Do you see the glass as half full or ultimately empty?

“Do you see the glass half full or half empty?” a therapist asks Nadia Colburn. That’s not the question, she says. In truth, the glass is already broken.

Nadia Colburn
29 July 2018
Photo by Joseph Greve.

In the monastery dining room no one speaks. Chairs scrape across the floor; a serving spoon hits the inside of a pot. Someone coughs.

I’m already seated at the table with Simone while Eric and Gabriel stand in line waiting to take their food. Suddenly there is a big clank, a cluttering, falling sound, and then the rattle of a dish upon the floor. There are some whispers, some swishing sounds as whatever has fallen is cleaned up.

When Gabriel and Eric emerge from the kitchen, they come sit with us. Soon a nun stands up and strikes a large singing bowl, inviting us to eat.

We do not talk until we have mostly finished our meal and the nun again stands and again strikes the large singing bowl. But it is not until later, after the kids are asleep that night, that Eric tells me it was Gabriel’s plate, already full of food, that had fallen and split in two on the kitchen floor.

A young monk had come to Gabriel and reassured him. “Don’t worry,” he had said, “the plate was already broken.” Gabriel, thirteen, unsure what he was doing at a Buddhist monastery with his parents for the weekend, ears flushed from making a racket amidst the silence, had seemed to genuinely understand that the plate was, in a sense, already broken. Later, as he and Eric brushed their teeth in the men’s bathroom, Gabriel said, raising the toothbrush to his mouth, “the toothbrush is already broken,” and grinned.

Learning to see the plate—or the glass—empty and broken has been an invaluable teaching for me.

There is a popular metaphor that some of us see the glass half full and some of us see the glass half empty, but that metaphor has never quite worked for me.

In my first therapy experience with a good therapist who understood, listened, and taught me ways to listen to myself, my therapist asked me, “Do you see the glass half full or half empty?”

She was trying to suggest that how we interpret and react to what happens to and around us is as important as what happens. But her question annoyed me. Did she mean to imply that my anger and pain and sense of injustice were not justified, were simply a matter of my own subjective experience?

The question is not is the glass half full or half empty? Rather, can you see the glass as both empty and full at the same time?

I remember going home and writing a poem in response to her question. I called it “Half full/half empty;” it was about the different experiences two girls had along the same mountain pass. One girl enjoys the beautiful day, bringing flowers home to her mother, while another girl, walking down the same pass just hours later, steps on a landmine and gets her leg blown off.

Was the difference between these two girls that one saw the glass half full and the other half empty? Was it a matter of perception or of experience?

What I needed was to acknowledge that pieces of me had been exploded, shattered. There were troubling experiences in my past—among them an early experience of sexual assault—that I had to witness, acknowledge, and mourn. Over years in therapy, I learned to listen to myself so I could do that.

The danger with the image of the glass half full or half empty implies that our experience is primarily subjective; it not only blames the victim, but also nullifies her experience.

We live in a world that often prefers not to see suffering and that often looks the other way. Looking the other way does not mitigate the suffering, but perpetuates the cycle.

The activist in me, the empath in me, the person committed to social justice and to deep listening, resists the metaphor of the glass half empty and the glass half full. The limitation of this metaphor is not that our subjective experience and our response to what happens is unimportant, but that the metaphor implies an inherent judgment, dualism, and over-simplicity: Will the viewer see the glass the “right” way and thus “right” her experiences and her life?

By contrast, the metaphor of the empty glass—or the broken plate—works powerfully for me.

I first heard the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness several years after I started working with my therapist. By then, I was able to acknowledge the pain and confusion I had felt as a child but had not been able to name. I had developed tools to listen to and care for myself. But I wanted a different level of healing.

I began to study with a Tibetan Lama. The first night I went to his teaching group, he lectured on the Diamond Sutra. He spoke for an hour about the Buddha’s insight that the glass of tea was empty—not just of liquid, but of form, of self.

The world in which the girl walks through the landscape and comes home unscathed, and the world in which the girl gets her leg blown off are the same world.

By looking deeply at his own experience, Buddha was able to have insights that modern-day physicists would have millennia later: that this world of solid things is an illusion of our own perception. We now know that matter is full of almost infinite, empty space between moving electrons. Everything is always moving, impermanent, changing.

To see things as empty is not the same as to see the glass as half empty. When we see the glass as half empty—or half full—we still live in a world where there is a solid glass. But Buddha taught that all things are empty. He takes the solid ground out from beneath all things, and all of us.

Emptiness in Buddhism is sometimes seen as depressive, but I find it quite the opposite. Seeing the emptiness in all things paradoxically allows me to experience fullness. The question is not is the glass half full or half empty? Rather, can you see the glass as both empty and full at the same time? Can you see past duality?

If we start with the expectation of fullness, the world will again and again seem to be working against us. We will not just be disappointed, but we will be living in a delusion.

But if we can see the emptiness of all things—if we can see the limitation of our perception of solidity and of self—suddenly that emptiness is teaming with life and with excitement. Because the plate is already broken, we do not get attached to it when it falls and breaks. Because the plate is already broken, we do not take personal responsibility for a world in which gravity and fragile objects co-exist.

The world in which the girl walks through the landscape and comes home unscathed, and the world in which the girl gets her leg blown off are the same world. It is a world that includes both flowers and landmines, a world that has both joy and pain, a world of infinite multiplicity and potential.

Today’s news cycle emphasizes the landmines. Many people are experiencing a sense of horror and disillusionment. They thought the glass was half full, but now they are wondering if perhaps the glass is half empty. If it is only half empty, they wonder whether it makes sense to have hope. And if they don’t have hope, they wonder what is the point of action.

If we believe that the world is a vessel that we can perceive as empty or full, it is hard to see the magnitude of the changes that we are living through. It is hard to see the impact of climate change, that ice caps are melting at extraordinary rates and Antarctic ice shelves are falling into the ocean. Emptiness allows us to see the world as it really is and the rapid changes we are living through.

Similarly, emptiness can make us more aware of how much actually works. The other day as I was biking, I was suddenly able to see that all the cars, buses, bikes, pedestrians, children on scooters, mothers with carriages were all interacting in peace. A group of kids, maybe eleven years old, walked down the street laughing, safe.

How can I prepare my children to live in a world that includes both flowers and landmines? How can I help them prepare for the future and for the future’s radical uncertainty? Gabriel is now 17 and Simone is 13. My hope is that their sense of self is grounded enough that they can experience the freedom of non-self. I hope that they have had a childhood secure and full enough that they can acknowledge and embrace the radical emptiness of the world.

Nadia Colburn

Nadia Colburn

Nadia Colburn is an OI Aspirant in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Tradition, a coach and creative writer. She holds a PhD in English from Columbia University, is a founding editor at Anchor Magazine: where spirituality and social justice meet, and has been published widely in such places as The New Yorker, Yes! Magazine, and LA Review of Books. Her coaching business, AlignYourLight, helps clients and groups live with alignment, integrity and fullness from their deepest knowing in a culture so often out of alignment and full of contradictions. See more at