A Glass Full of Ego: The Story of Nan-In & the Professor

Feb 26, 2024

How Full Is YOUR Glass?

We’ve all heard the idiom of the “glass half full”, the idea that a glass can be seen as either half full or half empty depending on whether you’re an optimistic (half full) or pessimistic (half empty) person.

But today, I’d like to talk about something a little less well-known in the west: The idea of the overflowing glass (or, in this case: cup!). 

The story I will share with you isn’t about the importance of optimism; it’s about the importance of humility, if we want to make any meaningful progress on the spiritual path. 

Japanese man pouring tea

The Story of Nan-In & The Professor

The tale takes us back 150 years to the Meiji era in japan, where Nan-in, a revered Japanese master, is graciously hosting a curious university professor who is eager to learn some of the deeper insights into Zen philosophy.

As is the custom, they both sit down on the wooden floor and Nan-in begins slowly pouring tea into a porcelain cup on the table.

As the tea nears the rim, the professor looks up, expecting Nan-in to stop — but he continues pouring until the cup is overflowing and the tea begins to flood the table. 

Unable to contain himself any longer, the professor immediately jumps up and exclaims:

“What are you doing?! Can’t you see it’s already full? You can’t pour anymore in!”

Nan-in stops, looks up at the professor, smiles and says:

“This cup is just like YOU professor. You are too full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Seeing Beyond Ourselves

In Thai, we say that someone who has a huge ego is “Nam tem keaw”, or “a glass filled full with water”, just like the professor.

I’m not sure of there’s an equivalent in English, but the idea is pretty simple to understand.

Being confident and believing in yourself is a good thing — it drives us, anchors us and can make us successful in life. But we have to make sure we strike the right balance.  

We’ve all encountered people who are WAY too confident in themselves and aren’t interested in anyone else — and I’m sure none of us want to end up like that. . .

If we get the balance right and manage to create a mindful blend of confidence and humility we can learn, grow, and be successful and happy. But if we get it wrong, our ego eclipses everything else and stops us from listening to anyone but ourselves, as we think we know it all.

So, how can we make sure we keep our ego in check?

Here are four things to think about:

1.     Talk Less, Listen More

How can you listen to others if all you can hear is your own voice?

By actively listening to others, we open ourselves to a wealth of perspectives and knowledge.

2.     Embrace Learning

Each new skill we learn adds a new tool to our toolbox, equipping us to navigate life’s challenges more easily.

By being always open to learning – even from those who we might think we having nothing to learn from – we expand our ability to adapt and thrive.

3.     Be Grateful

Take a moment to reflect on the countless individuals who have contributed to your growth and success.

Expressing gratitude not only fosters humility but also cultivates deeper connections with those around us.

4.     Self-Reflect

While we’re enjoying our successes, it’s essential to pause and ask ourselves: “Am I still humble?”

By regularly checking in with ourselves like this, we can ensure that our confidence remains grounded in humility.

Glass of water half empty

Emptying the Glass

Just like Nan-in’s overflowing cup, sometimes we need to empty ourselves of what we think we know in order to learn something new.

As I mentioned in another post, too much knowledge can become a barrier to our success and happiness. . .

So, let’s raise our cups to confidence, but always keep some room for humility

Who knows what new wisdom we might discover along the way?


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