The Empty Building, Cracked Cup, and Eyes for Potential
Archer and I pass a dilapidated little building almost every day on our walk. Though empty, someone maintains the disused structure because the grass is always neatly mowed. I always see the potential in space, which is why I studied architecture for so many years. This little hall is no exception. It reminds me of the Meditation Hall at Metta Forest Monastery and sets me dreaming of how a little space like this one could be used. I see the seeds of a fourfold sangha in this little hall and dream of creating a new community anchored in this neglected structure. I also recall all the things in my own life and practice I often neglect. The eye for potential can see more than just space.
As our daily walk continues, the little hall falls farther behind and my home office looms ever closer. My mind drifts from lazy daydreams to concrete realities, and I turn those eyes of potential onto myself and my work. “What must I accomplish today?” transforms from an imposition to an opportunity.
Today I must finish writing my paper about Wangari Maathai and Aung San Suu Kyi, two women from former British colonies who have both won the Nobel Peace Prize. How I go about that paper is, in many ways, more important than whether I go about it. I long since learned how to “knock out” a bit of academic gibberish. But I want to learn. Likewise, how I go about cleaning my home or speaking with my partner or doing my work has the greatest impact on the potential of these activities to contribute positively to my day or not.
As I sat to write these words, a warm cup of coffee at my fingertips, I heard an tiny crack and the lip of foam on the top of my cup seemed to spontaneously bubble. I explored the little glass cup carefully, watching, listening, tapping my nail against the edge, and finally taking it to the sink to wash it out (rescuing the still steaming coffee to a second cup). I could clearly see where the crack had formed around the bottom, interior wall of the cup. This spontaneous crack is a very strange thing, some kind of anomaly or defect. The cup will be going back to it’s company to be replaced or refunded.
I remember something similar happening years ago while pouring hot water into a glass pitcher, it shattered into a dozen pieces (thankfully in the sink). I was distraught and dismayed, particularly because it belonged to my mother and I had only just borrowed it that day. I remember vibrating with anxious energy as I picked up the phone, but my mother, much older and wiser, had a very pragmatic response, “Okay. Well, that happens sometimes. Toss it out. Carefully. I can always get another.” She was not dismayed at all!
It did not really sink in until many years later that each instance carries this potential. I could choose a path of suffering for myself … or not. I can choose to look at the disused little building as an eyesore or the seed of a new community. I can choose to approach my work as a burden or an opportunity for growth. I can choose to get sad and dismayed at a broken cup or curious about how such a thing could happen.
This is not to say it’s easy, of course. It took me many years to overcome the karma of my habit energies to go from dismay to curiosity, burden to opportunity. But the spark of that ability to see potential was always there within me – whenever I looked at a building or a vista or a hollow in a copse of bushes. I think that is our buddhanature shining through the cracks of our karma. Just like my little cup, everyone’s cracks are a bit different. If we can find our ability to see potential in one thing, a blank canvas, a ball of yarn, a line of computer code, a conversation, a new book to read, or a field of wheat, then we can learn to transfer that eye for potential to other aspects of our lives.
It may seem a strange connection to make between an empty building, cracked cup, and an entire way of viewing life, but life is all connected, sometimes in unexpected ways. So forgive my mental rambling a bit and let me summarize.
Every day when we walk, I have my dreams of the fourfold sangha to relax my mind and tap into my eyes for potential (or there will be some other little building or empty lot to notice and dream about). Every day when I return to my work, I have that opportunity to find the potential in it (even if sometimes it’s damned hard!). Every day when something unexpected (maybe even “bad”) happens, I have the potential to react to that in a way that will make my day (and other’s) either better or worse. And I get to choose whether to abandon or neglect that potential or not. So do you.