Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Cup Is Already Broken

I watched the PBS biography of The Buddha a few weeks before my daughter was born. (Yes, that's her in full-throated fury, pictured at left.) I was struck by the words of one of my favorite writers and Buddhist scholars, Mark Epstein, who spoke about the phrase, "The cup is already broken."

It's an approach to life, to the things we own, to the people we love, to the life we have, to everything in this world. The things that we love and cherish, such as the beloved cup you use every day and can't imagine a day without, are all temporary. The cup will not last forever, so in many respects, it is already broken. So too with our deaths. These things are inevitable, so we might as well enjoy the interim.

It's all impermanent, you see. And this is not a tragedy. The blessing is that we ever lived at all, that we ever had a cup, that we ever had a moment of grace. The best approach is to recognize impermanence from the get-go. If we realize that everything is temporary, it lessens the sting of loss. It doesn't eliminate it, and it certainly doesn't eliminate the necessity of grief, but it puts future loss in its place. Rather than fret, "Will I break this cup? Will I lose this love? Will I die soon?", we recognize that the answer is "Yes" to all of the above. We are now free to set those worries aside for the present moment. In the future, we lose all things. What matters now is that we enjoy what we have, while we have it.

I had a lesson in "The cup is already broken" early on in life, thanks to my older brother, Charlie. My mother had taken me to a sidewalk sale at the strip mall that was located behind our house. Yes, my bedroom view was of the Dammon Hardware Store. I spotted a pair of Foster Grant sunglasses on sale, and they were grown-up glasses. They were made of real glass and had metal frames. My mom said I could have them if I was very careful.

Later that afternoon, I rode around on my orange ten-speed bike wearing my new sunglasses. I was circling our driveway and feeling cool and sophisticated, as only a pair of grown-up shades can make you feel. As I took the corner around the street and turned back onto our circle driveway, the glasses flew off my face and skidded onto the pavement. I leapt off my bike and retrieved the glasses, only to find the frames bent and the sides scratched. I immediately started crying and went into the house where I walked into my teenage brother.

He patiently took the glasses from me and re-bent them to their proper shape. He showed me that they worked just fine and they fit back on my face.

"But they're scratched!" I wailed. "They're ruined!"

"No, they're actually better now," he told me. "Now you don't have to worry about scratching them, they're already scratched. You can wear them on your bike, and if they fall again, you won't be upset by a few more scratches. They have character now. They're your glasses."

I stopped crying and stared at the glasses. What he said made a lot of sense. The glasses were no longer a burden of perfection, something I had to preserve in fear. They were already scratched. Now I could just wear them and not worry about them. They were better!

So my own version of "The Cup Is Already Broken" would be "The Sunglasses Are Already Scratched." And I learned this bit of dharma at the age of ten. Ever since I watched the PBS special on the Buddha and heard Mark Epstein use the phrase, I find myself repeating it in my head. On the morning my daughter was born, my husband learned that a good friend of his had died, and I couldn't help think of "The cup is already broken" as a way to soothe myself over the death of a 50-year-old man. Later that night as I approached giving birth and the flitting fears of pain or of something going wrong in childbirth, I again thought of "The cup is already broken" to soothe myself.

What will be, will be. I cannot prevent death. I cannot prevent pain. I cannot prevent whatever tragedy might happen. The only thing I can do is deal with the present and bear it as best I can. That same week, after having given birth on a Monday, I found out I would be losing my job on a Friday. The advertising agency I work for lost the account I write for. So you see, at some point, I will lose my job. Although I knew "The cup is already broken" when it came to my employment, here was the news that the cup had indeed fallen on the ceramic floor and smashed.

We'd had the account for 90 years, so it would have been easy to assume the cup was indestructible, so far as advertising accounts go. But even 90-year accounts will eventually end. Everything is impermanent and in the past few years we've all been acutely aware of that during a recession in the hardest-hit city in the nation.

In fact, some of you may remember I lost my job a year and a half ago, only to be re-hired six weeks later. So for me, the cup had indeed already broken, only to be glued back together again. The thing is, I've known ever since then that the glue would give at some point.

I read the news as I held my newborn daughter last Friday. This second-time-around I did not feel the white hot fear of how would I support my children, or how would I find another job in this town, during these times? No, I looked at my daughter and I knew that all cups break. This was just another cup and there are other cups out there too.

So I don't know when exactly I'll be unemployed. I don't know if my employment will end before my maternity leave is up. I don't know if it will end in the fall, in the winter or come December. No idea. But the cup is broken, that much I know.

But the cup is not my life.

This cup can be replaced. This baby in my arms, cannot.

