beliefs you have about a subject because they are (probably) unsubstantiated, and because you haven’t proven them for yourself from scratch. This reminds me a lot of mathematical proofs: Of course what you’re reading from the book makes sense, because it’s telling you exactly what to do. And I think that this happens a lot in lectures: of course, whatever a professor says in a lecture is going to make perfect sense to you, but I believe the real test should be whether or not you can convince somebody with no prior knowledge that something is true ,which means that you should be able to build all the basic principles, essentially the entire curriculum, from scratch. (It was an extremely well written answer and I would recommend anybody to spend the time to read it!)

So what did this do for me now? Now that I have more free time, I have picked up learning new things like new web frameworks and machine learning / neural networks. Going through new material now, I noticed myself referencing what I did and how I did things while in that CS class: I tried to replicate my past experiences to make my understanding of any new topics fullproof as well.

This reminded me of the movie Inside Out, how Riley had her memories stored inside orbs. Joy, and other emotions, were able to look into the orbs to remember specific past memories.

INSIDE OUT

Throughout my whole life, I have been storing memories into orbs, shelving them away. In my sophomore year of high school, I used to play a lot of video games – League of Legends. Oh boy. I remember the weeks when I would get home from school at around 3pm then play till 11pm everyday. While I did learn many things from playing League, like goal-oriented practicing, team communication, etc it was ultimately a negative influence in my life. I ate unhealthily, gained a lot of weight, and my performance in social and academic situations suffered. This was definitely a low of my life, especially when I was trying to discipline myself out of playing. After about a year, I figured myself out and was able to stop playing. Like in Inside Out, plop came down a memory orb on stopping my addiction to video games.

At school, there were times I would catch myself falling into the traps of some distractions (watching YouTube videos, playing mobile games, etc.), but this time, I knew exactly what was happening to me. This has happened to me before – getting addicted to something. At times it was even funny, thinking of how I used to be, now that I have grown out of playing League of Legends. I was now confident in my ability to quit anything cold turkey.

Furthermore, I have picked up on a lot more experiences that I can now add to my arsenal of memory orbs: socializing with friends, having fun, playing music, etc. and it only goes up from here. I feel like this is an interesting way to think of going about life – by acquiring experiences.

From now on, I want to enjoy and experience more thoroughly the present, so that I won’t waste time in the future falling into traps I could have avoided. So that I can focus all my effort on experiencing the new, uncharted parts of life. 

Moral Courage

samshih_excellent_sheep

I’ve just finished reading Excellent Sheep about 2/3rds the way into my trip to Taiwan. Ever since starting my goal to read more, I feel Excellent Sheep is one of the first books that I’ve really connected with. I know many people have bashed Deresiewicz for hating on the elite institutions (the Ivy Leagues), and it does seem at times that he is resoundingly biased against them. Regarding this point, I feel like the book would’ve been more complete if he went more deeply into accounts of people who actually went through the liberal arts education reformation he fantasizes about. Deresiewicz himself was a part of the elite institutions he claims to be so bad, so Deresiewicz is talking about the liberal arts education from the other side of the fence. He might be celebrating the liberal arts education because he has experienced all the negatives he discusses about an elite education. The grass is always greener on the other side, right? Ok, but that’s beside my point. What hit me like a train was Deresiewicz’s undertone of what he believes a true education should be.

– The purpose of college is to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely: more fully. I was talking with a couple of seniors during a visit to Bryn Mawr. One of them said, “The question I leave Bryn Mawr with is how to put my feminist ideals into practice as I go forward.” I liked “ideals,” but I loved the first part. A real education sends you into a world bearing questions, not resumes.

– The purpose of college is to make you a more interesting person – a nice formulation, as long as we stipulate that the person to whom it is most important to be interesting is yourself. What makes you interesting is reading, thinking, slowing down, having long conversations, and creating a rich inner life for yourself.

Ahh, this sounds familiar huh. It embodies the main reason I started this blog (it’s in the title!) – to become more interesting. He literally just told me how to become more interesting! LOL. I actually laughed after reading this, it’s like he just gave me the answer to my most important question. But the sad (or maybe the fun) part is that the answer isn’t that simple. I want to find out how this is true for myself, if even true at all. Deresiewicz talks about the humanities as a gluing experience that relates everything we learn with our realities. We ask of a scientific proposition, “Is it true?”, but of a proposition in the humanities, we ask, “Is it true for me?” What I do know is that I’ll only be satisfied if I find out how to become interesting in my own terms.

Another topic Deresiewicz talks about is moral imagination and moral courage, which I feel should go hand in hand. Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new alternatives for how to live. I’m not really quite sure (yet?) why he labels this as a moral imagination –– moral feels like such a heavy prefix to that phrase. His whole idea on moral imagination hits me so close to the feels because it’s essentially what I see myself doing right now. Kind of going yolo, into a new life. Not necessarily ditching the hardcore tech life behind, but more like embracing a a new type of liberal artsy life. What’s next is part B – moral courage – or putting what you imagine into action. I’m still thinking about this part of the equation, the courage to commit 100% to this imagination. Working in tech has been really fun, but maybe committing 100% to pursuing a true education won’t throw away that tech life, it might even make it stronger. So right now the challenge I have for myself is to commit 100% to something, and choosing Swat has brought me so much closer to this imagined path. I feel that the last part is seeing for myself the value of studying the humanities. I’ve read so much about it already, the feeling of life it can instill, the benefits of thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, instead of seeing things as separate parts see[ing] them as a whole. 

On that topic of moral courage though, it will probably get lonely, and that would suck. I know everybody says it doesn’t matter what other people think, what matters most is what you think. But it’s so much better to celebrate with other people. Not going to a popular and prestigious college, choosing a track of study for myself that others (parents, teachers, friends) might think is a waste of time, I know it will kinda start to suck. What I felt was kind of contradictory was when Deresiewicz quotes Aristotle that “man is by nature a social animal,” yet he continues on talking about how moral courage can lead to loneliness. Pursuing this new life I have imagined is fulfilling for myself, and I would be proud of myself. But I would also be happier to celebrate with others. Maybe I’m overthinking, maybe I’ll meet much more “morally courageous” (this term makes it sound really exclusive :/) people in college that I’ll be able to be happy with. Is it worth it to chase my moral imagination if I’m going to end up lonely? How can I find (if I will even want) a balance when I commit to a new life? Maybe what I’m lacking is that moral courage to fully commit. Maybe this dilemma is the growing pain of trying to pursue something I don’t know the answer to.