PT By-products: Humility

First, a small story I remember reading years ago that has always stuck with me.

The Japanese master Nan-in gave audience to a professor of philosophy. Serving tea, Nan-in filled his visitor’s cup, and kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could restrain himself no longer: “Stop! The cup is over full, no more will go in.” Nan-in said: “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup.”

In the story above, I have seen other accounts where the professor kept interrupting the master, saying things like “oh yes, I am familiar with that”, etc., and then he goes on to filling the teacup to overflow. I couldn’t find that version. But I hope you got the gist of it.

When I am learning something new, I take this “empty cup” approach, even if it is something I have some sort of operational knowledge in. This taking on of humility allows me to learn and retain more than I would if I would comparing and contrasting what I already know with the subject matter at hand. Even when it comes to people who I would think are equals, I want to learn from them and I do all that I can to be an “empty cup” in order to glean all that I can from them.

A quick example of taking the “empty cup” approach. I love to shoot, hence the featured image. I have been raised around firearms. You could say I am quite familiar with them, but I recognize that I am nowhere near as proficient as I want to be. Which is why I train in that area. I had the opportunity this summer to go to an excellent course about pistol shooting from concealment, and I’ve had some great instruction already. But I went with an empty cup. I knew the instructor had a lot to offer and that I wanted to improve. I asked questions, and did what he told me to do. I had an empty cup. And the information and training I received from him took my pistol skills to a new level.

I see a lot of “full cups” these days when it comes to the varying interests I have, from “glory days” dreamers to people all to eager to tell you what to do.


Hu-mil-i-ty  [(h)yo͞oˈmilədē] noun:

  1. a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.


Regardless of the discipline you choose, be it running, lifting, fighting or some other physical activity that challenges you, like shooting, engaging in physical training offers up the opportunity to embrace and received the benefits of humility, time and time again. This is a good thing.

As someone who is relatively new to lifting (just over two years in) I have learned humility by observing the men and women in my gym, both older and younger than me working sets with my max like it was an empty bar! I have nothing but respect for them. They didn’t just waltz up to the squat rack one day and decide, “Hey, I’m going to learn squats, 225lbs seems like a great place to start!” No, they had to start with the bar, learn form and make progress. It’s tempting to scoff and just say that they are on ‘roids, that somehow they had it easier. Or humility can be chosen, recognizing their hard work and the price they paid to get where they are and then glean inspiration and motivation from what they have accomplished.

Submitting yourself to physical training, opens up many opportunities to embrace humility. Whether you are new to the endeavor you have chosen, or it was something you did in your “glory days”, going through the basics – form, technique, application, etc. – is an admission to yourself that you aren’t where you want to be; that you need to become better, that you need to improve. It is a check to the hubris that might be creeping up, or potentially holding you back from actually being the best version of you possible.

Humility works hand in hand with another by-product: Patience. We’ll get into that one later.

One final thought on humility. In regards to “good enough”, it is conceit to think that you are “good enough” yet you haven’t hit your full potential. “Hey, I can do 10 pull ups, no problem, that’s good enough.” “I can run a 5k in 30 minutes, that’s good enough.” You get the picture. I would ask, “Is that your best, are you sure?”.

Humility knows when you are at your best; when you’ve given your all. Humility knows when you can improve or get better.

I am on a journey of pursuing mastery, but one thing I’ve noticed even of the “masters”, the true masters, the real deals, they are always seeking to improve, always looking to get better at their craft.

This should give us pause and accept another helping of humility – for if they are the “masters” and they are continually seeking improvement, what does that mean for us?

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” ~Bruce Lee



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