* * *

To learn more about the story of "The Cup is Already Broken":

"This reminds me of a famous saying of Achaan Cha, the great Thai monk. He would hold up a tea cup and say, 'To me this cup is already broken.' Everything is like this, already broken. Why does this upset us? When we think something is not broken, we think it is intact, that it is ours, so we have to protect it. And then when it turns out we cannot protect it, that we lose it, that it breaks, that it is taken from us — as everything always is — we go to pieces. We feel as if the world is not a safe place. We become paranoid and stressed out. But if we knew, with Achaan Cha, that things were already broken, that the nature of things — and of ourselves, especially and most importantly ourselves — is brokenness, and we could learn how to embrace and accept that, then I think we can live a happy life, appreciating the preciousness of what comes to us and goes from us."

From the site, Everyday Zen.


  1. My air conditioner is broken. I'm missing a headlight and taillight in the car. My phone isn't working right. The power plug on my computer is not working.

    You wrote this for me, didn't you.

  2. broken cups...yes, that's my life pretty much.

    and each time we glue and paste, and use some baling wire.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Hi Mandy,
    I too watched PBS 'The Buddha'
    and after reading your post find
    "The Cup Is Already Broken",
    not from the show but from you.
    The PBS show would have been
    far better if your thoughts were added.
    After reading your previous post:
    "Birth"...I felt, as bad as all we
    read and see in this world,
    you and yours will make the
    world a better place.
    Thank you, the new born dancer,
    her brother & her dad.

  5. Luke 12:22-34

    "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes..."

  6. This is good. Thanks for sharing.

    As for work, talent like yours is a gift somebody will snap up in no time - if you want. I'm waiting for you to make a go of it on your own someday.

  7. Thank you for another bright light of the day. An open window of fresh air.
    Yes, cups break every day and this gentle reminder was well needed.
    Congratulations again on your beautiful family. Peace and blessings for everyone.

  8. Thank you for always having such wisdom on your blog. I feel like I need to take notes when I read it sometimes.

    If there is any way I can help you when you get laid off, let me know. I'm happy to try to tap my contacts again for you.

    The baby pictures are adorable, by the way. I checked out the lot of them on FB. :)

  9. There is something about a newborn baby that makes everything feel zen. I am glad you are finding your center there.

  10. I love that picture of your little princess. <3

    You are amazingly brilliant and such a beautiful person inside and out. xo


  12. Oh my God, I loved this post, thank you. I so needed that. With an attitude like that towards life, you can't help but land on your feet no matter what happens.

    And your daughter is precious, congratulations!!

  13. Your lessons on impermanence always resonate with me. Thank you.

  14. You are always the great teacher. I love that you have another person to teach. BTW, she's got nice tonsils ;-)

  15. Thanks for this...

    I often want my cup to be plastic and unbreakable even though I know my cup is very delicate china held together with a lifetime supply of Superglue wrapped in duct tape!

  16. Oh and kiss Gracie's face! Not being the mother of a small baby I just giggle when babies scrunch up their faces and scream because they look so cute!

  17. What a great post! All I can say is thank you, and I have a vat of Super Glue in the ready but until then, I'm enjoying my cup of tea!

  18. Good timing. Adorable picture.

  19. This is a beautiful post. The fact that you are so centered and wise will help you get through all kinds of issues. Those of us who live more superficially (I may or may not be one) have to scramble to find wisdom when bad things happen. Oh, and what a beautiful baby girl!

  20. Wise, wise words. There is also a grace of thought where I manage to see much of the world as fixed, or glued. Things that look obviously broken to many I do my best to see in... well now, perfection isn't quite the word I'm looking for. But broken or not, things seem quite close to that anyway. Life, is life.

  21. Indeed.

    Congratulations on the birth of your daughter and the best of luck in your impending job search.

  22. You have the right idea. Just let it flow and allow whatever happens to happen. Those pics came out great, btw!

  23. Add me to the list of people who needed this today, Mandy. Thanks for sharing your insights, and for giving us a glimpse into your life and a view of your lovely daughter!

  24. Great post, Mandy. My cup is obliterated, but I'm still standing. LOL! Thanks for an inspiring message.

  25. My broken cup is a scratched car. It always upsets me so, and recently it happened to the first new car I've had in 14 years. My dad always said they are battle scars, and I should wear them proudly. He has a mini cooper, and I guess there was a write-up on their site about battle scars. Anyway, interesting concept. :)

  26. Wonderful post. Full of insight and depth.

    Ask for help from people around you. You never know who people know, these days.


  27. I'm a worrier by nature but I try to keep things in perspective. When I saw my father going through chemo I realized that there were so many people who *wished* that money issues were their biggest problem. Family and people are what matter, when it's all said and done.

    This post was great.