Joshua Keel

Encounters With a Measuring Cup: A Meditation on Thought and Reality

July 6, 2018

One morning, I was in the kitchen making breakfast. I always use the same measuring cup for oatmeal and almond milk, and as I looked around for it, I saw it sitting on the counter. It was dirty. Instantly, a wave of annoyance hit me. I knew that I had not left it there, so it must have been my partner. It was a golden opportunity to fume:

I always wash the measuring cup after I use it. Why can’t she? She left the blender here and didn’t even bother to fully clean it. She halfway cleaned it. That’s even worse than cleaning it. She expects me to wash all her dishes for her, just because she didn’t plan ahead and make the time to do them.

And then another voice interrupts:

Why are you criticizing her? You think you’re so kind and gracious, but you’re really angry. You’re so easily upset by little things. Get a fucking grip. She had to leave in a hurry, and you’re just making things harder for yourself by getting irritated with her.

And another:

Yeah, but I can’t stop it. I try to stop feeling irritable, and I just can’t. Yes, I’m upset! Yes, I’m angry! I can’t just not feel what I feel! Stop badgering me!

Now this particular internal dialogue is made up, but it is representative of what often goes on in my head (and probably yours). There’s a long string of other–blaming thoughts, followed by self–blaming thoughts, followed by frustration with the whole situation and annoyance at all the competing voices speaking to us. We’re all neurotic in that we actually pay attention to these voices in our head the vast majority of the time. We are constantly narrating our life, and often the story is pretty unpleasant.

But let’s stop for a moment and re–examine this situation. What is really true about it? What is real here? What is so obvious that it couldn’t be more striking if it were a punch in the gut? A measuring cup on a counter. A kitchen scene, with me pausing to locate the measuring cup. That is all. There’s nothing more to it. To any outside observer, and to the eyes, the ears, this is what is obvious. The empirical evidence says there is a measuring cup on the counter. No one would doubt it.

Yet in our minds, a story spins up. For me, an image of my fiancée is conjured. The villain! Thoughts come spewing forth in obscene eruptions. I imagine how she has wronged me, how insensitive she must be, and how lazy for not simply rinsing the measuring cup as I do. Wow, it gets petty, doesn’t it? But the important point is that this is all a story I believe about a measuring cup sitting on a counter. My fiancée is not present. All these imagined harms are just that: imaginary.

We spend a great deal of time and energy narrating our life and causing all manner of inner strife and conflict. It’s completely unnecessary, and it’s all predicated on believing our thoughts to be true. In other words, we give the thoughts energy. They take on a life of their own. Emotionally, they seem utterly compelling. But know this: it is possible to little by little starve them of energy, until the whole hamster wheel of insanity winds down.

It is quite possible to have as few anxious, disturbing and conflicted thoughts in a day as you have fingers on your hand. It is also possible to leave behind any clinging to thought as real, so that what seemed to be true before is seen through entirely. It is possible to live quite peacefully in a place of now now now where troublesome thoughts do not arise, and where thieves do not break in to steal your joy.

Before I go further, I must say that I have plenty of obnoxious thoughts each day. I am very much a work in progress, and to unravel years of conditioning and mental habit can indeed take time. However, the illusion of thought can be seen through in an instant, and by the light of that seeing, we can find our way back to what is closest and most real, and ultimately, most compelling.

So how do we see that thought isn’t true? Let’s re–imagine the kitchen scene. The measuring cup is on the counter. I am paused, looking for it. Ah, there it is! Kelley must have used it yesterday when she made breakfast. Yes, she rinsed the blender as well. That was thoughtful of her. I know she was in a hurry, and didn’t have time to wash it all. She does so much for me. I’m happy to wash these dishes for her. I love her so much. I can’t wait to eat this oatmeal. It looks delicious!

Is this scene more true than the other? It’s certainly more pleasant. Given a choice between which one to live, I would gladly choose the second. But the point is that both trains of thought are overlays on a reality that needs no narrator. A measuring cup on the counter doesn’t need to be thought about. We don’t need thought to act, or for intention—making breakfast, in this case—to be obvious. The narration is always beside the point.

Life is utterly compelling and beautiful as it appears, moment to moment, but we waste our energy in thought loops instead of resting in what is obviously present. And what is present? An aliveness that can be tremendously peaceful, that needs nothing, and can simply enjoy what is, in a state of continuous, panoramic flow. We overlook what is right in front of us. The chair, the desk, the shoes on the floor, the lamp, the brick of the fireplace. We see no reason to remain with our senses, as if what they perceive couldn’t be more boring.

If instead we could learn to pay attention to what is truly and immediately real—the sound of the birds outside, the way the air gently moves the leaves on a house plant, the sensation of a heartbeat—we would recognize that it needs no addition. It needs no thought to clarify itself. Thoughts are simply one part of the whole of this experience of life unfolding moment to moment. They are not the main event, as we tacitly assume. Let’s give our attention not to life–deranging illusions, but to what is as plain as the nose on our face. Life is happening, here and now. The riches of the kingdom are right in front of you. As Francis Lucille said, “Do not stay in the hovel.”