Slighly revised excerpt from The Authentic Life by Ezra Bayda.
A Zen teacher stood before his students with a very large and empty glass jar.
He wordlessly picked up some round stones around the size of small plums and proceeded to fill the jar with them. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The teacher then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the stones. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They said yes.
Next the teacher picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students unanimously agreed. The teacher then produced a glass of water and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.
“Now”, said the teacher, “I want you to recognize this jar represents your life. The stones are the important things – the aspiration to realize your true nature, the wish to live more authentically, the perseverance and commitment to cultivate presence, gratitude, and kindness – and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.
The pebbles are the other things that matter, such as your health, your relationships, and perhaps your job. The sand is everything else – the small stuff, including your house, your car, and your possessions.
If you put the sand into the jar first, there is no room for the stones or the pebbles. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are important for your genuine happiness. Take care of the things that really matter first. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”
One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the water represented. The teacher smiled and said, “I’m glad you asked. The water just shows you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a little more practice, to make your life even fuller.”
Stephen R. Covey in First Things First used the same parable and further illustrated that if you don’t put the stones (big rocks in his story) in first, then you could never get them all in…